THE BRITISH AIRMEN OF MIAMI

Frantie Mae ‘Frances’ Hill tending to the graves of her boys, marked then by white wooden crosses.

In Miami, Oklahoma, there is a stop of which many Route 66 travellers are unaware, even the British tourist to whom it would be of most significance. On the side of Route 66 to the north side of town is the Grand Army of the Republic cemetery, which dates back to 1899. Among the thousands of graves spread over 18 acres are 15 sombre headstones in a row, each one signifying the resting place of a young British airman.

One of only six training schools in the USA at the time, the No 3 Spartan School of Aeronautics opened in Miami on 31st July 1941 to train air crew. Great Britain’s Royal Air Force decided that, America having not entered the Second World War at that point and being thousands of miles from the theatres of war, it would be an ideal place to train its airmen. Over the next four years, some 2124 RAF cadets would train in Oklahoma (some under the initial impression that they were actually heading for Florida). Peter McCallum was one of the first cadets and wrote home, ‘You could just imagine what a wonderful place [this] is… All the food is fancy. We fly from 7am till 12.’ Sadly, McCallum was one of the first Miami cadets to be killed when his plane crashed; he is among the British flyers buried in the GAR cemetery.

The Union Jack flying above the RAF airmen’s graves.

Many of the young British cadets were just teenagers, many homesick, and Miami residents took these boys to its heart, but none more so than Frantie Mae ‘Frances’ Hill. She was old enough to be the mother of many of the boys – ten of those fifteen airmen who lie in the GAR Cemetery were 21 or younger – and one of the many Miami folk who welcomed them to the town. Her daughter Rosie, said that her parents’ friendship with the cadets began in the early 1940s when a Miami country club hosted a dance for the young trainee pilots and Frances and her husband, Claude, particularly hit it off with one Jack Taylor. Jack did not survive the war, and when Frances noticed that two of the graves in the GAR cemetery were looking shabby (one of which belonged to Peter McCallum), she decided she had to ‘do something for Jack’s countrymen’.

For the next forty years she regularly walked three miles from her home to tend the graves and plant them with roses and irises. Every holiday she decorated the graves and their simple wooden crosses (these were replaced with stone markers in 2014). She did this without show, but simply because she regarded them as ‘her boys’. She also kept in touch with many of the families, sending them photographs of the decorated graves.

The King’s Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom; Mrs Hill’s medal was one of 2539 awarded.

In June 1947, George VI presented Frances with the King’s Medal of Service in the Cause of Freedom, but most people in Miami had no idea she had been accorded this honour until after her death. In 1989, the Number 3 British Flying Training School Association erected a monument in her honor with the following tribute: “Mrs. F.M. Hill of Miami, buried alongside, voluntarily tended these fifteen British airman’s graves and helped their loved ones from 1941-1982. These selfless human actions were unknown to most. She was awarded ‘The King’s Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom’ by King George VI. Thanks to Mrs. Hill from the graduates of Number 3 British Flying Training School Association.”

The marker erected to the memory of Frances Hill from the training school graduates.

She tended the graves without fanfare because she was determined that someone would always care about these young airmen. Until she was too frail, shortly before her death in 1982 at the age of 84 (she had been a widow for over twenty years by then), she made sure the boys always looked smart. Her wish was to be buried alongside the fifteen airmen and that is where she rests.

 

 

The British Commonwealth headstones of the British air cadets.

THE FINEST DRUG STORE IN CREEK COUNTY

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For years, the Coppedge Drug Store has been just a roofless shell. Just behind, on the left, can be seen Dr Coppedge’s house.

Depew in Creek County, Oklahoma, is a small town with one main claim to fame. It was, by all accounts, the first town on Route 66 to be bypassed by a later alignment. In fact, Route 66 ran through the main street of Depew for just two years; by 1928, a realignment meant that traffic now flowed three blocks north of the town’s main thoroughfare. The town’s population began to decline shortly afterwards and now stands at little more than 400 people.

The town was established in the first decade of the 20th century and almost died completely in May 1909 when a tornado wiped it off the map. However, two years later, Depew boomed after an oil field in nearby Salpulpa saw the Salpulpa & Oil Fields Railroad construct a line from Depew to Shamrock in Texas. Within ten years, Depew had three grocery stores, two barbers, three service stations, four hotels, two theatres, a Ford dealership, a funeral home, three lumberyards and as many churches. It also had the Coppedge Drug Store, one of the best drug stores in the area (and certainly in Creek County), thanks to Dr Oscar Sterling Coppedge.

In the 1920s, the large plate glass windows must have been an impressive sight on Main Street.

Dr Coppedge had moved to the area from St Louis, Missouri, as a young man; his father Benjamin Thomas Coppedge was a dentist who had opened a drug store in neighbouring Bristow in 1903. But Oscar Coppedge had bigger plans. In 1920 he started construction of a modern brick building on Main Street, Depew, to house his drug store. In May of that year, the local newspaper, the Depew Independent, proclaimed; ‘The walls are about completed on the Coppedge building. This is a dandy brick and when the Doctor gets his new $4,000 soda fountain and other new fixtures installed he will have one of the finest drug stores in this part of the country.’ By August, it was almost ready to open and the Independent gushed; ‘Dr. Coppedge has been having a tile floor put in his new building this week. It is the finest floor in town and has been the cause of much favorable comment.’

The coming of Route 66 in 1926 brought not only the first paved highway to run through Depew, but an increase in patients. Across the street from the drug store Dr Coppedge built a hospital which he ran with his older brother, Omer – also a physician – while he lived behind the drug store in a Gordon Van Tine Roberts house bought from the Sears, Roebuck & Company catalogue. (This particular model of kit home was popular in Oklahoma. In 1916, the two storey, three bedroom home could be purchased for $1260.)

Dr Coppedge’s Sears, Roebuck house which also stood in disrepair for years but has now been refurbished.

However, it’s said that, despite being a pillar of the local community, Dr Coppedge had a soft spot for outlaws and was the ‘go-to’ doctor for anyone who had sustained a gunshot wound that they couldn’t – or didn’t care to – explain. Dr Oscar was known as a medic who would treat the injury without involving the local forces of law and order. In fact, it’s said that Charles ‘Pretty’ Floyd was one of his patients. There’s no evidence one way or the other, but as Pretty Boy did live in Oklahoma and was regarded and protected by many locals as the ‘Robin Hood of Cookson Hills’, it’s quite possible.

Following the Great Depression, Depew slid into a terminal decline. By the time of the Second World War, only two grocery stores, a bank, a hardware store and two service stations survived – along with Dr Coppedge’s practice. He died in 1960 with, it seems, no children to carry on his legacy, his brother having died four years previously.

The Coppedge Hospital stood across the street and was built in the same style. It’s in better shape than the drug store, but for how long?

The Coppedge Drug Store itself has been a derelict shell for years, a few remaining letters on the front and part of ‘the finest floor in town’ the remnants of its former self. I last saw it in the second week of April 2017 when it looked the same as ever, beyond restoration but a part of Depew’s history. And then, two weeks later, it was gone. One night the old building took its last breath, perhaps remembered its past glories and then gently collapsed into a pile of rubble.

Main Street, Depew. Nowadays, 93% of the residents work in other towns. The road in front is the original surface of Route 66, it’s never been overlaid with asphalt since 66 moved almost 90 years ago.

THE LITTLES OF HINTON JUNCTION

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In its prime, Hinton Junction could sell you gasoline, a meal, a night’s sleep and even a bus ticket.

These days, old Route 66 between Bridgeport and Hinton is a lonesome place. True, you know that Interstate-40 is rumbling away somewhere to the south, but here you’re on your own, your reverie on the old straight rolling concrete broken only by the glimpse of an occasional farmhouse or the moo of a curious cow.

But it wasn’t always so. Once this was a busy highway and the service station, cafe and motel belonging to the Littles of Hinton was a welcome sight for many travellers. Leon Little was born in 1911, the youngest of five children of James and Jennie Little. The Littles had something of a casual attitude to names, it seems. Leon was named Wilbur Leon, but, by the time his name was entered on the 1930 census, he had become simply Leon, while his brother went by the name of Robert or Boone, depending what form he was filling in.

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Leon and Ann start married life.

From the time he finished the 12th grade – and probably before – Leon worked in a service station, moving to Booker, Texas, in 1929 where he met a young lady by the name of Anna Louise Ondracek (although she was always known as Ann). When they married on 27th October 1932 in Booker, Texas, he had just turned 21 and Ann was 18. But, starting a business was important to them and, within months, they had bought an old gas station next to the swing bridge at Bridgeport on Route 66. Leon clearly realised just how vital an artery Route 66 was and, when it was realigned, he took the line that if the traffic wouldn’t come to him, then he would go to the traffic.

In 1934, a new bridge was opened over the South Canadian and Route 66 was rerouted. The Littles were already ahead of the game, building a new gas station at the west end of the bridge where Route 66 and Highway 281 met and opening it at the same time as the new alignment.

Leon (standing) oversees the construction of his new service station.

In 1940, the same year that his father died, Leon built a third station and added a cafe and a small motel. A larger house too was essential as by now the Littles had started a family. Bobby Dean was born in 1936 (puzzlingly he is referred to in the 1940 census as Baffie D), followed by Larry in 1944 and Charles the following year. For a short time they also had a young teacher, Pearl Delores Kerlick, boarding with the family before she got married, while, following ‘Jim’s’ death, Jennie Little would come to live with the family until she died in 1969.

The Littles had established that third station and motel when, in 1943, Leon received his draft papers. He was granted a 6-month deferment to get his affairs in order and so he leased the gas station, motel and cafe to EB Enze. Enze immediately shut Leon’s business down and opened his own in a new building. Ironically, by the time the six months were up, the US Government had set the upper limit of the draft at 30 years old. Leon was two years older than that and so he should have immediately picked his life and business up again. But he had made a contract with Enze and he honoured that. Instead, he spent the next couple of years working as a mechanic and tow truck driver in Texas. When the lease was up in 1945, he returned to Hinton and he and Ann began the job of rebuilding their business.

In his 50s, foreseeing the end of Route 66 and his business, Leon retrained as a US Postmaster,

This they did with determination and hard work. They also had a keen eye to providing good service for travellers. But Leon also knew that times were moving on and that the plans for the new interstate would make his business impossible to sustain. A year before I-40 bypassed Hinton, Leon had already made plans for his next career, training as a postmaster. He began work at the Hinton post office while Ann continued to run the business and then, in 1962, the interstate opened and Route 66 stopped. The Littles had opened their main business on the day that Route 66 took on its new alignment across the new bridge in 1934 and, with fitting symmetry, they closed it 26 years later on the very day that the interstate opened.

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This centre section is all that remains today of the gas station and cafe. There would have been a clock in the hole in the centre roofline, while the EAT sign was lost many years ago. The propane tanker hasn’t moved in at least 35 years.

However, hard work over those years had meant that Leon and Ann could put their boys through college as well as buy a house in Hinton. Until he retired, Leon worked at the post office and Ann worked as a receptionist for the Hinton Clinic. With sons and, later, grandchildren, Leon was involved in the local community, coaching Little League baseball and becoming a 32nd degree Mason. He died on 3rd February 1994 and Ann passed away at the end of 2006. They are both buried in the town they loved and served for so long.

Oh, and Leon clearly hated his given name all his life. Even on his gravestone in Hinton Cemetery he is listed only as W. LEON LITTLE!

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The gas station is falling down these days, but you can still see the old shelving and how it was back in the day.

A COUNTERFEIT STORY

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The former Conoco station between Arcadia and Luther, Oklahoma.

Just between Arcadia and Luther, Oklahoma, on Route 66, is a small stone ruin on the side of the road. There’s a homemade sign which says ‘HISTORICAL BUILDING “RT 66”’ but no further explanation.

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The front of the Conoco station where the pumps would have once stood.

This was once a Conoco gas station, one of the earliest in this part of the country, and one of the few of which anything remains. Despite its age – it was probably built around the early 1920s and certainly pre-dates Route 66 – there would be little to mark it from any other stone ruin were it not for the fact this little place has a story. But is it story or myth?

 

This place doesn’t even appear to have had a name – I’ve seen it referred to as the Old Rock station, but that might simply be a handy description rather than an actual title. However, as it stands on the edge of land belonging to the Rock of Ages Farm, it seems as useful a shorthand as any. The gas station had two fuel pumps, one for regular gas and one for ethyl, as well as dispensing drums for oil and kerosene. The latter was necessary because electricity was a long way from making it out to this remote spot and most homes and buildings used kerosene lamps. So far it was no different from the dozens of little gas stations that sprang up to service the growing wave of motorists.

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The fireplace at the rear of the store which would have been the only source of heat.

But, so the story will have it, despite bearing the Conoco name, the place fell upon hard times, and sometime in the 1930s, a passing salesman offered to sell the owners printing plates for making counterfeit $10 bills. It was, apparently, too good an opportunity to miss. A small room was built on the back of the already tiny building, the entrance to this hideaway through a rear window which was kept boarded up. The bills were printed one side at a time but clearly they weren’t quite the key to fortune the station’s owners had hoped; when one of them was arrested while trying to pass one of the phony bills, the police searched the fuel station and found the printing plates. The gas station closed and never re-opened.

It’s a great story. The trouble is there is no evidence that it ever happened.

Back in the 1930s, the newspaper was king and Oklahoma possessed several lively papers that covered every scrap of news available. Yet there is no mention of any counterfeiting ring at the Old Rock or, for that matter, anyone from Luther being arrested for just about anything. Counterfeiting was a popular crime during the 1930s and the newspapers of the time covered many such police investigations and trials in huge detail, but not one mentioned anywhere or anything that could be conceivably linked to the Conoco station.

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Lyle Dean Melton (left) and Red Abbott. Probably not hardened counterfeiters…

There is no trace of the hidden room at the ruin or even any indication of how it might have been constructed, while the only known photograph of the operating gas station is not only clearly marked ‘1940’ – after the supposedly crime and closure. It also names the two men in the photo as ‘Red Abbott’ and ‘Lyle Melton’ and it’s a reasonable supposition that they either owned or worked there. Red Abbott seems lost to time, but Lyle, 29 years old when the photograph was taken, was from a large family which had settled in Luther. There’s no evidence that he was ever in trouble (least of all for counterfeiting) and, although he and his wife Mary later moved away, they are both buried in Luther Cemetery, along with his parents and four of his ten siblings. None of the family were born in the little town; they were from Christian, Missouri, but clearly they were sufficiently attached to Luther to make it their place of eternal rest, which might not necessarily have been the case if one member of the family had been a notorious local criminal.

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The window in the rear wall was, apparently, the entrance to the hidden room where $10 bills were printed.

It’s not the only dubious but unsubstantiated claim to criminal fame given to Luther. Several notable books on Route 66 state that it was near the gas station that, a few days after Christmas 1950, serial killer Billy Cook abducted and killed the Mosser family from Illinois. However, the unfortunate Mossers didn’t get as far as Luther; when they stopped for a hitchhiker it was between Claremore and Tulsa, some way further east. But sometimes the story is just better than the truth…

THE 11TH STREET BRIDGE

Tulsa old and new - looking from the 11th Street Bridge to the city centre

Tulsa old and new: looking from the middle of the 11th Street Bridge towards the city centre

While I may be never quite lost, sometimes I find myself in places where I possibly shouldn’t be. But rarely in plain sight in the middle of a city.

Tulsa, Oklahoma, was built on oil, but it was also the hometown of Cyrus Avery, ‘the Father of Route 66’, and he would probably never have been welcomed home again if he hadn’t ensured that new highway ran through Tulsa. However, there are a couple of equally likely and valid reasons; Tulsa had a bridge.

NE towards 11th St Bridge in 1917, shortly after it opened

The bridge in 1917, shortly after opening

Moreover, it was the first purpose-built automobile bridge to span the 1450 miles of the Arkansas River which runs through the city. Built in 1916, it was something of a wonder for the flatlands. One of the longest concrete structures in the Midwest, it was also the first major multi-span (eighteen of them) concrete bridge in Oklahoma. By providing an easy crossing of the Arkansas, it allowed the oil industry in Tulsa to flourish.

And the second reason? Remember that Cyrus Avery came from Tulsa; serving as Oklahoma County Commissioner from 1913 to 1916, he was involved with the construction of the bridge and it must have had a place in his heart. Even today, it’s still a structure of which to be proud.

It was built by the Missouri Valley Bridge and Iron Company for $180,000, and, at 1470 feet long and 34 feet wide, supported a railroad track in the middle and a single lane of vehicular traffic either side, flanked by pavements. In 1934, it was widened to 52 feet and 8 inches and could accommodate four lanes of traffic. Careful traffic, that is. 52 feet is not all that wide…

There was a gate open. Honest

There was a gate open – honest!

And, for the next 63 years, the 11th Street Bridge served Tulsa well, bringing prosperity into the city, and allowing travellers to make their way across Oklahoma to the promised lands via Route 66. But it started to show its age. Lanes were closed, load limits implemented and then, in 1975, the City had to pay compensation to a woman who fell through a hole in one of the walkways. It was only $1100, but it was a wake-up call that the bridge was in trouble. A new crossing was commissioned and, in 1980, the 11th Street Bridge was closed to traffic. There was talk of tearing it down, but, luckily, the money to demolish it never seemed to quite transpire.

 

Even the weeds have to fend for themselves

Too dangerous for city employees to step onto the bridge to spray them, the weeds are taking over

In 2004, the bridge was renamed the Cyrus Avery Route 66 Memorial Bridge, but a new fancy name didn’t make it any more structurally sound. Then, in 2008, it was closed to even pedestrians, a plan to make it safe enough to reopen to walking traffic having been costed at $15 million. Rather than spend that sort of money, the city gave the bridge a bit of a spruce up and then gated it off. This was after surveyors decided that the bridge was too unsafe to even walk on. I suspect they probably don’t even want you to look at it that hard. The blacktop on the bridge is actually just a waterproof coating and the bridge is too weak to hold up another layer of asphalt. The city sprays the weeds occasionally, but even that is considered risky.

The 'Cyrus Avery Memorial Bridge' from the Cyrus Avery Memorial Plaza. Those Tulsans are proud of their native son.

Looking down the Cyrus Avery Memorial Bridge from the Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza. Tulsa is proud of its native son

Now, I have to say I didn’t know all this when I found myself at the 11th Street Bridge one grey October morning. I don’t know why a side gate was open, but even if I had realised that there was a distinct possibility a hole might open up underneath me and plunge me into the muddy waters of the Arkansas River, then I would probably still have walked its length. Only afterwards did I realise how lucky I was to have had that chance.