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March 25, 1997

Photograph of Big Elm Camp
Big Elm Tourist Camp and Station was one of the businesses that once lined east Cedar street. This photo, made in the early 1930s judging by the cars shown, was provided by Gene Wood.

A while back, I reminisced in this space about the small retail business district that once thrived on the east side of town, just east of the Cedar street bridge on Cow Creek. Several merchants chose to locate in that area at the time of the great Cherokee Outlet land run in 1893. They soon began moving out when it became obvious that the courthouse square was going to be the heart of the city. All traces of the east Cedar stores have long since vanished, but a few long-time Perryans still remember them.

One of the last survivors was the Big Elm Camp and Service Station on the south side of the street at 302 Cedar. The name came from the tall, graceful elm trees that once lined many Perry neighborhoods. A small Texaco station with a pitched roof canopy sheltering two gasoline pumps sat just off Cedar street. The hand operated pumps offered drivers a choice of "regular of Ethyl." Prices for both usually hovered somewhere below 30 cents per gallon.

A row of tourist courts was located just behind the gas station. The cabins, as they were called, were fairly typical of the early version of today's modern motels. A sign at the front of the station advertised "showers and cabins" along with Nehi pop, lunch meat and fuel for travelers. The pumps had glass tanks at the top, crowned with lighted white Texaco signs. The pumps were operated by an attendant who usually appeared in fresh khaki pants and shirt and a military-style Texaco hat. In addition to pumping gas, the attendant would clean your windshield and headlight lenses, check the tire pressure all around, check your oil and radiator for proper levels, and usually toss in a few friendly remarks just to help pass the time of day.

Jack Dolezal, who grew up in the family home just around the corner from the Big Elm, remembers a comfortable frame home adjacent to the station where William A. (Bill) Box, the Texaco bulk agent, resided with his wife and their sons, Ken and Bill Jr. Through the years the Big Elm had several operators. E. B. Johnson had it in 1940. By 1948 Kenneth Middleton had taken it over, and in 1952 Lacy Godbey was the operator.

Bill Smith remembers that his uncle, Al Ritthaler, had a grocery store in a building across the street from the Big Elm, a little east of the present Heppler Machine Shop. Mr. Ritthaler later became the assistant Perry fire chief. His daughter, Lucille Graham, now lives in Stillwater. As I've mentioned before, the pioneer Perry pharmacist, E. W. Howendobler, had a drug store at 103 Cedar in the early days before moving to the south side of the square. Other shops also were sprinkled among the residences on east Cedar in the era shortly after the run, but they all disappeared, one by one, in favor of preferred locations around the square. For many years, heavy traffic was generated along Cedar street because U.S. highway 64, leading east to Pawnee, Cleveland and Tulsa, was routed there.

East Park, now known as Leo East Park, has been there from the beginning. It still provides a restful place for family fun. My thanks to Gene Wood for providing the photo of the Big Elm Camp that accompanies this column.

I had a call the other day from Mrs. Juhree Bisel of Okeene, a niece of Sgt. W. R. Sargent. Her uncle appeared in a World War II era photo with the Burns & Allen comedy team. The photo was shown in this corner last week with a request for information about it. Mrs. Bisel explained that Sgt. Sargent was chosen by the Army to tour the U.S. on a War Bond sales campaign with George Burns and Gracie Allen to spur the public's interest in buying War Bonds. He was chosen because he had participated in the Battle of the Bulge in Europe and was decorated for heroism. He was a master sergeant, the top rank for a non-commissioned officer. Following his death a few years ago, he was buried in a military cemetery at Fort Scott, Kansas. M/Sgt. Sargent was the son of Ross and Bertha Sargent, who lived north of Bill's Corner.