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Of bridges, graveyards and schoolhouses

Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report
The Wanette-Byars Bridge.
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Byars may be small, but history remains in community

“Golden bridge, silver bridge or diamond bridge; it doesn’t matter! As long as the bridge takes you across the other side, it is a good bridge!” ― Mehmet Murat İldan

BYARS, Okla. – As the sun rose over northern McClain County in Oklahoma, the Canadian River between the communities of Byars and Wanette turned from muddy brown to a peachy, pink hue.

The air was cold with the wintery damp, and the one-lane, truss Wanette-Byars Bridge was quiet, even though it is the only direct way to travel from the two towns on the country roads they sit on.

Every now and again, a semi or a pickup truck lumbered across the converted railroad bridge, but in the early morning, all was peaceful on the Canadian River.

I adore old bridges. I adore their architecture, their rusted old iron bones and the fact that the best ones are often the oldest ones. This bridge, built in 1901 for the railroads, is among my favorite and was one I spent a great deal of time on while on my way to the tiny community of Byars.

Byars, situated south of Lexington, doesn’t have much in the way of town these days. It has one convenience store/restaurant called the River Bank General Store – decorated outside with two old motorcycles hanging from the awning – which has a selection of great coffee and fluffy biscuit sandwiches, but most of the old buildings in town are burned out shells or empty of life.

(Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report)

Inside that old restaurant, a gaggle of men gossiped about politics. Several wore the worn overalls you’d expect to see in a rural community, but the Mayor of Byars was as friendly as they came. My friend Susan and I were traveling through on a road trip to see old bridges and old cemeteries, and the Mayor gave us a line on an old graveyard just outside of town.

(Susan Dragoo)

On Sunday, March 26, severe weather and a tornado threatened this tiny little community. I thought back to the brief hour I spent there and strangely worried about that gaggle of gossipy men. I hoped they were okay.

I hoped a tornado wouldn’t take what was left of Byars away.

A brief history

Byars, located on State Highway 59, is a town born of the military. In 1850, Camp Arbuckle was built as the first permanent buildings in McClain County by the U.S. Army to help protect gold rush travelers on the way to California.

Not far from present-day Byars was the town of Johnsonville, named for cattle rancher Montford Johnson. Katie Johnston – daughter of Judge Thomas B. Johnston, chief justice of the Chickasaw Nation –  and her husband cattle rancher Nathan Byars donated her land one mile south of Johnsonville to railroad interests. The railroads wanted to establish a community in 1903, and despite fierce protest from the citizens of Johnsonville, Byars got its post office on April 9, 1903.

By 1908, Byars was an incorporated township and was situated along the main line of the east-west Oklahoma Central Railway. Soon, agriculture and cattle ranching were the top industries in the tiny community, which, by 1920, swelled to a population of 626. However, like many smaller communities along railroads in Oklahoma, the population dwindled over the decades.

While 466 residents called Byars home in 1940, only 247 remained in 1970. In 2010, the population of Byars was 255.

The Old Johnsonville Cemetery

“Y’all like cemeteries?” one of the men in the River Bank General Store asked as Susan and I described our road trip. “Have you seen the Old Johnsonville Cemetery? It’s just on the north side of town, by the old WPA Schoolhouse. You go down that road. Old Henry cares for it, so he may come out to see what you’re doing.”

(Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report)

Old Henry did come out of his house, which snuggles up to the vast and overgrown Old Johnsonville Cemetery. The Old Johnsonville Cemetery served as the communities’ residents’ final resting place until the mid-20th century when the New Johnsonville Cemetery was built. In this small field lined with shaded trees, obelisks and headstones bear names and dates from the 1800s up until 1990. Katie May, the daughter of the original Katie and Nathan Byars, is buried here.

(Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report)

This old cemetery fell into disrepair before the 1960’s, and its bodies were buried under the thick brush that grows like wildfire in McClain County.

(Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report)

“I guess I’m the unofficial groundskeeper,” said Henry Neeley, the neighbor who watches over the cast-iron fenced-in plots of graves. “Back in the 1970’s, me and six others cleared out the old cemetery. It’s hard to keep it cleared out.”

(Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report)

Neeley pointed out notable old graves in his adopted graveyard, including the gravestone of William Tackett, rumored to be the inspiration for a character in a Louis L’Amour book. Another grave displayed the name of a man and his four wives, each wife having her own side of the obelisk, which was a popular grave marker at the time.

(Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report)

Across the street, Neeley gave us a tour of the old WPA Schoolhouse, now serving as his personal storage building of old, wooden doors, farm equipment, shovels and various bric-a-brac.

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of many Great Depression relief programs. The WPA, the Public Works Administration (PWA) and other federal assistance programs put unemployed Americans to work in return for temporary financial assistance. Out of the 10 million jobless men in the United States in 1935, 3 million were helped by WPA jobs alone to build structures like state and national parks, cabins and schoolhouses.

(Susan Dragoo)

The schoolhouse just outside of Byars was among those.

Nowadays, only goats play in the yard outside of the schoolhouse.

“This used to be a long hallway, and the classes were right there,” he said, poking through the building and pointing at different areas.

“Lots of children…”

Wanette-Byars Bridge

“Believing there is a bridge from where you are to where you want to go is 99% of the battle. The other 1% is to cross it.”  ― Richie Norton

The long truss bridge, now more than 100 years old, that connects Byars and Wanette was converted from a railroad bridge to a one-lane automobile bridge in 1966 and quickly became a vital link to the two communities. Fires, however, have closed the bridge on numerous occasions, including a fire in 1992 that nearly destroyed the whole structure and leaving it out of commission for two years.

Vandals set fire to the wooden planks of the bridge, and the blaze took out the wooden substructure, causing $120,000 in cost to replace the bridge surface.

The 780-foot bridge was built in 1902 before Oklahoma was a state to connect railroad lines from the south and north. The lines went south through Byars, but connected Shawnee to the north to Pauls Valley at the south.

Today, the bridge still stands; its long iron trusses a favorite of bridge enthusiasts and history buffs. 

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About the Author

Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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