Path Home Shows 2015 Show Archive August 2015 Show 1533 Okemah's Hot & Cold Running Water

Okemah's Hot & Cold Running Water

OETA's Lis Exon shows us why Okemah residents are warming up to their iconic hot and cold water towers.
Okemah's Hot & Cold Running Water

Okemah's Hot & Cold Running Water

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Woody Guthrie Festival

Oklahoma Historical Society

City of Okemah

Show Details

Show 1533: Okemah's Hot & Cold Running Water
Air Date: August 16, 2015



Rob McClendon: Well, just like Woody Guthrie, Okemah’s hot and cold water towers are synonymous with the small town, but these landmarks are needing a little help to keep standing. OETA’s Lis Exon has the story.

Woody Guthrie: [singing: This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York island].

Lis Exon: When Woody Guthrie recorded “This Land Is Your Land,” he was 32 years old and already famous. He left his birthplace of Okemah in his late teens. He traveled from Oklahoma to California with migrant workers, writing ballads about their hardships during the Dust Bowl.

Woody Guthrie: [music: She rose from her blanket, a battle to fight].

Lis: Despite Guthrie’s success as a folk hero, he never forgot his roots.

[radio interview excerpt].

Radio host: Woody, how long was it ago that you were born in Okemah?

Woody Guthrie: 28 years, you pert near guessed it. I was born there in July the 14, 1912. All up and down the whole country there they got oil, got some pretty nice oilfields around Okemah there.

Radio host: Did any of the oil come in your family?

Woody: No, nope. We got the grease [laugh].

Lis: Okemah has never forgotten Woody Guthrie. A street is named after him, a park pays tribute to him and so does one of the town’s water towers. The bulb water tower, with “The Home of Woody Guthrie” written on it, was built in 1972. It’s adjacent to two antiquated water towers labeled hot and cold lettering; hot came first in 1910, cold in the 1920s. Both of them were here when Guthrie roamed the streets of his town as a boy. And for the last several decades the water towers have been national icons; their images make up the town’s seal. Okemans say the towers are part of their identity.

Rex Hefner : You can talk to people from out of town, and they don’t know where Okemah is, but they recognize the, uh, the water towers that you see, the hot and cold and “The Home of Woody Guthrie” and they go, oh yeah we know where that is, you know.

Lis: The older towers used to be the target of high schoolers who painted school graffiti on them. That was until 1968 when a utility board member asked whether the kids would stop their antics if the water towers were painted with the school colors; they agreed. Kay Watson works for the newspaper in Okemah. She picks up the story from there.

Kay Watson: John E. Landers who was on the board thought it would be really funny to put hot and cold on ’em, and no, there is no hot and cold water [laugh]. Well, it may all be cold, but there’s no hot water. Then in 1972 when they put up the bulb water tower, they did kind of a drive in the newspaper on what to put on it and lukewarm tap water, stuff like that, was, was suggested. But Earl walker, who was also on the board, thought “Home of Woody Guthrie” would be really nice. And during that time there was still a lot of tension about Woody and his ties to Communists, if he was, if he wasn’t, so it was actually a pretty big deal that we put “Home of Woody Guthrie” on there.

Lis: Watson says the hot tower hasn’t worked in several years. The cold is in desperate need of repair. And both are in danger of being demolished because Okemah can’t afford an estimated $400,000 dollars to restore them. Now, a campaign is underway to save the towers; the campaign even has a Facebook page.

Kay: It is our goal as Save The Water Tower Committee to help, either through private donations or historical grants or, you know, just grants in general, to raise the money to actually, to save the water towers and to rehab them. And if we got enough money, we would even go as far as to make the hot work as a water tower once again.

Lis: Okemah residents say it’s important to save the hot and cold water towers.

Dee Jones: Many of our patrons that come to this festival, it’s more or less a religious experience for ’em. And this, I’m not a-kiddin’, this is true, they come back each year, it’s a pilgrimage for them.

Lis: Those making the journey to Okemah expect to see the water towers when they arrive to celebrate the life and work of a man they feel they know, but never met.

Woody Guthrie: [music: So long its been good to know ya; so long it’s been good to know ya; so long it’s been good to know ya, this dusty old dust isn’t rollin’ me home, gotta be driftin’ along].

Male announcer: If you’re interested in Oklahoma culture, you can keep up with us throughout the week on the Red Dirt Chronicles blog. Look for our On the Horizon postings on Tuesdays and Fridays and tell us what you think.

Rob McClendon: Next time on “Oklahoma Horizon,” we travel to an Oklahoma treasure, Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

Male voice: To show, to be able to show that in a western representation of the show is a great privilege. I love it.

Rob: On Oklahoma’s show for the heartland, “Oklahoma Horizon.”

Well, we are out of time. I’m Rob McClendon. Thanks for watching. See you back here next week.

Male announcer: Thank you for watching “Oklahoma Horizon.”