Oklahoma City historian's photo collection spawns book series

Monday, December 20th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Even on vacation, Terry Griffith's mind cannot leave Oklahoma City. Instead of shopping for gift souvenirs or mementos from the places he visits, the 38-year-old historian often spends his trips hunting for scattered traces of his own city's past.

"I would go to various antique shops I saw and was amazed at how many things were available from Oklahoma City in other areas for relatively cheap," Griffith says. In Butte, Mont., he found a 1904 cookbook published by a prominent Oklahoma City social club. In Red River, N.M., he scored old campaign buttons from long-forgotten local education races.

Griffith's Oklahoma City-flavored collection has steadily grown throughout the years, and has now spawned two pictorial books --with a third on the way -- showing life as it has happened in Oklahoma's capital city. The newly published "Oklahoma City: Statehood to 1930," is a follow up to Griffith's first pictorial, "Oklahoma City: Land Run to Statehood," published in September.

Each volume features hundreds of photographs, ranging from stoic portraits of 19th century homesteaders to depictions of teen-agers frolicking in old Belle Isle Lake. The content of the books runs the gamut from the political to the personal. One sketch shows revenue officials dumping beer in the streets after official statehood brought prohibition in 1907. Another photo shows an unidentified man sitting proudly behind the wheel of a 1911 Buick.

Griffith -- who does not hold a degree in history -- says it was pure interest that drew him into the field, beginning with childhood visits to his grandparents' home in eastern Oklahoma. "They had a huge, black book called the 'Encyclopedia of Knowledge,' and I would spend hours going through it," Griffith says. Though it's outdated today, Griffith still has the book he likens to the first bike that everyone wishes they would have kept.

He admits that there are local historians who have more expertise. But he says his "everyday approach" to history can shed new light on the life of relatively young Oklahoma City. Even the most ordinary personal portrait, Griffith says, can provide a snapshot of timeless human qualities that are our best link to the past. "A lot of times we think the way we live our lives today is so different, but if you take away our technology we could've fit perfectly back then," Griffith says.

To tell the stories of the people in his photographs, Griffith says he relies on old news clippings, fellow historians and local museums, but also on the people who have lived through the events depicted in his photos. For example, word-of-mouth was essential in documenting the city's seedier side, which Griffith says was almost roundly ignored by early historians. "A friend of mine is a former county judge born in 1904 and he knew a lot of the people who were our city leaders and the things that would actually go on," Griffith says. "He would tell me different stories that you just wouldn't pick up out of any newspaper or history book, so you get a different look at how life was in Oklahoma City rather than just the mundane."

Griffith says he is about halfway finished with the third volume in the series, which will chronicle the city from 1930 to the present. That volume is due out in April 2000, timed to coincide with Land Run Day and Oklahoma City Bombing Remembrance Day, which Griffith says marks the city's beginnings and most terrible tragedy. He says fitting 70 years of history into the final volume is no easy task, since he has enough content to fill two books. "I'm sure I'm going to be upsetting some people by not covering some events, but when you only have so much space you have to kind of pick and choose," Griffith says.