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Good ol' Gotebo, Oklahoma

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

Tile floor outside
Remains of one of Gotebo's drug stores hide in the weeds.

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 dust bowl 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. There was Victory school, a small, one-room schoolhouse built of native river stones that lost its roof and its students. Saddle 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 dance hall at a little park in Copperton, where the schoolhouse once was. Even the Baptist Church is shuttered in this little community. And then there was the once-large town of Gotebo, Oklahoma. 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 (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. Then, 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, 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 hope.

Large school house
The proud Gotebo school house in prosperous times (OHS).

Lots of people in front of a store.
The Weddel Department Store opened in downtown Gotebo in 1909 (OHS).
Empty downtown buildings.
The Weddel Department store, the last two buildings from the left, is no more.
Large building
Gotebo's school (this is the gym) closed in the 1990s.

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