Vinita (Dowingville)

Vinita - Historic Homes
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"The Story of Craig County, Its People and Places"

It was at the crossing of the first railroads to enter what is now Oklahoma that Vinita, I.T., was born in 1871.

In July, 1866, the Cherokee Nation made an agreement with the United States Department of the Interior in which it was agreed that the first railroad to cross the border into Indian Territory would have exclusive rights across the Nation.

It was the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad that won the race from Kansas, reaching the border June 6,1870.  And they built to Russell Creek in the Cherokee Nation, laying the rails on the well packed Texas Road, and on southward.

Meanwhile, the Atlantic and Pacific line was building from the east, aiming for a junction with the M-K-T and on southwestward.

The M-K-T had already established a town site about two miles south of the present Vinita, in a move which their attorney, Col.  Elias C. Boudinot, headed.  He named it "Vinita," in honor of his friend, the famed Washington, D.C. sculptress, Vinnie Ream.  But the A. & P. engaged in a scheme with a few Cherokee leaders to change their original survey and make the crossing of the M-K-T at a point that became permanent.  The new site was called Downingville, a name that was to be the legal title of the town for more than 15 years, although the new settlement was then called Vinita, which later became the legal name.  The new railroad village was named in honor of Lewis Downing, then chief of the Cherokees.

A few miles east of Vinita were major trails over which hundreds of people traveled by horseback and wagons from the north and from the east, as America's frontier was being settled, starting as early as 1824.

Over these same trails, with their forks reaching into adjoining areas, thousands of cattle were driven from Texas to northern and eastern markets, or to rail centers in other states.  With the building of the railroad Vinita Took on new importance as a rail shipping center.

So cattle production became an early major industry and the need for feed brought increased farming and the new rail junction became a vital trading center.  As time passed various forms of businesses were established.

The Vinita town site was laid out in 1871 by Joseph Vann, Joseph Thompson and a Dr. Miller, Cherokee town commissioner.  Martin Thompson bought the first town lot in 1872.  Johnson Thompson, Vinita's first mayor, built the first building in town on the main street east of the Katy tracks.  The street was later named Illinois Avenue.  Thompson had previously had a store on the Old Military Road.

In the plat of Dowingville, areas were provided for town parks.

For years the business section of the town was located east of the Katy railroad tracks, most of the businesses on East Illinois.  One of these was the store built and operated by John Swain, who came to Vinita in 1874, and his wife, Rebecca, a part Cherokee.  The store sign bore her name - not his - because non-Cherokees could not own property.

Small hotels were built in the area of the railroad stations, the largest for a time being the San Francisco Hotel until the new Cobb Hotel was erected in 1891.  The Hotel Cobb was called the pride of the southwest.  It was the first quarters for the 1st National Bank when that firm was chartered in 1892.  This was the first national bank in the Cherokee Nation.

Other banks followed the First National Bank, but by 1929, only the original bank remained, the others having merged with it.
The Craig County Bank was organized in 1937 and became the Oklahoma State Bank in 1966.

Vinita's business district began to expand in the 1890's and more permanent homes were built in the western and northern sections of the town.

Two events helped contribute to the development of the western part of the town.  One of these was the establishment of Worcester Academy, a Congregational school, in 1882, that attracted many new residents to the community.  Its founding followed the organization of the Congregational Church in 1879 and the building of Vinita's first denominational home in the 100 block of South Scraper.  Rev.  Joseph Scorggs was pastor and headed the Academy.

The Academy itself was built midway facing east in what is known now as the school block, the 100 block of South Smith.  This school was to operate until 1899.

Around the corner on Illinois Avenue was built the Aldrich Cottage, in 1893, a dormitory for students.

The Academy building served as the first public school for Vinita starting with the 1899-1900 year, before being purchased in 1902 by a town of Vinita bond issue for $12,000.00.

Opening of Willie Halsell College in 1888 added further value to the area west of the tracks.  It was an imposing building that was erected on the south side of a prairie tract north of Vinita in 1889, a four-story brick and stone school that was second to none in the Cherokee Nation.  It was backed by the Methodist Board of Missions.  Instruction was through the high school level only.

Major educators taught at the college, which Will Rogers attended for two years, as a boy in his early teens.  The school had teams in all the major sports.

A major change in the government came in 1897 when Congress approved an act nullifying tribal laws with the result that Vinita was incorporated in 1898 and voters formed their own city government.

To bolster the expanded federal services a U.S. jail was built in Vinita in 1898.  It was born down years later and in the 1930's the Courthouse Annex was constructed on the site, the corner of South Scraper and Delaware.

That same year of 1898, W.E. Halsell built a brick structure at the corner of Wilson Street and Canadian Avenue, which he leased to the U.S. as a federal courthouse.  It was used for this purpose until statehood and for a period of time as a county courthouse.

Before and during the period prior to Oklahoma becoming a state, many of the U.S. Marshals operating in Indian Territory were headquartered in Vinita.  These included Dave Rusk, Heck Bruner, Bud Ledbetter, Paden Tolbert, Charles Copeland and Captain G.S. White.

The first jail, a crude wooden structure, was situated east of the MKT railroad tracks and could accommodate five or six prisoners.  Later the Vinita jail was moved from the east side to a site north of where the Vinita post office is now located.

Livery stables provided an important service for years until the advent of the automobile and at one time there were three in the heart of the Vinita business district.

The first telephone system was placed in use in 1898.  A gas distribution system was built in 1907.  The electrical power plant was started in 1899.

A movement for a central water system started in 1903 when Davis Hill and W.H. Kornegay, members of the town council, pushed the project to completion with James Davenport as mayor.  But the artesian wells were not ready and the system wasn't in operation until 1905.

Vinita switched to a new source of water in 1922 when the town voted a bond issue to obtain water from Grand River.  Later a larger main was extended to the same source after the building of the Lake of the Cherokees.

Churches have played an important part in the life of the town and congregations erected new homes-all of frame construction.  All of these have given way to buildings of brick or stone.

A community church building was located in 1876 on South Thompson Street.  It later became the property of the Methodist Church, and was torn down when a new church was erected in 1895.

The Presbyterians built their first frame church in 1883 and followed later in 1904 with a brick one.

The First Christian Church erected a frame building that was used until a stone structure was built in 1907 and a brick one later.

The Holy Ghost Catholic Church built a frame church in 1895, located a block west of the present brick church.  North of it was the Sacred Heart Academy, which opened in 1897 and operated for 70 years as a major boarding school.

The first building built by the Baptists was in 1893, two years after the denomination started.  Today's' First Baptist Church building occupies this same site.

The Episcopal Church was formed in 1892 and built in 1900.  It was first located where the Vinita water tower now stands, but moved to the site where the more recently-built building was erected.

The Congregationalists built across the street from the Worcester Academy in 1904.  Many more churches were added through the years to serve the community.

In 1984 there are other congregations, including Church of God, Seventh Day Adventist, Church of Christ, Church of the Nazarene, Assembly of God, two Pentecostal churches, Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints, a Christian Science Society, Jeho-vah's Witness, Four Square Church, an all-faiths chapel at Eastern State Hospital, and several non-denominational groups.

The Byrd Ada Opera House on East Illinois, east of the Katy tracks, provided a building for major shows after it was built in 1898, but in 1907 private investors built the Grand Auditorium, one of the major show-houses in the southwest at that time.  It was later acquired by the city through a $28,000.00 bond issue and Vinita officials moved into the building.

Adjoining the building was Parker Plaza, named for Luman Parker, Jr., community leader.  It was the pride of the community for 30 years.

Vinita was a growing community in those years following Oklahoma statehood as the business district expanded.

In 1910 a new Vinita high school building was started as a result of a bond issue approved by voters and was opened for use in the fall of 191 1. The building was torn down in 1975 and other school buildings were built.

Employment was provided for a number of men when the Milikan Refinery opened west of Vinita, on the Frisco, in 1911.  It operated for 15 years before being consolidated with a plant at Coffeyville, also owned by Sinclair Oil Company at the time.

A permanent boost to the economy came with the opening of the Eastern Oklahoma Hospital, northeast of Vinita, in 1913.  Later it became known as Eastern State Hospital.  It has continued to be a major contributor to the Vinita economy.

With the advent of the "good roads" movement in the nation and in Oklahoma, Vinita business leaders launched an all-out effort to see that the city won a designation on the major routes.  they were most successful as revealed by the fact that five major highways were routed through the heart of the town.

For years, Illinois Avenue and Wilson Street was the intersection of U.S. Highways 59, 60, 66, 69 and 73.  U.S. 59 later became S.H. 2 through Vinita.

The new Craig County Courthouse was built in Vinita in 1921 without needing the passage of a bond issue.

Vinita's welcomed the good news on September 16, 1937, that President Roosevelt had signed the bill that made possible the building of the Pensacola Dam on Grand River.  Community leaders had worked for it over a long period.  Coming on the heels of the severe depression, it was a tremendous boost to the area's economy.

Creating the Lake o' the Cherokees, it provided a new industry for Vinita--recreation-tourism.  It led to widespread construction of  rural electric systems.

The Grand River Dam Authority was first housed in the city hall, the old Grand Auditorium building having been transformed into an office building in 1938.

From the project resulted the GRDA building, the KAMO offices and the Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative structure.

For the first time in its history, Vinita in 1939 had a federal building of its own, housing federal offices and the post office.

New quarters were provided in 1975 for the Vinita Public Library, 53 years after it was established as a city institution.  A wing of the building houses the Eastern Trails Historical Museum.

New housing additions became a part of the city and its environs-new industry established plants in the community-the Will Rogers Turnpike was built east of the city-and new schools built as the years passed.

The population of Vinita in 1980 was 6,740.

Vinita City Officials - by Wilma C. Woolman

Vinita city officials' records go back to 1898 and 1899.  The County Commissioners kept the city records more or less as a courtesy, which does make it difficult to find the names of early city officers.

It is interesting to notice that the officials changed from one office to another in succeeding years.  Very few stayed in the same office more than a term or two.  Early city offices included the mayor, recorder, treasurer, marshal, attorney, street commissioner, and aldermen.  In 1898 T.M. Buffington was mayor, D.H. Wilson, attorney.  In 1899, J.A. Sheehan was mayor; W.H. Drew, recorder; Davis Hill, treasurer; J.F. Ledbetter, marshal; J.B. Burckhalter, attorney; John Breck, street commissioner.

John Thomas was the first Dowingville (Vinita) city marshal.  During his term a gang of outlaws rode into Vinita from the west.  Someone notified Thomas and he went to the west side of town (about where the Methodist Church is now located), and waited for them to leave town.  He was hoping to capture them single handed, but when he ordered them to halt, they opened fire on the marshal and shot one of his fingers off.

After that incident, city authorities brought in a man by the name of  L.P. Isbell whom they thought might clean out the badmen.  They made him town marshal and indeed he cleaned up the town.  He served the city for several years and lived in Vinita for the remainder of his life.

John Parks was the third town marshal, followed by Peter Tovy.  After 1898, the town marshals included C.W. Williams, J.F. (Bud) Ledbetter, and H.E. (Sam) Ridenhour.

In succeeding elections, councilmen would often become mayor then return to being a councilman or run for some other office.  About 1909 the "recorder" became "clerk." In 1925 "marshal" became "police chief."

Mayors: T.M. Buffington 1898, J.R. Sheehan 1899-1901, Ed Shanahan 1901, L.F. Parks 1902, James D. Davenport 1903, W.B. Coley 1904, F.J. Barrett acting mayor 1905, Edward  Shanhan 1906, S.L. Parks 1907, O.L. Rider 1909, J.C. Starr 1911, E.N. Williamson acting mayor Sept. 1913, G.B. Williams 1913, T.M. Buffington 1914, F.G. Cowan acting mayor 1918, E.C. Dalquest acting mayor 1919, Guy Patton 1919, J.H. Butler 1925, Geo. 0. Karr 1931, A.D. Warner 1932, Craig Goodpaster 1937, S.L. Updegraff 1939, George Martin 1941, Charles Teenor, Jr. 1945, L.L. Stryker 1947, Charles Green 1951 Wade Kornegay acting mayor 1955, Byron Tresler 1955, Walter L. Lane 1957, J.M. "Jack" Williamson 1959, Byron Tresler again 1967, Jim Kolb acting mayor 1971, H.m Wyatt 1971, Vernon Barnes 1979, Jim Kolb acting mayor 1983, and Bob G. Wiles 1983.

City Clerk (earlier named "Recorder"): G Blakeney, 1898, W.H. Drew 1899, Sam Parks Recorder Pro Tem 1901, W.H. Drew, A.F Chamberlain, C.A. /' Bradley, 1902, F.j Barrett 1904, C.O. Berry and Ald Byrd acting recorders 1905, E.M. Probasco 1906, Jasper S. Martin acting recorder 1907, G.W. Fogle 1907, A.J. Green 1909, R.D. Cockrell 1913 ' Edgar Baker 1919, F.E. Amos 1920, C.N. Alexander 1925, Mr. Spalding appointed 1927, resigned, R.D. Cockrell appointed 1928 C.O. Wattenbarger 1929, C.H. Webb 1933: Slater McClure 1941, Aleda Warren 1951, James Crouch 1971, Clinton Allen 1975, Wilma C. Woolman 1983.

Town Marshals: C.W. Williams, 1890; J.F Ledbetter 1899; E.W. Williams 1900; H.E "Sam" Ridenhour 1903; C.E. Wilkinson 1909; Chas.  H. Goodpaster 1911; Wm.  Meeks 1913; H.E. Ridenhour 1917; R.V. Baxley 1921; Allen White 1923; J.A. Morrison 1925. (Note the title was then changed to Chief of Police.)

Chief of Police: Bryan McDonald 1931; L.M. Patterson 1935; J.E. Moffett 1943; L.A. Shearhart 1945; Vernon Glenn 1947; F.E ' Bresnehen 1959; H.D. Goins 1961; Robert Thompson 1970; Raymond Clarkson, less than one term; and Gene Williams 1978.

Other Officials: (an incomplete list) Lola Stokes, Treasurer 1919; Mrs. Al Berger, Treasurer 1935; Hubert Foster, Treasurer 1941; Lester Davis, Treasurer 1971.

created 10-30-99 mgc


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