By Ammie Bryant, Director of the Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History
The 1920s was known as the Jazz Age. The glittery Gatsby image of flappers and slick young men decked out in racoon coats dancing the night away and drinking bathtub gin at a speakeasy, comes to mind when thinking about the decade. The 1920s saw rapid changes throughout society as the world moved into a modern era marked by the excesses that came about in the wake of World War I. Women gained the right to vote, wore makeup, and left the home to seek work in higher number than ever before. Fashion entered the modern era, as hemlines rose and by the end of the decade, dresses lost their waistlines as the straight chemise dress became en vogue. Art Deco was the style and modern conveniences changed how people worked and played as the twenties roared all the way until the Great Depression hit in 1929.
Change wasn’t as quick to arrive in Oklahoma, but even here in the state where “waving wheat sure smells sweet” there was turbulence and excess—especially in the communities marked by the infusion of wealth brought about by the oil boom. But how many of these changes made their way to the little college town of Stillwater?
In the new exhibit about Stillwater in the 1920s, Dr. Bill Bryans’s Museum Studies class set out to discover what it was like for the citizens and students living in Stillwater during this decade. The 1920s saw rapid growth in the city’s population as it went from 4,701 to 7,016 residents. Why did Stillwater nearly double in size during this decade? How did this growth affect the citizens and how they lived and worked?
During the early 1920s a drought in Stillwater had caused a severe water shortage. Water was rationed, many townsfolk had to buy bottled drinking water and travel to Perkins or Guthrie to take a bath. There was fear that the college would have to close or move to another location; but by the end of the decade, Stillwater saw a solution to its water supply woes (although a temporary one) with the construction of a dam at Boomer Creek north of Stillwater in 1924.
The long-lasting drought of the previous years continued through completion of the dam in April of 1925. It was not until April 12, 1927, that the torrential rains came to fill the new Boomer Lake and overflowed the spillway for the first time. These rains washed out roads and bridges, while caravans of automobiles filled with townspeople and college students rushed out to see the new water supply. OAMC President Bradford Knapp even declared a holiday at the college due to the celebrations.
The decade of the 1920s saw the end of an era when people relied on ice plants to provide ice for food preservation and cooling. During 1926, Stillwater’s Lahman Ice Plant consolidated with other ice plants around Oklahoma including five ice cream companies, two butter plants, and fourteen ice plants with thirty cold storage plants serving ninety-one communities. The name of the company changed to Southwest Ice Company and Stillwater became known as the ice capital of northern Oklahoma. Despite this growth, it was during the ’20s that home refrigeration became more common and led to the eventual demise of the ice plant as a necessity.
With the discovery of oil and gas deposits throughout Payne County during the 1910s and 1920s, gas cooking became common. Though mostly limited to areas within a town’s network of lines, gas stoves proved economical as well as practical. The benefits of gas were numerous; especially considering that coal fires caused more accidental deaths than gas fires. Gas created less air pollution, and many doctors hailed gas-cooked meat as healthier because it did not “impregnate” the meat and other foods with soot or resin.
Meanwhile, Stillwater also saw growth in its energy needs and power infrastructure. In 1918, the Fourth Street Power Plant was built using an engine from a previous site (south of what is now the Moose Lodge) and a new 300 KW engine. In 1922, a 500 KW steam engine was added, and in 1925 another 750 KW. In 1929, the building had to be renovated to make room for installation of new boilers and a 1500 KW steam turbine. This was before the establishment of the Central Rural Electric Cooperative in Payne County in 1938. Prior to the formation of the electric cooperatives in the 1930s, less than 3% of the rural population in Oklahoma had electricity.
Another major change came to the way people traveled to and around Stillwater. After World War I, soldiers returned to Stillwater having learned to drive in the war, and increased the number of cars in Stillwater. By that time some streets in Stillwater had been paved.
As the number of cars grew the city passed more ordinances. In the late 1920s, cars were prohibited from parking in the middle of the street and were forced to move to outside edge to park.
Early volunteer firefighters joked that a round-trip between downtown Stillwater and campus took a five-gallon can of gasoline. Not everyone had access to an automobile to travel around town and this along with fuel expenses sparked early mass transit between the train station and campus. Soon, students, faculty, and residents began traveling by bus throughout the community. Elza Bilyeu owned the Jitney bus company which bused passengers between downtown Stillwater and campus.
To learn more about life in 1920s Stillwater, be sure to visit the Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History to view the new exhibit set to open Thursday, March 10, 2016. The exhibit will open with a reception beginning at 5pm followed by a special program on the history of the KKK in Payne County presented by Jim Showalter at 6pm in the Sheerar Center Auditorium. The will open the exhibit on 1920s Stillwater in conjunction with its partnership with the Stillwater Public Library, the OSU Library, and Mt. Zion Baptist Church to present the community-wide reading event “Two Books, One Community: Stillwater reads The Great Gatsby and Fire in Beulah. The Museum will also host a program on Art Deco Architecture on Saturday, April 16, 2016 at 2pm. The program will be presented by OSU Professor, Dr. Michael Rabens. Additionally, the Museum will host two book discussions. To learn more about the Two Books, One Community program, schedule of events, and sponsors visit http://library.stillwater.org/TheBeesKnees.php.
Photos courtesy of the Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History Photograph Collection