“Yes, as through this world I’ve wondered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six gun;
And some with a fountain pen." - Woody Guthrie
The Great Depression swept across Oklahoma and America like the dust storms that followed, driven by sixty to seventy mile an hour winds and leading to the comment that “Oklahoma has four seasons, often within the same week.” Beginning in the United States in October of 1929, the depression soon spread world-wide and despite a variety of government programs, unemployment surpassed 25%, only ended with the beginning of World War II. Lacking the ability to make mortgage payments Oklahoma businesses and farms failed and unemployment saw crime, particularly robberies, soar out of sight and inevitably, killings occurred.
Northeastern Oklahoma was no different than the rest of the country, supported by agriculture, producing products that now no one could afford, citizens either left or some turned to crime. The most famous (or infamous) local criminal of the era was Charley Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. Born in Georgia, Floyd’s family came to Oklahoma to find employment when he was an infant and he grew up in Akins, a small community near Sallisaw. His career in crime as an adult came as no surprise since he was usually in trouble growing up, among other incidents, he was arrested at age 18 for stealing money from the local post office. After that he worked in the oil fields and then was employed on a harvest crew working in western Oklahoma and Kansas before he attempted big time crime.
“Upping his game” Floyd, always impeccably dressed, joined with others in a failed payroll robbery attempt in Kansas City in 1925 and was sent to prison. Released in 1929 and vowing never to return, “Pretty Boy” participated in a string of robberies. Rumors were that when robbing a bank, he not only took the money, but also destroying mortgage documents, gaining him a reputation as a modern day Robin Hood. As a result he frequently was hidden from authorities by sympathetic citizens as his stature as a criminal grew. After John Dillinger was killed during July of 1934 Floyd was named “Public Enemy Number One” and, lawmen concentrated on him, he was killed in Ohio the following October. Floyd’s remains were returned to Akins and his popularity was underscored when his funeral was attended by an estimate ranging up to 40,000 people, the largest in the history of Oklahoma. His life story was made for Hollywood and later, between 1959 and 2009, there were eight movies made depicting his life.
The Great Depression bred many criminals, Wikipedia includes a list of 107 notables nationally and at least two, the Barkers and Bonnie and Clyde were associated with Northeastern Oklahoma. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow and their associates made several trips on Highway 69, thru Miami and Commerce in 1933 and 1934. The young couple caught the nation’s attention with their exploits, but after the fatal shooting of a constable in Commerce during April of 1934, public perception rapidly changed and authorities killed them the next month in Louisiana.
The Barkers were another gang who gained their moment of questionable fame during the Great Depression. Originally from Missouri, the family, including four boys, moved first to the Timberhill region east of Welch before moving on to Tulsa in 1915 where the boys were continually in trouble with the law. In and out of prison, in 1931 they organized a gang that included, among others, noted criminal Alvin Karpis. As robberies and other scrapes with the law developed, they became known as the “Barker Gang,” ostensibly led by their mother Arrie. In a later interview Karpis clarified “Ma’s” role. “We sent Ma to the movies when we planned a robbery” Karpis said, “And she saw a lot of movies.” One by one the brothers were killed or imprisoned and Ma was killed in Florida in 1935.
Probably the most well advertised of the Great Depression’s impact on Oklahoma was John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath. Although the setting was supposedly around Sallisaw in the southern portion of Northeastern Oklahoma, Steinbeck took the liberty of moving Sallisaw a couple of hundred miles northwest to the Dust Bowl, setting the stage for the Joad families migration to California. Through literary license, the author succeeded in painting a picture of desperation that characterized Oklahoma for decades and gave rise to the term “Okie.”
Claremore native Lynne Riggs inadvertently began turning that image around when his play Green Grow the Lilacs was converted into the musical Oklahoma, written by Rogers and Hammerstein. The musicale opened in 1943, later receiving both a Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award. It has been speculated that Riggs original play was inspired by visits to relatives in Ottawa County where “the wind came sweeping down the plain.” Pride in the image of Oklahoma begin to revive, when the theme song was later adopted by the state. Crime and novels about the Great Depression in Northeastern Oklahoma were becoming just a bad memory.
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.