Oklahoma | 2000 Great American Main Street Award® Winner | Posted: 4/3/2000
Newkirk (population 2,027) burst into being on September 16, 1893, with the opening of the Cherokee Outlet by a land run described as the greatest horse race on earth. The townsite, first named Lamoureux after Silas W. Lamoreux, head of the U.S. Land Office, was changed by citizens to Santa Fe and then later to Newkirk. Being designated the county seat assured the community economic success and beautiful limestone buildings spring up like mushrooms to accommodate the bureaucracy. The 1920s added to the growth and vitality of the already booming economy with the wealth of black gold (oil). Brick buildings were built around town and one of the most beautiful courthouses in the state was built on the public square with oil money.
However, by the 1980s, economic conditions had taken a drastic downturn. The oil boom was over and agriculture prices were in a slump. Even though Newkirk was the county seat, it was the smallest city in the county. The once proud limestone buildings had fallen into disrepair. Grocery stores, beauty shops, and service stations moved out of the central business district. Even though Newkirk’s entire business district was on the National Register, many buildings had gone through several lives – from use to mis-use to dis-use – and now it appeared that they were headed for refuse. The city fathers shook their heads and voted to condemn and demolish five tired historic buildings.
Determination and risk taking still existed in the hearts of the pioneer descendants. The local historical society appeared before the city council and was given 30 days to develop a plan. The group received a matching grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for a structural engineer to determine if the buildings could be saved. The State Historic Preservation Office sent staff and the Oklahoma Main Street program sent their architect. The newspaper editor labeled the local group the SOBs, who said it stood for Sweet Old Biddies. But, it actually stood for Save Our Buildings. The structural engineer completed his report and stated that all five buildings could be saved. You can save a building many times, but you can only demolish it once.
In 1992, when Oklahoma Main Street added small towns under 5,000 to their program, Newkirk became of the first to be accepted. The city council assisted by providing half of the budget, and the city has continued to be a strong supporter of Main Street.
Since 1992, numerous partners have assisted with the revitalization effort with over $3.6 million in downtown public and private sector capital improvements. These improvements amount to over $1,780 of new investment per every man, woman, and child in Newkirk. Seventy percent of the historic buildings have had façade improvements. There has been a net gain of 30 business openings/expansions for a net gain of 64 new jobs.
Looking toward the future, Newkirk has empowered their youth with the Newkirk Junior Main Street – students in the fifth through eleventh grade who meet and work weekly.