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In Asher, history, pride remain strong

Susan Dragoo
View of Sacred Heart Bakery.
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ASHER, Okla. – On a surprisingly warm and sunny January day, I followed two little elderly ladies through the thick brush and biting green brambles near Asher on a hunt to find an old abandoned spring house built by Jesse Chisholm of the Chisholm Trail fame.

Armed with hiking boots and thick jeans, my friend and photographer Susan and I were struggling to catch up with these two spry country ladies, one of whom was wearing an ankle-length denim skirt and flats. Ms. Rita Bowles, court clerk of the town of Asher, led the way, her long, white hair like a flag as she pushed aside rough winter branches and stomped on those evil, thorny green brambles that grow everywhere in Pottawatomie County.

Heide and Ms. Rita bushwhacking. (Susan Dragoo)

Behind her was the landowner, the friendly and curious Joyce, who kind of, sort of remembered where the old spring was, but tagged along for the bushwhacking hike in order to find it again. We rambled past the ghosts of old homes and crumbling cellars and tripped over traps of rusty barbed wire, reminders of lives come and gone in this historic area of Oklahoma.

“There’s a lot of history here,” Bowles told us in her small city office in Asher as she pulled down old photographs, paintings and newspaper clippings. “It’s not a lot here now, but we’re still here.”

A town of promise

Asher, Okla., now a small community of just barely over 400 people located between Ada and Shawnee, was once a bustling oil community that people in the area considered “the big city.”

In 1892, George "Matt" Asher, from Clay County, Ken., purchased land in Oklahoma Territory, and the town was named after Mr. Asher when he opened his land, asking only that the community would carry his namesake.

Asher became a “railroad town” in October 12, 1900, when the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf (CO&G) bought the Shawnee to Tecumseh Railway branch from the Tecumseh Railway Co. and promptly extended the branch to Asher. For 40 years, “Old Beck,” as the rail engine was called, ended and turned around in Asher, making the city a bustling trade center for the area.

Painting of Old Beck. (Photo provided)

But that black gold of Oklahoma is what put the town of Asher on the map.

In 1927, oil was discovered in the area, and Asher sprang up almost overnight. Businesses like jewelry stores, feed and grocery stores, barber shops, hotels and more flourished and old newspaper clippings carried the gossip of well-to-do travelers coming from Shawnee to stay the night in “the big city.”

“Asher was an oil boom town,” said John Geiger, local railroad historian. “But, by 1979, Asher shriveled up to what it is today. Old Beck hauled sundries and goods. Most of the line was destroyed and converted into steel during the Second World War.”

In its prime, Old Beck would arrive in Asher at 4 p.m. each day carrying goods, would stay the night in Asher and leave early the next morning carrying cotton, wood, cattle and passengers back to Shawnee. Starting in 1936, however, the Rock Island Railroad started to lose money on Old Beck, and passengers dwindled down to none in 1940.

Old Beck’s reign in Asher ended on February 10, 1942.

Baseball legends

Asher may have been an oil town in the early part of the 20th century, but it became famous for something much more All-American later. For 40 years, Asher was celebrated for having the “winningest” high school baseball team in the nation.

The Asher Indians, in fact, has won more baseball games than any high school in history.

“Oh, yes, baseball,” Ms. Rita laughed, rolling her eyes. “We were big on baseball.”

Coach Murl Bowen revived the Asher Indians baseball team in 1959. Although the team had not won a game the previous year, the new coach made all the difference. Within three years, the Asher Indians earned its first state title and, in one remarkable instance, qualified for the state finals 60 times in a row for 30 straight years in both fall and spring.

Coach Bowen's teams won 2,115 games. They lost 349 games, but the 43 state championship trophies more than made up for those losses.

Author John Grisham immortalized Asher’s baseball record in his book, The Innocent Man, which chronicles the story of Ron Williamson, who was charged with a crime he did not commit and sent to death row. Williamson, like many boys in Asher, played baseball and was a 1971 graduate.

Hidden histories

Jesse Chisholm’s spring house we crawled through the brush to find wasn’t officially a part of Asher, but was in a community called Chisholm Springs that existed long before its neighbor. Although never officially a town due to a lack of a post office, The Chisholm Trading Post store, opened by Jesse Chisholm, was a hot spot for gold rush hopefuls traveling the “Old California Road.”

Heide admiring the spring house. (Susan Dragoo)

Jesse Chisholm, nicknamed “Prairie Jess” by the Plains Indians, is famous for taking a military and Indian trail and making it into a road good enough to carry heavy wagons of goods. Later during the Texas-to-Kansas cattle drives, the trail was named the Chisholm Trail.

Today, the spring house built in 1847 still stands. We crawled around the stone structure, peered in through rotten wood slats and ate watercress right out of the spring waters. Ms. Rita was especially fond of the green water shoots, remarking on their lively, peppery taste.

Picking watercress from the spring. (Susan Dragoo)

Mere miles from Asher is another legendary spot of history in Oklahoma – the Sacred Heart Abbey, originally called the Sacred Heart Mission.

The mission, founded on May 13, 1877 by Father Isidore Robot, was the first Catholic Mission in Oklahoma. Robot, a Benedictine Monk, left his home in France to create a monastery, schools for Native American children, a technical institute and a seminary.

By 1892, Robot built a large church, and four years after that, Sacred Heart was given abbatial rank.

The abbey lands, however, were soon to be forgotten. A fire destroyed most of the buildings in January 1901, and although most were rebuilt, the monks soon realized no railroad would be close enough to make the site viable.

A window in Sacred Heart. (Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report)

Instead, they created St. Gregory’s College in Shawnee, opening that school in 1915. Sacred Heart reverted to a priory, which closed in 1955.

On that balmy January day, Susan and I explored those old holy lands. While only rock foundation remains of most of the abbey, the bakery and an old wooden dormitory remain. Tucked away in the shade was a graveyard for the priests with the nun graveyard close by.

Among those gravestones was the resting place of Father Timothy Murphy, who died February 23, 1918, having the dubious honor of the first chaplain to die in service to the United States during the Great War.

(Susan Dragoo)

Unlike many of the old sites and abandoned places Susan and I explored that day, these graves were left untouched by vandals, graffiti bandits or even the weather. The quiet is soothing instead of creepy.

The peaceful serenity remains.

And in Asher, history, and, more importantly, pride remains.

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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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