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Ponca City Information

Ponca City History

Historic Downtown

The Ponca City Information website is not affiliated nor associated with the City of Ponca City, the website is provided by Kay County Media LLC as an information website for Ponca City, Oklahoma.

The history of Ponca City is a brief history when compared to the history of cities elsewhere in the world or even in the United States, from its founding in 1893 to approximately 1958, a short sixty-five years. Within that period, however, Ponca City underwent significant growth, but, more fundamentally, the city was utterly and completely transformed in those years. The buildings in the downtown district of the city reflect the contours of that transformation. In fact, the buildings of the city show how the city from time to time reinvented itself, redefined its identity, and shifted its structure, sometimes in response to powerful forces pressing down from outside and sometimes in an effort to propel new forces of social and economic redemption.

Actually, the town came into being within the span of a single afternoon. On September 16, 1893, when the Cherokee Outlet was opened to outside settlement, a number of people staked their claims to town lots along the Santa Fe Railroad and proclaimed the new town, a new town, incidentally, that was in competition with another townsite three miles to the north called Cross. On the other hand, this land run itself took place in context and the dramatic rush of white people into this area from the Kansas border twenty-odd miles to the north represented a final and permanent dispossession of land that had previously been unfenced, that had been granted and guaranteed to Native Americans in return for giving up lands elsewhere. It also represented the effort of the homesteaders flocking into the area to find their own refuge where they would no longer be hounded by the forces of dispossession. Between 1888 and 1892 over half the population of western Kansas, for example, was forced from the land because of their inability to pay their debts and taxes and their farms were foreclosed. Farms in the brand new Kay County or business lots in the equally new settlement of New Ponca represented new hopes in which old adversities were finally vanquished.

The town that these people built, and which soon enough prevailed over the Cross neighbors to the north, reflected these new hopes. With about two thousand people, the new town had a steam flour mill operating, had (albeit through some degree of subterfuge) a railroad depot and a train to stop at it, new grain elevators, and a hotel. An opera house held forth in the second floor of a grocery downtown and the town soon established a water well in the middle of Grand Avenue. Downtown Ponca City was starting to take shape. When fire destroyed a dozen buildings on the north side of Grand Avenue between Second and Third in 1900, including the Pabst Building, the city rebuilt, but this time in brick, the favored material of construction from thenceforward. Stone buildings on the south side of Grand Avenue, like the Stewart Building at the southeast corner of Grand and Third and the stone building where George Brett for a while had his farm implement store at the southeast corner of Grand and First, possibly stood out all the more after this, contrasting the light, locally-quarried limestone with the increasing numbers of red brick buildings around them.

Ponca City had been, from its beginning, a part of Oklahoma Territory, but that came to an end with the achievement of statehood in 1907. Many saw that as a significant accomplishment as Oklahoma took its place alongside the other states of the nation, but the same action dealt a blow to one of the most prominent and prosperous elements of the local economy. At the same time that Oklahoma became a state, its new constitution went into effect, and the prohibition amendment to the constitution closed all of the city’s saloons, some eighteen in number. Those buildings, however, appear to have found new tenants once the old moved out and the town settled into a regular pace that followed the cycle of the farmers just as the farmers followed the cycle of the seasons.

It is against that backdrop that the changes of the 1910s and 1920s can best be appreciated for the revolutionary and transformative power they exhibited. When E. W. Marland (and later Lew Wentz) took residence in the Arcade Hotel, he launched a career that soon unleashed powerful forces through the discovery of oil nearby and then the creation of a vertically integrated company where petroleum was extracted from underground deposits in Marland Oil fields, turned into a usable product at a Marland Oil Company refinery constructed in Ponca City, and then marketed through Marland Oil filling stations. Integrated though it was, Marland stood out in the petroleum industry as an independent operator against the giants of Standard Oil and the growing Texas Oil Company.

The changes in Ponca City were many. There was, first, the growing refinery a mile south of downtown Ponca City, a refinery that employed more and more people who became residents in the new town. There was also the change that took place on Grand Avenue. There was, of course, Marland’s fabulous residence at one end of Grand, and a Marland filling station was built at the corner of Fourth and Grand, directly east of the new Marland Building (in 1928), but the city, newly flush with public and private funds, began a construction surge that left an enduring mark on the town. The increased traffic on the railroad had brought a new depot alongside the Santa Fe Railroad tracks in 1916 and buildings and businesses emerged along the railroad tracks on both First and Pine to take advantage of the shipping advantages. The number of hotels, already substantial, seemed to multiply. In 1923, one account reports the building activity thus: “Construction had reached an all time high. Six apartment houses, a six-story hotel, 150 residences, 26 business buildings, two churches, and two schools, representing close to $8 million in expenditures, were all going up that spring.” The next year, the six-story Jens-Marie Hotel was built and so was the Masonic Building and the following year the Gill Funeral Home and C. R. Anthony took their places on Central and on Grand respectively. By 1925, the city had twenty some hotels catering especially to the needs of the business travelers who themselves followed the needs of the oil business. Symbolic of this expansion in many ways was the enlargement of the 1916 Mission Style City Auditorium in 1922 with wings on both sides that created a new, large Civic Center which served as the cultural, political, and social center of gravity for the newly redefined community.

By the end of the 1920s Downtown Ponca City had been completely transformed. The city had a new opulent theater, the Poncan, new retail businesses of all kinds along Grand, Central, and Cleveland, and along the numbered streets connecting them. Many of the buildings that became durable, and not-so-durable, social and architectural landmarks in the city trace their origins to the boom years of the 1920s. But it was not just the construction of specific and notable buildings that is significant. The shape of downtown had as much to do with the multitude of small businesses in small buildings as it did with the towering structures that loomed over them. Downtown Ponca City was a livable place, as testified to by the hotels and apartment buildings that cropped up not far from the railroad depot and, with increasing frequency, near the bus terminal, and by the apartment buildings that housed regular urban dwellers. The cafés and restaurants that flourished up and down Grand and on the side streets provided easy meals, business meals, and venues for social interaction. It was a workable place, one that held the buildings that held the jobs and offices and stores and shops where people flocked each morning to spend their productive days. It was a walkable place and the seemingly infinite number of grocers and meat markets, several in some blocks, sometimes positioned directly next door to each other, gave these people ready opportunities to acquire their foods and carry them home in their arms. If First and Pine had signified the industrial and shipping parts of the local economy, Grand and its parallel avenues betokened the retail aspect of urban life. This pattern had one more aspect to it, and that is the one where the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Just as Marland himself and the company he owned represented an independent, decentralized part of the oil industry, the businesses in Downtown Ponca City were similarly independent, mom and pop enterprises, individualistic, decentralized, and even idiosyncratic, in operation and in building design. And they nurtured a pattern of social intercourse that was likewise decentralized and individualistic in the way that functioning neighborhoods encourage interaction that is at once complex and simple. At the core of this downtown community were the civic leaders, the merchants who tended to find themselves in City Hall bearing positions of responsibility and passing the gavel of mayor from one to another.

Marland’s “princeling” status (as John Joseph Mathews fondly called Marland), and his corporate independence fell abruptly and foreshadowed some of the same forces that would, once again, transform the Downtown social and architectural landscape. In the 1920s E. W. Marland had been persuaded by the investment banker, J. P. Morgan, to expand his company’s operations, including new fields and new gas stations, by selling stock in the company to Morgan instead of borrowing from banks as Marland had been doing. Over the next five years, Marland built five hundred gas stations like the triangular station on Grand and Fourth and he also sold more and more stock to Morgan. Morgan’s stock purchase had certainly meant that Marland was able to expand; but it also meant that his control of his own company was now shared with New York bankers. Increasingly Marland lost power in the company and by 1928 he was literally forced out and the next year Marland Oil Company merged with another, smaller, company based in Denver, the Continental Oil Company—Conoco. But this was more than a change in ownership. Once the merger took place, as the official company history reports, “The words ‘Marland Oils’ were painted out on every tank car, filling station, pump station and building and replaced with one word: ‘Conoco.’” One Conoco vice president, John Morrow, later recalled that “J. P. Morgan wanted the merger simply because he was looking for any way to do away with the Marland name.” So other changes also began, and in the early 1930s most of the triangular stations, so firmly associated with the Marland Oil Company, were replaced with new Conoco stations which had a Tudor house-with-bays appearance. Ultimately the Marland station on Grand was replaced and a new Conoco station emerged a block away at the corner of Fifth and Grand in the new style. Perhaps all that was left of the Marland oil legacy was the red triangle, and that now bore the word Conoco across it.

If Marland Oil Company was being transformed, so too was Ponca City. Several forces were operative in this process. One was in the shadow of the petroleum company, for the automobile that intensified demand for oil and gasoline in the 1920s was in the ascendancy. Gas stations and automobile dealerships were multiplying with the Orville Savage dealership on West Grand one of the most visible; within a few blocks at least four other dealerships operated and more were not far away. The gas station that would become known as Van’s at Pine and Cleveland featured the house with canopy style, diagonally situated to the corner so as to catch traffic from all directions. And the filling stations were growing, becoming service stations where a growing range of products and services were available, and where the stations themselves were larger. In a bit of irony, the proliferation of the automobile and its service industry ultimately worked to undermine the social structure of Downtown business which had been oriented especially to a walking clientele. The fulfillment of that threat, however, lay in the future.

The other major force, however, was more immediate and hit the town harder than the automobile, at least at the time. The Depression seemed to undo so much of what the twenties had been all about, at least in the way it slowed down construction and growth. During the 1920s, Ponca City’s population had increased by a dramatic 129 per cent, but during the following decade it grew by only four per cent. This devastated many retail businesses in the downtown some of whom not only stopped growing but failed to survive. A quick perusal of address listings in the City Directories during the Depression years shows a pattern on paper that surely was worse when looking at the buildings: more buildings than ever were listed as “vacant” and whole rows of offices in the Masonic Building were now noted as empty. As fewer people worked in those offices, the impact on the retail stores on the streets was direct. Construction of new buildings slowed and what there was small, not the heady projects that in the past had each been bigger than the one before. There were exceptions and a new pattern took hold; probably the most visible and, again, symbolic were publicly funded projects. In 1935 the new Art Deco Post Office built by the U.S. Government opened at exactly the location of the old Marland triangle gas station and in the next block east on Grand (on the north side of the street) the new library was opened, the result of a Public Works Administration project. Another Art Deco project, the new junior high school in 1939, similarly public in funding and purpose, capped the construction activity and marked the limit of downtown’s eastward expansion. Moreover, the government was now an occupant in other storefront businesses too. In 1938 one WPA Sewing Room was located at 314 West Grand and another was on Third, next to the Ponca City Welfare Association a half block south of the Salvation Army Citadel that was itself doing a brisk business in those lean years.

In truth, by the end of the 1930s the architectural configuration of Downtown Ponca City was largely complete, especially on Grand. There would continue to be small projects on Cleveland and Central, but the physical structure of the commercial district was in place. The Depression dampened construction activity and wartime restrictions on materials as well as the labor shortage caused by World War II effectively precluded significant additional construction. Which is not to say that the downtown withered, for assuredly it did not. During the war, the business district of the city remained also the nerve center for the town and the government’s local War Price and Rationing Board was housed upstairs at 209 East Grand. And the downtown was alive. Even British cadets who trained at the flight school at Darr School occasionally found lodging in apartments downtown in places like the Douglass Apartments and entertainment abounded downtown. Plus, both the train depot and the bus station saw increased service during the war. The railroad traffic at the depot was boosted substantially by the war activity, and not a moment too soon, for during the 1930s trains in the nation had lost business when they reduced their operations to save money, and they lost it permanently to the growing trucking businesses. By the end of the war, with the new rail passengers, the depot in Ponca City could manage a major remodeling effort. Buses not only took up the slack left by the railroads during the Depression but expanded and continued to grow; with three different bus lines serving Ponca City during the war, the bus terminals were not only at the terminal on North Second, but also at the Arcade Hotel, and at Union Station, a half block north of Grand on Fourth, before Howe Bakery was located there; when the bus lines consolidated as a result of the war, the station on North Second, with the Terminal Hotel upstairs, prevailed.

The flourishing economy in the nation in the postwar years came as a mixed blessing to the merchants downtown. Once again Grand Avenue was the place to be, to go, to come, and people did so in numbers and enthusiasm that had both been suppressed by too many years of Depression and war. As a result, some buildings undertook modest expansion programs, the marks of which are still visible. Older buildings on Grand expanded in the only direction available—either adding on to extend closer to the alley or taking a partial two story building farther back upstairs. This is exactly what happened with the Souligny - Donahoe Building and also Drake’s Jewelry at 214 East Grand and neighbor Van Winkle’s Men’s Wear next door at 212 in 1946. Two years later the Southwest Ice Plant on North First similarly expanded its building, proceeding to build yet another incremental addition to the already sprawling structure. In 1951 Dr. Robert Gibson left his office in the Community Building and constructed a clinic two blocks north at the corner of Third and Chestnut. This may have signaled a trend that was about to get underway in the postwar years, but at the time it appears not to have set off any alarms or launch an exodus and Gibson did remain in the general downtown area. And other construction took place too. In 1951 it was a major event when Andy Andersen built and opened a new shoe store, notable for its Art Moderne design, a block north of Grand on Second. During the twenties the building of a two story structure hardly caused the batting of an eye; now business in the next block held a major celebration to mark the occasion. Given the constraints of the previous two decades, this pattern of construction was a significant increase; given the boom construction of the 1920s, it was pale by comparison. After the Andersen Building, the only other major new construction project downtown was five years later, for the Ponca City Savings and Loan Association; again, this was a new, overtly and self-consciously modern building. And, also again, this was on one of the avenues parallel to Grand. It is important to note that the new construction, however robust or timid, had the virtue of leaving the older buildings very much intact with alterations mainly to the interior and to the rear of the stores.

And business was good in the nation and in Downtown Ponca City in the years after the war. This was the other side of the return of prosperity, for people were no longer just walking around downtown. They were also driving there. In 1948 traffic lights were installed on Grand Avenue for the first time to help control the traffic. Parking was a problem too. The success of downtown sometimes proved to be too much of a good thing and traffic congestion became a regular part. Moreover, with the new mobility of Ponca City’s citizens, more than ever before, they had the option to drive to someplace less crowded than Downtown sometimes was. And the construction that was taking place in Ponca City increasingly gave them the option, or required them, to drive to places other than Downtown. Miller Market opened its new grocery store at Tenth and Highland in 1953, extending the role of the supermarkets that Piggly Wiggly, Kroger, and Monsours had once initiated, pulling customers away from the small neighborhood or downtown grocery. The next year the Hartford Shopping Center opened, providing exactly the kind of one-stop shopping that Downtown had once provided. The Presbyterian Church left its grand edifice on Cleveland adjacent to the Christian Church and in 1954 moved to a new building at the end of Grand on Fourteenth. And the shift of gravity was palpable as Fourteenth increasingly provided services once only available downtown. The Pioneer Shopping Center symbolized this, but there was much more than that. The march of the motels in particular took place on Fourteenth and the many hotels downtown could not compete with the new breed of auto-friendly lodging that offered conveniences not possible in the older hotels, including not just parking, but also, in a number of cases, individual bathrooms. By the middle of the 1950s the automobile revolution was bearing down on the business district hard and the car dealers, like Pat Murphy Buick and Holbert Oldsmobile, were leaving the downtown for more spacious locations or selling their operations to others. Fourteenth Street was the new avenue of commerce, almost even a strip mall.

The departure of the automobile agencies probably did not much impact the rest of the downtown business and social life, for an automobile purchase generally involves a special trip and narrow focus, unlike purchasing groceries or clothes or getting shoes or a watch repaired. And the department stores, like Penney’s and Anthony’s and Montgomery Ward, continued to flourish and so did a variety of other small businesses well into the 1960s and even beyond. The theaters remained packed, the jewelry stores managed quite nicely, and the variety and selection offered by a full retinue of men’s and women’s clothing stores seems remarkable in light of the changes in the nation’s economy since then. And anyone who ventured downtown at the holidays for shopping, and sooner or later everyone in town did, found the streets jammed with cars and the sidewalks as crowded as a busy Manhattan thoroughfare, just on a smaller scale.

In response to the changes underway in society and in the economy, some merchants changed the appearances of their buildings. The clerestories that had once provided illumination for deep store interiors now conflicted with the air conditioning systems and electric lighting, so they were often covered and sometimes removed. The carefully crafted brick façades that once signaled a respectable and prosperous establishment now were taken by some to mean old fashioned, or at least not up-to-date, and they were often covered with shiny materials—or worse. Yet many of the changes were cosmetic, applied to the exterior and applied in ways that were reversible, albeit with some major reversing necessary.

The years since the 1970s have not always been kind to Downtown Ponca City. The centralized, modernized, economically and socially fragmented world that engulfed E. W. Marland’s operations and aspirations has generally engulfed much of traditional society. As a result, social dynamics have changed dramatically in the last several decades so that the daily interaction of neighbors and merchants and colleagues that once characterized Downtown life seem either archaic or quaint in retrospect, but they also provide a baseline by which some people judge the changes that have transpired. Moreover, it is important to note that even though some of the businesses have moved on, the buildings remain downtown Ponca City. When many people looked upon these same buildings in generations past, they saw the future; now, when we study the same buildings, we can see the past, a complex past where probably no one, not even the princelings, achieved all that they sought, but where many people constructed lives with meaning and purpose that deserves to be understood and acknowledged.

The History of Ponca City,” a series of articles published in the Ponca City News every Sunday from September 17, 2006 to June 24, 2007.
These articles published on a weekly basis, present a year-by-year chronicle of the community’s development. Collectively they represent probably the single most useful source for an individual studying the events that shaped Ponca City. With information culled from the pages of the local newspaper, the articles provide selective coverage of the town, but along the way provide an important timeline for the community.

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