G.I.s and the Growth of Stillwater in the Late 1940s

Veterans Village, Courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives at OSU Edmon Low Library

Story by Roger Moore, Director of Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History

Photos Courtesy of OSU Library Special Collections and University Archives

Seventy years ago in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Stillwater and Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College might just have been the epicenter of the post-war, college campus universe. With a population of just over 10,000 in 1940, Stillwater was considered a “cow town.” Over the next decade, however, the population would double and things changed considerably due in large part to its land-grant college founded a half-century earlier.

When United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on December 8, 1941, OAMC President Henry Garland Bennett and a group of Stillwater city leaders went to Washington D.C. to coordinate for military training schools at the college. Army, Army Air Corps, and Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES) trained in Stillwater during the war; ten different training programs related to the war effort were established. It was a time when Army engineers practiced building pontoon bridges across Theta Pond and Stillwater had a significant military feel. Downtown Stillwater and its five movie theatres were often filled with young military trainees. Many future college administrators and professors, along with future Stillwater residents first came to Stillwater for one of the various training programs. Robert B. Kamm came to Stillwater in 1944 with the radar school; he later became president at Oklahoma State University in 1966. Ralph Tate coached the Oklahoma State University track and field squad from 1968-82. He graduated from OAMC in 1948. Six thousand alumni served in the military during World War II, 2,800 of them officers.

With war raging in Europe and the Pacific, thoughts of post-war America also became prominent. What would become of the veterans? Where would they live? How could they be rewarded and what was needed to help with the transition back into civilian life?

In September of 1944, Napolean Conger, Dean of the School of Education at OAMC, led a committee tasked with implementing a program to fit the needs of civilians and military veterans returning to OAMC following the war. Finding ways to help returning soldiers adapt to a new environment and situation, developing additional guidance and counseling programs, and helping with what could be a difficult social adjustment after the trauma of war were all part of a program to reward American men and women returning to U.S. soil.

The American Legion drafted a rehabilitation program for veterans, eventually realized in the Servicemen’s Readjustment Assistance Act of 1944 which was signed June 12, 1944. Commonly known as the G.I Bill, OAMC saw enrollment go from 5,918 in 1939 to 9,993 by 1949. With this massive increase in enrollment, housing became a top priority for the campus and Stillwater. Bennett and his aides addressed the problem with Veteran’s Village, a short-lived but significant part of Stillwater’s historical narrative.

Leonard West and his wife moved into a trailer house in January 1946 and a cow pasture became a multi-million dollar housing project within one year. With McElroy Avenue its northern boundary and Farm Road its southern extreme, two bedroom units measuring 16 by 32 feet and single bedroom units measuring 16 by 16 were made available to veterans and their families. Over 1,800 units were built and streets were named after Pacific Islands and given French names in honor of the engineers who served in those theaters. Smaller streets were named after Oklahoma towns and counties. Before 1946 ended the Village was the largest married student housing project for veterans in the U.S.

Veterans Village, Courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives at OSU Edmon Low Library
Veterans Village, Courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives at OSU Edmon Low Library

In 1946, the Veteran’s Village was outside the city limits of Stillwater. In fact, the small community was considered a separate town with Val J. Connell its first city manager and John Kelly its first mayor. This “boom town” had sidewalks and streets, a post office, laundry, recreation hall, bus service, and a commissary. The Village grew from 59 residents to 5,900 within two years and it was estimated that $400,000 of veterans’ pay per month was spent in Stillwater.

The progressive post-war housing development was not the only thing that brought national attention to OAMC in the aftermath of World War II. The college’s athletic teams had unprecedented success.

On January 1, 1945, 18-year-old Bob Fenimore and freshman Jim Spavital each scored touchdowns in the Aggies’ 34-0 win over Texas Christian in the Cotton Bowl. Fenimore had another big game one year later as head coach Jim Lookabaugh’s squad finished an undefeated season with an easy win over St. Mary’s in the 1946 Sugar Bowl. A member of the 1946 football squad, Tate, the future track coach, lived in Veteran’s Village and made and sold sandwiches for extra money.

In March of 1945, Henry P. Iba’s basketball squad beat New York University for the NCAA championship. A year later, led by legendary 7-footer Bob Kurland, A&M became the first program in history to win back-to-back NCAA titles in men’s basketball. Wrestling, a dominant national force under Edward C. Gallagher during the 1930s, continued its stay at the top. With no national wrestling tournament from 1943-45 due to World War II, Art Griffith brought the meet to Stillwater and A&M won its 14th NCAA title ― A&M won or shared 14 of the first 16 NCAA tournaments. Within 90 days in 1946, the Aggies won three national titles.

Athletes, veterans, and residents lived in a much different Stillwater in 1946. Leaving the Village and heading east on La Rue Boulevard (what is now Hall of Fame Avenue) a pedestrian or driver nears the north-south running Monroe Street. After passing through what would become Cowboy Mall where the Satellite Twin movie theater and Seven Knights and House of Greek restaurants once called home, the journey continues east on McGeorge Avenue passing by Lewis Stadium and Gallagher Hall. Two blocks passed Duck Street, McGeorge Avenue ends its trek east, one block short of Main Street.

What is now fully developed around the Hall of Fame and Main Street intersection was, in 1946, Stillwater’s eastern edge. Getting to Perkins Road, at the time a country road, required either McElroy Avenue to the north or Virginia Avenue to the south. The area was remote enough that in 1949 the Moonlite Drive-In Theatre opened for business.

Stillwater grew significantly during the second half of the 1940s. Bennett’s “Twenty-five Year Plan” began in 1928 when he became president of the college. Enrollment went from 4,000 to 12,000 by 1951 and $50 million in building construction and renovations changed the makeup of the campus and the Stillwater community.

Much of the original housing in Veteran’s Village was torn down throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, replaced with newer residence halls. By 1959, only 14 of the original housing units remained; the final unit was gone by 1981.

In filling in the historical narrative of a community, certain periods can and do have larger significance. Physical reminders of Veteran’s Village, minus photographs, are lost to modern buildings and structures. Athletic trophies and pictures of those great sports teams can still be found throughout Stillwater. Street names change, new avenues are opened.

But it should not be discounted what 1946 meant to Stillwater and its college. Its housing and welcoming of veterans began the healing process of war. Many of those who slugged it out in Europe and the Pacific also brought a new kind of victory to classmates and townspeople on playing fields and courts. Without question, 1946 put “cow town” in the rear view mirror.

Sources

Dellinger, Doris. A History of Oklahoma State University Intercollegiate Athletics, Centennial Histories Series. Stillwater, OK: Oklahoma State University, 1990.

Kopecky, Paula W. A History of Equal Opportunity at Oklahoma State University, Centennial Histories Series. Stillwater, OK: Oklahoma State University, 1990.

Oklahoma State University, Edmon Low Library, The Oklahoma Digital Map Collections, City of Stillwater, 1947, Hinkel Printing Co.

Daily O’Collegian archives. Oklahoma State Library Digital Collections, 1946-1950.