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.
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”: ”
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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…
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.
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.
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?
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.”
“I never cared much for history when I was young, but you know, I think more about those things now…”
She was still in that room when I left it, poring over the people behind the glass. A comforting sight.
(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.)