Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Oklahoma Roadtrip Essentials: Driving, Eating, Researching

This post is meant to be a summary of the Oklahoma trip until this point. I think I may have listed inccorect towns in the most recent post, so here's the communities we'll have gone to/researched by the end of the trip (tomorrow night we'll be back in Jackson): Ardmore, Ada, Seminole/Shawnee, McAlester/Hartshorne/Wilburton. So far we've done all but Hartshorne and Wilburton.

Essentially, our days are split into three things: 1) Driving, 2) Eating, 3) Researching. The researching part is actually my favorite--I haven't taken any class so far at Princeton that's really taught me how to do research in the way that I've learned to do it even in the past three days. Say, for example, you come across a tiny town in the middle of a state without a lot of Jews. Oklahoma, for example. How do you tell if there were ever Jews there? Well, you scroll through microfilms of old newspapers from the dates surrounding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and see if there were any store closings "in observance of the Jewish Holiday"--or if there are any stores with Jewish-sounding names. Or you check out a city directory and look through the stores looking for Jewish names--then you look up those names and see where else they pop up. It's really very cool!. 

One of my half-joke conclusions since starting this research is that there were ever about 12 Jewish families at the most, and they all just married each other. This, of course, is not true--some of these communities had more than 12 families themselves. But it really does feel like they're all related to each other by marriage or through business--everyone we've spoken with has known of everyone we've mentioned (and half the time they're related). And we've gotten to speak with a couple different people--at least one community member in each town we've visited, which has been a really great way to get a feel for what the Jewish community was like but also just to gain some perspective on living in Oklahoma. Everyone has been so friendly, and each has treated us to a meal at a delicious restaurant.

The speed limit in Texas. This is not a joke.

The temple in Ardmore, OK. It hasn't been used in more than a decade, but the building is still sitting there because it's full of asbestos and therefore too expensive to tear down. There are still choir/High Holiday gowns hanging in the closet (the building was locked, but we could see through the windows). 

http://wowchurch.org in Ardmore, OK 
Mount Zion Cemetery, the Jewish Cemetery in Ardmore, OK is still very well maintained, despite the folding of the synagogue more than a decade ago (see picture above). In fact, when we were there, the lawn maintenance crew was as well, and the grass looked beautiful and the gravestones very well kept. We went to the cemetery after we'd done a lot of research in the newspapers and city directories, so we knew stories about lots of the people we saw in the cemetery.

The library in Ardmore, OK was really helpful. They had lots of books on local history, and lots of old papers on microfilm. They also had hundreds of newspaper clippings shoved into vertical files, which were incredibly tedious to weed through, but incredibly worthwhile because a lot of our new information came from those articles.

Ice cream at Braum's, a state-wide chain of extra-cheap, extra-delicious ice cream (they only have stores within a 300-mile radius of the home farm, so that the ice cream is extra-fresh). Uniquely, the ice cream (and also hamburger?) chain has a Fresh Market attached to it, which is exactly what it sounds like. 

Over the course of this week I've gotten to see a lot of Main Street America.  A highlight from one of the tens of pawnshops we've seen (these towns seem to be mainly comprised of pawnshops, thrift stores, gas stations, and bad diners). Don't get me wrong, I find them completely charming. 
At the Ada library, I was mostly looking through old newspapers (hard copies, not microfilms!) which was really fascinating. The advertisements in those old papers are top-notch.

This is Oklahoma. It's great. The winds really do blow through (last night I was sure there was going to be a tornado. Our hotel in Shawnee even had What-to-do-in-case-of-a-tornado info sheets pasted to the desk)

This is Hamburger King in Shawnee, where you place your order from a telephone at your booth. They were out of tuna, so I had an American Cheese grilled cheese sandwich, which was greasy and on white bread. The fries, however, were perfect. 

We haven't been doing much walking--mostly, as I listed above, driving, eating, and researching. So after dinner we made Stuart go for a walk to see what Shawnee has to offer. Lots of antique stores, some churches, a few thrift stores, lots of fantastic peeling paint and rust, and tens of murals.

Gordon Cooper, one of the seven astronauts on the US's first manned space exploration, is from Shawnee, OK, and this mural is a tribute to him.

A mural of old-time Shawnee
This is the synagogue in Seminole, OK. Although it's pretty much closed now, except for services on the High Holidays, we got to go inside and look around. Technically a Reform temple, they've always been on the more Conservative side of Reform, and the prayer books they have lying around are Conservative ones. The Hebrew Center served Jews in Seminole and many of the surrounding towns.
The Jasmine Moran Children's Museum is the brain child of Melvin Moran, of the Moran Oil Enterprises. It's in the five largest children's museums in the world, and it's incredible. It gets more than 60,000 visitors a year, which, for Seminole, OK is not bad. We got a chance to walk through the museum on a tour with Melvin Moran himself, and the number of different exhibits is really fantastic. I jokingly expressed my desire to quit my internship and switch to working at the museum! Among the highlights: climbing in the cockpit of a warplane and inside an ambulance, riding a train on a half-mile circuit through Safety Town....more pictures below.

The museum has gotten a number of large donations from local (and not local) organizations, hospitals, foundations, etc. Among them was an enormous donation to put together a comprehensive science/health/body exhibit. Everything in the museum is hands-on, so in one part of the exhibit, you could stick your hand into a rubber-glove that was attached to a plastic case enclosing a plastic body and feel the different organs. 

Another highlight was the Infinite Mirrors room.

This is Melvin Moran, of Moran Oil Enterprises, playing in the Infinite Mirrors room. He's also the founder of the Children's Museum (it's named for his wife, who was an actress in the original London production of South Pacific before he swept her off to Oklahoma). He's also Jewish, and has been very involved in the Jewish community in Seminole and surrounding areas--and has also been very involved in philanthropic endeavors in Seminole and Oklahoma. It's because of him that we were able to get into the synagogue. He drives a 1990 station wagon, wood-panels and all. He's one of the most charming gentlemen I've ever met--and held open the car door for me each time we got in. He took us to his Rotary Club for lunch, which was an entirely new experience as well. It was kind of like eating in a dining hall...
At Seminole and Shawnee, I was on the microfilms machine, which I really liked. It's so interesting to look through the old papers, and especially exciting when you find something relevant! 

Welcome to McAlester, Oklahoma, in Pittsburg (yes, without the "h") County!
The air conditioning was out at the McAlester library today, which means that it was sweltering. We took a walk around town to get some fresh air, which gave us a chance to take photographs of some of the buildings that use to house Jewish merchants' stores. We even found cornerstones in a couple buildings with Jewish store-owners' names engraved!

McAlester was a cute town--definitely the biggest, most well-kept and built-up of all the towns we've been too. Unlike many of the other towns, the "boom" that brought all the Jewish merchants was a coal boom, not an oil boom. I actually really liked McAlester a lot. A lot of the old buildings are still standing, and they seem to have a decent industry (not too many thrift stores). Next to the library was the largest Masonic Temple I've ever seen. I'm still very much confused (and intrigued) by the Masons, but have been learning a lot about them since starting this research. 

1 comment:

  1. I really love that picture of the Temple Emeth and was wondering if I could use it for a couple things. I blog about being Torah observant in the midwest ( okiehebrew.blogspot.com )and that is just fantastic! Thanks. - Ken