Pieces of the puzzle
Trish Popovich photoThe former Conoco office is at the west end of Big Muddy Road in what remains of the historic oil field encampment.
Every time I go into Parkerton, or any ghost town for that matter, my brain tries to mentally assemble the many pieces in that town’s puzzle in order to conjur a glimpse of that once-upon-a-time town. Conflicting reports, a single typo in a 100-year-old document and oral histories that seem like opposite sides of the same argument can often make putting back the pieces harder than it needs to be.
Nevertheless, you keep going because those gaps in the puzzle will drive you crazy, and history, after all, never promised any researcher that it would give up its secrets so easily.
Parkerton, however, appears to be a more complicated puzzle than I had originally imagined, but then again, once those pieces are back in place they’ll be preserved forever.
For now, I spend a lot of time re-imagining what was.
The building, person, business or event becomes connected to the landscape, unmoving in my imagination and now permanent in my mind’s eye. This is how a town can be rebuilt in stories and photographs, and can rise like a phoenix out of the ashes of memory. Piece by piece you can spawn a resurrection and this is how we stop Parkerton from being forgotten.
In Parkerton, because I don’t have permission to go on any private property (hint hint, please, and thank you), I take my photos and do my reimagining from the public roads. I pull over, get out and just stand there and try to visualize each new piece as it falls into its rightful place. I imagine oil cars lined up two miles long on a railway line running alongside a river bank dotted with machine shops and neat short rows of squat tar paper shacks as one of the many oil company camps begin to sharpen into focus.
I can see those small houses that once sat on concrete pads, still visible today, with vegetable gardens to supplement what was available at the oil company commissary or what George McDonald brought down every week from his store in Glenrock.
I see oil workers in constant motion seven days a week, stores open on Sundays, a town that never sleeps, and childlike versions of my senior friends scavenging for scrap metal during the war or splashing and laughing at the swimming hole on a hot summer day.
I see a line outside the post office and a cluster of out-of-town visitors out touring a field.
Sometimes I even see Leslie Parker in his citified suit, happy go lucky with a pocket full of notes, down from New York entertaining friends. Maybe a dinner with Ed Smith and his wife or a meeting with John Higgins and the other members of the Glenrock Business Club as they discuss the proposed new county division.
Slowly, the pieces begin to fall into order. Every newspaper article I’ve read, every photograph and every oral history posted on the Parkerton Project site assumes its shape in the Parkerton puzzle as the stories come to life and voices grow louder as more and more bodies crowd the streets, all clamoring to make a life among the other blue collar families within the containment of an oil field camp.
In those days, Big Muddy was an active oil field, attracting all the big names in the early oil game as well as spurring the creation of numerous small local companies applying for leases from the state in Douglas, hoping to find an active well with which to make their fortune.
My last article in the Independent ignited a conversation on Parkerton and pushed me to do more research. With each story I read in the old newspapers from the last days of the Great War and the Progressive Era, tales of post office embezzlement, robbery and murder, all happening in little old Parkerton, I start to realize what seems like a small sparse site today was once a sprawling settlement of businesses, boomers and born to be luckies.
My friend June Lythgoe was the last baby born in Parkerton. When I think of June being born in a tar paper shack just down the road from where her father Perle Bondurant pumped the oil for Conoco, it almost seems surreal. I say almost surreal because soon my brain fills in the gaps and June wasn’t born in a field full of oil industry debris next to some derelict buildings. June was born at home with her family in Parkerton. She crossed the river every day after school and remembers listening to the wind blowing through the paper thin walls that provided shelter from the harsh elements. Parkerton wasn’t a ghost town to the Bondurants, it was home. Home to the Claytons, the Hawkes, the Arnolds, the Smiths, the Osbornes, the Rookstools and the dozens and dozens of other families who made a life in a town that for many is now nothing more than a memory.
If you stand on the road near the old Taylor machine shop (with the teacherage on your left and the Platte River on your right) and look down the Big Muddy Road past the green house (the old Conoco office) into the far distance and imagine the entire expanse that was once filled with life, industry and oil, you can begin to see the puzzle of the town that once was.
For 40 years it was a bustling oil town packed with oil wells, homes, shops, a pool hall, railway depot (two, in fact, they got funds for a new one in 1918), a telegraph office, and a post office (where over $7,000 was embezzled by the postmaster). The Parkerton Store served as a commissary for Midwest Oil alongside company offices (the names changing with the many takeovers), and the machine shops in town were filled with some of the nation’s best iron workers who made tools on the spot to keep up with the frenetic pace of the industry.
The names of the camps changed over time, too, and according to Bob Bondurant included not only those listed on the above map, but also Lambs Camp, Sagetown, Green Camp, Silk Stocking Row and Muddy Camp.
It’s all there folks, waiting to be reimagined, waiting to be remembered and shared. Parkerton is a “permanent institution,” in my mind at least, and now the puzzle is coming together and people are helping resurrect the pieces. In my research I’m reviewing the early Parkerton years 1916-1923, the time when the town was still finding herself and there is so much more still to learn. There is a lot to read and review, lots to ponder and peruse, lots of puzzle pieces still to uncover.