The Last Wild West Town - Whiz Bang CityBill Russo
The Last Wild West Town
Whiz Bang City
A Texas style ‘Tall Tale’ from Oklahoma, loaded with full historical action and half truths – Whiz Bang City depicts the final chapter of the bloody saga of the American West. It’s also the legend of the double-edged gunslinger hired by the big oil companies in 1921, “to use any and all methods necessary to tame the last ‘Wild West Town’
Copyright © 2016 Bill Russo
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system without written permission of the publisher, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.
Table of Contents
Chapter One: Fort Sill1
Chapter Two: Entering Whiz Bang City - Population Zero7
Chapter Three: The Soft Black Gold14
Chapter Four: Gun Battle in The East Room23
Chapter Five: Pains, Rains, and Trains33
Chapter Six: The Post Office Says No to Whizbang46
Chapter Seven: A Two-Bit Bar54
Chapter Eight: Chalky59
Chapter Nine: On the Job64
Chapter Ten: Trouble on the Way66
Chapter Eleven: Planning the Job80
Chapter Twelve: The Heist83
Chapter Thirteen: The Rainy Night Flight91
Chapter Fourteen: Showdown on Pistol Hill96
Chapter Fifteen: More Troubles for the Sheriff104
Chapter Sixteen: The Last Gunfight110
Chapter Seventeen: Revenge for Big Red117
Chapter Eighteen: The Federal Investigators124
Chapter Nineteen: Who Was That Hermit?130
About the Author:137
Chapter One: Fort Sill
While in Field Artillery School at Fort Sill in 1962, I first heard about the abandoned city of ‘Whiz Bang’. A place frozen in time – it was the last, and perhaps the rowdiest of all the wild-west towns.
Forty years after the Gunfight at the OK Corral and twenty summers past the Ford Model T pushing the horses out to pasture; bank robberies, shootouts, and crooked poker games were still as common as the street walkers on Main Street.
I had some leave coming after graduation and I wanted to learn more about the Ghost Town, so I hired a car and headed northeast on Interstate 44 for Osage County. Pushing the rental as hard as possible, I flew by Oklahoma City in less than an hour and picked up Interstate 35. Edging the speedometer past 90, I had fleeting glimpses of the corpses of a dozen towns born of the 1920s oil boom and killed off two decades later by the bust. Tulsa was in my rear view mirror in another 45 minutes as I motored from the central part of the state to Northeastern Oklahoma.
A little more than three hours after leaving the order and predictability of one of America’s most storied military installations, I had driven more than 230 miles across vast empty stretches and found myself gazing down the biggest and busiest
Main Street anybody’s ever seen in a Ghost Town.
Not that it was that large - but it was supposed to be deserted! Instead, there was a welding supply store, a chamber of commerce, a general store, barber shop, post office, restaurant, a saloon, a cluster of houses and two paved side streets that quickly degraded into dirt roads that twisted into dead-end paths.
A handful of cars languidly traversed the roadway. A dozen or more farmer types were dodging the 104 degree summer heat by lounging in shady spots around the sides of buildings. An ancient commercial truck piloted by a white bearded man pulled out of a space in front of the dry-goods store, apparently going out on deliveries.
The painted lettering on the side of the 30 year old vehicle said “Whiz Bang Seed, Feed, and What Else You Need.” The old man behind the wheel smiled and waved to me as he passed by
I walked the short distance to the ‘Osage Bottles and Booths’ at the corner of Main and First Avenue - a combination take out liquor store and lounge.
Pushing my way through the batwing doors, I saw four high-back booths hugging one wall. On the opposite side stood shelves of bottled liquors standing alongside a walk-in cooler stuffed with chilled beer and sodas.
In the rear was a surprisingly elegant mahogany bar with eight stools. Highly polished, it gleamed almost as brightly as the brass foot rail at its base.
A massive floor to ceiling mirror highlighted a back-bar trimmed in homage to the oil crew roughnecks who built Osage County. Tools of the drillers, derrick-hands, ginsels, and roustabouts hung from hooks on the wall where one might customarily expect to see paintings of scantily clad women.
“Howdy stranger. Step up and have a beer. The first one is on the house.”
There being no one else in the place, I knew that the smiling barkeep was talking to me. He was about five and a half feet tall with dark hair and an indoor complexion. Though trending towards obesity, he hustled up my beer with the skill of a juggler and proudly set down a frosty mug before I had a chance to get seated.
“My name’s Bert. Bert Shidler. What brings y’all to town? We don’t get a lot of visitors here anymore.”
“Well Bert, I expect that’s because besides myself there aren’t a lot of people who want to visit a ghost town - especially one as crowded as this! Don’t take it personally Bert, but I like my abandoned towns to be a lot more abandoned than Whiz Bang is.”
“You got it wrong stranger!” he laughed. “This ain’t Whiz Bang! Y’all are in Shidler! Whizbang is about two miles from here on Route 18 West. If it’s ghost towns you want, y’all have come to the right place. There are 12 of them within 30 miles.”
The beer was cold and I was hot, so I stuck around for two more and listened to the woes of Osage County.
“They found oil here in 1921 and within weeks the boom towns sprung up like posies after a rainstorm.
Why Shidler had 5000 people back then. Whiz Bang had over 8000.
“Then there was Bigheart, Carter Nine, Blackland, Cooper, Foraker, and Gray Horse. We even had a town called Hulah. They are all gone now. Nothing left but a few crumbling foundations, a couple of falling down buildings, and a whole lot of useless cement slabs next to rusty oil rigs.”
“What about this town Bert?” I asked. “Why didn’t Shidler die out like the rest?”
“Well it would have except that every time one of the other towns played out, they gave something to us. When Carter Nine shut down, Shidler got their school house and movie theater. As Blackheart failed, Smokey’s Barber Shop came over. This here bar that I have, was from Lucas town. My grandfather bought it for seven dollars. We got our own library when Cooper died. Upon the closing of Apperson Town High School, we got their three students. The last store in Whiz Bang, the Seed and Feed moved here and never bothered to change its name.
As the other places withered and expired, they passed along just enough to keep us going. We won’t hold out much longer though. We have less than 900 people now. As late as 1930 we had almost 1200 souls here. I guess ten years from now there might only be three or four hundred left.”
As I quaffed my last beer, Bert gave me directions to Whiz Bang and told me to be on the lookout for a travel trailer hitched to a long black 1957 Cadillac, parked at the edge of town.
“If he’s a mind to, that old hermit in the mobile home can tell you anything you want to know about the wild days of Whiz Bang. He rode into town in 1921 on a ‘Tin Lizzie’ - that’s a Model T ford – and he’s around Whiz Bang
“He’s the only person living there now. Course he don’t really live there, if you know what I mean. He parks his car and trailer near the town line, and when he needs supplies, he comes in to Shidler. If y’all are really fixing to palaver with him, take a few bottles of beer with you and maybe a bottle of Rye. He loves his Rye Whiskey.”
Chapter Two: Entering Whiz Bang City - Population Zero
Firing up the rental, with a take-out beer in one hand and the wheel in the other, I headed down Route 18. I only had to cover two miles but the desolation of the highway made it seem like it would take hours to get to Whiz Bang – and it nearly did.
As I found some classic Bob Wills Western Swing on the car radio the sky, like a petulant child, got angry for no apparent reason.
Two formations of thick, gray clouds, one coming from the West and the other from the East, converged overhead. Eerie crawler lightning shot out from the ill tempered haze like coins sprouting from the fingers of a master magician - accompanied by rolling thunder that shook the car as if it were a rag doll.
Pelting rain thumped the vehicle so hard and fast as to make it impossible to see out the windscreen. I killed the motor and sat back to await my fate.
Having experienced Oklahoma twisters before, I realized that there was at least an even money chance that my first trip to the Ghost Town of Whiz Bang might be not as a tourist, but as one of the ghosts.
The growling Oklahoma sky pressed downwards and the car was shuddering like an overloaded washing machine. As quickly as the torment began, it eased off and sun rays pushed through. Restarting the car, I dodged puddles on the highway for a thousand feet or so until I spotted the shiny new Airstream Land Yacht belonging to the hermit of Whiz Bang City.
Wheeling over to the side, I pulled in behind a dusty 1957 Cadillac Eldorado. Before I could shut off the motor I spotted a tall, rangy old man striding towards me clutching a long barreled pistol pointed directly at my head.
Dressed in wild-west garb from head to toe, the old timer shouted, “What business have you got here stranger? State it quick or back off and get out now!”
He held the weapon with conviction – straight, true, and steady. I sensed that he and that six-shooter had a relationship that was most likely long standing and probably bloody.
Photo of the hermit of Whiz Bang City taken in the 1920s at the height of the oil boom.
“No need for the weapon Sir. I have brought beer and whiskey in hopes you’ll tell me about this old town of yours.”
It wasn’t my words as much as the sight of my back seat filled with sweating bottles of frosty lager and a quart of Rye that quickly made the hermit stick his iron back in his belt and build a watermelon grin… “C’mon over to the Airstream and set a spell and I will tell you anything about this once great city that you might want to know.”
We settled into cast aluminum lawn chairs out of the sun on the shady side of the trailer and began working on the brews and exchanging introductions.
“I’m Sgt. First Class Bill James, on furlough from Fort Sill. I’ve heard many stories about your town that I find hard to believe. I hope to be a published writer after I retire from the army. If half the yarns I’ve heard have any truth to them, this town would make a great subject for a book.”
“Nice to meet you Sergeant Billy. I was military myself in my youth. I respect any man of any nation who puts on a uniform and wears it the right way. It looks to me like you do, so it will be my pleasure to tell you about the town. My name is Bert Bryant, originally from Texas. I followed the smell of oil back in 1921 and it led me to Whiz Bang just about when the ‘black liquid gold’ first began oozing up from the ground. I’ve been here ever since, except for a few brief forays elsewhere.”
Bert Bryant had a face that might have looked old even when he was young, so he could have been anywhere from 60 to 85 – he never told me his exact age. He had let the goatee of his youth spread to a full white beard. Surprisingly it was well trimmed and he himself was groomed more in the fashion of a showman than a hermit.
His clothes were old, perhaps very old, but were in good repair. He wore faded dungarees (now called ‘jeans’ in most of the nation) and a clean white shirt under a dungaree vest. His hat, though broad brimmed, was not the typical cowboy style, nor was it a sombrero. It looked more like an easterner’s version of a western hat. Tucked into his belt was the long barreled Colt MRP that he had threatened me with. One of the most prized military revolvers of the 1870s, the vintage piece looked to be in mint condition.
He also wore a cartridge belt and a single holster, filled with a white handled Remington 1875. As a student of Old West weaponry, I thought that the Remington was an odd choice. The popularity of the ‘1875’ never matched the offerings of Smith &Wesson or Colt – except with lawmen and outlaws. I wasn’t sure which side of the street that old Bert Bryant had walked on, but if you forced me to put down a bet on it, my money would say that he never wore a star.
Chapter Three: The Soft Black Gold
As the sun went well past its midpoint the sky became a cloudless, sweltering blue blanket, driving the temperature into triple digits. We cracked open the Rye. With each swallow old Bert became more like a carnival barker than a hermit.
“You should have seen it back then Sergeant Billy,” he cackled. “At first the whole area looked like what you see on the sides of Highway Eleven and Eighteen. Nothing but nothing - as far as the eye can see! A scrubby tree here and there, some ragged brush, a few desert rats; but not much else.
“Then that sweet black gold started pushing up through the red Oklahoma clay. In less than a month we had ourselves a city. Most everybody that came here had their own copy of Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang. You know it? It was a racy little publication that came out every month with jokes and pictures of ladies. When they wasn’t working or gambling, every cowpoke, farmer, and oilman would be reading their Whiz Bangs.
“It was so common here to see people thumbing through Captain Billy’s paper that pretty soon it became the name the town went by – Whiz Bang City.
“You could buy a newspaper for a penny back then – but the Whiz Bang was two bits and worth every penny of it.”
The old-timer told me that a man named E.W. Marland was the first to discover the oil, less than a mile from where we sat.
“Welling up from the clay so fast was the stuff that Marland and his crew had to scramble to get equipment sunk in so that they could store the ‘soft black gold’ before it seeped back into the ground.
“Overnight they got 600 barrels from that first well. Soon they drilled a score more. The oil that came out was so sweet and smooth that cars would run off it with no refining needed.”
“You got to understand Sgt. Billy,” Bert said, “that there was a huge built-up demand for oil in 1921. Henry Ford was selling one million cars a year at that point and everybody needed fuel.
“The big oil companies quickly moved in, giving birth to our town and 29 other similar places that came up faster than blood on a hammer-smashed thumb.
“In a few years our wells and the wells in the other ‘oil rush’ towns in what they call ‘The Burbank Field’, had produced more wealth than the combined total of all of the great American gold rushes.
“Some of the places, like Carter Nine, were named for oil companies. Some were owned by the corporations which erected company stores and company housing for the employees.
“Not so here,” said Bert proudly. “We owned everything ourselves. The wells were privately owned, so were both hotels and the various stores and businesses.
“There were 24 bars and sporting palaces. The biggest of the fun houses was called the “Whiz Bang House” run by an ample woman known as Whiz Bang Red, or more often, Big Red.
Miss Red was a friend to all the oil workers with a need and a wallet. Red and her girls filled the one while emptying the other!”
mit chuckled at his own joke and paused, raking his fingers through his white beard. Working a ‘church key’ with the skill of a surgeon, he punched open two more cans of beer. Handing me one, he took a long draft of the second before resuming his tale….
“At its peak, there were 10,000 people in town and more than 300 commercial buildings. It was so crowded that people slept everywhere - in chicken coops, storm cellars, attics and even in the outhouses!”
I interrupted him with a question… “I guess with both the oil and whiskey flowing freely, the town was bound to become rowdy. I’ve heard that Whiz Bang was even wilder than Dodge City. Is it true?”
“Much wilder,” said, old Bert, “and you have to remember that Dodge was raucous in the 1860s while our wanton times were more than a half century later, in the 1920s. We had one foot in the present while the other was firmly planted back in the frontier days.
“We had cars and electricity. On the wireless, we listened to Amos and Andy, Ed Wynn and the Grand Old Opry. We even heard President Harding speak over the radio.
“But on the streets and in the dance halls we still had our guns strapped on. The town’s bank was robbed regularly. Even the train was ambushed a few times. Saloon brawls and shoot-outs happened at least twice a week. After dark the only women walking the streets were women walking the streets, if you get my drift.” He chortled again, in the manner of a neighing horse, with his beard and mustache bobbing up and down like branches of a Redbud tree in a windstorm.
“Bandits would lie in wait at Pistol Hill, the highest peak in town. A lot of the cars back then were not very powerful and could just barely make it to the top. Almost all of those older vehicles were touring cars – meaning they were ‘open-tops’, with no roofs. So when the machine slowed down to almost nothing, the crooks could just hop on board.