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UER Forum > Archived US: South > Bigheart, Oklahoma (Viewed 462 times)

Location: Unassigned Lands, Oklahoma
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Bigheart, Oklahoma
< on 6/8/2011 4:18 AM >
Posted on Forum: UER Forum
Bigheart, Oklahoma, now known as Barnsdall, is a small town in Osage county with a lot of unique history. Not a ghost town in the traditional sense, but has fallen far from its glory days. Many of the buildings in the commercial district are unused and in poor repair.

Once a thriving oil boom town, it now sits quietly on the prairie. The town was originally named Bigheart after a famous Osage Indian chief of the time. Bigheart began as a 160-acre townsite along the Midland Valley Railway in March 1905 with a post office established in January 1906. City lots were auctioned in May 1906 and businesses and residences were constructed along the railroad and on a hill west. The Bigheart Star, the first of several community newspapers, started publication the same year

As the oil discoveries in the surrounding fields increased the Southwestern Refining Company built a plant at Bigheart in 1910. This facility was later acquired by the Barnsdall Refining Company and in 1940 became the Bareco Refinery. Bareco stopped refining in 1946 and began manufacturing microcrystalline waxes. Bareco was redesignated the Bareco Wax Company in 1952 and was subsequently purchased by the Petrolite Corporation. The plant became the world's largest manufacturer of microcrystalline waxes. Now Baker Petrolite, the plant still exists.

Bigheart experienced more than its fair share of disasters. In 1911, tornadoes swept through 14 towns in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma and killed at least 25 people, destroying all but six of the buildings in Bigheart.

A newspaper clip from the time.

PAWHUSKA, April 13. – Details of the disaster have been difficult to obtain. All telegraph and telephone communications were severed and communication with the stricken town was almost impossible. The valuable oil field surrounding the town of Big Heart is a complete ruin, every derrick and rig having been leveled to the ground. The property loss in the town of Big Heart is place at ½ million dollars and the loss in the oil field is almost equally as great.

J. H. Harris, superintendent of the Midland Valley Railroad, was near Big Heart when the storm struck. He was riding in his private motor track car. He made a record run to Pawhuska, where he gave the alarm and took back to Big Heart all the doctors he could find. He then went to Avant, Ok., and got a work train which he sent to Big Heart to be used in transporting the dead and injured to the hospitals at Tulsa. A train of box cars was also taken to Big Heart to be used by the homeless ones.

The train carrying the injured reached Tulsa at 1:30 o’clock this morning. Hundreds of men were working in the oil field at the time. It has been impossible to learn how many were killed and injured there because the rescuing parties have spent the night searching the wreckage about the townsite of the town proper. It hardly seems plausible, though, that all should have escaped with their lives.

This was the beginning of a string of incidents that spanned a 14 year period. In addition to the tornado in April 1911, Bigheart survived a fire in March 1913, and a flood in September 1915, a nitro explosion in January 1919, and an explosion at the refinery in 1925. Throw in the dust bowl and Great Depression, and it's amazing the town survived.

Nitroglycerin was commonly used the the oil fields as a means of restoring production to a failing well and even as a means of putting out oil well fires. The nitro would be placed in a device called a torpedo, which is what it looked like, and then lowered into the well and detonated. Sludge and debris would begin blocking a wells feed and this method proved very successful in removing the blockage. However, nitroglycerin is extremely unstable, and the men who transported it were very well paid. The road of the era were poor, especially in the oil fields, so the nitro would be specially wrapped in a cushioned container. Delivery to the oil fields was usually on a horse drawn wagon. In 1919, just such a wagon was passing through Barnsdall when it exploded. In 1904 a Nitroglycerin plant containing 800 quarts exploded outside of Tulsa. The explosion was so great that it was felt in towns almost a 100 miles away. The blast created a huge crater, which filled with water and was used for years as a popular recreational spot.
A newspaper clip of the nitro explosion in Barnsdall.

Big Heart, Oklahoma Explosion
January 25, 1919

BIG HEART, Okla.-Eight people were killed and more than a score severely injured when a wagon carrying nitroglycerine belonging to the Eastern Torpedo Company exploded in the heart of the residence district here today.

WALTER ENGLISH, of Tulsa, 44, driver and BOB KINDA, also on the wagon, were blown to atoms. The residence of LATH HARRIS, in front of which the explosion occurred, was levelled to the ground. HARRIS and his wife were perhaps fatally wounded and their three-year-old baby boy was killed. Seven other houses in the vicinity were wrecked.

The explosion broke every window in the town and shook the ground for hundreds of yards around. All telegraph and telephone communication was destroyed. Big Heart has only one doctor. He had a corps of workers attending to the dead and wounded. Pawhuska, Okla, sent physicians and rescue workers in motor cars to the scene. Not all the bodies of the dead and wounded were recovered from the ruins of the houses and casualties may exceed first figures. Only two quarts of nitroglycerin were in the wagon. The cause of the explosion is unknown.

Oil was the main economic engine for the town. The Barnsdall Oil Company discovered the nearby Bigheart Oil Field in 1916 and purchased the local Producing and Refining Company in 1921. The nearby Burbank field also ensured steady work at the refinery. On January 1, 1922, the community was officially renamed Barnsdall in honor of Theodore N. Barnsdall and his Barnsdall Oil Company.

The main street oil well, drilled in 1914.

Part of the business district with a bank on the corner.

There seems to be some confusion (mine) on the banks. The Bank of Bigheart is supposed to be the oldest surviving building in Barnsdall. From the documentation I've found, the Bank of Bigheart was built in 1911 (I have some suspicions it predates that) and when the town changed it's name in 1921 (1922 officially) it changed to a national charter and became the Barnsdall National Bank. This building is listed on the NRHP.

However, I've found that some people call the above the Bank of Bigheart and this the Barnsdall National Bank.

The placard on this building shows it was built in 1911. The old bank records show two banks in Big Heart, the Bank of Bigheart which obtained a national charter in 1921 and with the towns name change became the Barnsdall National bank. The other bank was the Barnsdall Bank of Commerce, which failed in 1925. The Bank of Bigheart aka Barnsdall National Bank closed in the 1930s. I suspect the brick bank was the Bank of Commerce.

This is the old Runyan (Airdome) theater, later called the Roxy theater.

In the early 1900's, the Runyon family moved from Chanute, Kansas to Oklahoma ending up in Bigheart. The elder Runyon was an oilfield engineer but he had dreams of building a movie theater. In his spare time he would visit schools in the Osage hills pulling his gas operated movie projector by horse and cart. He presented silent films on a sheet he hung from a wall in school auditoriums for students until the time the generator he had caught fire and burned the projector beyond use. He once tried to present movies in a tent in Bigheart but when the tornado ripped through the town, his gear was destroyed. After six attempts at gaining the funds for a movie house, his seventh attempt was successful, and the Airdome Theatre was erected.

The name was later changed to the Runyon Theatre. originally showing silent films, sound effects where generated from the orchestra pit using the snare drum and such things as rattling a large piece of tin to mimic thunder.

The theater originally closed in the 1950s, but reopened briefly in the 1990's. In it's hey-day the theatre had the largest screen in Oklahoma. Supposedly the original screen still exists. The projectors were the original rod burning reflective mirror type, 35mm.

The Bank of Bigheart was built with the bank on the lower level with office space above and mercantile beside it.

I love the old Poll Parrot shoe sign.

The Parrot Shoe Company, which began selling Poll-Parrot Shoes in 1925, had stiff competition from another kiddie clothier with Buster Brown. The big three kids shoes of the era were Buster Brown, Poll Parrot, and Red Goose. During this time, style and comfort in kids' shoes were at best an afterthought. What these shoes offered was sheer durability. In those days, their mission was to turn the thickest, stiffest leather imaginable into a shoe that could last a fourth grader an entire school year.

Buster Brown, Red Goose, and Poll Parrot battled for the hearts and minds of American children using giveaway trinkets, comic books, radio shows, and television sponsorships on such TV shows as Howdy Doody, Captain Video, and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.
Poll Parrot and Red Goose where bought by International Shoe in the 1950s, though the brands continued until the 60's.

The Barnsdall Oil company operated primarily in Oklahoma and California, though they had some presence in other southern states. Barndsall Oil was later incorporated into Sun, Sun-Ray, and DX. In 1949 the Barnsdall Oil Company of Tulsa, Oklahoma, designed and built the first modern open-water mobile drilling barge. It is considered to be one of the top five most influential oil companies of all time.

There are few surviving Barnsdall gas stations. The best known example is in California near Santa Barbara. Build in 1929, it still exist today.

I've gotten conflicting stories on this building. About equal on whether it was originally a Barnsdall station or not. Regardless, I like the building.

This building probably has an interesting history, as it was built after the oil bust and at the height of the depression. As yet, I haven't found out anything about it. It's last use was as a motel and laundry.

An entire block of vanished buildings.

The Knights of Pythias, on the many fraternal organizations that was prominent in the first half of the last century. A benevolent fraternal order founded in 1864, it was the first fraternal organization to receive a charter under an act of the United States Congress. The organization is still active today, though obviously not in Barnsdall.

I received various information on this building as well. It was either a hardware store or a furniture store, or perhaps both at different times. Someone has kept the building in decent shape, though it is unused. The building was build in 1920 with the initials EBS. These initials are also in the concrete sidewalk.

This old Ford dealership was supposedly opened in the late teens. I can neither confirm nor deny, but the building definitely dates from the period. I was told the dealership closed in the 1980s, though the building continued in use as a garage for some time after.

Some of the other old buildings in Barnsdall.

I liked this old building, but couldn't get any information on what it was. At first I thought an old hotel, but not enough windows. Maybe on my return trip I can find out some more information. Possibly this was the haberdashery where Clark Gable worked. (Keep reading).

A few more tidbits.

Clark Gable worked the oil fields here from 1920 to 1922. Clark followed his father down to Bigheart and worked there sharpening bits on their oil drill, then as a mechanic, a sales assistant, a book-keeper for Curtis and Brown haberdashery, and then cleaning stills in the oil refinery. Local legend has it that he was also part of a singing quartet that would perform in town. His father never liked his performing ambitions, he thought it made him a sissy.

I've yet to figure out which of the buildings was the Curtis and Brown haberdashery, or if it even still stands.

Barnsdall was also the birth place of Anita Bryant in 1940. She was a singer, former beauty queen and gay rights opponent. She scored four Top 40 hits in the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including "Paper Roses", which reached #5. Those of old enough also remember her hawking Florida orange juice with some cartoon orange that looked like a bird, if you squinted.

All of this from the little town with the Big Heart.

Ruins, the fate of all cities.

Location: Austin, TX
Gender: Female

I make pretty things out of dead stuff.

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Re: Bigheart, Oklahoma
<Reply # 1 on 6/8/2011 4:38 AM >
Posted on Forum: UER Forum
That was an impressive amount of research! I had no idea that the impeccable Clark Gable came from such humble beginnings. I love it that he worked as a haberdasher, though. That seems appropriate.

There's so many gorgeous buildings there, and the stonework makes me wistful for something I can't even define. Reminds me a bit of Alpine, TX. Great find!


Location: Oklahoma
Gender: Male

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Re: Bigheart, Oklahoma
<Reply # 2 on 6/8/2011 4:38 AM >
Posted on Forum: UER Forum
Wow that town went through a lot.

I don't always respond to all your threads, but I read them all. I really enjoy the history, and I wish more people did too.

Good job!

UER Forum > Archived US: South > Bigheart, Oklahoma (Viewed 462 times)

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