Other than the Model-T Ford plant downtown (1916), did you know that Oklahoma City was also the venue for producing other automobiles and trucks during World War I and after? We were, both during and after World War I. While the Great War lasted, it appeared possible that airplane construction would even be included at the plant, as well.
The location for this obscure part of Oklahoma City’s history was a space located a bit south and east of Packingtown, south of W. 19th, north of W. 22nd, and immediately east of Westwood — if not originally, the property address came to be identified as 2121 Westwood Boulevard. Generally, that area is shown by the 1922 Sanborn map below, which shows the location of the Wichita Motors Co. (page 77) in the southwest part of Oklahoma City … for reference, I’ve made the Wilson & Morris meatpacking plants and the Oklahoma City National Stockyards brown and the above building’s location light red …
Wichita Falls Motors Aftermath Through Today
CREDIT AND THANKS. Before getting to the story itself, it is right to give appreciation and credit to Steve Hedlund of Everett, Washington, because if it wasn’t for him I’d probably never have had a clue about this early-day Oklahoma City business. In an October 23, 2007, email, Steve inquired about the Sanborn Maps which are on-line through the Oklahoma City Metropolitan Library System — freely available for card-carrying members of the MLS. Steve was particularly interested in Oklahoma City rail and maps associated with them, such as the Oklahoma Belt Railroad and the Oklahoma City Junction Railway in the stockyards area. I did what I could to be helpful but also wondered why he cared about such things so far away from his home in Washington state. Part of his response was (but I am omitting some personal detail which he might not want me to share),
As far as why I am interested in Oklahoma City even though I live in Everett, WA? Well my roots are in New Mexico and I am a graduate from a high school in Albuquerque. But I lived a lot overseas with my parents because my Dad worked for the Federal Government, so I never stayed in one place for very long. Dennis [Steve’s brother] and I moved to ABQ for high school right after my parents divorced. Not long after high school, I joined the Navy and was in the submarine service for 8 years. After leaving the Navy, I went to Univ of WA where I got my BS in Computer Science (Systems Analysis). * * * But mainly I am interested because of my hobby which is a love for railroads which I have maintained since I was 9 years old. I’m 41 years old so I really don’t want to think how long that has been since it would make me feel really old. This is a hobby that my brother and I have shared the entire time.
Anyway, both of us are building model railroad layouts based on railroads in Oklahoma City in the 1920s. He is modeling the MKT and I am not sure what I am going to build right now. Which is why I am interested in getting access to Sanborn (or any other kind of maps) from Packingtown up to Bricktown. I do know that sounds pretty geeky but it has been a lot of fun for Dennis and I to find nuggets of information that relate to what we want to accomplish. We love doing research that might fill in missing pieces of information that might help us recreate what really happened that long ago. I guess you could call it industrial archaeology.
* * * So right now Dennis and I are trying to get as many maps of the area as we can, discover what businesses were there and are still there, and do in-depth research on what they made, what they sold, and to get an idea of what their corporate history is. I know it is pretty geeky stuff especially when my brother’s 18 year daughter just rolls her eyes when Dennis and I get together to talk about J I Case Tractors and go “cool”.
Geeky? Maybe so, but what am I?
One thing led to another and he noticed in one of the Sanborn maps I’d sent to him an item which is the kernel for this article — the notation in the 1922 Sanborn map, above, which reads, “Wichita Motors Co.” The “77” reference is to Sanborn 1922 maps, page 77, and I’ll get to that shortly.
But, for now, thanks, Steve, for providing the spark that led to the research results which are set out below.
MIDLAND MOTOR AND TRUCK COMPANY. Note that the Sanborn map is dated 1922. But, Wichita Motors wasn’t the first but was the second occupant of that space. Midland Motor and Truck Company was there first.
In a series of Oklahoman advertisements and articles beginning September 23, 1917, a new company had formed and it aggressively solicited capital through sale of stock in the new company. The two products intended to be produced were the “Oklahoma Six,” a 5-passenger cobalt blue and maroon automobile, and the “Ozark Truck.”
Whether I’ve done justice to the cobalt-blue & burgundy color scheme of the “Oklahoma Six,” I don’t know, but crops from later Oklahoman stock-solicitation ads show the two vehicles to look like the following:
A November 25, 1917, Oklahoman article reads more like an advertisement than an objective article, but the lengthy story does give some background about the new company. Excerpts read as follows:
BIG AUTO INDUSTRY NOW ASSURED ASSERTS THOMPSON
Midland Motor and Truck Company Receives Substantial Backing of State’s Big Men — Financing Complete by January 1st, Says Vice President
If one has any remaining doubts, that within a short time, a splendid new Oklahoma City factory will be turning out real, honest-to-goodness auto trucks and pleasure cars of the finest and most modern type, he has but to talk with Floyd Thompson, better known as “Ozark Trails Thompson,” vice president of the Midland Motor Car and Truck Company. * * *
The company will manufacture both pleasure cars and commercial trucks, both based upon standard specifications. The truck will be a two-ton size and according to Mr. Thompson will embody exactly the same specifications as many of those now being purchased in great quantities by the United States government.
The pleasure car will be of a handsome design with six-cylinder continental motor, Timkin axles and other specifications which have been proved unquestionably standard, as used and proved by at least six of the most favored cars on the market. * * *
* * * “While we shall bend every effort to get our pleasure cars on the market at the earliest possible time, we are devoting our main effort upon the Ozark Truck. The initial capacity of our plant will provide for three pleasure cars and seven trucks.”
Why the emphasis on trucks? The country was at war. The war needed trucks. Torpedoed by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915, 1,198 of the 1,959 people aboard the Lusitania, a British passenger ship, were killed. The sinking turned public opinion in many countries against Germany and was instrumental in bringing the United States into World War I, which it did on December 7, 1917.
Heavy-duty stock solicitation ads continued in the Oklahoman into 1918. A February 3, 1918, Oklahoman article was even accompanied by a glowing recommendation from the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, shown below.
The main article reported,
* * * The war department and our allies are demanding more trucks for 1918 than the total number produced last year by all manufacturers combined. This, in addition to our rapidly-growing domestic market, imposes a tremendous task and a tremendous opportunity for manufacturers of American motor trucks.
The plant got built, as shown by this June 9, 1918, article. Click on the link or the image below for a readable view.
In a crop of a September 22, 1918, Oklahoman advertisement, the Oklahoma Belt Line rail tracks (on the north end of the factory, at the bottom of this picture) and Westwood Boulevard (at the left) are visible.
The War Order. The above speculation for “battleplanes” never happened. The expected truck order did but the order was canceled in less than a month. An October 5, 1918, article reported that the US government had contracted with Midland Motors for 500 trucks, said by the article to be “one of the biggest government contracts that has been awarded in the southwest since the start of the war,” and an October 15, 1918, article reported that 400 men would be employed to complete that assignment.
That suddenly changed when an armistice was declared, as shown by this November 11 article. On the same day, the government contract was canceled. However, the article also reported that a backup plan was being considered. This November 21 article said, in part:
Motorization of Oklahoma transportation was given impetus yesterday with the announcement that a million dollar war contract for trucks, held by the Midland Motor Company here, had been cancelled and that officials of road associations are planning to take over the entire output of the company for motor transport lines.
“Oklahoma City is the hub of the state,” R.A. Singletary, secretary of the Oklahoma City good roads association said last night. “Excellent trails extend from the city to every part of the state. All that they need to make them practical arteries for freight movement by trucks is efficient dragging and surfacing.”
Apparently that plan did not develop — an April 15, 1919, article said that the plant had closed a week earlier. Although the article indicated that the plant might reopen, if it did it was apparently only to complete already placed orders. As late as July 18, 1919, some hope remained that the plant would reopen, but charges of embezzlement against two officers probably chilled that possibility. The charges were ultimately dismissed and were followed by a suit for damages against those who had made the claim. Regardless of the truth of falsity of assertions made, for all intents and purposes, Midland Motor and Truck Company was done.
WICHITA FALLS MOTOR COMPANY. This company was headquartered in its namesake city south of Lawton (and the Red River), near the Texas-Oklahoma border. With its beginnings in 1911, it was one of the first truck manufacturers in the United States, certainly the first in Texas. Lapping in time the Midland Motors operations in this city, Wichita opened a branch sales and service location here in March 1919 with its location at 603-605 W. Main.
Wichita Falls only produced trucks. Unlike Midland Motors, Wichita Falls Motors, established in 1911, was by 1919 already producing some of the finest trucks available in the region if not in the United States and/or the world. At left, a crop from a September 21, 1919, Oklahoman article shows some of the 68 countries that Wichita Falls Motors exported to. The full article is a biography describing Italian immigrant A.F. Savelli who was in charge of the company’s exports. The article says that the company’s truck exports were more than twice that of any other manufacturer, wherever located. Click the image to read the full article.
You will not have difficulty Googling for Wichita (or Wichita Falls) Trucks on the internet and seeing what the company produced, but examples of Wichita Trucks are shown below.
|These photos are from the
Museum of North Texas History and
Texas Transportation Museum.
See those sites for more information about the Wichita Falls Motor Company. I didn’t notice in them, however, that Oklahoma City’s manufacturing/assembly plant was mentioned.
|The pair of images below are from Oklahoman ads. Click on the images to see the full advertisements.|
Truck Manufacture: 1919-1922. Although jumping the time-gun a bit, this is as good a place as any to show the detail of page 77 in the 1922 Sanborn map index which Steve Hedlund had noticed, discussed above. The page 77 detail is shown below (and will be compared shortly in the “Aftermath” section of this article). Click the image for a larger view.
Following Midland Motor Company’s closure and its failed attempts to reopen, Wichita Falls Motor Company, which earlier in 1919 established a branch sales and service office here, may well have seen Midland’s failure as an opportunity for factory expansion. According to statements contained in some of the Oklahoman articles, the oil boom then going on in north Texas, while good, had also created a problem for the company’s expansion there — suitable living accommodations for Wichita workers were apparently hard to come by and the company wanted to expand. That problem was described as at least one reason for Wichita Motor Company (it was renamed in the spring) for the company’s decision to open a new truck factory in Oklahoma City. Another unnamed factor was doubtless the fact that Midland Motors had failed and its facility, barely a year old, was available and was probably saying, “take me, take me!”
On September 8. 1919, the story broke in the Oklahoman that the facility would, indeed, be taken, and that within 30 days trucks would begin to be produced by Wichita at the Midland factory. The article reported that a two-year lease of the property had been agreed to which included an option to purchase the property. The article reported that, initially, the 1 ½ and 2 ½ ton trucks and the Oil Field Special would be manufactured at the Oklahoma City plant. The article said,
The local plant will employ approximately 300 mechanics. The domestic and foreign departments which employ about 100 men and women will be moved from Wichita [Falls] to Oklahoma City. One of the reasons for splitting the plant instead of enlarging the Wichita Falls factory was housing conditions here. While 600 men can be utilized with profit at the Wichita Falls plant, conditions at that place, due to oil booms, make it difficult for the company to keep 200 men employed.
“The plant in Oklahoma City will not be a branch plant, and until I will see how our men secure accommodations here it will be impossible to state how many we will eventually work in Oklahoma City,” [J.G.] Culbertson [president of the company] said Sunday. “The plant here is of modern construction, capable of turning out models we will make here. We hope to be able to reach an output of 3000 trucks during the first twelve months. We will reach this production if we can find accommodations for our employs here.”
Culbertson’s earnestness about the Oklahoma City plan was evidenced by his plan to purchase an airplane so that he could more easily divide his time between the Wichita Falls and Oklahoma City plants during each week. The article also emphasized the export component of the business, noting that company trucks were in use in 63 countries around the world. See this September 21 article for a colorful biography of Bert B. Fornaciari who would become the plant’s general manager and head of the company’s export division.
An October 30, 1919, article reported that Wichita Motors took possession of the plan on October 15 and began doing what was needed for Wichita operations to commence. Seventy-five men were initially employed with a goal of “several hundred.” The Oklahoma City plant apparently had a greater production capacity than its Wichita Falls counterpart, the article reporting,
Fornaciari said last night he had enough men engaged at present for its needs. The maximum capacity of the factory here is not more than twelve trucks a day. If conditions favor, considerable expansion of the factory probably will be made within a year. The plant at Wichita Falls has an output of not more than seven a day.”
A June 6, 1920, article shows a trainload of Wichita trucks having Bombay, India, as their ultimate destination. The article’s photo is shown below.
Various ads for the company continued to appear in the Oklahoman such as this one on July 18, 1920 but such ads related to the sales and service office and not the manufacturing plant.
Nothing appeared in the papers to indicate that all was not well with the company’s Oklahoma city operations, but that fact must have been attributed to the Oklahoman not reporting fully since, on August 30, 1922, the brief Oklahoman article shown here shows that the company’s 3-year manufacturing operation in Oklahoma City had come to an end. The retail and service end of the business continued at least until 1928, as evidenced by this March 28, 1928, ad.
The company itself came to its end in 1932 during the Great Depression. A bankruptcy Notice of Sale appeared in the September 14, 1932, Oklahoman. Few if any living in Oklahoma City today probably have any first-hand recollection of the brief period in Oklahoma City’s history that it was a manufacturer of trucks, 1917-1922, although brief snippets did appear in a pair of 1984 columns of Robert E. Lee. In the first, the November 21 column reads, “Jess [McCune] asked if we (and you) knew that a factory at 2121 Westwood made trucks for the Army during World War I, although he’s forgotten the brand. The old building still stands.” His December 5 column updated by saying,
More on car factories in Oklahoma. Earlier we mentioned a now-extinct, brand unknown truck factory at 2121 Westwood. Craig Crowell called to say that factory, now the city’s garage, produced Wichita trucks for Wichita motor Co. They were chain driven. Craig remembers watching as the trucks were loaded onto railroad flatcars for shipment to dealers. At that time, the municipal airport was just west of the factory, he said.
THE AFTERMATH THROUGH TODAY. The Oklahoman’s archives provide no description of what happened to the plant during the first eleven years after its 1922 closing. However, the description does resume in 1933, the year that the City of Oklahoma City began leasing the property as its central garage. At some point, probably shortly after November 1935, the city became the owner of the property. The city’s uses of the property varied over time and I’ll not present that detail except to present a collage of 10 brief articles which give some description. Click on the small graphic below for a readable image.
A side-by-side comparison of the 1922 and 1950 Sanborn maps show that, apart from use, the original 1917-1918 building (though remodeled during the city’s ownership) remained largely the same. Look closely at the 1950 map and you will see the notation, “Built 1918.” Click on either map for a larger view.
|1922 Sanborn Map
||1950 Sanborn Map
The last Oklahoman articles I located showing the property’s address, 2121 Westwood Boulevard, were in the mid-1990s but are not worth including. Whether the property is owned by Oklahoma City today, I don’t know. County Assessor records do not show a property at the address of 2121 Westwood Boulevard. Using MS Maps (now Bing), the following bird’s eye views are shown (click for larger images):
A problem with such map views is that they don’t say when the images were taken. In driving to the property on December 29, 2009, it appeared to me that the building was gone. The pics I took on that snowy day don’t show that so well, so I’ll try and get some laters.
But, as for now, this story is done.