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Which Oklahoma community was 'America's Model City' in 1951 and how did the Shetland pony help it grow?

W. P. "Bill" Atkinson with Midwest City children and ponies
Rose State College Foundation
W. P. "Bill" Atkinson with Midwest City children and ponies

Which of Oklahoma's cities was designated "America's Model City" in 1951? And how did the diminutive Shetland pony help that city to grow?

I’m Rachel Hopkin and in today’s KGOU’s How Curious episode – how did Oklahoma’s Midwest City became “America’s Model City?” And how on earth did the Shetland Pony help that City to grow?

On December 29th, 1940, President Roosevelt broadcast to the nation. In his speech, he stated that “People of Europe who are defending themselves do not ask us to do their fighting. They ask us for the implements of war: the planes, the tanks, the guns. We must be the great arsenal of democracy,”
 

President F. D. Roosevelt
The Library of Congress on Unsplash
President F. D. Roosevelt

And with war raging across Europe, democracy was in a parlous state. Despite its official stance of neutrality, the US couldn’t be oblivious. Former journalism professor Jim Willis is writing a history of Midwest City. He told me that “they realized there was a strong likelihood that we were going to be involved in this war so we needed to build some planes and we needed to have a central place that could service and maintain those planes. They were looking for land that was no more than 10 miles from an urban area, about two thirds of it had to be flat, there had to be water availability, there needed to be railroad tracks, and they needed there to be a lot of land. OKC’s civic leaders got involved in promoting this area and the contract was awarded. The site was being kept secret, but apparently not secret enough.”

W. P. “Bill” Atkinson was a burgeoning Oklahoma property developer. As soon as he got wind of the depot, he wanted to be building homes for its workforce. But where? The location remained secret. However Atkinson – aware of the prerequisites - determined an area to the southwest of OKC seemed promising. Atkinson’s granddaughter Cindy Mikeman took me out in her car to show me around the location that her grandfather had pinpointed: “He was out with a map. He’s noticing the flat land. And he identified the railroad, he identified the skyline.” There was OKC just under 10 miles away.
 

Cindy Mikeman, granddaughter of W. P. "Bill" Atkinson
Rachel Hopkin
/
KGOU
Cindy Mikeman, granddaughter of W. P. "Bill" Atkinson

Atkinson was around where central Midwest City stands today, with 29th street running east west. Back then this was all wheatfields, so he got out of his car and started talking with the locals, as Cindy recounted: “He visited with wheat farmers and he asked them if they would be interested in selling their property. Everyone on the north side was. No one on the south side was. And so he decided something was up with this. So that’s when he started purchasing all of this property. Everything to the right of us was known as the Original Square Mile.”

If you look up Tinker Air Force Base – as it’s now known - on a map, the Original Square Mile area – i.e Midwest City’s first residential area as developed by Atkinson - lies directly to its north. Atkinson had totally nailed the location. Construction began on the air maintenance depot in July 1941. When the US itself entered the war a few months later, the government decided it also needed a factory to build planes and located it alongside the depot. Oklahoma - which had had just about as bad a time as could be had during the Depression and Dustbowl years – would be offering employment to thousands of men and women. And Bill Atkinson wanted to provide them with somewhere not only to live, but to thrive. So he secured the services of premier urban planner, Seward Mott.

“One thing grandaddy wanted to make sure of,” said Cindy, “was that we had a family orientated community. And what do you need? You need shopping areas, schools, churches, parks.”

A Midwest City Original Mile Marker
Rachel Hopkin
/
KGOU
A Midwest City Original Mile Marker

The idea of creating fully planned self-contained communities was not new. Around 15 miles away and 15 years earlier, Gilbert Nichols had something similar in mind when he got started on OKC’s upscale Nichols Hills. But what Atkinson had in mind was more affordable equivalent for the aspirational working classes.

Matthew Pearce is Oklahoma’s National Register of Historic Places Coordinator: “The idea was ‘Hey, yes. Come out to the suburbs. You can have an 800-1000 square foot home with an attached garage, a front yard, a school down the street, a nearby shopping center. It certainly built upon past trends, but also utilizes the emergency of the war effort to truly innovate and build something new that would become the model for post war housing development.”

In this, the Federal Housing Administration - where Seward Mott was a Director - was crucial. Established in the 1930s to help a housing industry in disarray, it insured low-cost loans and set standards for both functional urban design and economical construction, thereby helping to usher in the Minimal Traditional style - modest homes based on simple standardized designs, low cost materials, and streamlined assembly. According to Matthew, “oftentimes architectural historians will refer to them as ‘the little house that could’ because you could put them up quickly, in a style that’s able to accommodate a safe and secure place to live. But these were still quality homes."

Ken Brust with his wife Tory - the couple met in Midwest City.
Rachel Hopkin
/
KGOU
Ken Brust with his wife Tory - the couple met in Midwest City.

Ken Brust now lives in Tulsa, OK with his wife Tory. (Tory also grew up in Midwest City.) Two years before his birth in 1944, his parents bought the first house in MWC in ’42. Ken’s father was a Purchasing Agent at the Depot. Ken that he had “started working at Tinker as soon as they opened it and he commuted from my grandparents’ house in Oklahoma City until there was a house for sale that he could buy.” The speed of construction on Atkinson’s Original Mile was such that within a matter of months the Brust family had taken up residence. “We were three blocks from the main gate,” Ken recalls. “It was on the corner of Curtis and Turnbull and it was a frame house. Later on they started building some masonry houses and brick houses.”

Atkinson was not the sole builder in the Original Square Mile. In fact, there were multiple builders that put up homes there. As Cindy and I drove around, I was surprised by the variety of structures. But that’s not to say the approach was haphazard – quite the opposite. According to Cindy: “Grandaddy was very thematic. Sometimes, when he was trying to figure out what color to paint a house, he would look at the color combinations he wanted to use on different houses.”

The tie collection of Bill Atkinson which is preserved as part of the Atkinson Heritage Center
Rachel Hopkin
/
KGOU
The tie collection of Bill Atkinson which is preserved as part of the Atkinson Heritage Center

Many of the street names are also themed – remember Ken Brust saying they lived on the corner of Curtis. Curtis was one the streets given aviation industry names in alphabetical order – so Aeronica, then Boeing, then Curtis, etc. Another area had streets named after trees or shrubs and the houses there usually had one of said trees or shrubs planted in their gardens. Another feature that was clearly noticeable as we drove around the absence of straight streets. Cindy explained that the main reason for this was safety: “If you have cul de sacs and curvy streets, that’s going to cut down on the speed, and that was very important.”

Early on, many of these roads remained unpaved not least due to war time scarcities. In fact, when Midwest City was deluged with rains shortly after incorporated in 1943, it got nicknamed Mudwest City. But it would have taken a lot more than that to stem the optimism of this young community, many of whose residents quickly became invested far more than just financially in the place. Ken Brust’s father, for example, stepped up to serve Midwest City’s first mayor for a couple of years. “He was very civically oriented,” Ken said, “and he did everything to get the city going. He volunteered with the fire department. They only had two fire trucks and the full-time firemen would take a truck out during a call and then they’d set the alarm off at the station and then all the volunteer firemen in the neighborhood would all go down to the fire station in case another call came in. And he went to Ohio and brought the first garbage truck back for Midwest City. I think they bought a used one from a town that had bought a new one and so they had a good deal.”

Cindy also talks fondly about the early years of Midwest City: “Children were playing in the streets while the families were out visiting.” It felt like a daft question, but I asked her if you could buy one of those homes if you weren’t a family. Cindy paused, then said: “I’m sure you could but I don’t know that any single people did. There was also an apartment complex, so I think single people chose to live there.”

America's Model City sign
Rachel Hopkin
/
KGOU
America's Model City sign

After we’d driven all around the Original Mile area, parts of which have been redeveloped during the past several decades, Cindy took me over to another area of Midwest City developed by her granddad, this time in the early 1950s. Matthew Pearce told me that he perceives the Original Mile and Ridgecrest sections of town as being “really the products of two different contexts.” As noted above, the Original Mile wartime housing was necessarily modest. But in postwar Midwest City, certain areas became swankier, helping it to earn - in 1951 - the designation of “America’s Model City” from the National Association of Home Builders. But Atkinson’s ‘jewel in the crown’ was yet to come and its name was Ridgecrest. In place of Minimal Traditional, it offered expansive ranch style homes with luxury fittings on generous lots.

Families and ponies gather outside a Ridgecrest home.jpg
Rose State College Foundation
Families and ponies gather outside a Ridgecrest home

As Matthew Pearce explained, “Ridgecrest was designed to take advantage of the growing affluence that the US was experiencing. Even to draw some of those working-class Oklahomans that had moved into the Original Mile. Maybe they’ve improved their status to become truly middle class. And so they’re really interesting juxtapositions.”

Mary Clem Morris’s family is a great example of this Midwest City upward mobility. When she was born, her family was living in the Original Mile. During a recent phone call, I asked her to tell me about her earliest memory of where she grew up. She replied “It was 1953 and I was 4 years old. And we’d got a letter from Mr Atkinson and it said that if you bought a house in Ridgecrest, you got a pony. And we’d bought a house that was two blocks south of Ridgecrest but had not yet moved. So my first memory is sitting on the porch watching for my father to come home holding the letter so I could explain to him why we could sell the house we had not yet moved into and move to a different house so I could get a pony.” To my amazement, I learned that Mary did manage to persuade her father to make the switch.

Jim Willis and his family were also living in the Original Mile at the time, and he and his sister had also heard all about the Atkinson ponies which were included with some of these Ridgecrest homes. He described Atkinson to me as a “marketing genius.” The ponies, he explained, were “essentially a way to essentially put pressure on dad from the kid’s side to buy a home. They set up a pony club. You could ride all through the developments. It almost worked for me and my sister but not quite.” Fortunately, Jim’s had three horses since then so he’s “got it out of my system.”

Joe Cole inside the Atkinson Pony Barn
Rachel Hopkin
/
KGOU
Joe Cole inside the Atkinson Pony Barn

Even without a Ridgecrest home, Jim and other local children could still access the ponies. Yes, Atkinson used the creatures to sell homes, but he was also passionate about ponies himself. And he remained dedicated to the cultivation of family-based community. So next door to his own home – just adjacent to Ridgecrest – he built a pony barn. And on Sunday afternoons, he and his wife Rubye opened the place up for local families to congregate– and he made sure that there were ponies saddled up and ready to ride.

If you dared, that is. Shetland ponies may look cute, but that doesn’t mean they always are. “They’re pretty stubborn and they bite and they kick,” I was told by Joe Cole and he knows this better than anyone. Joe and I met up at the pony barn. There are no ponies there now but there used to be dozens of them when Joe started working at the barn at the grand old age of 12, So those Ridgecrest homes that came with a pony – they didn’t come with a specific one allotted. Instead, the families would come over here and pick one out and then it was Joe’s job to break it in. “Once they’d picked one,” Joe said, “I would work with it and them, and if it didn’t suit them, there was a 100 more here. I broke probably 100 or more.”

Mary on Brownie
Mary Clem Morris
Mary on Brownie

It took Mary a few goes before she found the right match. She said she thinks she went through four before “Brownie who was my precious horse. He was short and fat like me. And we would share a coke and a chocolate chip cookie.” Mary and Brownie actually featured in a 1956 Life Magazine article about the pony craze which had swept America. Trust Bill Atkinson to tap into the zeitgeist.

There’s a very active Midwest City History Facebook Group. When I posted there looking for potential interviewees, I was blown away by the number of responses I got full of affectionate memories. I WISH I could have included more of them. That’s how I found Mary. She described her childhood as “idyllic. My friend Linda and I - we could be out all day on our ponies provided we were back by dark.”

So idyllic, in fact that Mary and Linda developed a fiendish plot to preserve it – well, at least one part of it - an area of pasture that lay alongside Ridgecrest. “We could put the ponies there in the summer,” Mary recalls, “and just let them run free. Well, they decided to put the Midwest City Hospital there and we did not want it. So we would go out every night and pull up the surveyors’ sticks. But then school started and we weren’t allowed out in the evenings and more, and the hospital was built and we were devastated.” Many years later, Mary mentioned this at a Midwest City meeting where she met a man who said that there’d always been a question of “who tried to sabotage the hospital?”. “No one had any idea,” Mary said while laughing, “that it was two little girls on ponies.”

No. Not even the best efforts of two such determined little forces of nature could impede MWC’s growth. It’s now home to almost 60000 residents. As for Bill Atkinson – in the 1960s, he stepped back from property development to enter politics, then founded a newspaper – the Oklahoma Journal. After his death, his home was preserved as the Atkinson Heritage Center – much of it looks just as it did when Bill and Rubye lived there – even down to Bill’s tie collection.

Earlier in 2023, Midwest City opened the W P Bill Atkinson Park in honor of its founder. In it there’s a statue of Atkinson and next to him stands a little Shetland pony.

Statue of Atkinson with pony
Waymarking.com
Statue of Atkinson with pony

Thanks so much to today’s contributors and to Malana Bracht, Tory Brust, Dale Fredericksen, Debbie Hanson, Linda Alyea and the many members of the Midwest City History Facebook group who contacted me.

Useful links:
Atkinson Heritage Center

How Curious is a KGOU Public Radio production. The producer/host is Rachel Hopkin. The editor is Logan Layden. The theme music is composed by David Graey.

If you’ve got an idea or a question for How Curious, please send it to the team at curious@kgou.org

Rachel is a British-born and U.S.-based radio producer and folklorist with a passion for sound and storytelling. At KGOU, she is host and producer of the How Curious podcast and various special projects.
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