By Robert ‘Okie Bob’ Layton
Byars, McClain County, Oklahoma
My Uncle Jess had rolled into town from Turkey Texas, driving a two-tone, pink and black, chromed out, 1958 Oldsmobile Super 88, man-o-man what a beauty!
Uncle Jess had outfitted the vehicle with a “Desert” canvas water bag hanging off the front grill, and on the passenger side, he had installed a “Thermador” window swamp air cooler. The car was equipped with rear speakers for the radio and with all that excess chrome, it sure-enough qualifies, as an early version of a pimpmobile.
Now Jess liked to drink and be chauffeured around while reminiscing about his youth. Sticking by my family’s rules, about no drinking while driving and motivated by my desire to drive. I eagerly volunteered to drive Uncle Jess around, at the ripe old age of 13.
I guess Jess was quite the “ladies man” in his day. When he came to town, he would have me take him to see some of his old girlfriends. He would often be greeted at the door with hugs and kisses. I meanwhile would wait out in the car playing with the unique “trans-portable” radio while Jess did his calling. After a little bit, Jess would come out, get back in the Olds, and down the road, we would go, to the next old flame.
I never gave it a second thought about what Uncle Jess was up to, for I knew nothing about these older women and my naive immaturity possessed no suspicion.
I eventually came to a realization one day. Jess had me stop at a very popular hamburger joint. I went inside with him and as he cleverly distracted me with a burger and fries, Jess inquired about the whereabouts of the owner. The owner came out from the back, a beautiful mature redhead lady. A person we all knew from my teenage body of friends.
Jess and her greeted, hugged, laughed and joked. They chit-chatted for a bit, while I munched on my burger and fries— tuning out the elderly conversation.
That was not what revised my way of thinking, once we left is what did it!
As I backed the Oldsmobile out of the parking, Uncle Jesse’s old girlfriend came to the entrance, opened the door, smiled, while beckoning an affectionate looking farewell.
Jess grinned and waved.
As we pulled away, he then said to me “You know back in the day she was my favorite”
“Girlfriend” I prodded
“I guess you could say she was my girlfriend”
“Boy-O-boy We use to go at it like rabbits”
“What” I blurted out
For I was stunned, as a teenager, my virgin ears had never heard, any adult talking in sexual terms!
Hearing Uncle Jess say that he used to have sexual relations with this respected mature woman! Why it changed my whole perception. It was like learning your mom and dad had sex to have you! It was an adolescent revelation!
My teenage hormones craved for more stories of old-fashioned passion!!!
“Jess you really did—-did– do her?” I squeaked out
“Yep every chance we got” He proudly announced
He further stated, “She was really something!”
Every chance “WE got” I thought they BOTH had consensual sex!!!!!
I was under the impression only boys took pleasure in sex. My innocent image of adult relations had just zoomed up.
Jess pointed east down highway 19
“Head on out of town and take us to Byars, I got something to show you” he declared
As I headed for Byars Jess position the large brass Santa Fe railroad spittoon. That he kept on the passenger floorboard.
“You see this here spittoon,” he asks.
“I took it off a Doodlebug train about 45 years ago”
“I was headed for Byars lake at the time and when the train stopped I just took it with me”
“What was going on at Byars lake?” I ask
“That’s what I’m going to show you”
On our drive to Byars Uncle Jess began to tell me about how they used to meet girls back in the 1920s.
Jessie Harold Brunson [Uncle Jess] was born in Erath Co Texas Dec 20, 1900. He grew up in rural Oklahoma and Texas, coming from a large sharecropping family of 13 kids, they all worked hard and played harder!
He said they lived out by Rosedale in the 20s. They would go to Byars Lake to party.
Now back then going thru the town of Byars were two major railroads that intersected in the town. East to West was the Oklahoma Central and North and south the Santa Fe.
The lake was Built by the Santa Fe railroad to provide water to the steam engines. It was hand dug out using mule teams. The main Santa Fe railroad track ran parallel to the lake going into town and in between the railroad track and the right-of-way was a little strip of land, about a hundred yards wide several hundred yards long.
In this field was a little grassy area that was kept mowed and cleaned.
We pulled up to Byars lake.
The Significance of the sight eluded me. For in front of me lay an overgrown cow pasture with a shallow moss covered lake. I was reminded of a dull worn out penny who’s previous worth had passed with time, no longer relevant to the present and whose value was pertinent only by the holder of the past.
Uncle Jess started talking, pointing to bedraggled areas of the landscape.
“You see that over there, that’s where they had picnic tables”
As he looked out over the overgrown field you could tell It was all coming back into his recollective vision, he started to identify the phantom spots of old.
“Over yonder was a small Pavilion, Gazebo, and a little bandstand” he reflected
“The lake had a pier with rowboats and swimming area,” he added
“The young people would pitch tents and camp out.”
“The town of Byars had a brass band that would perform concerts.”
“People would also bring guitars, fiddles, and banjos, and generate their own entertainment.”
“All that happened here?” I ask
“Yep it was the place to be back then” he proudly informed me
Jess said there was plenty of beer and alcohol and the young people would sing, dance, and play music way into the night.
In the nineteen-teens and twenties, this become a major attraction for young men and women to congregate, to meet people of the same age.
It was the backwood remoteness, away from the etiquette of the Victorian era, that accommodated the Hedonism, being ushered in by the flappers of the roaring twenties.
It is historically noted that up to 5000 young people would come on a weekend, let me tell you any time you get 5000 young people camped out in a remote area away from adult scrutiny you have a happening. In other words, It was the Woodstock of the day
They even built outhouses!!
Because of the two main railroads that intersected in the town of Byars, kids would come from all directions. From the north college kids from Stillwater, Oklahoma A&M.
From the east Ada which was East Central College.
From Norman Oklahoma University they would go down to Purcell and get on a train and then catch a branch line over to Byars
From the south, they would come up out of towns from the main line to Pauls Valley, switch trains and catch a ride to Byars lake.
Jess said that on a good weekend there would be hundreds and thousands of young people camped at Byars Lake and doing what young people do.
During the day they swam and rolled boats on the lake, listened to band concerts, toyed with badminton, played lawn croquet, tossed horseshoes and eventually paired off taking little strolls away from the crowds.
As evening approached People would sing and dance around the campfires and eventually off they go, taking their blankets/quilts. With the Moon and outdoors setting the mood so they went to frolic in the grass and woods.
Fifty years later the youth of 1969 Woodstock were doing nothing new that the kids of 1919 had not already done.
Once the word got out that there was a place, a happening, a rendezvous to go. All the kids wanted to go, to use today’s vernacular “hookup”.
Now all this was was done because there was a means for young people to travel back then—– Trains!
A lot of the small towns were connected by rail. As the railroads expanded they would often branch off of their main lines and interconnect smaller towns one to another. The railroads were helped out by the Federal Government and since they were going to build these Branch lines under government assistance, the government required that they provide public transportation and mail service on these Branch lines on a daily basis.
So it was mandated by law that these railroads had to provide some type of Transportation on a daily basis.
The railroads knew that it was not economically feasible to operate steam Engines up and down these Branch lines on a daily basis. Their solution was motorized coaches that were powered by small gas engines and gear system.
The railroads called the motorized coaches “Doodlebugs”.
The Doodlebugs were Something like the bus routes of today. The routes joined the smaller towns one to another.
They could haul passengers, mail, and limited cargo. A farm boy or girl could flag down the Doodlebug anywhere on the track and hop on board and catch a ride into town. It only took one man to operate it as a bus.
Doodlebugs were quite prevalent on these Branch lines throughout the rural areas and they were found basically all over the United States.
Back in my Uncles day in central Oklahoma, they provided a means of transportation for young people to get on and ride them to Byars Oklahoma and get off at the park.
I can remember riding the Doodlebug from Pauls Valley to Byars in the early fifties with my mother on a trip to visit my Aunt Sudie.
In 1958 the government rescinded the requirement of having to provide transportation on these Branch lines and the railroads quickly took them out of service.
Those last existing Doodlebugs brought an end to an Era of small town rail travel. Something that will never be seen again.
All that remains of the old railroads are the raised right-of-ways, next to fields, clear-cut paths through dense Crosstimbers that now act as highways for deer. No longer are their steel rails drawing lines through the countryside like ribbons through tangled hair. Gone are the sounds of the steam the shrill of the whistle the clank of the engines the laughter of the youth, the songs and music of the era.
Gone are all the great railroads that connect the small towns. The rails providing passage of life the venerable umbilical cords from one town to another.
As for Byars lake, all that remains is a shallow moss-covered lake and overgrown Park. Skirted by an abandoned railroad right away, down the road there are remnants of an old ghost town with dilapidated brick buildings run down houses and empty lots where once people lived and thrived.
As for the railroads, all the tracks a have been taken up the debris from a few old earthen raised right away, Bridges, trestles, testify to the grand days of the railroads. They have been replaced by state highways and County Roads that interconnect a nondescript destination with no distinction.
But there was a time a hundred years ago—– when kids defined their own generation—-adopted their own culture—Long before the hippie movement of the late ’60s
It all happened at Byars Lake—rural Oklahoma—where a century ago we had our own Woodstock.
Thanks, Uncle Jess!