Broken Arrow Past Brighter Than Ever
By DAVID JONES
HISTORICAL CLUTTER: Dr. Betty Gerber, executive director of the Broken Arrow Historical Society, stands amid the clutter of objects that define the city’s history. Soon they will be on display in Broken Arrow’s new museum, which is scheduled to open some time in the fall.
DAVID JONES for GTR Newspapers
Broken Arrow’s past is looking up.
Around mid-September the Broken Arrow Historical Society Museum, the Broken Arrow Arts and Humanities Council and the Broken Arrow Genealogical Society are going to start sharing digs in a three-story building at 408 Main St. that will raise their total space from 1,600 square feet to 9,000 square feet.
Three thousand of those feet, the entire second floor, will be devoted to the museum, says Broken Arrow Historical Society Executive Director Dr. Betty Gerber. Another 1,400 square feet will be shared for temporary exhibits with the Arts and Humanities Council.
“Those temporary exhibits should change every four months or so,” she says. “Our permanent exhibit will also be changing from time to time. We just have too many artifacts for the space we have and more is coming in every day.”
As an example, she points to a cast-iron cash register produced around 1902.
“The makers didn’t expect any high-dollar traffic. The keys stop at 60-cents and there is only one slot in the cash drawer for dollar bills.”
Dr. Gerber knows that Tulsa has a colorful history. She is a docent at Gilcrease Museum. But she quickly points out that Broken Arrow, apart from Tulsa, has some fascinating historical tidbits of its own.
Had Oklahoma been admitted as two states, Oklahoma (west) and Sequoyah (east), Broken Arrow would have been a county seat of the Coweta County.
The city was originally called Thlikachka, which is a Muscogee-Creek word that translates to “Broken Arrow.” It was founded by Creeks who had been forced out of their homeland and into Oklahoma via the Trail of Tears.
The reluctant settlers soon established themselves as prosperous farmers and ranchers, and the town contains the descendants of many the original inhabitants.
In the 1870s Sampson Chisholm, adopted son of the famous Jesse Chisholm, established his own cattle trail from northern Texas through the streets of Broken Arrow and on to South Coffeyville, Kan.
The railroad played a huge part in the location of the community. Originally several families formed a community called Elam, named after a Creek, Elam Hodge, but along came the KATY Railroad with a desire to locate a new town every 10 to 15 miles along its new right-of-way. W. S. Fears of the Arkansas Valley Townsite Company, which had been chosen by the KATY to establish towns along the tracks, selected the actual site and the current location of Broken Arrow was established. The residents of Elam moved to the new townsite.
The railroad transformed everything. Despite the fact that Broken Arrow was located on a prairie, rail cars imported lumber, food, mail and passengers and the town grew.
Water, of course, was needed for any town and the Creeks chose a site filled with springs. For many years Broken Arrow billed itself as “The City of Roses and Sparkling Spring Water.”
Cotton played a huge role in the prosperity of the town. With three cotton gins, the city cornered the market primarily, says Dr. Gerber, because they were shrewd enough to pay top dollar for cotton, knowing the money would be spent locally.
Coal became a mainstay of the economy. Farming and ranching continued. The final touch for the city’s prosperity came with the opening of the Broken Arrow Expressway in 1965, which gave east access between Broken Arrow and Tulsa.
Dr. Gerber says the museum will emphasize the period between the first settlers and the completion of the expressway. The permanent exhibit’s major attractions will include an 1856 log cabin, which was moved to Persimmon Hollow 35 years ago from its original location in Wagoner County. It will be relocated to the museum by Magnum Construction and be restored exactly as it was on the museum floor, which will also offer reproductions of shops of the era and a replica of a Creek village.
“We will have a full library which we share with the Genealogical Society that scholars can use for research. We have a huge number of photographs of the earlier era.
“We will have a section on military uniforms worn in various conflicts. We will have a number of items, ranging from cotton gins to cylindrical phonographs that once adorned local households.
“As the word has gotten out about our expansion, we have been getting more and more items every day. We still will welcome gifts of historical items. We are far from finished. It will take us awhile to get all the exhibits in our new space, but when we do we’ll have a facility to remind Broken Arrow that it has a fascinating history.”
The future of Broken Arrow is unknown, but its past has never looked brighter.