Tom: Remnant of Cotton Era: 'Not much left' of town except strong local pride
BY MICHAEL OVERALL World Staff Writer
Monday, March 26, 2007
2/04/08 at 3:38 PM
Read other stories in the series: A funereal existence ::
Last real Coyote hunter :: Big-City Cuisine in Small-Town America :: Reaping what we sow :: Prairie family persevered :: Oklahoma 'ghost town' still alive and kicking :: ‘We’re all characters around here’ :: Hominy warms to Mexican cuisine :: Remnant of boom days :: Cut from the same cloth
Editor's Note: During 2007 -- Oklahoma's centennial year -- Tulsa World staff writer Michael Overall is traveling the state, writing about uniquely Oklahoma personalities.
TOM -- When catfish is fried just right, you get a nice little crunch as you bite into it, then you hardly need to chew at all. It almost dissolves, like a tender steak.
Most of the time, you have to drive to some out-of-the-way hole-in-a-wall at the end of a long country road, where the fish don't need to be out of the water more than a few minutes before they reach the frying pan.
In this case, Charles Lewis drives his white Lincoln down a narrow dirt driveway and parks in front of a metal-frame building that looks like a shed.
Inside, lunch comes on a plastic tray with a tall Styrofoam cup of sweet tea. As Lewis says, the catfish is so fresh "you can almost see the tail flopping."
"I don't know if they eat like this every day," he says. "But if they do, it makes me wish I was back in school."
Lewis used to own the only restaurant in Tom, but it closed years ago. Now, when he has a lunch appointment, he goes to the school cafeteria -- where three grandmotherly cooks make home-style meals for grades pre-K through eight.
"There's not much left to Tom, Oklahoma, except for this school," Lewis says. "But we're real proud of this school."
Its trophy case includes two for state basketball championships, won in the last four years. A school board member, Lewis brags about the low student-teacher ratio.
"We're small," he says, counting 53 students in the fall '06 semester. "But it's a top-notch education, and our test scores prove it."
Bales, not barrels: Wedged into the southeast corner of Oklahoma, Tom picks up local news broadcasts from Louisiana. The nearest town is in Arkansas. And when the locals want to see a movie or eat out, they head for Texas.
"To tell the truth," Lewis says, "we feel a little cut off from the rest of Oklahoma."
Not just geographically, but historically. In Tulsa, we think of land runs and oil booms, cowboys and wheat farmers. That's Oklahoma.
But that's not Tom, Okla.
"You want to see some history?" Lewis asks with the last bite of catfish. "I'll show you some history."
He drives his Lincoln east on a two-lane state highway almost to the Arkansas line, then turns onto a gravel road that cuts through a forest. After a while, he turns again, heading down a bumpy dirt path that fades into just a strip of worn grass before the car finally stops at an iron gate.
"This is the old Garland family cemetery, and all of this land used to be their plantation," he says. "Before all these trees were here, there was cotton for as far as the eye could see."
These are aristocratic graves, marked with tall obelisks and intricate engravings. One reads "Sophia Garland, 1773-1871," the oldest birthdate on a tombstone anywhere in Oklahoma.
After World War II, cotton prices declined, plantations folded and the population shrank.
Timber companies bought huge swaths of cheap farmland in southeastern Oklahoma, replacing open fields with dense trees. And the few surviving plantations switched from cotton to cattle and soybeans, making the landscape nearly unrecognizable from when Lewis grew up there in the 1950s.
"All of this was cotton -- cotton everywhere," he says on the way back to town. "Now you see trees -- trees everywhere."
Preserved in photos: Named after Tom Stewart, who ran a general store with the town's first post office, Tom isn't much more than one intersection with a stop sign, where Oklahoma 3 meets Oklahoma 87.
A community center sits on the southeast corner, with a gro cery across the road in one direction and a church in the other. Inside the community center, Lewis introduces Patsy Stevens, who's putting together a two-room museum of Tom history.
The collection includes everything from farm tools dating back to the plantation era to recent newspaper clippings about a Red River flood.
In the most striking display, Stevens decorated one wall with class photos from Tom school. Starting in the black-and-white days of crewcuts and corsages, the display turns to color during a long-hair hippie phase and winds up in the modern era of T-shirts and miniskirts.
Along the way, you can watch the population decline, as the number of students shrinks year after year, decade after decade. If the trend continues much longer, you have to wonder whether the whole town might go the way of the cotton fields, and completely vanish.
"I don't think so," Stevens says, opening a scrapbook to a photograph of a fire that destroyed the original school in 1992, when the state threatened to close it forever.
The next page shows the current building under construction.
"We didn't give up on the school then, and we never will," she says. "As long as that school is open, you won't find a better place to raise a family."
Or a better place to eat catfish.
Michael Overall 581-8383
Charles Lewis says the people of Tom feel a little isolated from the rest of Oklahoma.