The Tarnished Beauties of Blackwell, Oklahoma

Criss-crossing America’s interstates on shoestring music tours, my bandmates and I see scores of battered roadside billboards. They advertise ramshackle sculpture gardens, art brut outposts, World’s Biggest Fill-in-the-Blanks, rustic museums, and obscure historic landmarks. Such attractions are usually located in quiet little towns only a short distance from the highway. More often than not, we make a point to stop, stretch our legs and explore. These spontaneous jaunts expose us to beauty and knowledge we would never have discovered otherwise.

Possibly the most delightful surprise on this last stint with Faun Fables was a visit to the Top of Oklahoma Museum, housed in the somewhat dilapidated (but still glorious) Electric Park Pavilion on Main Street in Blackwell, OK (population 7,700). A grand, white structure with a large central dome, the Pavilion was built in 1912 to celebrate the advent of electricity in Blackwell. Its design takes after styles exhibited at the famous “White City” of the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. Its lights, which originally numbered over 500, could once be seen for miles across the windswept prairie.

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These days, the Pavilion could use some serious TLC. Multiple leaks in the dome have endangered the museum’s contents. Plastic tarps enshroud several exhibits. Many items bear marks of water damage. One of the kindly septuagenarian docents who works there followed us from room to room, clucking over the holes in the roof, the rusty stains. These senior preservationists take a lot of pride in their charge, with good reason. The “TOOM” is a sprawling treasure trove of turn-of-the-century ephemera, railroad memorabilia, articles of Cherokee life, hand-carved walking sticks and pipes, dioramas, dollhouses, baby buggies, hobbyist’s taxidermy, antique musical and medical instruments, Victrolas, zinc smelting documentation, delicate handmade lace, linen and clothing, exceedingly creepy dolls, sewing machines, china, vintage propaganda, picture books, elaborate quilting, and countless other keepsakes left behind by the city’s first brave citizens.

Judging by these artifacts, early non-native residents of Oklahoma were hardy, determined folk who struggled to eke out a life on America’s frontier. How they maintained such an unshakable air of dignity and refinement is beyond me, but Blackwell is a true, sparkling diamond in the rough. For me, nothing symbolizes the spirit of its citizens better than the following portrait, unceremoniously presented on a torn, water-stained bit of pasteboard in the museum’s “School Room”: ”

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Who were you, Lola? Whatever became of you?

The girl’s name was Lola Squires, and she was a student enrolled in Blackwell High, graduating class of 1916. That’s all I know. Her gaze knocked me back several feet. Once I finally stop staring at her, I realized that there were countless other flint-eyed and bow-bedecked young beauties on the walls nearby. I must have spent well over an hour in that one room, moving from portrait to portrait, documenting as much as I could, just stunned.

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It bears mentioning that I’m one of those weirdos you’ll often see at flea markets or estate sales, rummaging through some grimy crate of long-forgotten family photos. I have a near-pathological urge to rescue lost and discarded images of people long-since grown up, grown old, deceased. Despite knowing nothing about them beyond what I see in their pictures, I claim them as kin of my own. I adopt their ghosts.

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I’m still not sure why I feel so strongly about collecting unloved, unremembered images. (Any armchair psychologists out there with insight into this compulsion are welcome to share their theories!)

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Whatever its root, I know I’m not the only one with this urge. Here, for anyone interested, are a series of mysterious, mostly anonymous faces from the distant past of pioneer America.

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At some point, the aforementioned docent poked her head into the room. “What, you’re still in here? What for?” I excitedly pointed out various faces that I’d fallen in love with: the stern, unnamed schoolmarm who looked like she relished administering corporal punishment, the doughy maiden whose enormous bows turned her head into a crinkly wrapped toffee, Potter, a smirking phys-ed coach in a smart black coat…

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My exuberance seemed to rub off on her a bit. “You know, I don’t think I ever really looked at any of these before.” She put on her reading glasses to examine the images more carefully, and quickly recognized some of the faces as potential ancestors of people she’d grown up with in Blackwell.

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Eventually, she started taking framed portraits down from the wall, wiping the dust off the glass so that I could take clearer photographs of them.

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Together, we mused and hypothesized. What were they thinking about when these photos were taken? Who was sweet on who? Which ones were popular? Who had been lonely?

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The docent reminisced about the large, sturdy brick schoolhouse I kept seeing in photographs, which she’d attended back in the 40s. “This was the room where they held biology, and here on the second floor was English, and down in the basement was history.”

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“I never cared much for history when I was young, but you know, I think more about those things now…”

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She was still in that room when I left it, poring over the people behind the glass. A comforting sight.

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(My apologies for the poor quality of some the images… we didn’t have much time left, and I was in a mad rush to document as much as I could. Still, I find them beautiful, and hope that some of you have, as well.)

44 Responses to “The Tarnished Beauties of Blackwell, Oklahoma”

  1. bunny Says:

    Oh my god, what an amazing trip. The eyes on Lola are so haunting. I can imagine them piercing you when you walked into the room. This kind of lost museum strikes me as the great-grandmother of Coilhouse, cataloging and preserving the ephemera and detritus of a lost time. The charm of the places though, is that it seems to exist in spite of the world, and on its own terms, leaking roof and all. If anything, at least the ghosts enjoy the gallery.

    I wish I could have seen it.

  2. Alice Says:

    Oh, my, Lola’s eyes really ARE something special…I love that way old, old photographs have of hyper-delineating their subjects’ eyes; it can sometimes make them seem more real than modern photos!

    As for neurotically collecting old pictures…my grandmother always had a habit of hunting down the largest ones, framing them, and hanging them in her house. Sometimes she’d give them names. She called it “adopting relatives”, and it’s a habit that I’ve taken up, as well.

  3. Matt Sheret Says:

    Those are absolutely gorgeous. I have to say, I know exactly what you mean about trawling junk shops for the photos. I visited my girlfriend’s parents’ in Hastings last summer and about half of the shops in the old town are filled with treasures, be it old furniture, vinyl or odds and ends. In one I found a box of First Day Cover stamps (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_day_cover) all sent to the same woman over about a 70 year period. They started out being addressed to ‘Miss’ and by the end just to ‘Ms’, not a change of surname or address among them, just a constant presence in this lady’s life. I couldn’t afford the box, but I’ve got a few, including one celebrating the moon landing.

    I love old postcards too, but only the ones with messages on them.

  4. Zoh Says:

    Fabulous, Meredith. What a find!

  5. Alice Says:

    @Matt- may I share with you one of my favorite finds? I was searching through a barn-turned-antique shop (really fun in its own right!) and fount a postcard that said on the front “You said you loved another, I wish that I were dead” with a message on the back to the extent of, “I hope to see you again one day, if not in this life, then in the next.” It was from 1912 and I’ll treasure it always.

  6. Juan Carlos Says:

    Great article,.

    I can totally understand the appeal of these pictures, and the only “psychological” diagnosis I could give is what they make me feel:

    Very mortal and sad and happy.

    Those people are like ghosts now, staring out into a world they’ll never see, happy that I found them and resurrected them in my mind. Wondering if someone who hasn’t been born yet will ever do the same to me in the future.

    Maybe it’s a fear of not being remembered of vanishing as if you’ve never existed after you die.

  7. Irene Kaoru Says:

    Oh wow Mer, beautiful pictures, thanks for this post. I wish I could have been there too! I am also afflicted with the need to check every junk sale and vintage thrift shop for faded photos of other people’s families. I particularly love old family reunion and wedding snapshots and anything with handwritten notes on the back. When I get to take someone’s old photos home with me I always feel like I have a secret or like I’m getting away with something.

  8. Zealot Says:

    Posts like this one are the reason I read Coilhouse.

    Thank you for remembering the silent beauty of the forsaken.

    Z

  9. Jennifer dG Says:

    Lovely post, Mer! These people are beautiful! I adore old pictures and wondering about the lives of the people in them, studying their hairstyles and clothes and the expressions that push through the stillness necessary for old photographs. I know of an artist who paints over old daguerreotypes and tintypes to make them “spooky,” and it just breaks my heart. Here are what might be the last record of these people’s lives, and he’s obliterating them. It really makes me think about the nature of art, and what it means when art, in my opinion, disrespects humanity.

  10. Vivacious G Says:

    As the others said, these are beautiful. I feel as if they could start speaking and I can imagine what their voices may have sounded like, if they were humble or proud or ambitious. Wonderful entry!

  11. bbullock Says:

    Read us the names from the Book of the Dead…

  12. Mer Says:

    Thanks, guys. Glad you enjoyed these. Alice, Matt, Irene et al, if you have anything from your own collections scanned, I’d love to see them…

  13. Tequila Says:

    Those eyes…I am in love.

  14. Andy Says:

    Great story, but dammit… I didn’t want to sink into melancholia today and that’s just what happened. Those pictures are haunting and hearing of that museum slowly declining with its aging curators didn’t help brighten the mood any. Still.. no regrets checking in on this site today, these things need to be witnessed by someone.

  15. Terra Trouvé Says:

    These are beautiful pictures. I absolutely love old photographs. It’s so easy to just fall into a state of dreaming, wondering what secrets lie within the hidden lives of the people you glimpse at in the pictures.

    If anyone’s interested, i’ve scanned a few pictures from my own collection.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/8619242@N05/sets/72157604979538828/

  16. Mer Says:

    Andy, sorry to bum you out. The experience of being there, recognizing all of that life and vibrancy under a thin layer of dust actually made me feel more happy and inspired than sad. But I understand.

    It’s a queer sort of “loved and lost” feeling, finding/processing beauty like this.

    Terra, those are great! Sydney looks like a superhero. Amazing details, there…

  17. R. Says:

    Mer, you’re a woman after my own heart. This post was just fantastic.

  18. Mer Says:

    Hey, thank you for reading.

  19. Nadya Says:

    Mer, I actually printed this post out and kept a copy. And I made my parents read it.

    Last time we were in upstate New York, my parents and I went to some antique shops and found people selling just BINS full of dusty old photographs and daguerreotypes. How could those images end up there? How could people just lose them? In my family, all pictures are painstakingly documented. They’re in picture frames, albums, archived digitally as well. I remember doing the same thing with my parents in that shop: just going through pictures, commenting on their disposition, making up little stories about them.

    I think Juan Carlos above hit the nail on the head, that it’s all about not wanting to be forgotten, and also about connecting to and identifying with generations past, wondering what you would have been like if you’d been born in another age. How would I have reacted to things that people had to deal with 50 years ago? I always wonder. What kind of person would I had been in the pre-feminism days? Etc.

    There are certain old images that just grab me. Recently I stumbled across one here on Flickr that really grabbed me:

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    Anny-Yolande Horowitz
    Born on June 2, 1933 in Strasbourg.
    Last lived at 21, rue Rode, Bordeaux.
    Interned in the Lalande camp near Tours and then transferred to Drancy.
    From there, she, her mother Frieda, and her sister Paulette, age 7, were deported on Sept. 11, 1942 on Convoy 31.
    Their destination: Auschwitz-Birkenau.

    Aside from these stark facts, all we know of Anny is what is on her I.D. card: that she was Jewish, had blonde hair, blue eyes, rosy complexion, and was of moderate height. And that she had very cute little-girl handwriting.

    I’d give anything to know more about this sad-eyed angel, and the thousands upon thousands of children who died alongside her.

    This photo is from “French Children of the Holocaust: A Memorial” by Serge Klarsfeld.

    Photograph are a recently modern invention, and it’s let us look into the eyes of our ancestors clearer than ever before. Now, we have MySpace, YouTube, twitter… ordinary people are documenting themselves more and more.

    I wonder how MySpace archives or video remnants will look to people 250 years from now, after we’re long gone. Maybe they’ll feel the same way about them as we feel about these old images that we see. Maybe they’ll write about them the same way. And so it goes…

  20. Olga Lev Says:

    Dear Meredith,

    I am not exactly one of your crowd I follow Coilhouse publications very regularly for personal reasons. This is the first time I have actually decided to respond.

    Your post on old photographs made me very happy. This is a rare and precious feeling that there are young people out there who look into these faces and fates and try to preserve this treasure – both for humanity and art.
    It hurts to see old pictures neglected and forgotten
    If only I could I would post your article everywhere – it would touch a lot of souls
    And your style is beautiful! Thank you
    Olga Lev, mother of Nadya Lev
    .

  21. Mer Says:

    Oh my gosh! You are so kind to say so, Olga. I’m all teary. Thank you!

  22. AlisonFaith Says:

    Their eyes are amazing and what my family calls “old eyes,” where we don’t often see these sort of soft eyes around nowadays. They’re beatiful.

  23. Shirley Love Says:

    As a 72 year old native of Blackwell, I was delighted to find this post. The old pavilion, known as the Palace on the Prairie is, and always has been, like an elegant old lady, growing old with grace. We did have a lot of refurbishing in the past decade, and a new roof just recently. However, the roofers installed the flanges improperly, and therefore, we did suffer some water damage. The pavilion has served us for years as a place of entertainment, family and class reunions, and now the museum.
    We are proud of our dear old lady, so if any of you are ever near our quiet little city, but sure to stop by and say “hello” to the volunteers at the museum. I am sure you will experience some southern hospitality in the visit.

  24. Mer Says:

    Dear Shirley,

    Thank you so much for responding to this post. I can’t say enough good things about your Palace on the Prairie. It was a truly magical visit for me, and I sincerely hope that some of our readers will swing by to experience it for themselves and say hello.

  25. » Blog Archive » links for 2008-07-16 Says:

    [...] Coilhouse » Blog Archive » The Tarnished Beauties of Blackwell, Oklahoma (tags: photo research history) [...]

  26. July 2008 « Tending2entropy’s Weblog Says:

    [...] Yes I like to read obituaries, but apparenlty I’m ot the only one: Coilhouse reads them too:  http://coilhouse.net/2008/07/05/the-tarnished-beauties-of-blackwell-oklahoma/#more-1261 http://coilhouse.net/2008/07/05/the-tarnished-beauties-of-blackwell-oklahoma/#more-1261 [...]

  27. p Says:

    Hey, I’ve been in that museum a few times! I got relatives in Blackwell, but I don’t recognize any of the portraits…

    and big ups for Faun Fables!

  28. LuluR Says:

    Just saw this; pictures are beautiful. Thank you.

  29. WendiG Says:

    So sad that the people of Oklahoma can’t see the value in these things-Did you go to the (Ithink it was called) Cowboy Museum of Oklahoma? That was an amazing place, at least in 1975. Beautiful relics and well-preserved-maybe there isn’t enough to go around; Oklahoma was a fairly poor state (financially) when I was there for a visit; I can’t imagine it has improved much.
    Glad you at least preserved these images of images; I used to do the same flea-market thing but no place to store it all-probably the same reasons we have this situation today…

  30. Mer Says:

    Wendi, I think the town’s citizens definitely see the value in it, but small museums all over the country suffer from underfunding, and you’re probably more right than ever about Oklahoma being a particularly poor state.

    I have scores of old photos tucked away in trunks and boxes. One of these days I should really scan them all…

  31. Laura Says:

    A friend of ours (me and my boyfriend Andy) actually owns a building Main st in Blackwell. Andy went their several years ago and got to see this wonderful, mysterious collection.

    I, too, love sifting through the detritus of history – the more local, the more personal, the better.

    Thanks for the wonderful pics.

  32. Lisa Says:

    The girl on the right in the 4th picture looks like young Meg Ryan. i would say she is far beautiful than her!!!

  33. Tim Says:

    Just so you know, the City recently replaced the roof on the building. The decorative designs on the dome were kept. If you watch Channel 5 out of Oklahoma City next week (I believe Monday) they are doing a best of Oklahoma show from the Museum with several live broadcasts during the day. They also have internet broadcasts, and will probably save them to their website http://www.kocotv.com

  34. j Says:

    holy hell, what a great post. striking pictures. some family is from blackwell; i didn’t know there was a museum there. now i want to go see if there’s anybody i know represented up on that wall.

  35. badluckshadow13 Says:

    There’s something breathtaking about looking at old photographs. I think it’s the overwhelming reality of it, a glimpse into the life of a person who was born, who lived, and died long before you were born.
    When I was little I always used to go through my Nana’s old pictures, stare at people in uniforms, try to figure out what they’d done, who they’d known, where they’d been.
    Right by spending my days staring at the nearby train tracks and steel mills, it was one of my favorite childhood past-times.

  36. puzzlemaster Says:

    Lola Squires was born Nov 8, 1900, the youngest daughter of Allison and Anna Squires. In 1920, aged 19, the Census shows that she was living with her parents in Dirigo, Grant Co, OK and working as a schoolteacher. She died Mar 23, 1992 in Deer Creek, Grant Co, OK apparently unmarried.

  37. Mer Says:

    Puzzlemaster, thank you! Where did you find this information?!

  38. John Loechler Says:

    I was on my way from Kansas City to Oklahoma City for work and spent an evening in Blackwell. We stayed Friday evening at the local super eight and ventured into town. It was a Sunday night and the only place to have a drink was the American legion. I was travelling with two of my workers and one of my workers, along with myself, is a veteran. They let us in . We played shuffle board, ate pickeled eggs and had a great time. The next morning we went back into town for breakfast. We ate at a place near the museum. After breakfast I convinced my guys to join me at the museum. What a wild place. I have video and pictures from the inside and outside. We really liked the doll room, very creepy. Overall, Blackwell was a serioius step back in time. I did manage to buy a great pair of vintage cowboy boots for five bucks. I am glade we stayed there the for the night. I also bought a wood carving from a local junk / antique shop. If the sponsers of this site are interested I would submit my photos and video……Blackwell revisited.

  39. Christiaan Mitchell Says:

    I was born and raised in Blackwell. I appreciate the way this article captures the way the TOOM draws out the vague sadness of a place well past its prime. I also appreciate that you make the docents, whom I’ve always found tedious, remarkably touching and interesting folks.

    It’s very interesting for me to see my hometown through the eyes of someone who didn’t spend their entire childhood there.

    Thanks for the great read and AWESOME photographs.

  40. Anon Says:

    Lola squires does not figure out here.

    http://www.blackwell.k12.ok.us/index.php?pageID=11027_2&

  41. Jon Says:

    This link tells some of the other tarnishes of Blackwell. A must read.

    http://terryminton.tripod.com/id7.html

  42. TIM DAVIDSON Says:

    Just for your information, they fixed the roof, leaks, and other problems on the museum a couple of years ago. I like the photos you took of the Blackwell predessors. Came across you page when I googled Blackwell, OK

  43. Judy Seney Says:

    Thank you for taking the time to see things I took for granted while I lived in Blackwell! The next time I am there I will look at these images with a new respect.♥

  44. Bailie Says:

    Hello! I grew up in Blackwell and moved away 9 years ago. I still have family there and visit every few months. I really enjoyed your article and I am glad you liked visitng my little hometown!

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