Located in Latimer County at the junction of U.S. Highway 270 and State Highway 82, Red Oak lies fourteen miles east of Wilburton, the county seat. A few settlers lived in the area before the time of the Choctaw migration of 1831-34. Before coming to Indian Territory (I.T.) the Choctaw had their own government, schools, and churches in Mississippi and Alabama. After establishing themselves in I..T., they built homes, elected officers and a chief, and built a council house near present Red Oak.
Eight miles northeast of the present town is the original site of Red Oak. There in 1850 Thomas Edwards established a trading post on the Fort Smith-Boggy Depot Road. With the advent of the Butterfield Overland Mail and stage line in 1858, Edwards's already prosperous store became a stopping place for mail and passengers. In March 1868 the store became an official post office, with Edwards as postmaster. He named the post office Red Oak, probably because there were trees near the store. The official designation was Red Oak, Skullyville County, Choctaw Nation. Edwards's Store is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NR 72001069).
The present location of "new" Red Oak, southwest of Edwards's, served as a stage stop between Fort Smith and Texas from the 1860s. For several years there was a sawmill, a lumberyard, and a mill where the business section was located at the turn of the twenty-first century. In 1888 the Choctaw Coal and Railway (later the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway) surveyed a route across present Latimer County, linking Wister to McAlester. With the advent of the railroad, a town started to grow. Around 1890 Edwards's Store closed, and the "old" Red Oak post office officially moved to the new community.
"New" Red Oak supported a number of typical small-town businesses. Squire Cole owned the first drug store; Joe Moore had one of the first stores, a general merchandise with the Masonic Hall above; U.S. Marshal Seaton Thomas came in 1890 with his family. A livery, a wagonyard, a grocery, the Miners' and Merchants' Bank, and other businesses prospered. Early-twentieth-century newspapers included the Herald, the News, the Progressive Star, and the American. Four doctors served the citizens. Most businesses were first located along Main Street and then on Market Street, south of the railroad tracks. When several buildings were destroyed by fire, businesses were reestablished on the north side of the tracks. Red Oak was officially incorporated in 1900.
The Choctaw Nation remained in control of its land until the passage of the Dawes Severalty Act (1887) and the Curtis Act (1898). These acts brought about allotment of their land and the demise of their tribal government. At 1907 statehood county lines were determined, and Red Oak fell within the confines of Latimer County. Before and after statehood, the surrounding area was agricultural. In 1907 the town had 277 residents, increasing to 398 in 1910.
In the early days coal mines around the county provided fuel for heating homes, and as commercial mines developed in the late nineteenth century, they provided employment for many workers in the area. Over the next century millions of tons of coal were produced and shipped to other areas. At the end of the twentieth century the largest employers were companies that operate numerous facilities for processing gas from the area's petroleum fields.
With the Great Depression of the 1930s many farmers left, and during World War II others went west to work and never returned. The town stopped growing, and many businesses moved out, leaving empty or razed buildings. Red Oak's population was 593 in 1920, declined to 460 in 1930 and 484 in 1940. By 1950 the numbers had increased to 568 and peaked at 676 in 1980. The 2000 census recorded 581 residents, primarily white. However, several American Indian families continued to live in or near town.
In 1923 U.S. Highway 270 was built through Red Oak. In 1953 a new park was dedicated and named Fair-Miller Park, in honor of two of Red Oak's outstanding schoolteachers. Florence Miller donated the land for the park. An annual Independence Day celebration and parade are held, and in 2000 Red Oak held a centennial celebration.
SEE ALSO: SETTLEMENT PATTERNS.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Flossie Chaudoin, The Annals of Red Oak (N.p.: Privately printed, 1987). I. C. Gunning, The Butterfield Overland Mail Through Eastern Oklahoma ([Wilburton]: Eastern Oklahoma Historical Society, 1971). I. C. Gunning, The Edwards Store: Or, Old Red Oak ([Wilburton]: Eastern Oklahoma Historical Society, 1971). Muriel H. Wright, "The Butterfield Overland Mail One Hundred Years Ago," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 35 (Spring 1957). Muriel H. Wright, "Historic Places on the Old Stage Line from Fort Smith to Red River," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 11 (June 1933).
Phyllis U. Whitworth
© Oklahoma Historical Society