The houses on B and I Avenues in the dusty little Army town, of Lawton,were the site of many happy childhood memories for our rising generation. I knew our grandparents amidst life in the Great Depression, Dust Bowl and World War II, all of which without doubt took their toll physically and emotionally. Nevertheless the memories are of stability. The numerous box camera photographs reveal a well attended and connected family. I wish all could be included.
With Rolla, Ellen and Dora’s permanent move back to Oklahoma it became necessary for our grandparents to change farming to a tenant status on a nearby farm. Those were difficult years for many Oklahomans, and especially for tenant farmers. The fragility of land turned from prairie to farming and denuded of the “wooley grass” sod described by Margaret presaged the years of the Dust Bowl to come.
It became clear to our grandparents to be that farming would not provide a reasonable life for the family and our grandfather, Charles, obtained Civil Service employment. They were soon able to build the home on B Avenue in Lawton that was to serve them a lifetime. Grandfather Watkins’ civil service position evolved into a lifetime civilian position in the Ordinance Department at Ft. Sill. The reliable job coupled with Charlie and Minniie’s generosity was to save our and and other family from the worst of deprivation of the Great Depression.
Charles and Minnie Watkins’ third son and my first playmate, James Robert was born in the city of Lawton 29 June 1922.
The many photos of the growing family of boys and Grandmother’s brief notes on the backs of some are those of fulfilled parents. “it can’t get any better than this” she says in one comment.
Kendall, Watkins took his first job in the vocation he was to follow all of his life as he began working for the Hornaday Greenhouses in Lawton at age 16 years. By the time of his marriage he had worked a number of jobs in Lawton and Oklahoma City while taking courses at Oklahoma City University. Most of his work was in the business of flowers.
One may assume the slightly older and quite popular Gladys Cooke with whom he fell in love while still in high school provided much incentives toward achieving his dreams and as well economic stability. The first date was for the Lawton premier of first movie to talk, The Jazz Singer.
In 1930 at age 25 love for Kendall and marriage intervened and cut short Gladys’ dream of making use of her certificate in teaching in Hawaii. The Sept 11, 1930 Lawtonian Review account of the wedding speaks more clearly the 1930 coming together of this young couple than I can.
Gladys Lorraine Cooke was born in the Piney Woods of Texas to Harry J. Cooke and Mary Emma Cardwell Cooke. After all their children were born the Harry and Emma Cooke family migrated to Oklahoma around 1915. Harry Cooke and Emma Cardwell had eloped as teenagers and settled in northeastern Texas. Harry’s family, the Cookes and Borons, farmed in North Texas in the vicinity of Dallas.
Emma was the daughter of Aaron Cardwell and Mary Wallace. Aaron Cardwell grew to adulthood and attended an academy in Camden Arkansas. He and his father, Hiram, both fought with the C.S.A. in the Civil War. Aaron refusing amputation carried a Minni ball in his thigh until death in his nineties. Mary Wallace had come from Tennessee and died young leaving Emma to be mothered by former slave “Mammy” and later a step mother, the mother of her half-sister Dora.
Gladys was Harry and Emma Cardwell Cooke’s tenth child. It was sometime after her birth in 1905 that the Harry Cooke family migrated to Oklahoma where they began farming in Comanche County near Blue Beaver Creek. Our mother recounted many times the trip in the “covered wagon,” her father walking ahead, grass to his shoulders. After tenant farming, Harry Cooke secured employment with the Frisco Railroad and the family moved into the home at 924 on I Avenue in Lawton. Our mother was the youngest of ten children. All but her sister Augusta (Aunt Gussie) in Texas, were living in Lawton during my early childhood. And they all seemed to enjoy clustering for enthusiastic and often noisy visiting.
When Kodak introduced the box camera Mother was likely one of the first in Lawton to own one. An enthusiastic photographer all of her life, in her eighties she put to shame the descendants with the aesthetic qualities of the photo record of her trips abroad, all with cataracts and a fixed focus “Brownie.” The dozens of her early photographs keep the aunts and uncles and cousins alive today.
The house at 924 I Avenue, Lawton, Oklahoma. (It was still standing in 2000.)
For us, this is the place of many wonderful memories of times spent with my beloved Gramma and Cooke aunts and Uncles and cousins. The east bedroom, site of the education of Shirley and me on the responsibilities of womanhood, is on the left.
Grandmother also took seriously the obligation to not only nurture but to inculcate our younger generations with the civil culture of education and aesthetics. Our grandfather shared this same sense of obligation but was somewhat less demanding. We learned Watkins family mythology and stories from our grandfather, called Grandad, and stories of home on the Ohio River from Grandmother.
I think of Granddad as being much as I imagine Stephen Watkins to have been. He was quiet and very bright, reverent for the truth, and happy, if not happiest, with his books. I loved to sit on his lap listening to history, ours and the country’s. He was throughout his life civil and kind. The fact that my brother and I recall an amazing amount detail of the family history is a tribute to his and Grandmother’s finesse at teaching. As I began to design my first website in the early 1990s my first reflections on those story times directed me.
The C. S.Watkins family were early on and in later years active in the cultural life of the area. They were among the founders of the Congregational Church in Lawton and and for years they participated as players in the church sponsored Pageant in the Mountains each Easter sunrise.
Our grandfather was particularly active in preserving the early history, collaborating with and providing information for historians writing of Ft. Sill and also those writing of the first days of Lawton. He also preserved and carried forward his father’s genealogy work. collaborating with John G. Clark’s granddaughter, Alice Clark McBrien, in documenting the Clark history, especially SAR/DAR qualifications. In addition to the work with genealogy and Oklahoma history, the Watkins family was early on involved in a number of community affairs..
All three of the sons of Charley and Minnie Watkins graduated from Lawton High School and pursued college though Jim, as he became known, was the only to complete a degree. It was Depression and Dust and hard times. Our father was from boyhood active in the Congregational Church and, along with our mother, was among the founders and leaders of the Fellowship Congregational Church in Tulsa. This church holds my first membership, the ninth generation of continuous Watkins; membership from the 1600s Old South Church in Boston.
As an adolescent Jim left the Congregationalists and became active in the First Methodist Church of Lawton. He was in later life recognized for his dedicated work in that denomination. He set an example that son James P. (Pat) followed into the ministry.
Romantic strivings co-mingled with financial incentive drove Watkins brother Ralph to Oklahoma City and accountant work leading to a lifetime executive position with the Superior Feed Mills. It was Oklahoma City where (within my memory) he met and married Mae Stepp. James R. Watkins found love in North Carolina where he net and married Anne Jones. He pursued work as a finance executive in the textile mills in North Carolina. Their children of these uncles are our treasured “Watkins Cousins,” Betty, Anne and Pat.
Seeking in the business of flower growing and designing work that would sustain family, Kendall and Gladys Watkins moved about southwestern Oklahoma until finally looking to the northeast corner of Oklahoma and the second largest city, Tulsa. I was born in Lawton in 1931 and brother David in 1935 in Altus. The move to Tulsa was in November of 1939.
That innocuous comment; “Seeking in the business of flower growing and designing work that would sustain family, Kendall and Gladys Watkins moved about southwestern Oklahoma until finally looking to the northeast corner of Oklahoma and its second largest city, Tulsa.” covers 8 years of my life and 4 of David’s.
It was the time of the Dust and poverty and our homes were within miles of the epicenter. Our family, especially Mother, was most creative in keeping for us a childhood surrounded by love and wonderful “make do” substitutes for meals with meat and Christmas gifts. I never felt unsafe or unloved as long as family was there.
In spite of the awesome power of family, children do know their parents’ fears and despair from poverty and they certainly know on their own experience torrid nights and yards barren of grass and dust; the awful dust. My personal memoir of the Dust Bowl Days, may be read here. I provide some more information about this 1935 most famous of the many storms that tormented the era.
The three sons of Charley and Minnie Watkins were not highly eligible for the draft of WW II and did not serve in the armed forces. Our father Kendall did work for something over a year in one of the Tulsa aircraft plants as a second job in as his status became vulnerable at the height of the war. We had a number of cousins who did serve and were fortunate that the ones closest all survived. David and I were young enough during the war to not suffer the anxieties that our parents did I think not that affected by it. Between it and the Dust Bowl it just seemed struggle and delayed gratification if not deprivation was natural. And there were the movies to make it all so romantic. My personal nightmares are of the times of dust and tornadoes, not of war.
As long as there was cheap gasoline for travel and we were living within miles of Lawton our aunts and uncles and cousins were very much a part of my day to day life. With the coming of war with gas rationing and and our move to Tulsa that casual experience of extended family ended, to be later in life sustained in fragmented connecting and precious memory.
The Cooke cousins I was closest to and remained so were the daughters of Mother’s sisters Grace, and Coystal, and brother Ulna. Kathleen and Hazel Thurman, Polly Westfall and the gorgeous Maxine Cooke (daughter of Uncle Ulna and Aunt Cordie ) were just enough older than I pursuing romance among the thousands of young men in uniform that crowded all public spaces during WWII.
We also heard and knew a bit of our father’s cousins, perhaps best the Margaret Watkins and Jim Sheppard family. David and I recall visiting George Sheppard as children and occasionally Tom and Roger and I came to know Louise and Ellen (Vicky) in later years. They grew up on the Sheppard farm in Cotton County. The only recollection I have of that place is that they created their own electricity from wind generators. If you wanted to listen to the war news on the radio you just unleashed the windmill and the virtually continuous Oklahoma winds charged the batteries.
I recall visiting with the Maxwells (Grandad’s sister Nell) sons Amos and Paul and daughter Margaret. Amos, a college professor, kept correspondence with me up the academic ladder until his death. As children the family visited with our Grandfather’s brother Ralph Bushnell Watkins and I know sons Stephen and Richard became engineers and at least Stephen worked in Los Alamos on developing the first nuclear bomb. I had one brief note of his son Stephen also living in that area but have been unsuccessful in establishing contact.
Then there were the Kendall cousins; Mary Ellen daughter of Grandmother’s brother Everett who was a dating companion to our parents. (I never figured out how it was she was in Lawton.) There was also the orphan son of Florence Kendall Cotton, cousin David Cotton who lived with our grandparents for a few years.
Our father’s cousins, Louise Sheppard and Mary Ellen Kendall were closest in age to our parents, sharing many of dating times and days climbing in the nearby Wichita Mountains, a small sedimentary basin disrupted by volcanic activity, one of the most ancient in America.
It is where Uncle Ralph in 2000 revealed as ”where we took the girls to get them drunk” … and picnic along Medicine Creek and at the foot of Mt. Scott. The tradition of picnics in the mountains was followed by both our parent’s families throughout our childhood and longer. I could say that those Sunday afternoons are my favorite memories. And the friendship with Louise Sheppard was steadfast until their deaths.
A somewhat apocryphal figure was Uncle Logan. He was older brother to Minnie and her sister Harriet and we knew him more in legend than from the few times we visited. He was the James Logan Kendall who did the masterful Kendall genealogy and who in public life gained renown as the head of the US Weather Service in Louisville, Ky. at the time of a number of serious Ohio River floods.
Our Grandmother Watkins’ sister Harriet Mae Kendall was a large figure throughout my life until her death, and not so much for David or other family as far as I know. For long periods she would be a member of Watkins household. My first memories of the house on B included an added-on room where she stayed. Sometime in the 1940′s she built a small house on an adjacent lot and lived there until her death in 1957.
Aunt Harriet graduated from the Nursing School of Louisville Kentucky’s Norton’s Infirmary and immediately accompanied her entire class to serve as Army Nurses in France during WWI. She was a surgical nurse in a battlefield hospital in France and returned home a lifelong pacifist. She worked a stint in the Lynch, Kentucky miners’ hospital, then for some years in various California hospitals and doing some private duty nursing.
It was she who in the midst of WWII. when we were thirsting to kill all “Japs” and “Krauts,” introduced the notion to me that suffering, even from battle wounds, did not recognize uniform or rank and medical people honored that. Compassionate care of the suffering is a right of all mankind.
At times she would leave Oklahoma to live for several months in a veterans’ domiciliary for. reasons that were never clear to me. Aunt Harriet died a few days after that of her sister Minnie and my graduation from medical school. My break between medical school and internship was spent accompanying her remains on the train to Indiana. where she was buried in the Kendall lot in Vevay. At her request under her name her grave marker states simply “Army Nurse World War I.
In the late 1940s seeking college information for me we visited the Kendall brothers, Everett and Logan, and families. Uncle Logan’s son Robert (Bob), wife Anne and twins Bobby and Anne had lived for a time in Tulsa and we came to know them rather well. Then Bob a geophysicist with Royal Dutch Shell moved on to larger work in the international arena before retiring as a senior Vice President for Shell. Anne claiming me as a legacy made it possible for my pledging into Alpha Omicron Pi ; a sorority being a social necessity at the time of my college. I regret having not continued the connection with them following the deaths of our parents.
I last saw Louise Sheppard Hillman at our mother’s funeral and corresponded with her and sister Ellen (Vicky) on this family history. I am still in contact with Louise’s son Floyd Hillman.
With Vicky’s death a few short years ago, the last of the R.A.Watkins clan that I knew left Oklahoma. They contributed so much that cannot be described. I loved them very much. Just as with Vermont, and Ohio, and Wisconsin, all the Watkins have left for other grounds.
Grandmother died in June 10, 1957 in after some years of coma following a stroke. She died one day following my graduation from medical school. Though we never knew how much she understood after the stroke, I like to believe she was only willing to turn herself over to the next world once the task of teaching me begun on the old front porch glider (before I entered first grade ) had been completed. Grandad died in a nursing home in Tulsa in 1960. He spent his last years reading his beloved history and corresponding with family. They are buried in Lawton’s Highland Cemetery, as are Harry and Emma Cooke.
Typical of this vast nation and, now instantaneous communication and almost as rapid travel, the families are spread like seed broadcast in the wind. But wherever and whenever a family is a nice thing to have. It makes growing older a little easier