Story by Matthew Koster
Photos provided by Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar
Stillwater’s Main Street began in 1889, following the first Oklahoma Land Run. Like any other city center, it became a hub of business, shopping, and entertainment. As the rest of the town thrived, so did Main Street. The history of the businesses that have opened, closed, and prospered at the center of this town have become part of the ever-changing economy and culture of Stillwater. Newcomers and tourists can see this for themselves by walking downtown. The Stillwater Public Library has a downtown walking tour on its website and the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar is unveiling its family friendly “I Spy: Main Street” experience this April.
One of the most vital parts of any city are its banks. First known as Stillwater State Bank, Stillwater National Bank was founded on June 16, 1894. Shelly W. Keiser sold the bank to the Berry Family in 1909, who owned the bank for many years. In 2018, Bank SNB merged and became part of Simmons Bank. BancFirst located on Main Street first began from a merger of the Payne County Bank and the Farmers Merchant Bank in 1899, and was named First National Bank. Now known as BancFirst, it will celebrate its 120th anniversary in 2019.
Shopping options on Main Street used to be mostly comprised of small and large companies like J.C. Penny’s, C.R. Anthony’s, and McClennan’s. Things changed after WWII, when Stillwater underwent a suburban expansion that drew larger stores away from the downtown area, and put many others out of business. Today, downtown includes a variety of locally owned, unique shops and businesses.
One store that closed its doors in recent history was Katz Department Store. Jake and Isaac Katz opened Katz Department Store in 1896. It moved locations to accommodate a growing demand for goods, but remained on Main Street. Katz was a major contributor to the downtown economy. Sadly, Katz closed its doors in 2005. The famous circular couch from Katz is now on display in the Stillwater History Museum’s gallery. Many people have fond memories of receiving candy and waiting on it while their mothers shopped at Katz.
Some Main Street businesses have fared better over the years than Katz. Murphy’s Department Store began as a hardware shop in 1926. By 1977 the store was successful enough to afford major refurbishments for its 51st anniversary. At this point, it included hardware, lawn and garden, appliance, and gift departments. Eventually they added a gourmet shop, and even a bridal registry that offered fine china, stainless flatware, stoneware, and crystal stemware. The gift and hardware portion of Murphy’s was bought out by Mr. and Mrs. Monroe and became its own business, called Alvin Murphy’s Appliance Center. This store eventually closed, but Murphy’s Department Store remains a fixture of downtown Stillwater.
Main Street did not just offer shopping and convenience, but also entertainment. Beginning in 1907, several movie theaters began to come and go, including the Mecca, Aggie, and Leachman Theaters. They all promised thrills, romance, laughs, and air conditioning to beat the summer heat. Even the Grand Opera House, which opened in 1901, began showing motion pictures as early as 1907. Today the building is an antique mall. A model of the opera house is on display upstairs in the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar
Over the years, Main Street has been home to a variety of restaurants, cafes, and drive-ins. Horton’s Café on West 9th featured their famous hamburger basket for $1. The Malt shop in the 100 block of West 8th was known for their ice cream treats and shakes. The best curly-Q French fries could be found at the Lasso, and the Chicken House served family style food. Skeen’s Cafeteria offered a wide variety of choices. Ancestor Restaurant was born as Bishop’s Barbeque at 1324 S. Main, during the Great Depression. Cliff Walters opened a café in the 800 block of S. Main, which later moved to the former Bishop’s Barbeque space, where it became a drive-in. It later became the Ancestor Restaurant.
The most famous drive-in restaurant to open in Stillwater was part of a chain originally named Top Hat. In 1959, Stillwater was the first of these drive-ins to adopt the new name, Sonic Drive-in. The name came with the slogan “Service at the Speed of Sound.” This was referring to the call button people would use to order their food. The store was originally located on Main Street, in what is now the Shortcake Diner driveway. It moved to its present location on Main Street in 1977.
To celebrate Stillwater’s downtown, the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar recently updated its Main Street exhibit and we will be kicking off our new ‘I Spy: Main Street” program on Saturday, April 13th. Take to the streets with a Main Street “I Spy” after your museum adventure. This is a great way to learn about Stillwater’s history while getting in some exercise! All ages are welcome to come find all the hidden trivia and receive a prize. The museum is open Tuesday-Friday from 11:00-5:00 pm and weekends from 1:00-4:00 pm. Go to www.sheerarmuseum.org to learn more about the “I Spy” activity and other great upcoming events.