Lawton, the county seat of Comanche County, lies approximately in the center of the county. The town is directly south of the historic Fort Sill military reservation. Situated on several highways, most notably Interstate 44, U.S. Highway 62 and State Highway 7, Lawton is eighty-seven miles southwest of Oklahoma City and is the largest community in southwestern Oklahoma.
One of three townsites laid out by the federal government in preparation of the 1901 land lottery that opened the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache lands to non-Indian settlement, Lawton thrived from its origination in August 1901. It was named for U.S. Army Major General Henry W. Lawton. Throughout its history the town has largely based its economy on the presence of Fort Sill, operated by the U.S. Army continuously since 1869. Due in large part to this adjacent military installation, Lawton grew exponentially from the 1930s through the 1970s. As the seat of Comanche County, Lawton has also thrived as a governmental and political center. A flourishing agricultural community and the early arrival of railroads attracted various industries to the area. Both the Enid and Anadarko Railway (later the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway) and the Oklahoma City and Western Railroad (later the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway) completed lines into the city within a month of the town's opening. Within two years of its founding the town possessed three ice plants, two grain elevators, and two cotton gins, among other industries. In 1936 eighteen industries operated, the principal ones being the Fairmont Creamery, Larrance Tank Corporation, Parks Broom Factory, Dolese Brothers Rock Quarry at Richard Spur, Southwestern Light and Power Company, Chickasha Cotton Oil Company, Industrial Sand and Gravel Company, and Johnson Ice Cream Company. In the 1940s these were joined by a Coca-Cola plant and the Best Beer Company. Many of these businesses continued to operate in Lawton for decades. By the 1930s Lawton was also a major wholesale marketing, distributing, and manufacturing center for southwestern Oklahoma. The town's regional economic dominance has continued to the present day.
By 1920 Lawton's central business district had spread out over almost twelve blocks on the northeast side of town. In 1965 the downtown comprised almost thirty city blocks. As part of the Urban Renewal movement sweeping the nation, the city approved a $21.5 million downtown-modernization project in 1970. It included the demolition of the majority of historic commercial buildings and extensive renovations to those that escaped the wrecking ball. A modern mall was then constructed, as well as a new county courthouse. The existing Comanche County Courthouse is the town's fourth. The first, a one-story, frame building, was replaced in 1902 with a more imposing, red-brick edifice ornamented with cut stone. In the 1930s the third Comanche County Courthouse was built of stone, with the assistance of the Public Works Administration. The historic Federal Building and United States Courthouse (NR 00000243), constructed in 1915 of light-colored brick, remains on the west side of the mall and courthouse.
On an educational level, Lawton has been home to a state-sponsored educational institution since 1908. Originally one of six agricultural high schools in Oklahoma, Cameron State School of Agriculture achieved junior college status in 1927 and became Cameron State Agriculture College. In 1941 with the creation of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, the school was designated a four-year college and is now Cameron University. Another historically significant school in Lawton is the original Lawton High School (NR 97000197). Built in 1909, the imposing four-story school building was enlarged in 1922 and 1939. In 1957, with the completion of a new high school, the historic building became and has remained Central Junior High. Related to education within the community, the historic Carnegie Library (NR 76001560) was built in 1922. After a new library was built in 1973, the original library continued in service to the community as part of the city hall. Lawton is also home to the state's vocational-technical system's Great Plains Technology Center and to the Institute of the Great Plains, a nonprofit organization that sponsors the Museum of the Great Plains.
Other significant historic buildings in Lawton include the First Christian Church (NR 85000566), built in 1928 and rebuilt in 1929 following a devastating fire, the First Presbyterian Church of Lawton (NR 79001990), constructed in 1902, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (NR 85000567), erected in 1922, with an addition in 1924. These are only a microcosm of Lawton's religious buildings, as by the early 1960s there were ninety-six recognized churches in Lawton, representing twenty-six denominations. On the residential level, the 1909 Mahoney-Clark House (NR 82001494), designed by Guy Dale and constructed of buff-colored brick by Walter Spitler, is architecturally noteworthy. Another early residence of historic and architectural significance in Lawton is the Mattie Beal House (NR001564), constructed in 1907-09. In addition to being a grand, stucco-clad, Classical Revival-style house, the home was built for Mattie Beal, the second winner in the 1901 lottery. Beal, a young, single telephone operator from Wichita, Kansas, quickly became a local celebrity. Her status was heightened when the first winner, James R. Wood, filed on the rectangular quarter section of land adjacent to the townsite, instead of the typical 160-acre square. By doing this Wood secured all the available land contiguous to the townsite, as the other three sides were restricted as either federal or Indian land. With no other option, Beal filed on a similar plot of land on the south side of Wood, and both claims were platted and incorporated into the Lawton city limits by April 1902. In later years Beal also provided land for a park, a church, and a school.
At the time of the land opening in 1901 nearly twenty-five thousand people arrived to bid on the twelve hundred lots for sale in the Lawton townsite. In 1907 the town had 5,562 residents. Jumping by over two thousand persons in just three years, the 1910 population was 7,788. Despite the military buildup of Fort Sill for World War I, the 1910s proved to be less beneficial, in that the population only increased by 1,142, bringing the total to 8,930 by 1920. In 1930 the official census recorded 12,121 inhabitants, a gain of just over three thousand. With war preparations underway, the 1940 population grew to 18,055. Almost doubling, largely in response to World War II and early Cold War actions, the number rose to 34,757 in 1950. Explosive growth continued as the Cold War escalated, bringing the 1960 population to 61,697. While the trend did not continue, by 1970 the number climbed to 74,470 and in 1980, 80,054. Holding nearly steady for the first time, a population of 80,561 was tallied by the 1990 census. The 1990s again significantly boosted Lawton's development, with the city expanding to include 92,757 persons by 2000.
Since about 1904, the Lawton Constitution has been one of the town's primary newspapers. At different times others have briefly published, such as the Lawton Times (1978-81). Still others survived for extended periods, including the Lawton Morning Press (1944-88). The Lawton News started in 1914, published under that name until 1923, and existed as the Lawton News Review until 1965.
With no original provisions for city government, Lawton was initially controlled by the governor-appointed Comanche County officials. The first city government, a mayor-council type, was elected in late October 1901. Over the years the citizens have changed the form several times, finally in 1972 settling on a council-manager government under a charter that continued into the twenty-first century.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: The History of Comanche County, Oklahoma (N.p.: Southwest Oklahoma Genealogical Society, 1985). "Lawton," Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City. "Reconnaissance-Level Survey of a Portion of Lawton," Oklahoma Historic Preservation Survey (Stillwater: Oklahoma State University, 1992).
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