The Square - Alva Oklahoma
(During the Forties)
by Bill Barker -- This memoir was triggered by a
chance remark of a high school classmate. She said, "I am saddened
when I return to Alva because there is no activity on the Square as I remembered
it. This struck a responsive chord with me because I have the identical
feeling when I toured the Square on a return visit. I always ask myself
the question, "Where did it all go? What happened to it?"
First off I guess we should identify what the Square is. It is that two-block
area in the center of Alva set aside for governmental buildings. The Woods
County Court House, The U.S. Post Office, Chamber of Commerce, City Hall,
and Fire Station are located here. There is also enough green space to provide
a park-like setting to the area. The Square is surrounded with various businesses
and they are the subjects of this memoir.
During the early and late forties (I like a true Okie made a pilgrimage
to California during the middle forties, WWII time) I had a job that gave
me an opportunity to observe activity on the Square up close and personal.
I was a paperboy for the Alva Review Courier and had that plum job of the
paperboys' known as the Square Route. It was considered a plum job because
you had little trouble collecting for your papers, most of the customers
were local businesses, it was a short route, and you had an opportunity
to sell papers in the local Cigar Stores. In the late forties I was also
a soda jerk at Beegle's Drug Store, which gave me an additional opportunity
to observe Square activity.
What I plan to do here is take a walk around the Square just as I would
on my paper route and describe what businesses were there and some of the
things I observed while playing the role of "fly on the wall".
Alva Review Courier... The Courier in those days was located on the
north side of Flynn St. About one half block west of the Square. The Central
National Bank expanded to take over the Courier Space. Upstairs over the
Courier was the Elks Lodge. I have a picture of myself attending a Sadie
Hawkins Day dance there dressed up like a serious hillbilly.
The paperboys would gather every afternoon in the alley in back to wait
for the papers to come off the press. We were a rowdy bunch and not above
playing practical jokes on each other, tying a buddy's paper bag in hard
knots. Running a belt line using the paper bags as flogs to initiate a new
paperboy to the group. We also discovered that fruit was stored in the cooling
room of the freezer locker across the alley. The bushels of fruit sometimes
left a little lighter than when they came in. We would get our papers and
the prized extras (which could be sold for ready cash, a whole nickel) and
Oklahoma Cigar Store... This establishment was truly a home away
from home was located next door to the Courier. The proprietor was Joe Scribner.
He was a good friend of my father and kept a weather-eye on me when I was
there to see that I didn't get myself into something I couldn't get out
of. It dealt in tobacco in all it's many forms, a bar dispensing the only
drink allowed 3.2 beer in pilsner glasses, a lunch counter ably staffed
by Mrs. Ruby Cole offering heavenly hamburgers with beef stew or chili,
domino tables, pool and snooker tables.
The store was always packed with folks. The local economy being based on
the agricultural pursuits of wheat and cattle left a lot of time to be killed
before the advent of television. My Daddy E. M. Barker spent a lot of time
at the domino tables gathering information for his Sports Spasms column
that he wrote each day for the Courier.
The big attraction for me was two-fold, an opportunity to sell my extras
(if I looked especially pitiful I sometimes got to, "keep the change")
and observe the activities of the characters who operated there. I say operated
because at times substantial sums were wagered on the outcome of a domino,
pool, or snooker game.
The chief character for me was China "Chink" Campbell. Chink
was an imposing fellow (nearly seven feet tall) who was a former star for
the Rangers (The college basketball team) and had toured the country with
a team called Olsen's Terrible Swedes. He returned to Alva to star
for many years as a painter and serious gambler.
Chink always seemed to do things just a little different from the ordinary
folks, for example he always opened his pack of cigarettes (Camels what
else?) from the bottom, but his most spectacular feat was the ability to
tip his head back, unhinge his throat and pour an entire pilsner glass of
beer down it without swallowing. He was a master of the dry witty comment
and it was a real treat to see him play a game of snooker with Verle Bixler.
Jackie Gleason and Paul Newman couldn't hold them a candle to walk by.
The town also had its share of bootleggers. These were the folks who provided
the hard stuff and they had their share of characters. I remember one incident
that took place in front of the Cigar Store. A local bootlegger was pulled
over and had his car searched for illegal liquor. The police found no liquor
and left, after they had gone the bootlegger reached up under the front
fender of his car and pulled out a fifth of Old Crow that had been secured
by a clip. He brandished the bottle to the crowd and announced, "anybody
want a drink?". He also had a unique place to stash his wares at his
house. He kept it under the hinged seat of a two-hole outhouse.
The West Side... After leaving the Oklahoma Cigar Store we would
amble across Flynn St. to visit the West Side of the Square, which fronted
on College St. We would pass Alva State Bank on our way to Schumacher's
Drug Store, then go by Warricks, the fancy clothing store. Next was the
Pix Theater we spent many an afternoon there being thrilled by our favorite
cowboys. Pangburns café was next. This was where the Kiwanis Club
met. I will always be grateful to that organization. They had a junior organization
called the Key Club - I was a member. Between my junior and senior years
in Alva High School they sponsored a group of us to attend the National
Convention in Washington D. C. Quite an adventure for boys from a small
town on the prairie.
The next location was the piece-de-resistance of the Westside, Monfort's
Drug Store. It would take another book to describe everything that went
on in there. Suffice to say this is where all the pretty girls were and
flirting was the order of the day.
Brand's... After leaving Monfort's we would skip across Barnes St.
to Brand's, which was located about one-half block west from the Square
on the south side of Barnes St. I probably learned more about the nuts and
bolts of math playing dominos in Brand's than I did in school. Several college
professors played there and it was a treat to decipher their strategies.
The main game for me though was snooker. This is a game played with smaller
balls and a larger table than pool, thus it requires more skill and is not
subject to the blind luck that pool is.
There was a mild form of gambling that went on there. If you were the winner
of a snooker game you received a token that was good for five cents in trade.
The trick was to win enough games so you could play for free using the tokens
for the occasional time that you lost. I'd like to say I mastered this,
but I didn't and occasionally dropped a fair amount of cash in Brand's.
The proprietor was Bill Brand who could be a father confessor on occasion
and always offered good sound advice.
The Southside... Just past Brands on Barnes St. going east on Barnes
St. was Reneau's Jewelry Store. Bob Reneau is one of the most solid citizens
Alva has and has always boosted the town and the people at every opportunity.
This was where you went to get your class rings. Continuing down Barnes
you came to the Ritz Theater. The biggest event that took place there
was the first showing of Gone With the Wind. It was the first time
there was an intermission in a movie because of its length and the first
time we heard a cuss-word spoken on the screen. Schaefer's Music Store
was next. You could always count on hearing the latest tunes there and admire
the shiny instruments. J. C. Penny's was just down the block. This was where
we got our school clothes. There was also a shoe store in there somewhere.
Robert Wadlow the world's tallest man made an appearance there for Buster
Brown shoes. I remember being amazed seeing him seated in the back seat
of an automobile and seeing his legs draped over the front seat with his
feet planted under the front dash, wow!
Next was the Bell Hotel our link with the outside world. We usually stopped
in the Sweet Shoppe (they were class with their spelling too.) to see if
any pretty girls had drifted down there from Monfort's. We also kept a look
out for any strangers especially well dressed ones who would respond to
our muttered, "Need a paper mister?". They didn't tip as well
at the Hotel as they did at the Cigar Stores. I suspect the 3.2 beers had
something to do with loosening the pocketbooks.
The Eastside... The main place we went on the Eastside was the Runnymede
Hotel, which fronted on Fourth St. We had several good customers there who
were permanent residents. Occasionally we would sell an extra there. We
were always impressed by the décor and quiet there. In the middle
of the block was the American Legion Hall. They sponsored many dances by
well-known entertainers. Bob Wills, Jack Teagarden and many others played
there. The high school proms were held there also. Across the street on
the north side was the Alva Fire Dept. It was always a fearsome sight to
see them roar out or hear the tornado siren go off.
The Northside... This was the side where all the action took place.
There was a Cigar Store on the corner of Fourth and Flynn but I've forgotten
the name. Next was a barbershop run by a political activist. He always had
hand-lettered signs in his window espousing the latest cause he was supporting.
The Ranger Theater was next, another good place for cowboy movies. There
were apartments over the Theater several good customers lived there. The
Golden Krust Bakery was next. Homemade pastries were the order of the day
Joe Denner the owner was a long-time Alva Booster and father of one of
my closest classmates Lee. He chaperoned us on the Washington D.C. trip
and went out of his way to make it extra special for us.
Next was Snyder's Cigar Store, in cigar store rankings it was number two
to the Oklahoma Cigar Store. The very serious domino players held forth
there because it was quieter and you could concentrate on your game. The
lunch counter featured cornbread and buttermilk - a tasty filler when funds
were low. Just up the block was the palace of the County, the Rialto Theater.
Homer Jones who also owned the Ritz and Ranger owned it. This was where
the first run movies were played. They also featured a bingo-like game called
Wahoo. When you completed your card you screamed Wahoo! (sure to be considered
politically incorrect today).
The Piggly Wiggly Grocery store was next. A good businessman, but a poor
gambler operated this store. He was reputed to have lost the Double O-Grocery
located up near the Courier in a game of chance. The most enterprising thing
that I know he did was to kill and butcher a pet buffalo he had on his farm
and sell the meat. Meat was rationed during WWII, but there were no rationing
regulations for buffalo. The town ate well for a short time. I visited the
store several times during the sale just to get a good look at what buffalo
meat looked like. He beat Ted Turner to the punch by many years.
Beegles's was just up the street. I opened the soda fountain in the morning
before I went to school. It was great fun concocting all the soda fountain
delights sodas, sundaes, floats, phosphates, and a mean banana split.
The most disagreeable part of the job was accompanying little folks to
the alley in the rear of the store after they had been dosed with ipecac
by the druggist so they could upchuck what they shouldn't have swallowed.
Harrover and Treece Hardware Store were next door. They had a full stock
of supplies and sporting goods. A dairy store was around there for a while
in the early forties. I mention it because for quite awhile their door buster
was all the buttermilk you could drink for a nickel. I left there sloshing
a few times.
Kent Fash's abstract office was on the north corner of Flynn and College.
I had left Alva for many years before I knew just what an abstract was.
Across College St. about one-half block down the street was Wright's Café
run by two delightful people who were the parents of a classmate of mine
Anna Jean Wright a delightful soul who has now left us.
Woods County Courthouse... I would be remiss if I didn't mention
this building. It was an impressive structure dating to the Victorian era
now replaced, but very handsome when it was there. My interest in the building
was the basement. Two things were there that interested me. First was the
jail I was terrified of it, but would sneak by it hoping for a glimpse of
the desperados incarcerated therein. I only remember one encounter. The
fellow looked me in the eye and I asked him what he was in there for? He
replied, "I pushed an old lady's ducks in the pond".
The next thing was the large well-maintained restroom. On the walls of
the stalls was a world-class collection of graffiti. I don't know if the
janitor was a devotee of that sort of material, but to my knowledge it was
never erased or painted over. Some of it was quite intellectual, I guess
that derived from the fact that after all we are a college town. The way
some familiar poems were twisted around I guess that was where I got my
first inkling of the joys of creative writing.
Summary... Well that's my tour of the Square when it was in its
hey-day during the forties. I think you can see from what I've said a good
season on the Square Route was better than a college education. The one
thing I seriously miss when I revisit the Square is The Cigar Stores and
full service soda fountains. Perhaps they could be resurrected at the Cherokee
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