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W.P. "Bill Atkinson" - City Builder (Part two of an ongoing series) PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Lackmeyer   
Thursday, 29 July 2010 22:02

Bill Atkinson and Commander Turnbull review plans for Midwest City. Photos courtesy of the Atkinson Center. 

(All photos courtesy of the Atkinson Center) 

 

W.P. “Bill” Atkinson was on the rise as the United States entered World War II in 1941. Not a bashful man, Atkinson boasted about his spot as the city’s leading homebuilder on billboards all over town. Thanks to a successful stint as chairman of the journalism department at Oklahoma City University, Atkinson had landed a spot on the board of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.

And Atkinson was in good standing with Daily Oklahoman publisher E.K. Gaylord.

“Mr. Gaylord and I were close personal friends,” Atkinson said in a 1991 interview with KOKH interviewer Ronnie Kaye. “I wanted what was best for the state and Oklahoma City, and so did he. I really loved the man.”

Everything would change with the opening of a new air force base. The feds were being coy as to where they would locate the base. But when the base’s location east of downtown Oklahoma City, attention quickly turned to the mysterious buyer of surrounding properties.

When the dust settled, Atkinson stepped forward as proud neighbor of the $25 million air depot. Gaylord and fellow chamber executives fumed, assuming Atkinson had exploited his position as a chamber board member to get information on the base’s location.

Atkinson, however, credited Gaylord, or rather the front page of his newspaper, for making the deal possible.

The story about the potential new air force base, Atkinson noted, was only a few inches long.

“He literally told me where Tinker would be located,” Atkinson said. “He didn’t know it. He said it will be located within 10 miles of downtown Oklahoma City. And downtown was in the lobby of First National Bank. That’s where the big business men met to make transactions. It must be closer than three miles to an oilfield. It must be on very economical ground. It must be level. And it must have a railroad there.”

Log Cabin restaurant on SE 29 prior to arrival of Tinker Air Force Base, creation of Midwest City. Photo courtesy of the Atkinson Center.

Atkinson got out the maps and began circling the county. He gambled on a sleepy rural area east of downtown with major property owners whose names still grace area roads.

Robert Peebly, for example, was a leading settler who moved into the Midwest City area in 1893 from Nebraska and owned a farm consisting of 220 acres at Reno and Air Depot. He raised Jersey cattle and peaches on the land for several years.

Another settler arriving from Texas, James P. Harrison, bought the quarter-section of land at Midwest Boulevard and SE 15 in 1901. News accounts portrayed the area as being filled with flocks of turkey, abundant deer, prairie chickens, and on the south side of Soldier Creek, abandoned Indian teepees.

As World War II began to get underway, all that stood between Oklahoma City and Shawnee were the Log Cabin gas station and cafe on SE 29, Koelsch’s Store at Reno and Sooner, and the small community of Marion, where Carl Albert High School is today.

With war looming, the federal government began scouting for land on which to build an army air corps installation. Oklahoma and Kansas topped the list for likely locations.

As noted by The Daily Oklahoman, the government wanted a spot 10 miles from an urban center, at least four miles away from any oil field, proximity to a rail line, a hard surface road, and inside a large span of flat land.

Atkinson gambled that the chosen location would be along SE 29 between Air Depot and Midwest Boulevard. But why?

Atkinson started with a map, and marked up areas that fit the government’s strict criteria and determined SE 29 fit perfectly. He stopped at homes and found that those south of the line were suspicious about his inquiries and unwilling to sell. To the north, he found farmers eager to sell. His investigation had gone better than he could have expected.

The gamble wouldn’t be cheap, however. Atkinson bought original 1889 homesteads from the Trosper and Chesser families for an eye-popping $15- an acre.

Tinker Air Force Base emerges along SE 29, circa 1941. Photo courtesy of the Atkinson Center.

Early day Tinker Air Force Base postcard, courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society

Early day Tinker Air Force Base postcard, courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

 

Once the site for the depot was announced, the chamber went out trying to buy up surrounding land. They were amazed it had been sold to an unknown buyer. Gaylord and others tried to find out who it was.

Atkinson speculated the war department would want to buy his land as well, so he traveled to the Pentagon and urged them to let him build a city on his land to go hand in hand with the base.

Neither Gaylord, chamber executive Stanley Draper or Oklahoma City officials were amused when they learned of Atkinson’s good fortune.

On May 14, 1941, Oklahoma City City Manager H.E. Bailey informed Atkinson his 168 acres would be needed for “expansion” of the base site and that the city would seek to condemn it unless he agreed to sell.

“With great good fortune, Atkinson and his group arranged to buy the land just before the location of the depot was announced,” a story in the May 15, 1941 Daily Oklahoman noted. “It looked like a gold mine for development of residences for some of the 3,500 skilled workers to be employed at the depot.”

Atkinson, however, wasn’t going to be deferred. On January 17, 1942, Atkinson came out with his grand plan for a $4 million “model town” adjacent to the depot along SE 29.

Atkinson’s town, to be christened “Midwest City” (the base was being referred to as the Midwest Depot), would be home to 2,500 people with 672 homes, a retail strip, school, parks, paved streets and utilities.

Atkinson would hire Hare and Hare, the renown Kansas City planning firm to design a shopping center that would be the heart of the community.

The announcement had the blessing of the U.S. Air Force, which was now ramping up plans for the depot to employ 7,000 people.

Downtown Midwest City at the Tinker base gate. Photo courtesy of the Atkinson Center.

Window shopping in Midwest City. Photo courtesy of the Atkinson Center

Lt. Col. W.R. Turnbill, newly arrived commander, met with Atkinson and gave his blessing.

“The government desires establishment of housing projects near airfields and depots as a moral builder,” Turnbill said.

Atkinson hired FHA urban land planner Stewart Mott, who designed a city in two crescents. Atkinson gambled that with such a major base opening during the war, with travel restricted and gasoline being rationed, having a city across the street wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Workers could walk to the base from their homes while their wives could walk to area shops and children could safety visit nearby schools and parks.

At a time when Oklahoma County had a quota of 750 permits for new homes, Atkinson swept the list and sold lots to 12 fellow builders. Atkinson’s new city would feature affordable, two-bedroom homes of about 800 square feet.

Atkinson’s wife Rubye, meanwhile, started garden clubs and women’s groups to help jumpstart Midwest City as a community.

Aerial photo of Midwest City, 1943. Photo courtesy of the Atkinson Center.

Midwest City quickly came to life. But even with the Air Force’s blessing, Atkinson was still facing heat from local power brokers.

“Everybody was just chewin’ hard on me, trying to do everything could just to keep me from doing it,” Atkinson said in a 1991 interview with Max Nichols. “So, they used every psychological thing I’ve ever heard of to try to trip me up, that is, Stanley Draper and E.K. Gaylord.”

In this environment, Atkinson was surprised to be invited to be the main speaker at a chamber board luncheon.

“Whoever heard of that?” Atkinson said. “And it was two, three years after Midwest City started, and it was actually guaranteed success then, far as I was concerned. But why they’d invite me to be a speaker I don’t know.”

G.A. “Doc” Nichols, who had started up his own town, Nichols Hills, came to Atkinson’s defense.

“Doc Nichols got up one time and he waved his hand,” Atkinson recalled. “Well, that meant for me to sit down and let him talk. He said, “Bill, now let me tell you something. You’re gonna’ build this town, and if there’s any doubt at all, I better give you a few tips right now.’ He was a clever guy.

“He said, ‘Who are you doing business with?’ I said, ‘well, I’m doin’ business at Liberty National Bank.’ He said, ‘You’re doin’ business at the wrong bank. Go over to Chuck Voss and borrow all the money you can from him, because he doesn’t know a damn thing about building homes, and he’ll never throw you into bankruptcy because there’s no way he … he’s got to stay with you.’ Of course, everybody just roared, you know, and Chuck Voss roared too.”

Last Updated on Saturday, 31 July 2010 16:12