No one is exactly sure when that one moment occurs that brings down a town. While some events are so catastrophic that a community's
demise might be easy to pinpoint - like a tornado or wildfire - for most towns, decline occurs gradually, in stages, until one day you wake
up and realize that the place where you grew up, and the people you said 'hello' to as you walked to school, and the streets where you
rode your bike and hung out with your friends, is dead.
That's when the saying becomes true - that you can't go home again.
Oklahoma is full of towns that have long passed their prime. In southwestern Oklahoma, where the dustbowl hit, where population has
dwindled, where the rail stopped running, where the economy relies on fickle army bases and the casinos, the stark and arid landscape
mimics the feeling of abandonment in the ghostly relics of farming and ranching communities. I took a Sunday drive through the Wichita
Mountains on the lookout for lost towns, and discovered that the future will not return to many, many places around here.
|How to get there:
The Wichita Mountain Range is just north and northwest of
Lawton. Seriously, you can't miss it. However, you can miss
Gotebo if you're not destined to go this way, so here's a map:
|This is Gotebo in March of 1909, when the H.H. Wedel's department store
opened, and citizens lined the muddy streets to celebrate. (Ok. Historical Soc)
|This is Getobo today, in July of 2012. Wedel's Department store, the
building on the western edge of downtown, has caved in.
|The Gotebo school house stood tall and proud on the Great Plains. (Ok.
|The Gotebo schools closed for good in the 1990s.
There was Victory school, a small, one-room schoolhouse built of
native river stones that lost its roof and its students.
Saddleback Mountain, named after its most prominent geographic
feature, still sported its store and lodge buildings, but they're empty
now. Good thing the local rancher is keeping them up.
I sat next to a dancehall at a little park in Copperton, where the
schoolhouse once was. Even the Baptist Church is shuttered in this
And then there was the once-large town of Gotebo. Large, of course,
is a relative term... on the Plains, population is numbered in the high
hundreds, not the thousands. But for a few decades at least, Gotebo
(pronounced Go - tuh - bow, and named after a Kiowa Chief) was a
center for ranching and farming. Gotebo was built around Chicago
Rock Island and Pacific Railway depot and over the years, five
newspapers kept citizens abreast of the world around them.
But the population aged. Kids left for college or work and found it not
in their hometowns, but in larger cities like Lawton, Altus, and Clinton.
That is, I believe, the true reason why these towns die. It's not when
the post office closes (Gotebo still has one!), and not even when the
railroad leaves. I've seen plenty of "ghost towns" where the trains
still come through, actually.
When the school closes, however, it's as if the town goes through a
depression. Losing that base of hometown pride, the connection of
the young with their elders through traditions and rituals, leaves
towns with very little hope. Once the students go, the very idea of
community goes with them. It's a small wonder that the first buildings
towns erected were not churches or government offices, but
Masonic lodges and schools.
The rural areas of the Red River Valley are littered with towns that
lost their dreams.
|Victory School, built of concrete and native river rocks, is a prime
example of the "Cannonball" or Cobblestone architecture, a predominant
vernacular feature found on many buildings in the Wichita Mountains.
|Drug store floor in Gotebo. I had to do some weeding to decipher what
was on the ground.
|Saddleback Mountain's remains are being kept up by ranchers in the
vicinity. The buildings are made of Cobblestones, just like many in the
area. No cobblestone buildings date from before 1900, as they were built
after the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache reservation lands were opened
to land speculation by whites. Today, the reservation is gone, replaced
instead by the separate Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache Nations.
|Not many children use the teetertotter at the old Copprton Valley school.