Clickable keywords for this article: Alexander's early years, First Alex Store and Post Office, Alexander's holdings, Alexander's family, early Alex churches and schools, law enforcement, early media coverage, Alex townsite, early commerce, Tornado Alley, settlers, commercial development
Shown left, WV "Uncle Red" Alexander and his wife, Martha, circa pre-1920s.
William V. "Uncle Red" Alexander had seen more of a young and tumultuous United States than most when he became one of the first white settlers in the central Washita Valley area of old Pickens County in Indian Territory's Chickasaw Nation in 1878. Alexander's namesake, the present-day town of Alex, Oklahoma, would soon emerge as a thriving community near the first home built by Alexander and his wife, Martha, in the fertile plains river bottom.
Born in Gordon Springs, Alabama, on February 19, 1833, Red Alexander first crossed Indian Territory when he was 18 years of age. In 1857, he traversed the Rocky Mountains with a wagon train, traveling from Kansas City, Kansas, to Salt Lake City, Utah, and then on to San Bernadino, California, where he worked as a freighter and miner. Alexander later returned to Dennison, Texas, with a $4000 grubstake and found employment with the Overland Stage Company.
By 1861, the turmoil of the impending American Civil War had reached even to Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, where Alexander enlisted in the Army of the Confederate States. He was made Captain and served with the Second Cherokee Regiment under General Stand Watie until the war's end. Alexander returned to Indian Territory and, on April 15, 1865, married Rebecca Colbert, a member of the Chickasaw Nation. The couple had two children, Mary Frances and Arthur Alexander. Through his marriage, Alexander acquired Indian rights and the use of a large tract of land on Boggy Creek, near Boggy Depot in present day Atoka County, where he farmed for 17 years. Rebecca Colbert Alexander died in 1867.
In 1874, Alexander married New York state native Martha E. Davies, whose parents had immigrated to the United States from Wales. Alexander's older children remained with their grandmother when he and Martha set out to build a new life in the Washita Valley. In 1878, the couple located their first home one-half mile west of the present town of Alex, just west of Soldier Creek on the south side of what is now known as Ranch Road. The home was constructed from lumber hauled from Stonewall, Oklahoma, in Pontotoc County. The Alexander home is shown in the next two photos photos to the right. The first is a scan of a watercolor painting and the second is a copy of an old photograph.
In 1881, Alexander built a store just south of his home that served as the only trading post between Chickasha and Erin Springs, Indian Territory. By 1885, Alexander had arranged for the mail route operating between Purcell and Ft. Sill to pass by his store, thus establishing the first post office in the fledgling community beginning to be called Alex. Alexander and P.A. Hagy were among the first official postmasters. People came from miles around to pick up their mail, some of which arrived addressed only to "WV Alexander, Red, I.T." The post office was later moved to the home of Laura Meek, who lived a short distance west of Alexander's home. The post office remained in Meek's home until it was moved into the Alex town site in 1900.
Alexander held 1000 acres of farming land and had control of most of the grassland along Soldier Creek stretching south to Roaring Creek and northwest to the Washita River. He also owned land near Rush Springs and Walnut Creek. Alexander raised large numbers of cattle, shipping hundreds east each year.
Uncle Red and Martha had six children, Perry D, Tolbert L. "Burt," Sheb W., Leslie (the only daughter), Williamson C. "Colonel," and Robert "Bob" Alexander. When Perry was ready for college, his father bought a home in Norman and Perry attended the University of Oklahoma during its inaugural year in 1889. Perry Alexander did not finish college since he preferred life back on the ranch.
Still living with her grandmother in the Choctaw Nation in Indian Territory, Alexander's oldest daughter, Mary Frances Alexander, met David P. Chitwood (both shown left, circa 1888) near McAlester, Indian Territory, in 1887 and the two married in Eufaula, Indian Territory, on April 28, 1888. When members of the Alexander family were away in Norman in 1893, Mary and David Chitwood temporarily occupied the Alexander home in Alex before settling on their Choctaw land allotments southwest of Alex. The Chitwoods had nine children, Marcellius, Lena, Joe, Alex, Bert, Walter, E.E. "Bun," Penn and Mary. The family donated land for the Chitwood School from the Indian allotment of their son, Joe. David Chitwood died in 1938. Mary Alexander Chitwood, also known as Polly or Granny Chitwood, was well known in the Alex community and was described as plain spoken and witty, with a "textbook" memory for dates and past events. Mary lived in the Alex area until her death in 1962. In her later years, she resided on Main Street in the house located on the northeast corner of Main and G Streets.
Early settlers needed places for both school and worship. Prior to 1889, church services in the territory around Alex were conducted by Methodist circuit riders who preached to gatherings at the Alexander home. One of the first schools in the Alex area was a two-room structure built by B.J. Vaughn in the yard of his home west of the present-day community. In 1901, Vaughn hired Nettie Thompson of Ninnekah as the school's first teacher and she provided instruction there until 1906, when the school was discontinued. Mrs. Jerome Taylor taught a private school in her home located at 311 West C Street in Alex in 1901 and 1902. In 1903, Alex businessmen donated funds to build a new school, which was located near 201 West I Street. The building was also known as the Presbyterian Church and the community building. Methodists and Baptists held services in this building with the Baptists convening in the mornings and the Methodists in the evenings.
Maintaining law and order was also a challenge for Indian Territory settlers. Early Alex resident John Looney noted, "There were some pretty rough times when I first came to the territory in 1900, [and] difficulties were usually settled out of court, generally with guns."
In 1902, a few scattered settlers, a store and a post office were all that existed of the small community some still called Alexander. But, thanks to Uncle Red himself, the area drew the attention of the Norman [Oklahoma Territory] Transcript which on September 15, 1902, recorded the birth of the new town: WV Alexander, (lovingly known all over these diggin's as "Red") was in from the ranch Wednesday greeting his hosts of friends. He tells us that the whistle of the Rock Island trains will soon liven up that part of the territory, and that the town of Alex has been laid out on his place, taking in 240 acres of the ranch. The town will be the center of a fine farming country about 15 miles from Lindsay, and the same distance from Chickasha to Purcell, and promises to be a growing and prosperous town. The first store has been established by Perry and Sheb Alexander, and a bank is to be put in by the Johnsons. Lumber companies have purchased lots, and at least two yards will soon begin business. Mr. Alexander is "daddy" of the new town and proud of it.
Using Alexander's own reference to the burgeoning community as Alex, Rock Island town site promoter E.J. Kelly suggested that this be the official name of the new town. The completion of the railroad in 1904 further solidified the place name. Through the years, the name "Alex" has been frequently mispronounced as "Elek" and an occasional letter has even made it to the post office addressed as such.
E.J. Kelly secured property for the official town site of Alex from David and Mary Chitwood, provided from the Indian allotment of their son, Marcellus "Cell" Chitwood, who had died at 18 months of age. In 1905, Kelly platted the town of Alex, Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory into 208 lots. Shortly after this, Kelly sold the town site to Bert Alexander to clear the title. Bert re-platted the town site, a move that necessitated moving a few houses, and sold the land once again to Kelly, who re-sold the property yet again, to A.C. Cooper. Eight lots on the new town's main street were given away at a public drawing and 480 lots were purchased almost immediately by private individuals for a total of $20,010. The Washita Valley Investment Company, with Cooper as their representative, bought the remaining town lots and promoted their re-sale.
The new Alexander general store was located just north of the present Alex Bank Building and the Woodsmen of the World maintained a lodge above the store. Entrepreneurs in the new town were busy establishing businesses to provide goods and services to accommodate new settlers and increased traffic to and from the railhead. Competing hardware stores were opened by Gerald Bednar and Sam Neill. Mr. Worley owned and operated a grocery store while Sam and Jess Wollard located a new drug store at the site of the present Alex City Hall. Mr. Harrison moved a cotton gin in from Loco, Indian Territory, and the Stephenson Browne Lumber Company was built on Second Street near the railroad where scales were operated to weigh wagonloads of crops.
At some point, a brick ice house with walls four feet thick was located on the south bank of the Washita River near Alex. According to Alex resident Dave Timberlake, when the river froze in the winter, the ice was chopped into slabs and hoisted onto the bank, where it was hauled to the ice house and packed in sand to serve the community during the summer.
By early 1906, the population of Alex had grown to approximately 100 and the town's 15 to 20 individual homes and numerous businesses were scattered over much the same territory occupied by the present town. But whether in Indian Territory, the Chickasaw Nation or even the State of Oklahoma, Alex is located in the heart of what would later be known as Tornado Alley. At 7:00 pm on July 7, 1906, a vicious tornado came roaring from the southeast and blew almost everything away. Most of the town's population packed almost to the point of suffocation into the only two storm shelters (called caves by early settlers) in town, one of which belonged to John Looney.
The Wollard family was lucky to have access to the basement under the rear of their drug store. Sam Wollard was confined to a wheelchair and his family could not pull him into the basement before the tornado arrived. When the winds subsided, according to a 1934 newspaper account of the storm, Sam was found unhurt a block away from the drug store with his wheelchair beside him. A town physician, Dr. Burch, was asleep at his home as the storm roared in and neighbors dragged him to safety. At the Alexander home, the high winds ripped all four wheels from a new wagon and arranged them as neatly inside as if done by a harvester. A buggy at the home of J.W. Glass was damaged in the same strange manner. In the school, two organs purchased separately by the Baptists and Methodists were located at opposite ends of the building. The tornado wrecked the structure but the organs were not damaged. A.J. Stein, manager of Alexander's new store in town, waded water standing in the street to find the store building collapsed and the stock of goods scattered among the wreckage.
While no one in Alex was killed or even seriously injured by the tornado of 1906, only John Looney's house, one vacant home and the Stephenson Browne Lumber Company were unharmed. The Bednar hardware store sustained serious damage but remained standing. All other structures were destroyed. Looney was named Hero of the Hour for allowing fellow townspeople to take refuge in his cave and for offering hospitality to everyone in the community until temporary shelter could be arranged for the homeless families.
The early day pioneers suffered many hardships in their efforts to settle the prairie. Around the same time as the tornado, Sheb Alexander was on a cattle round-up when he was bitten by a skunk. As Red Alexander waited at the Chickasha Depot to take his son by train to Texas to receive an anti-rabies vaccination, an acquaintance asked how "Uncle Red" was faring. With his typical dry humor, Alexander replied, "Well, not so good. The cyclone tore down my buildings, the Dawes Commission took my land and now the damned polecats are eating my children."
Whether facing off with wild animals or crawling out of a dark cave after a devastating storm, the settlers seemed to always square their collective shoulders, shake off adversity and get on with the business of living. Recovery from the tornado of 1906 was just one example of this. The morning after the tornado, reconstruction and clean up was under way. As the sun shown brightly, cartons of soaked groceries were hauled to the vacant house to dry and goods too damaged to salvage were scooped up with a shovel. Bolts of sodden material were unwound down Main Street to dry in the sunshine.
As Alex recovered from the storm, word of this resourceful community with its vast agricultural potential spread throughout the area. Land and lot sales were promoted by the Alex Town Company and building contractors who offered terms to suit buyers. The first bank, known as the First Bank of Alex, Indian Territory, had a capital of $10,000. The First State Bank of Alex was established on October 3, 1907 and was located on Broadway Street east of Main Street. W.V. Alexander was named president and Alex Garner and Richard Rudsill bank associates. A local newspaper, The Alex Tribune, was founded on June 7, 1907 by Russell G. Mott, editor and publisher. A new switchboard was installed in the telephone office on September 12, 1907. On the same day, Lon O'Neal of Roaring Creek won a prize awarded by local Alex merchants for bringing in the first bale of cotton of the season. New post office boxes were put in, including lock boxes. The Alex Lodge #4 of the Independent Order of the Oddfellows was organized in Indian Territory and soon became the Masonic Lodge 477. The Alex Embroidery Club began meetings on October 10, 1907.
A variety of goods and services soon became available through new businesses established just prior to Oklahoma's statehood. In addition to the usual hardware, dry goods, clothing, groceries, drugs and sundries, a full line of buggies, wagons and hacks could be purchased in Alex. Several grocery stores offered areas where residents could buy and sell their home-grown produce. A livery stable and feed barn offered good rigs and teams for sale. Ice was hauled in on railcars. Two medical doctors maintained offices in Alex with Dr. Hanna specializing in diseases of women and children. The Leslie Hotel was built, offering accommodations to travelers and the local pool hall sold cold soft drinks and cigars. A new brick building was constructed on Main Street housing the hardware store of Vincent, Burch and Company. In anticipation of statehood, the New State Barber Shop was opened by J.R. Thigpen.
The Alex Railroad station was a busy place in the months before statehood, transporting products in and out of the area and keeping Mr. Chambers and his dray men occupied from daylight 'til dark. Loads of cotton and corn were shipped out by train daily during season and the Alex Sawmill exported loads of native lumber. A plentiful corn crop meant an increase in the number of cattle and hogs fattened for market. Local ranchers often brought cattle in by rail to fatten and ship out to other markets. Cattle pens were built around the loading area to hold the cattle shipped both in and out of the area.
Alex's steady and bustling expansion toward prosperity did not stop for even a moment when the land on which it was born was among the vast territory recognized on November 16, 1907 as the new State of Oklahoma, the 46th state of the United States of America. With this achievement, the town of Alex in the Pickens District of the Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory, became Alex, Grady County, Oklahoma. Statehood day was a quiet one in the growing town of Alex. Like most of the inhabitants of the nation to which the new Oklahomans now belonged, no doubt they were busy looking toward the future.
This summary of the pre-statehood history of Alex was published in the Lindsay (Oklahoma) News and The Chickasha (Oklahoma) Star-Express in 2007. It was written by Sue Moore, a lifelong Alex resident, 1958 graduate of Alex High School, graduate of USAO in Chickasha and former Alex High School teacher. The article was edited by Teresa Moore, 1979 graduate of Alex High School and 1982 graduate of the University of Oklahoma. Faye Hess, former Alex Elementary School teacher, provided research assistance. Faye, a native Kentuckyian, took her undergraduate degree at Asbury College in Wilmore, KY, and her Masters at Georgetown College in Georgetown, KY.