Sixty-four years ago this month, May 1953, the national magazine with just one word, ‘Men’, hit all the news stands, and Bartlesville, Oklahoma was on the map. Officially. Ben Townsend was sent to write about a particular hotel that was known far and wide, the Burlingame Hotel. At the time, Bartlesville had 19,000 residents, most of whom were connected to the oil business in one form or another. Townsend’s first impression as he drove through the city was ‘sleepy’. But sometimes first impressions are an illusion.
He checked into the Burlingame Hotel, and was told by the bellhop, “if you want anything, sir, just see me in the lobby.” And that was the beginning of a weekend filled with finding secrets about wine, women, and song. And anything else a person had an appetite for….gambling, alcohol, dope. Money was the key, and it didn’t take long to find a bootlegger.
The Burlingame Hotel was in the heart of downtown Bartlesville, in the center of commerce and business. All around it was Frank Phillips’ oil empire, slowly spreading in every direction, known as Phillips Petroleum Company.
Townsend didn’t hide anything, he reported everything he witnessed, and everything people told him. If he saw it, he recorded it. It makes you wonder how the city reacted when the story was published. But as far as I can tell, the city took it in stride, almost proud of it, and life continued about the same. Every now and then, however, I talk to somebody that remembers the magazine article, and they will lower their voice somewhat to tell the story, ‘Bartlesville….sleepy time sin’, which is printed here in its entirety! (Click on images to enlarge).
Meet Harlan ‘Pony’ Chambers
Pony Chambers is known by many in Bartlesville as the mailman from 1963 until he retired in 1978. He was dedicated to his job, and enjoyed interacting with all the people that he came into contact with! While working on this story, I can vouch that Pony is one of the nicest guys I have interviewed and worked with! Chambers will be 84 years young on August 6.
Around the time that Dick Tracy was a popular comic strip, there was a character in it called Yellow Pony. That is where the nick name ‘Pony’ started, and it stuck!
He was born in 1933 to Leroy and Gertrude Chambers at 402 N. Johnstone. Back in the day, North Johnstone came to a dead-end at the Caney River, and was referred to as the Johnsone Bottoms, or just the Bottoms. Gratt Rogers, 405 N. Johnstone, was the kingpin of this area, and ruled for over 50 years. Gratt lived directly across the street from the Chambers family, and Pony knew him well. I have many stories in upcoming blogs about Gratt and life in the Johnstone Bottoms.
Another thing about life back in the early days in the Bottoms is the fact that babies were born at home, not at hospitals. Pony was born at home, and lived all of his childhood at the Bottoms before the family moved to 918 South Maple, and lives there to this day.
In 1951, when Pony was 18 years old, he went to work at the Burlingame Hotel as a bellboy. He is full of stories from those days, and I would just as soon not share a lot of the corruption that happened.
However, Ben Townsend’s article, above, is a good description of part of the Burlingame Hotel’s history. But also understand, aside from a certain floor, the Burlingame had businesses, coffee and fine dining, and was the main hotel for families and businessmen who didn’t have a clue about another lifestyle. It had a flower shop, and a beauty/barber shop, a news stand, and several other businesses. It was simply a thriving business in the heart of downtown Bartlesville, and although people remember some of the corrupt stories, it was full of good people who were either business owners or people who rented a hotel room, and also later people rented rooms as apartments.
The Burlingame Hotel, after 55 years, closed its doors to business on January 31, 1968. It began as an idea in January, 1910, and sat on the corner of 4th and Johnstone where decade in, and decade out, people’s lives were played out in all different ways, some stories live on, while others have forever been lost in the annals of time. The building still stands, and is owned by the City of Bartlesville and houses several city departments and agencies.
THE MAIRE HOTEL
Before it was the Burlingame Hotel, however, it was the Maire Hotel. Although C.E. Burlingame was involved from the beginning, it was first named for Frank and Ed Maire, of Lima, Ohio, when it began in 1912. The Maire Hotel finally opened in 1914.
DAILY LIFE EVENTS OF PEOPLE AND EVENTS THAT WERE PUBLISHED IN THE NEWSPAPERS OF THE DAY (click on image to enlarge):
Hundreds of people were involved in daily activities at the Hotel on 4th and Johnstone, and this is just a sampling of life that has long been gone.
MEET WILLA MAE RUSSELL PALMER, BURLINGAME HOTEL COOK
Willa Mae was born in Waco, Texas on June 26, 1928 to Andrew ‘Babe’ Russell, and when she was 3 years old, her family moved to Dewey, Oklahoma. Babe worked at the Dewey Cement Plant, but met an untimely death on January 4, 1948, when Gratt Rogers shot him in an altercation at Gratt’s Bar (this story will be told in full on this blog next week). It’s hard to believe, but Willa Mae still lives in the house in Dewey that her family moved to in 1931. I just left her house this morning, and I’m still amazed that she is so spry and full of life at the age of 89 years young. She wanted me to know, first and most important of all, that God has given her these many years of life, and that she is a testimony of His Love and Goodness. And after being with her a couple of times, she lives it and is full of love!
Willa Mae, at 23 years old, became a cook for the Burlingame Hotel, and worked there for 17 years. What a lovely lady!