World War I proved to be the most devastating experience for Oklahomans since the War Between the States. Over 1,000 Sooner troops died in battle, another 710 perished due to disease (primarily the war-spawned Spanish influenza), more than 500 went missing in action, and over 4,000 suffered wounds. The war birthed rampant fear, despair, uncertainty, hatred, and supply rationing even on the home front, along with pride, patriotism, determination, and valor.
Robert L. Williams, the state’s third governor, proved to be a confident and competent home front leader in the struggle, as he did in other arenas. He provided leadership over a myriad of efforts, including food and fuel production and restrictions, Liberty Bond sales, and military draft organization.
The war unleashed a production bonanza both for coal mining, as earlier mentioned, and Oklahoma’s enormous farming community. By the end of the decade, nearly a quarter of all the land in the state was under cultivation with either cotton or wheat. Only Texas and Mississippi out-produced Oklahoma in cotton.
The agricultural warning signs discussed in OKLAHOMANS 1, Chapter 9 drew little attention as the American heartland fed not just U.S. troops, but those of the warring Allied Powers, such as England and France. The conflict had stricken many of the Allies’ economies and destroyed much of their agricultural land. Cotton prices in Oklahoma skyrocketed from six cents a pound in late 1914 to over 30 cents by war’s end, while wheat began at under a dollar per bushel, then more than doubled.
The petroleum boom, which established Tulsa for decades as the “Oil Capital of the World” and Oklahoma as the nation’s leading crude oil producer, also escalated during the war. Titanic strikes spread fields across the state, in and around small towns such as Cushing, Healdton, Wirt, Cement, and Garber. Tellingly, some of these communities no longer exist. A single well in the Garber field of the old Cherokee Outlet pumped 27,000 barrels of oil a day. By war’s end, the great Cushing field alone generated around 17 percent of all American oil.
Oil production had skyrocketed during the decade even before the war. Future Governor E. W. Marland’s (OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapter 4) fabled Oklahoma business and political career commenced with his 1911 discovery of oil on the rich Ponca tribal allotment of Willie Cries (Cry)-for-War. This launched the Kay County boom that would include the aforementioned Garber field.
Another phenomenon the war sired in Oklahoma, and across the country, was a toxic mélange of anger, bigotry, and even violence. A wide assortment of individuals and groups, some sponsored by the national government and some not, carried their patriotic impulses to frightening lengths. They threatened, mistreated, beat, tortured, and in isolated instances killed members of a variety of groups whom they suspected of insufficient patriotism. Groups of vigilante toughs combed rural areas, pressuring farmers to purchase Liberty Bonds to help finance the war effort. Men who refused to purchase the bonds often suffered beating, tarring, and feathering.
Persecuted groups included Socialist Party followers, members of the Industrial Workers of the World, or I.W.W. (which aggressively established separate labor unions for individual industries), as well as assorted ethnic German individuals and organizations. Conscientious objectors of various stripes were also persecuted, including the Mennonites, an evangelical and pacifist Christian denomination of mostly German heritage. Thousands of Mennonites lived, and continue to live, in Oklahoma, primarily in western counties.
World War I proved to be the most devastating experience for Oklahomans since the War Between the States. It birthed rampant fear, despair, uncertainty, hatred, and supply rationing on the homefront, along with pride, patriotism, determination, and valor.