May 4, 1996
Visiting with a friend the other day, the name of Fred Kretsch came up. My friend remembered making a small purchase years ago at the Kretsch store on the west side of the square, and that's all it took to set off a chain of recurring memories.
Many of you will not remember Mr. Kretsch because he died more than 50 years ago, but we are speaking of a true Cherokee Strip pioneer merchant who served four terms as mayor of this prairie city which he adopted as his own. He provided heroic leadership in some difficult times, valiantly serving local taxpayers. Mr. and Mrs. Kretsch also produced two outstanding offspring.
Mr. Kretsch died on September 17, 1944, one day after the 51st anniversary of the opening of the Cherokee Strip to white settlement. He made the run in 1893 as a young man of 29. When he died, he was the last of the original pioneers who went into business here on the day of the opening. With his wife, Bertha, he operated a small confectionery, or candy shop, on the west side of the square in a wooden building where the law office of Royce Hobbs is now located. It was an old-fashioned, poorly lighted store, but it was a friendly place to shop because that was Fred and Bertha's style.
In 1908, after a raging fire devastated most of the west side of the square, including the original Kretsch store, the couple rebuilt and started a grocery store in a two-story brick building in the same location. The name "Fred Kretsch" is proudly embossed in stone at the top of the building. We now refer to such places as "mom and pop" shops; and that pretty well describes the Kretsch store. Fred and Bertha were the owners and operators, and they knew every customer by name and family history.
He was first elected mayor at a special election on December 7, 1915, to succeed C. C. Van Nest, who had left town. He was reelected in 1917 (the mayor served two-year terms at that time) and governed the city during the troubled years of the first World War. Mr. Kretsch again served as mayor from 1931 to 1933, and in 1937 was elected for another term. He was a small, wiry man with a tangle of gray hair covering his head and a gentle smile usually in place. He was extremely energetic and scarcely looked his age when fatally stricken in his 79th year. He worked at the store until the day he entered Polyclinic hospital in Oklahoma City. The heart attack occurred after minor surgery.
During his fourth term as mayor, in 1938, Mr. Kretsch stared down the Apache Gas Co., which had a franchise to serve the city, and the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. The Great Depression was very much an economic factor in the winter months of 1938 when fuel consumption for heat was at its highest. The state was experiencing one bone-chilling cold wave after another and many thought the local gas price rate was excessive. In response to that, a group of Perry citizens circulated a petition asking the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to order a reduction of rates here, maintaining the cost of gas was out of line.
At a hearing before the Corporation Commission on January 7, 1938, Mayor Kretsch announced the city of Perry would build its own gas plant if no reduction was ordered by the state agency. He said $100,000 in municipal bonds approved by city voters years earlier could be used to build the plant. The commission took the ultimatum under advisement and scheduled a formal hearing on the matter for January 14. Henry Dolezal, city attorney, was designated to represent the city with Henry S. Johnston, former governor of Oklahoma, as special counsel. The two of them helped fashion Mayor Kretsch's strategy. Paul W. Cress, a former city attorney, a member of the Cress, Tebbe & Cress law firm, was attorney for the gas company.
When the January 14 hearing was convened My. Johnston was not the only former governor involved. J. C. Walton was a member of the commission. He had been mentioned as a candidate for governor or for reelection to the commission, so the rate hearing was an important political battle for him, also. Illness prevented a third former governor from attending. J. B.A. Robertson, Corporation Commission attorney, was ill. He was governor from 1919 to 1923.
The complaint that gas rates were exorbitant was made against Apache Gas Co. and the Gas Transport Co. of Perry, wholesale company which served Apache. The existing rate was 47 1/2 cents for the first 5,000 cubic feet used. A long, drawn-out hearing was expected, but the commission took the case under advisement on February 3 after the gas company presented its evidence. Company witnesses said the case to date had cost the utility $2,135, including a $1,000 attorney fee. Also testifying were D. C. Williams of Ponca City, president of the Northern Oklahoma Gas Co.; O. A. Savage, Tulsa auditor; Harold St.Clair, superintendent of the Apache plant in Perry; and Paul Cress.
The case was settled without the need for a municipally owned gas plant. On April 14, 1938, the commission ordered a slight rate reduction for Perry customers of Apache Gas. The order reduced the rate from 47 1/2 cents to 45 cents for the first 5,000 cubic feet used. The rate for the next 10,000 feet was reduced from 45 to 44 cents. It was estimated Perry residents would save 21 cents monthly or $2.50 annually. That was enough to satisfy Mayor Kretsch. He proclaimed victory and the battle ended.
Fred and Bertha had a son, Arthur, and a daughter, Charlotte, generally known as Lottie. Arthur, nicknamed "Judge," was an outstanding wrestler at Perry high school. He was captain of the 1927 PHS squad, which also included eventual Olympic medal-winner Jack VanBebber. The school yearbook, Peroma, had this to say about Arthur as a senior: "He's little but he's mighty." He also was a-108-pound terror on the football team, playing end. Arthur was a clerk at Foster's Corner Drug Store until World War II came along. Then he entered the Navy and was stationed at a military hospital on the West coast. Arthur died in 1974.
Lottie as born one day before the opening of the Cherokee Strip and graduated from Perry high school in 1912. She received her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Kansas. Lottie spent 43 years in secondary education, retiring in 1959 after 40 years as an English teacher in the Enid school system. Throughout her 43-year career, she never missed a day of school because of illness. In fact she had only two absences -- once each for her parents' funerals. The love she felt for the estimated 4,500 students who benefited from her classroom instruction was later expressed in a generous bequest to the Enid school district:
Mr. Kretsch was born December 16, 1864, in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and came to this country as a young man during the late 19th century when a flood of European immigrants eagerly were becoming U.S. citizens. Many of them settled in this very area and, like Fred and Bertha Kretsch, were instrumental in creating a new community on the prairie. Mr. Kretsch was a member of a Jewish synagogue in Oklahoma City. For his final services at the Newton funeral home, Rabbi Joseph Blatt of Oklahoma City officiated, along with Rev. David Thomas of the Perry Presbyterian church. Mr. Kretsch's fellow members from the local Masonic Lodge, Odd Fellows Lodge and the Knights of Pythias joined other mourners at the service. Pallbearers were six friends who also qualified as pioneers of this community Martin Robinson, George Gottlieb, Henry S. Johnston, Dr. F. C. Seids, O. R. Hall and Ralph Foster Sr. With his burial in Fairlawn cemetery at Oklahoma City, a chapter closed in the history of Perry, Oklahoma.