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November 4, 2019

My Sundays with Ghosts

Source: Google Earth

America's ghost towns lose their populations through attrition, natural calamities, economics, eminent domain, or disasters of our own making. Sometimes they retain a small population, but whatever the cause and the scale of their demise, they become shadows as residents uproot or die, abandoning dwellings, businesses, and artifacts to the mercy of critters, decay, metal detectorists, and adventure seekers.

Reed, Oklahoma, had a population of 64 according to the Welcome sign on Highway 9 at the edge of town. Even back then it was a bold exaggeration, or perhaps a relic of an earlier time when the post office – a WWII-surplus Quonset hut – was still open. It was long since closed when I first visited. But it's hard to gauge the size of a small town in the rural farmland of southwestern Oklahoma, where houses, people, dogs, and cattle are scattered across a broad expanse.

The nearest town of any size, Mangum, was 13 miles away. Mangum was the seat of Greer County which once had the distinction of being part of Texas. Why it packed up and moved to Oklahoma has always been a mystery to me.

My family and I lived in Weatherford in those days – perhaps 90 miles from Reed’s boastful sign. Weatherford was my second hometown, and a small place it was with some 8,500 souls. Dad taught History at Southwestern Oklahoma State University and followed a concurrent career as a pastor, which is what took us on the 90-mile drive to Reed every Sunday morning for services at the town’s church. We had 16 regular members.

There were two services on Sundays, almost unthinkable in small churches of the current age. Morning services were from 10.00 a.m. to noon, followed by an evening service from 6.00 to 7.00 p.m. This meant we had time to kill in Reed throughout the long Sunday afternoons. We'd pay a visit to a member family, and hangout at Thompson’s General Store which was jammed with sundries like soap, generic-labelled aspirin bottles, and paper goods. There was a display of pocketknives that caught my eye, though most of the spaces were empty.

As a visitor, I was teamed up with the youngsters of the host family. Given the robust work ethic that prevails in rural Oklahoma, that often meant trailing after a teen-aged lad of my approximate age as a list of chores was dispatched. His chores would be approached self-consciously at first, with the pastor and his son on site. This was Bible Belt country and there were at least latent concerns over laboring on a Sunday so blatantly. But the farm's demands always prevailed and my host would soon tuck into his work in earnest. I was never a farm boy so there was always something new. I learned to take the duals off a tractor, for example. It looked something like this.

Sometimes more fun was to be had, like catching crawdads in a murky creek or splashing in a cow pond dodging muck floaters. On one occasion, we hunted rattlesnakes with a friend’s homemade tongs. He had fabricated a device from a pole, a flat piece of metal hammered into a curve, some cable, and the handle from an old set of shears.

We walked through the rocky soil of a field in a search for snakes and managed to scare up a few. I never had the nerve to catch one, as the tongs were maybe 3 feet long and I’d heard a rattler could jump twice its length. (A quick Googling suggests that was never true, but having no safe way of testing the idea at the time I believed it.)

Nearby Mangum was the home of the annual Rattlesnake Derby which Dad and I visited. We sampled rattlesnake in foil packets fresh from the grille and watched as a couple of fellows in jeans and boots transferred rattlers from individual bags into a huge wire drum. In short order it was brimming with hissing, rattling, squirming snakes. A sight to behold.

We also explored some caves outside town. They were accessed through a small ditch in some farmer's field and were surprisingly extensive. There was a long, straight passage at one point called "the train coach." Its walls were scrawled with messages from generations of children and explorers. Trail blazes in paint, chalk, and knife blades.

I tried to find a photo of the Reed caves online, but I had to settle for the wonderful image above of participants in the Selman Bat Watch, sponsored by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. (Selman is over 150 miles from Reed, but the topography is roughly similar. Plus, it's such a great picture.)

Whatever the fate of the people of Reed with whom I once explored fields, creeks, caves and farms, the town finally gave up its ghost. But recently I stumbled across some photographs that an adventurous soul took of the town’s state of abandonment. You can find them linked here. One of the photographs is this lonely image:

It’s the very building where Dad preached his sermons before sixteen faithful farmers, some of them picking at fingernails with knives, and one dozing teenage boy. If you scroll farther down the page, you’ll see a close-up of the church organ.

Reed was once a bustling town as evidenced by other historical photos one can find online, such as this portrait of a third grade class from the 1940s. (Note the prominence of farmwear on the schoolboys. They weren't dressed that way for fashion's sake.)

I count 34 kids in this picture – quite a turnout for a town that was ultimately to humble itself with a “Population 64” sign sometime in the following decades. And I may well have been hosted by one or more of the youngsters in the photograph on some Sunday afternoon years later.

In the digital age, reality fades but images remain. So, do such towns ever really die?

On a different note altogether, I’ll leave you with this spectacular photo of the sky near Reed, a town deep in Oklahoma’s Tornado Alley, taken by professional photographer Colt Forney:

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