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Oklahoma community draws lessons from previous hard times

Elk City is experiencing its third oil boom as the search for oil has led thousands of people to migrate to the far western Oklahoma boom town.
by Adam Wilmoth Published: July 30, 2012

Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series looking at the impact of the current energy boom on communities near the oil and gas plays in Oklahoma.

Like many in western Oklahoma, Marjorie Anderson and her family are more than familiar with riding out economic booms and busts.

Settling in the area before statehood, Anderson's grandparents and great-grandparents flourished in the early days of Oklahoma history and endured the trials of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.

“My mother tells about being little and how awful it was in the '30s,” she said.

Anderson's family survived the Dust Bowl on black-eyed peas.

Decades later, oil was discovered below her family's land and royalty checks began pouring in, first in the 1950s and again in the 1970s and early 1980s.

“My grandmother was a millionaire several times over off the land, but she still canned black-eyed peas because she didn't want to starve,” Anderson said.

While the older generation was more cautious with the oil money even in the boom of the 1970s and 1980s, Anderson and her peers worried less about the future.

“I drove a Mercedes,” she said. “When I bought the car, my grandpa said he could buy a plow with that money.”

That carefree culture — and the money that spurred it — dried up overnight in the summer of 1982, leaving Elk City with construction projects incomplete and investors out millions.

“When the boom busted, you could see people going down the street with everything on the back of their cars,” longtime Elk City resident and real estate agent Nancy Henrichsen said. “They left their pets behind. They left their houses with food in them. It was a horrible, horrible mess. There were lots of suicides around here at that time. It was the biggest gloom over Elk City I have ever seen.”

Another Renaissance

Over the past 10 years, economic activity has returned to western Oklahoma. Natural gas drilling has been followed by construction of wind energy turbines, and another oil boom has led tens of thousands of people to flood Elk City and western Oklahoma again with jobs and money.

This time, however, the community and its residents are determined to do things differently.

“People are smarter now,” Henrichsen said. “They're more conservative with their money. They're taking care of their families and their homes rather than flying around the world. Back then, you would see a huge truck pulling a very expensive trailer with Jet Skis or a boat on the back. Everything was about money and toys and wanting to have a good time.”

One way the city is smarter now is that it is working with the companies in the area to develop a more diverse economy.

A new Bar S plant, a Super Walmart and a new hospital are examples of diversification among other industries.

Unlike most small towns throughout the country, Elk City's downtown corridors are full. Every storefront is active, and cars occupy most parking spaces throughout the day.

“We have the longest strip mall in the world,” businessman Basil Weatherly said. “It extends from the west side of town all the way through Main Street. If you look south from Main Street to the highway, there's probably 10 miles of strip mall, and it's all full.”

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by Adam Wilmoth
Energy Editor
Adam Wilmoth returned to The Oklahoman as energy editor in 2012 after working for four years in public relations. He previously spent seven years as a business reporter at The Oklahoman, including five years covering the state's energy sector....
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