This account of Henryetta’s history is gathered from many previous stories. The information was compiled by Nancy Miller, Publisher, later Managing Editor of the Free-Lance. It has been updated.
This year, 2008, marks the 108th birthday of Henryetta, a great little city with a tough beginning, built by men bound and determined to reap the treasures the area had to offer. Today the same spirit keeps Henryetta going and growing even though the resources that started the town growing are mostly used up, if not out of favor because of modern day changes.
It isn’t possible to talk about Henryetta without including all the surrounding communities such as Dewar, Schulter, Kusa, Bryant, Coalton, Spelter City and Wilson. These towns and sites are as much a part of Henryetta’s history as the old Hugh Henry home, which has been renovated and proudly reigns atop Third Street hill, looking out over the beautiful valley Hugh Henry fell in love with over 100 years ago.
Looking back a hundred years ago we see a great visionary in the founder of Henryetta. Later he was joined by others who had the same dreams he had. If Hugh Henry had not been an Indian, the actual townsite of Henryetta would probably not be exactly where it is now. It could have been located further south, west or north. Due to the mountains it was not likely to have gone easterly.
Historians say that back in the 1880s, Henry, described as a tall deeply tanned Texan with long, flowing hair, stood on the banks of Coal Creek and gazed toward the Tulledega Hills with a dream in his heart and a vision in his head. He could see great possibilities for this valley, which obviously contained rich veins of coal and was blessed with many springs of clear, running water.
At first he envisioned a ranch for cattle, a place to raise his children and live out his dream. As a member of the Creek Tribe his claim to the land was valid and he staked out his 160 acres. He settled there and during the next 10 years was doing very well.
In 1890, as the story goes, he had an overnight visitor. This visitor was to play a profound part in Henry’s life and in the life of this as yet unplotted town. The visitor was none other than George Riley Hall, the future editor of the Henryetta Daily Free-Lance. At that time Henry’s home was located on the banks of Coal Creek at the southeast edge of modern day Henryetta.
Hall wrote that even then the area was widely known as the Henry Ranch, “In fact that is what took me to his place. I had lost a horse and was told at Eufaula that the Henry Ranch was a likely place to find track of the lost animal.” Hall related his enjoyment and the hospitality he received at the Henry Ranch. He played his fiddle and had a “gay” time.
During the next 10 years Hall passed through the area often and always was welcomed by the Henrys. Settlers began to pour into the valley and most of them partook of the Henry hospitality before settling on their own places.
In due course, a townsite company was formed. George W. Clarke, Lake Moore, Henry Beard and O. W. Meacham were the promoters. The government stepped in and took over.
Hugh Henry had dreamed of calling his city “Henry City”, but was overruled by the government officials who rejected the name because there were too many towns with “city” tacked on their names. It is said that the name was taken from the names of Henry Beard and his wife, Etta. This has been disputed, but makes for oft-times heated arguments between those who disagree and believe the town was named for Henry.
Being an Indian, Henry could not deed the property over to anyone so he surrendered his allotment to the government and was given a section of land to the north in 1892.
Henry had built himself a new home located on what is now Moore Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets. Hall confirmed he was there while the house was being built. Later, in 1902, Henry built the “house on the hill”, still standing at the top of Third Street hill where he reared his 12 children. The house has been renovated and apparently is in good shape, although it is not open to visitors. Hugh Henry is buried in a family cemetery west of the house about 100 yards.
It is reported that the first train arrived in Henryetta in September, 1900, followed closely by coal entrepreneurs. Mines were thick and so was the wildlife.
History records the first school was started in 1900 by Mrs. George Clarke. She agreed to teach the children, if they could be taught outside. Her first class included 17 pupils. A tent was set up near the Clarke home on 7th and West Cummings, but bad weather forced the students back into the Clarke home. By the end of the semester 50 students were enrolled.
The first city government was installed in 1901. The first mayor was A. Reeh, a Syrian. First city marshal was Bill Wright, who later moved to Okemah. The first Postmaster was Olin W. Meacham. He also operated the Creek Tribune office in a tent. The first store was started by W. R. Means at what is now 6th and Main.
Historians write that the first Sunday School and Church was situated in an old log building where Watson and Watson grocery was later located. Everyone wore their best clothes to church from gingham and calicos to silks. They walked and came in buggies and wagons. The church was non-denominational and any preacher who came by was invited to preach there.
The town of Henryetta was Okmulgee County’s major coal mining town. Almost as soon as a town had been formed, the mines were opened. Families from Coal Hill, Arkansas, were brought in to work the mines and others drifted in.
There were no paved streets and streets were dry and dusty or, when it rained, became a bog and wagons could barely get through.
There was no water system and water came from nearby springs. Later, as the town grew, barrels of water were brought in by wagons for bathing, to wash clothes and to settle the dust on Main Street. Coal was burned to heat houses and cook with. Kerosene lamps and lanterns were used at night. Families lived in tents.
Company houses were later built for the families. Fortunate families had their own cisterns. Yards were usually large enough for gardens, chickens and cows.
In 1902, Henryetta bought five phones. A switchboard was placed in the commissary of a local store. Clerks and proprietor operated it. George Riley Hall returned to the area and started a newspaper, the Henryetta Free-Lance, on Thanksgiving Day, 1902. He reported he had a little type, an antiquated hand press and a little 14’x20′ frame shack.
“We had no knowledge of the business, knew nothing whatever of printing and publishing and had to hire a printer to tell us what to do and how to do it. Worse still, we had to borrow the money for the enterprise at 12 percent interest.”
In that first decade there were many eager to settle in Henryetta and make their fortune.One of those entrepreneurs was Barclay Morgan. His first theater was still unfinished in 1910. Within six miles of the town, it was said, there were 1,195 producing oil wells and 263 producing gas wells. Six pipelines were located nearby. There was a brick plant, a tile plant, coal mines and zinc smelters.
The city finally had its own power plant, pump station and water system with city services from fire hydrants to telephones. There was an ice plant, two stockyards, and a municipal park. Also three tourist parks had sprouted around town.
Four bus lines operated, with two-hour service to Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Fort Smith. Three railroads stopped in town – St. Louis-San Francisco; the Kansas, Oklahoma & Gulf; and Okmulgee Northern Railway. The city averaged 10 passenger trains a day and 18-20 freight cars.
Automobiles had become big business. Bryant Motor Co. had the first telephone number, No. 1. Bryant advertised the Chevrolet Coach for $595.
There were six wholesale oil and gasoline stores, eight auto dealers, three auto accessory shops; 21 filling stations and five garages. The Henryetta Auto Salvage sold “slightly used” parts for “practically any make car”.
For those who did not own their own transportation there were six taxicabs. There were five hotels: the Georgian, the Cotton, the Campbell, the St. Elmo and the Elks – and two cafes or restaurants. Average rent at the two apartment houses was $25 per month; a business building ran about $100.
There were five men’s clothing stores, two women’s clothing stores, 11 dry goods stores, one boot and shoe store, two jewelry stores, two millinery stores, seven barber shops, three beauty parlors, two laundries and five cleaners and dyers.
There were 42 grocery and meat stores plus a wholesale grocer, four confectioners and four bakers.
The phone book listed five contractors, two lumber dealers, 11 real estate offices, two plumbing stores and a nursery.
There were 11 radio dealers, three novelty-toy stores, two musical instrument stores, six music teachers, two photographers, two florists and a cigar store.
Clubs and organizations included: Notary, Eastern Star, Woodmen of the World, Knights of Columbus, Knights of Pythias, IOOF, DeMolays, Pythian Sisters, Rainbow Girls, Rebekahs, Eagles, Elks, Royal Arch, Security Benefit Association and the Tulledega Lodge. Even the Ku Klux Klan listed itself among the acceptable/charitable organizations of the town.
The Free-Lance touted Henryetta’s country club as providing “gents and ladies” dressing rooms near the lake to afford accommodations to the bathers. Also tables and cooking places for picnickers and tennis and croquet grounds available to those “who are too tired to trod the hills and valleys, driving the rubber ball down the airways into the rough.”
There were two theatres at that time, the Morgan and the Blaine Theatre.
The Blaine advertised Big Time vaudeville bills as well as movies.
There were two swimming pools, a country club with golf course, a municipal park and an amusement park.
There were seven drug stores, 19 physicians and surgeons, one osteopath, two chiropractors and one veterinarian. There were two undertakers and one city cemetery. According to the writer of the article this was taken from, probably George Riley Hall, there were five life insurance agents and seven fire insurance agents. A variety of business service companies were available, two stationers and office supply houses, three transfer and baggage companies, one accountant, four print shops, three engineers, 15 attorneys, one wholesale produce house, three oil well supply companies and one geologist.
There were seven grade schools, two high schools, a private music school, a denominational school, a business college and a 10,000-volume public library.
There were two bookstores. Two newspapers battled it out, The Henryetta Free-Lance and the Henryetta Standard.
A dozen denominations were represented: Adventist, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Christian, Church of Christ, Church of Christ Scientist, Methodist Episcopal Church South, Church of the Nazarene, Presbyterian Church, Protestant Episcopal and Full Gospel Church Independent.
Until 1926 most of the coal was bought by the Federal Government and sent to Europe. During WWI the Germans had ruined the mines in Europe so the U.S. donated coal to them. In 1926, that stopped and Henryetta’s economy started a downward spiral.
By 1929, things had changed drastically in Henryetta and the surrounding towns. Many of the mines and smelters shut down, as did the schools. Residents of these towns moved into Henryetta.
In 1925 there had been 2,541 farms in Okmulgee County. By 1931 there were 3,388 an increase of 847 in five years. Hard times began to set in.
The winter of 1929-1930 was severe. Okmulgee County was hit by several weeks of rain, snow, sleet and ice and subzero temperatures. When the thaw set in there was nothing but a quagmire.
Pittsburg Plate Glass Company was in the process of building a new plant in Henryetta at the time. Trusses they had brought in for their new building disappeared. They found them sunk several feet in the mud.
At Coalton the factories begin to close down and then the mines followed. The town of Ryal closed down with the mines.
Most of the residents moved to Henryetta, Schulter or Dewar where mine work was still available. School children that remained transferred to Graham or Weleetka schools.
The King Koal Carnival, pride of Henryetta, came to a halt. Many years later it was replaced by the Labor Day Parade, which still takes place each Labor Day.
Later as things settled down and people recovered from the crash of 1929 and the loss of their homes and jobs, Henryetta began to stabilize and a strong foundation was discovered among those who had decided to remain here if they could.
By the mid ’30s there was plenty of work in the coal mines and smelters that managed to make it through the hardest times Oklahoma ever had. Then World War II began and Okmulgee County witnessed more changes.
Through the intervening years many businesses disappeared and others took their places. In recent years Henryetta has come to depend on tourism trade for most of its sales tax revenue. The town is proud of its school system and outstanding athletic programs. At present a new gymnasium is being built north of the Henryetta school complex. New tennis courts have already been completed and more improvements are in the works.
Today Henryetta is a city steeped in tradition, but still willing to step out and take a chance if it is worthwhile. Most residents view their town as a good place to rear their children and a great place to retire.
Henryetta is a most convenient place to live with easy access to Oklahoma City via I-40 and to Tulsa on Highway 75.
Visitors are very welcome as this will always a very friendly, comfortable place to visit.