About eight miles northeast of Pawnee, Oklahoma, is Skedee, a six-block, don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it ghost of a town. The town’s last major intersection, where Second and Market streets collide, is occupied by an abandoned mobile home nestled in a weedy lot; a shattered wooden storefront shrouded by a screen of scruffy trees; the two-story stone wall of a gutted, roofless store; and a gas station that was last open when gas was 49 cents a gallon.
In the middle of the intersection stands a 25-foot-tall monument, crowned by the life- size figures of two men shaking hands. Below the figures an inscription reads, “BOND OF FRIENDSHIP.” And further down: “WELCOME TO SKEDEE.”
IT’S A RARE MAN, AFTER ALL, WHO ERECTS A MONUMENT TO HIMSELF.
The two men represented atop the monument are Osage Chief Bacon Rind and Colonel Ellsworth Walters. Chief Bacon Rind’s given name was Wah-she-hah, which means “star that travels,” but history has chosen to remember him as Chief Bacon Rind. Colonel Walters was the auctioneer who presided over the Osage oil lease auctions under the legendary Million Dollar Elm in Pawhuska, in the early years of the 20th century.
Colonel Walters never served in the military; “Colonel” was actually his given name. When Walters was born in Adrian, Illinois, in 1866, his parents named him after a fallen Civil War hero, rank and all. Perhaps being born a Colonel is why he never seemed to have struggled with low self-esteem. It’s a rare man, after all, who erects a monument to himself.
Walters and his wife Lola May were Skedee’s leading citizens from approximately 1920 until his death in 1946.
Skedee was named after the Skidi band of the Pawnee tribe. If you drive north down Second Street, you’ll find the street peters out just shy of Crystal Creek, which forms the town’s northern limit. You’ll have passed a handful of homes, and the ruins of homes, interspersed in approximately equal numbers.
Market Street enters Skedee from the west, crossing First and Second streets. Third and Fourth streets, if they ever existed, have left no traces among the scrub oaks and brush that have grown in from the creek, obscuring the foun- dations of more long-abandoned ruins. Before terminating at Fifth, the town’s eastern limit, Market Street crosses the old Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe right-of-way. Skedee was founded by the railroad in 1902 as a place to stop and draw water from Crystal Creek for steam engines en route from Newkirk to Pauls Valley. The track was abandoned in 1957, when the bridge over Crystal Creek washed out.
Skedee is not quite a ghost town. Its population peaked in 1910 at 289 and has continued to decline in every census. In 2010, Skedee reported no businesses (that anyone cared to identify), no school, two churches, and 51 residents. Skedee may not have much these days—maybe it never did have much—but at the intersection of Second and Market streets, the town’s main intersection, it has what might just be the oldest and most interesting example of public art in Oklahoma. Colonel Walters was a raconteur of the first rank. In 1937, when he was 70 years old, the WPA dispatched fieldworker Goldie Turner to interview him in his Skedee home. She would have, presumably, encountered the monument before she encountered the man. Her report reads like Ralph Fielding Snell’s interview with Jack Crabb in Thomas Berger’s classic novel Little Big Man. After first establishing his seniority by informing Turner that he was Oklahoma’s oldest living citizen, he showed her his collection of memorabilia from his eventful life. Every object came with a story.
Among other things, he showed her Jesse James’s pistol (“I had seen it many times, for the James and Younger boys had been our neighbors before we came to Oklahoma, and the boys later often came to our house to stay when I was a child,” he told her). He showed her another pistol, which an outlaw had used to wound him when he was a young deputy in Indian Territory. He showed her an Indian headdress given to him by Sitting Bull’s son when Walters was a child, at an intertribal auction of marriageable girls in Anadarko (“He was reluctant at first but finally gave in and gave it to me,” he boasted). Turner was impressed by his tales of the Wild West and left wanting to hear more, as evidenced by her report’s closing comments: “Mr. Walters did not have time to give me a history of all the early day mementos that he has. It may be possible to get another interview with him at some later time. He has a marvelous collection of not only Indian beadwork and arrow heads, but stuffed birds and animals as well.”
Did Turner wonder when and where Walters would have been Jesse James’ neighbor, and how he came to possess James’ pistol? Did she wonder why Sitting Bull’s son, a northern Sioux, would have journeyed all the way to Anadarko, and why he would have given his headdress to a young white boy? If she had doubts, she never expressed them in her report to Washington. She was a story catcher, and she’d caught some good ones from Walters. There’s a good reason, after all, not to question too closely an old man’s stories. We need old men who can tell good stories, more than we need for their stories to be true. In 1937, in the twin depths of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, we would have needed them more than ever.
Walters grew up in Indian Territory. His family had emigrated from Illinois to the Salina area, near Chouteau’s old trading post, in 1867, when he was eight months old. His father had received from the U.S. government a permit to live among the Cherokees and teach them how to farm. When he was 19, Walters became a deputy U.S. marshal. By 1891, when he was 24, he’d moved to Kansas and married Lola May Barkley. They moved to Blackburn, Oklahoma, in 1910.
Sometime during his Kansas years, Walters found his true calling and lasting fame as an auctioneer. He became so well known that his name was used as a way to drum up interest in the auctions he conducted. By the time Osage Indian agent George Wright hired him in 1916 to conduct the Osage oil lease auctions, Walters had auctioned livestock, real estate, and mineral leases in 20 or more states.
When the Osage Reservation was broken up into Osage family allotments, the tribe’s negoti- ations with the U.S. government stipulated that they retained the mineral rights. When oil was subsequently discovered in Osage County, during the heady days of Oklahoma’s first great oil boom, the Osages auctioned off drilling rights to the highest bidders.
THERE’S A GOOD REASON, AFTER ALL, NOT TO QUESTION TOO CLOSELY AN OLD MAN’S STORIES.
Walters conducted many of the auctions in the shade of a spreading elm tree on Agency Hill in Pawhuska. Hundreds of spectators and reporters gathered around to watch the bidding. Walters proved so effective at extracting millions from the silk pockets of such newly minted oil barons as Frank Phillips, E.W. Marland, and William G. Skelly that, on February 3, 1920, before that day’s bidding began, the Osage tribe presented Walters with a medal to show their appreciation for all the wealth he’d drummed up for them in the shade of the Million Dollar Elm.
The inscription on the medal reads: “Present- ed to Colonel E. Walters by the Osage Tribe of Oklahoma.” One particularly noteworthy auction day was March 18, 1924, the day Walters secured a bid of $1,995,000 from oilman Josh Cosden for drilling rights to one 160-acre tract.
In 1926, Walters returned the Osage Nation’s gesture of appreciation and friendship by com- missioning what can only be described as a monument to himself—and to Chief Bacon Rind, of course. Their bond of friendship was, no doubt, deeply felt. By 1928, Walters had earned around $157 million for the tribe. He remained the tribe’s official auctioneer into the 1930s.
Despite all the wealth he drummed up for the Osages, Walters continued to live in comfortable, but relatively modest, circumstances with Lola May in Skedee until his death in 1946. He was buried in nearby Fairfax. Lola May joined him in 1955.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5 Issue 1. Jan. 1, 2014.