Oklahoma Sketches: Prairie family persevered
BY MICHAEL OVERALL World Staff Writer
Monday, April 30, 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 :: 'Not much left' of town except strong local pride :: 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
GATE -- After a while, your own car becomes the only man-made object in sight -- nothing but a wheat field and this lonely dirt road from here to the vast horizon.
Even the barbed-wire fences disappear, and a stray cow is the only traffic that comes along.
No cell-phone service. No station on the radio. No one to flag down for help if you need it.
They say the Great Plains are like an ocean of grass, and driving across them can feel like being adrift.
I wandered off the highway just before it reached Gate, a little town that marks the beginning of the Panhandle. A hand-painted sign pointed down a gravel side-road and offered directions to a hair salon. Three miles north, two miles east, three more north -- or something like that. I should've written it down.
One country road leads to another, which leads to another, each bumpier than the last, farther and farther from town. And with every turn, I tell myself to turn back before I forget which direction "back" is. But my curiosity won't let me.
How can there be a hair salon way out here?
'You'd be surprised': In the Panhandle, it seems like a farmer is never just a farmer. You grow wheat, and you're an electrician. You plant soybeans, and you're a plumber. You raise cattle, and you're a carpenter.
"You have to do something," Terry Maphet says, "to get through the down years."
Maphet lives on a windswept intersection of two gravel roads, with a screened porch on the front of his house and a big storage shed beside it. He's a farmer, and a truck driver, with a tractor-trailer rig parked near the driveway.
Back in the '70s, truck driving wasn't enough to get them through the recession, so Maphet's wife started cutting hair in the back room. She quit 30 years ago, but nobody ever took down the highway sign.
"You'd be surprised," Maphet says, by how many customers she had. Maybe not people from town, but other farmers' wives came from miles around.
"You have to remember," Maphet says, "that out here, people will drive an hour to go to the grocery store."
Besides, Maphet's house wasn't always so remote. There was a time when his family had neighbors -- lots of them.
'A whole community': On most Sunday afternoons, Maphet goes down the road a mile or so to visit his mother in a little house on the crest of a small hill, which looks almost mountainous on these flat plains.
Don't worry. You can barge in unexpected. The sound of a car will draw them outside, a barking dachshund running behind them. And after a simple handshake, you'll get an invitation to come in and sit on the couch while Ernestine Maphet brings out the photo albums.
She'll show you a yellowed black-and-white picture of her late husband's father, who left Kansas around the turn of the 20th century to start farming this land. After a couple of years, "squatter's rights" made it his to keep.
"When we were growing up, there was a family on every corner," she says. "They had country schools for the kids. They had churches. They had general stores. There was a whole community out here."
'This is home': With the sound turned down on the TV and the dachshund at her feet, Ernestine can tell you all about the history of Gate.
About the vigilantes, who used a rope and a tree to bring law and order to "Outlaw Territory."
About the Dust Bowl, when her father caught "dust pneumonia" and moved the family to New Mexico. They came back, but hundreds of people never did.
And about "school consolidation" during the 1960s and '70s, when rural schoolhouses were closed and students were bused to faraway towns. In the long run, she says, it had the same effect as the Dust Bowl -- families left, and most never came back.
But the Maphets stayed. Her grandson -- the fourth generation -- still farms the original homestead.
"Where else would we go?" she shrugs. "This is home."
When it's time to leave, Terry gives directions back to town.
Head west, across a cattle guard, through a pasture, around a bend. Turn left a couple of times.
For a long time, the telephone poles and the barbed-wire fences will disappear, with nothing but a wheat field and a long, dirt road for as far as you can see.
Then a water tower in Gate will rise above the horizon, a lighthouse on the ocean of grass.
Michael Overall 581-8383
Gate, Oklahoma: Where the Panhandle Begins
Telling the history of the Panhandle is part of Gate resident Ernestine Maphet’s work at the Panhandle Museum.
“When we were growing up, there was a family on every corner,”one longtime resident of Gate says. But over the years, many of them left and never came back.