Located in southeastern Oklahoma, Latimer County encompasses 729.12 square miles of total land and water area. Bordering counties are Le Flore on the east, Haskell on the north, Pittsburg on the west, and Pushmataha on the south. With a 1907 population of 9,340, the county was created at Oklahoma statehood and named for James L. Latimer, the Wilburton-area representative in the 1906 Constitutional Convention. Wilburton serves as county seat, and Red Oak is the only other incorporated town.
The countryside is hilly and forested, with the Sans Bois Mountains spanning the northern edge of the county and the western ridges of the Winding Stair Mountains extending into the southern region. Rich coal deposits have been an important economic resource. Fourche Maline, Brazil, and Sans Bois creeks drain the northern part of the county into the Poteau River; Buffalo and Gaines creeks drain the southern part into the Kiamichi River. In neighboring Pushmataha County, Jackfork Creek is dammed to create Sardis Lake, some of which extends into southwestern Latimer County.
From 1831 the region lay within the Choctaw Nation. The Choctaw used the area primarily for pasture land. Important Choctaw places included the county seat at Gaines Court House, in the vicinity of present Panola, and Red Oak, site of a council house. A Choctaw grist mill was located at Buffalo Valley. Approximately one-fourth of present Latimer County was allotted to Choctaw individuals, and the county now incorporates parts of Gaines and other counties of the former Choctaw Nation.
Transportation arteries linked this part of the Choctaw Nation with the outside world and profoundly affected the region's development. Whites began to know the area when the Butterfield Overland Mail route was established in 1858. Entering the present county from the northeast, the stages stopped at Edwards's Station near present Hughes, Holloway's Station near Red Oak, Riddle's Station near present Lutie, and Pusley's Station near Higgins.
As in most other Oklahoma counties, transportation routes provided access to outside markets. The opening of coal mines in the 1870s stimulated railroad development in the Indian nations. In 1889-90 the Choctaw Coal and Railway (later Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad and later a part of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific line) built 67.4 miles of track across present Latimer County from Wister to McAlester. The Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway completed a branch line from North McAlester to Wilburton in 1904. In the later twentieth century state and federal road systems served the residents, with State Highways 2 and 82 running north-south and State Highway 1/63 and US 270 running east-west.
The county's early economy was based on coal mining. The principal coal-producing area lay in the northern mountains, in the Choctaw Segregated Coal Lands. By 1895 the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railway operated mines near Gowen, Lutie, and Wilburton. By 1905 mining operations included McAlester Coal Mining Company (from 1897), McAlester Coal and Mineral Company (from 1897), Eastern Coal and Mining Company (from 1899), Great Western Coal and Coke Company (from 1899), and Missouri, Kansas and Texas Coal Company (from 1904), all near Wilburton; Kali-Inla Coal Company (from 1904) near Gowen; Bache and Denman Coal Company (from 1905) near Red Oak; and Le Bosquit Coal and Mining Company (from 1902) and Turkey Creek Coal Company (from 1901), both near Hughes. By 1912 the county had twenty-seven mines working three thousand miners producing five thousand tons per day. In addition, various individuals operated small strip mines. Most of the miners were native-born whites, but an assortment of Europeans, primarily from the British Isles and Italy, Mexicans, and African-Americans also contributed their labor to mining industry.
Latimer County, like Oklahoma's other coal-producing counties, suffered the decline and collapse of the industry in the 1920s due to labor disputes, the rise of petroleum as a fuel, and the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. By 1932 only one mine operated in the county, and the mining towns' populations had fallen by an average of almost 50 percent. The county's population was recorded at 11,321 in 1910, peaked at 13,866 in 1920, and fell to 11,184 in 1930. At one point during the Great Depression of the 1930s, 93.5 percent of Latimer County's people were on relief. Federal programs helped them through hard times by providing construction projects such as the Civil Works Administration (CWA)-built Wilburton Municipal Airport, Works Progress Administration (WPA)-built schools at Panola and other communities, and road-paving projects. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) developed a park project at the state game preserve, now part of Robbers Cave State Park.
An unusual depression-era venture found a home in Latimer County in 1933 when Spanish-American War veterans established Veterans Colony. This facility allowed former soldiers to build cabins, live there year-round, grow their own food, and socialize. In later years membership was opened to veterans of all wars. Veterans Colony still operated at beginning of twenty-first century.
Limited agriculture had always been practiced in Latimer County, with locally grown vegetables and other products sold to residents of the mining towns. Cotton and corn were also commercial crops, and cattle raising remained important. However, even by 1930, less than half the county's area was under cultivation, and farm tenancy was a problem. In 1930, of 1,386 farms, 869 were operated by tenants. After the coal industry played out, the economy slowly recovered, relying on cattle raising, with lumbering, coal mining (although limited), and oil and gas production supplementing local income. The census recorded 12,380 residents in 1940, 9,690 in 1950, and 7,738 in 1960.
Latimer County has been home to various medical, educational, and recreational facilities serving eastern Oklahoma. In 1920-21 the legislature created Eastern State Sanatorium, a treatment facility for tuberculosis patients; now operated as an Oklahoma Veterans Center, it is located two miles northwest of Talihina. Nearby, the Choctaw-Chickasaw Sanatorium for Indian tuberculosis patients was opened in 1917. Wilburton became the site of Latimer County's hospital in 1960. In 1909 state government created the Oklahoma School of Mines and Metallurgy at Wilburton, placed centrally within the southeastern Oklahoma mining district. In 2000, as Eastern Oklahoma State College, the school was a two-year, liberal-arts institution. Recreation opportunities in Latimer County include Robbers Cave State Park north of Wilburton, where camping and cabins are available. Lake Carlton, five miles north of Wilburton, offers fishing and swimming. The Lutie Coal Miners Museum, in Wilburton, commemorates the region's industrial history.
Among nineteen Latimer County properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places are Pusley's Station, Holloway's, Riddle's, and Edwards's Store stations on the Butterfield route, the Great Western Coal and Coke Company Mine Number Three and the Great Western Building in Wilburton, Cupco Church near Yanush, Veterans Colony Park Pavilion, and Panola High School and Gymnasium.
Latimer County, Oklahoma Cities and Town History
Red Oak lies fourteen miles east of Wilburton, the county seat. A few settlers lived in the area before the time of the Choctaw migration of 1831-34. Before coming to Indian Territory (I.T.) the Choctaw had their own government, schools, and churches in Mississippi and Alabama. After establishing themselves in I..T., they built homes, elected officers and a chief, and built a council house near present Red Oak. Eight miles northeast of the present town is the original site of Red Oak. There in 1850 Thomas Edwards established a trading post on the Fort Smith-Boggy Depot Road. With the advent of the Butterfield Overland Mail and stage line in 1858, Edwards's already prosperous store became a stopping place for mail and passengers. In March 1868 the store became an official post office, with Edwards as postmaster. He named the post office Red Oak, probably because there were trees near the store. The official designation was Red Oak, Skullyville County, Choctaw Nation. Edwards's Store is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The present location of "new" Red Oak, southwest of Edwards's, served as a stage stop between Fort Smith and Texas from the 1860s. For several years there was a sawmill, a lumberyard, and a mill where the business section was located at the turn of the twenty-first century. In 1888 the Choctaw Coal and Railway (later the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway) surveyed a route across present Latimer County, linking Wister to McAlester. With the advent of the railroad, a town started to grow. Around 1890 Edwards's Store closed, and the "old" Red Oak post office officially moved to the new community. "New" Red Oak supported a number of typical small-town businesses. Squire Cole owned the first drug store; Joe Moore had one of the first stores, a general merchandise with the Masonic Hall above; U.S. Marshal Seaton Thomas came in 1890 with his family. A livery, a wagonyard, a grocery, the Miners' and Merchants' Bank, and other businesses prospered. Early-twentieth-century newspapers included the Herald, the News, the Progressive Star, and the American. Four doctors served the citizens. Most businesses were first located along Main Street and then on Market Street, south of the railroad tracks. When several buildings were destroyed by fire, businesses were reestablished on the north side of the tracks. Red Oak was officially incorporated in 1900. The Choctaw Nation remained in control of its land until the passage of the Dawes Severalty Act (1887) and the Curtis Act (1898). These acts brought about allotment of their land and the demise of their tribal government. At 1907 statehood county lines were determined, and Red Oak fell within the confines of Latimer County. Before and after statehood, the surrounding area was agricultural. In 1907 the town had 277 residents, increasing to 398 in 1910. In the early days coal mines around the county provided fuel for heating homes, and as commercial mines developed in the late nineteenth century, they provided employment for many workers in the area. Over the next century millions of tons of coal were produced and shipped to other areas. At the end of the twentieth century the largest employers were companies that operate numerous facilities for processing gas from the area's petroleum fields. With the Great Depression of the 1930s many farmers left, and during World War II others went west to work and never returned. The town stopped growing, and many businesses moved out, leaving empty or razed buildings. Red Oak's population was 593 in 1920, declined to 460 in 1930 and 484 in 1940. By 1950 the numbers had increased to 568 and peaked at 676 in 1980. The 2000 census recorded 581 residents, primarily white. However, several American Indian families continued to live in or near town. In 1923 U.S. Highway 270 was built through Red Oak. In 1953 a new park was dedicated and named Fair-Miller Park, in honor of two of Red Oak's outstanding schoolteachers. Florence Miller donated the land for the park. An annual Independence Day celebration and parade are held, and in 2000 Red Oak held a centennial celebration.
The county seat of Latimer County, Wilburton is located in the Sans Bois Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma at the junction of U.S. Highway 270 and State Highway 2. The community was established on the Butterfield Overland Mail and stage route in l890. Originally part of the Choctaw Nation, Wilburton began as a service point for the large cattle ranches in the area. There are many tales concerning the origination of the name, but the most favored one is that the name came from Will Burton, a contractor and surveyor, who helped build the Choctaw Coal and Railway Company's line from Wister to McAlester and platted the Wilburton townsite in 1890. Formerly designated Gaines County, Choctaw Nation, at 1907 statehood the area was organized as Latimer County. It was named for James S. Latimer (1855-1941), who served as a delegate from District 99 at the 1906 Constitutional Convention held in Guthrie. The county bought a large building on East Main Street, formerly the Great Western Coal and Coke Mining Company's general merchandise store, for a court house. In 1941 a new county facility was constructed in a joint effort of the Works Projects Administration and the county commission. In the late 1800s and early 1900s coal mining became the community's largest economic asset. In the 1940s and 1950s strip mining emerged as an important method of obtaining coal in the nearby hills. An oil and natural gas boom came to Latimer County during the 1960s, adding to Wilburton's economic health. A large carpet plant built during the 1960s was later sold to Franklin Electric Company, still in operation at the end of the twentieth century. Wilburton has a tradition of providing education for its residents. Two prosperous coal mine owners, James Degnan and James McConnell, built schools and churches for their miners and their families. The city itself is located between two elongated hills running east and west. In 1911 the town built a large, twenty-six-room school building on the north hill. The facility burned in 1949, and a new building replaced it the following fall. In 1909 the Oklahoma School of Mines and Metallurgy was established on the west end of town for the purpose of training miners. This school later became Eastern Oklahoma A&M College and at the end of the twentieth century functioned as Eastern Oklahoma State College. Wilburton has a rich heritage of Old West tales commemorated by Robbers Cave State Park, located five miles north of town on State Highway 2. Legend holds that outlaws such as Belle Starr and the Younger Brothers, as well as many fugitives passing through the Indian Territory or evading from Judge Isaac Parker's federal court at Fort Smith, Arkansas, frequented the hills and caves northwest of the city. Annually on the third weekend in October, Wilburton hosts the Robbers Cave Fall Festival, which includes one of the state's largest antique car shows. Wilburton's population grew from 1,451 at 1907 statehood to a peak of 2,226 in 1920. After a downturn that dropped to 1,939 in 1950, by 1970 the town had grown to 2,504. The 1990 census recorded 3,092 and the 2000 census, 2,972. Many of the miners in the Wilburton area were immigrants from Western Europe. Italians formed a large portion of the labor force, and the community retains a rich Italian tradition among many families. As with most towns, occasional disasters have affected the residents. Several explosions have taken place in the nearby coal mines, costing many lives. The town also survived a disastrous tornado on May 5, 1960, which injured more than a hundred people and killed thirteen. Wilburton maintains a statutory aldermanic form of government.
[Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture]