The county seat of Latimer County, Wilburton is located in the Sans Bois Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma at the junction of U.S. Highway 270 and State Highway 2. The community was established on the Butterfield Overland Mail and stage route in l890. Originally part of the Choctaw Nation, Wilburton began as a service point for the large cattle ranches in the area. There are many tales concerning the origination of the name, but the most favored one is that the name came from Will Burton, a contractor and surveyor, who helped build the Choctaw Coal and Railway Company's line from Wister to McAlester and platted the Wilburton townsite in 1890.
Formerly designated Gaines County, Choctaw Nation, at 1907 statehood the area was organized as Latimer County. It was named for James S. Latimer (1855-1941), who served as a delegate from District 99 at the 1906 Constitutional Convention held in Guthrie. The county bought a large building on East Main Street, formerly the Great Western Coal and Coke Mining Company's general merchandise store, for a court house. In l941 a new county facility was constructed in a joint effort of the Works Projects Administration and the county commission.
In the late 1800s and early l900s coal mining became the community's largest economic asset. In the 1940s and 1950s strip mining emerged as an important method of obtaining coal in the nearby hills. An oil and natural gas boom came to Latimer County during the l960s, adding to Wilburton's economic health. A large carpet plant built during the 1960s was later sold to Franklin Electric Company, still in operation at the end of the twentieth century.
Wilburton has a tradition of providing education for its residents. Two prosperous coal mine owners, James Degnan and James McConnell, built schools and churches for their miners and their families. The city itself is located between two elongated hills running east and west. In 1911 the town built a large, twenty-six-room school building on the north hill. The facility burned in 1949, and a new building replaced it the following fall. In 1909 the Oklahoma School of Mines and Metallurgy was established on the west end of town for the purpose of training miners. This school later became Eastern Oklahoma A&M College and at the end of the twentieth century functioned as Eastern Oklahoma State College.
Wilburton has a rich heritage of Old West tales commemorated by Robbers Cave State Park, located five miles north of town on State Highway 2. Legend holds that outlaws such as Belle Starr and the Younger Brothers, as well as many fugitives passing through the Indian Territory or evading from Judge Isaac Parker's federal court at Fort Smith, Arkansas, frequented the hills and caves northwest of the city. Annually on the third weekend in October, Wilburton hosts the Robbers Cave Fall Festival, which includes one of the state's largest antique car shows.
Wilburton's population grew from 1,451 at 1907 statehood to a peak of 2,226 in 1920. After a downturn that dropped to 1,939 in 1950, by 1970 the town had grown to 2,504. The 1990 census recorded 3,092 and the 2000 census, 2,972. Many of the miners in the Wilburton area were immigrants from Western Europe. Italians formed a large portion of the labor force, and the community retains a rich Italian tradition among many families. As with most towns, occasional disasters have affected the residents. Several explosions have taken place in the nearby coal mines, costing many lives. The town also survived a disastrous tornado on May 5, l960, which injured more than a hundred people and killed thirteen.
Wilburton maintains a statutory aldermanic form of government. The National Register of Historic Places has recognized eleven historic properties in or near the town, including Mitchell Hall (NR 80003270), the Rosenstein Building (NR 80003271), and Sacred Heart Catholic Church and Rectory (NR 80003272).
BIBLIOGRAPHY: "Latimer County," Tulsa (Oklahoma) Daily World, 5 October 1930. National Register of Historic Places, State Historic Preservation Office, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City. Clyde E. Wooldridge and Betty Wooldridge Johnston, Wilburton, I.T. & OK (N.p.: Privately printed, l976).
Betty Wooldridge Johnston
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