Remembering small-town Oklahoma: Wilson museum curator keeps local history alive

Michael D. Smith
msmith@ardmoreite.com
A pickup truck drives past the Wilson Historical Museum Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. While closed since the onset of a pandemic, the museum is still selling gift shop items online and providing research assistance over the phone.

WILSON - Melinda Taylor knows the little town in Carter County may not have the best reputation, but she also knows more about that reputation than most. On an afternoon in December, she showed off some of the town’s oldest artifacts for the first time in months.

Even if it was only for a lone newspaper reporter.

A display case at the Wilson Historical Museum includes artifacts like medicine bottles and tack from the town's early days. Wilson Historical Society president Mindy Taylor said some of the items on display were simply found in fields around town.

Taylor is the president of the Wilson Historical Society, which includes a small but well stocked museum along the town’s main drag. While a rather nondescript red brick building on the outside, a step inside the museum reveals military uniforms, panoramic black-and-white photos of Wilson’s early oil boom days, local sports memorabilia and antique housewares.

But perhaps most impressive in the museum’s collection is the vast selection of books about the small town’s history. The most recent addition is a comprehensive and limited edition book “Wilson, Oklahoma: 1913-1939 Anatomy of an Oil Boom Town.”

According to the society’s website, the book traces developments in and around the area based on research by former society president Carole Gandy Pinches. The book has been out for less than a year but Taylor is afraid people may not even know it is available.

The Wilson Historical Museum gift shop (foreground) features a selection of books about the small Oklahoma town's rich and unique history.

Like many other museum directors around the world, Taylor was forced to make the difficult decision to close her doors to the public in March once the pandemic came to Oklahoma. She knew health precautions must be taken for her family and volunteers.

“All of our volunteers are over 60,” she said. “We just don’t feel like we can open our doors right now.”

The closure meant the temporary end to field trips and service projects for local students. A computer station reserved for genealogical and historical research sits unused among shelves of newspapers and other historical documents from the area.

Wilson Historical Society president Mindy Taylor looks over the museum's vast archives. She said research services are still available by phone despite the museum's doors being closed since March due to the pandemic.

While there is plenty of disappointment about the drastically reduced number of visitors, Taylor said the facility continues to chug along. Christmas decorations have recently been placed beside the museum and a pink handwritten sign welcomes visitors to call for curbside services.

The museum is also still offering research assistance by phone and gift shop purchases online. Taylor said she still goes into the museum on a regular basis to check on displays, return phone calls and provide the limited services to patrons.

“We’re doing the gift shop because we’re able to do that online,” she said. ““If they want to call or go online, we can do research that way.”

A sign outside the Wilson Historical Museum reminds patrons that curbside service is available for research or gift shop items.

Taylor knows plenty about the small town, including the rough-and-tumble days in the early 20th century when a railroad depot was erected in the area. More of Wilson’s colorful history was painted when droves of young men descended on Wilson after one of the largest oil reserves in the country was discovered nearby in 1913.

Even though the town has rarely been home to more than 2,500 people at any point in its history, residents over the years have gone through great lengths to document the people that have called Wilson home. 

But despite the vast amount of local historical information that has been compiled, collecting Wilson’s history is still a work in progress. For example, photographs of most Wilson mayors are on display near the museum entrance but many of the earliest mayors’ photographs remain lost to history.

A small plaque outside the Wilson Historical Museum commemorates the 1998 founding of the society and museum.

Other important Wilson figures have been painstakingly documented for posterity. Taylor pointed out several books that highlight local military veterans that served during World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War.

One of the more recently updated displays features snapshots of service members in the Middle East along with other military memorabilia. But with no spontaneous foot traffic entering the museum, Taylor is finding other ways to remind the community about the resources.

“We want to stay active. I try to keep something in the newspaper every week, even if it’s just a picture, just to let people know that we’re still alive over here,” she said with a laugh.

Among items on display at the Wilson Historical Museum are clippings from area newspapers including The Daily Ardmoreite.

For more information about the items and services still offered by the Wilson Historical Society and Museum, visit https://www.wilsonhistoricalmuseum.org/