The dirt section line road 3 miles east of Tulsa got its name in 1906, according to a newspaper story written nearly 45 years later, when a surveyor decided to name it for the real estate developer whose addition he was surveying.
The new street should have started with an “A”, according to the convention established a few years earlier, or maybe a “B” because the street next to it — Gillette — was also out of order.
But the dirt section line road went into the books as Lewis Avenue, and Lewis Avenue it has remained.
Lewis is unusual among Tulsa’s major thoroughfares on at least two counts — its violation of the alphabetical street naming system established in 1901, and it being named for someone closely connected to the area’s development and history.
S.R. “Buck” Lewis was an attorney and real estate developer with a hard-bitten reputation who as a boy came to the Cherokee Nation from Texas. According to newspaper clippings and a biographical sketch in a 1921 history of Tulsa, by 1902, Lewis had set up shop as a title attorney while he and his father went about assembling as much as 10,000 acres through the acquisition of Cherokee allotments.
Lewis claimed to be 1/32 Cherokee, although his tribal lineage was unclear. His father was a Civil War veteran from Alabama; his mother was born in Texas. Lewis himself married into an influential Cherokee family, the Schrimshers, which made him a cousin by marriage of Will Rogers.
Besides ranching, the family developed coal mines northeast of Tulsa and founded the community of Dawson near what is now Sheridan Road and Pine Street.
Lewis never held public office but was a man of some influence in the early 20th century. According to a 1945 Tulsa World profile, he was “Tulsa county’s most powerful political leader” in the years after statehood.
By all accounts, Lewis was not a man to be trifled with. The Tulsa Tribune reported he broke a chair over the head of his sometime friend and ally Tate Brady in a political argument and ranted at the Red Cross for coddling black survivors of Tulsa’s 1921 race massacre.
Accused of trying to profit from the massacre by leading an effort to relocate the African-American community, Lewis defiantly offered $1,000 to anyone who could show he had a financial interest in the proposition, according to the Tribune.
There were no takers.
Lewis died in 1950 and today is largely forgotten. The dirt section line road named for him, though, continues to thrive as one of Tulsa’s most diverse avenues. It could be argued that it is unusual in that respect as well.
Along its 16-mile length, from a pasture at 66th Street North to a garden nursery just short of 91st Street South, Lewis Avenue passes through just about every kind of neighborhood to be found in the city, from residential to commercial to industrial and even agricultural, from high rent districts to low, through some of Tulsa’s toniest neighborhoods and some of its poorest.
It passes Southern Hills Country Club and the unlikely-named Golfers Bar across from a taco stand on North Lewis. A herd of goats nibbles on a small patch of grass near 51st Street North. There are salvage yards and industrial plants and big houses with bigger yards. There is Mother Road Market and the Springdale Shopping Center, Whittier Square and London Square, Oral Roberts University and O’Brien Park.
Top to bottom, then and now, Lewis Avenue is a slice of Tulsa like no other, right down to its name.