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Shawnee’s History
Shawnee is a thriving city and an excellent example of many Main Street communities that emerged in the late 19th century as part of the westward movement.

The area surrounding Shawnee was settled after the Civil War by a number of Native American Tribes including the Sac and Fox, Shawnee, Kickapoo, and Potawatomi. During the 1870s, Texas cattle drivers pushed their herds through Indian Territory along four major trails. One, the West Shawnee Trail, which crossed where the present day Kickapoo and Main Streets are located.

With the cattle drives, came the railroads and pressure to establish a permanent white settlement in Indian Territory. Consequently, in 1871, a Quaker Mission was established near the current Mission Hill Hospital. A small structure, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, remains in place as a reminder. The first missionary, John Newsome, opened a school at the Mission in 1872. By 1876, a Post Office and Trading Post were established a quarter mile west of the mission at what later became known as Shawnee Town.

Succumbing to pressure from white settlers, the United States government opened Indian lands to settlement. The first white settlers to claim land were Etta B. Ray, John and Lola Beard, J.T. Farrall and Elijah Ally. The Beard cabin, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and now located at the Santa Fe Depot Museum, is a wonderful example of a pioneer home.

By December of 1891, John Beard determined that railroads would be crucial to Shawnee’s success. With the help of other settlers, Beard made overtures to various railroads, and by the fall of 1894, the Choctaw Railroad committed to travel through Shawnee. Tracks were completed from Oklahoma City to Shawnee on July 4, 1895. By February of 1896, terminal facilities and the main repair shops for the Choctaw Railroad were built in Shawnee.

Although the railroad continued to have a major economic impact, Shawnee was also developing into an agricultural center. Shawnee was located in the heart of cotton, potato, and peach country. It reportedly had the largest cottonseed oil mill in the Southwest, and by 1902 there were seven cotton gins and two cotton compresses in the immediate area. Between March 1901 and March 1902, 375 railroad cars of cotton product and 150,000 bales of cotton were shipped out of Shawnee.

By 1902, the Choctaw Railroad was absorbed by the Rock Island. The Rock Island Railroad built a station at the foot of Union Street, and shortly thereafter the Santa Fe constructed a depot on east main. The Santa Fe Depot, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is said to be the most photographed building in the State of Oklahoma. Also, the “Katty” Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad built a station in Shawnee. It was reported that an average of 42 passenger trains and 65 freight trains arrived in the city daily.

Shawnee’s commercial activity was built around Main Street. Main Street housed retail businesses, garment factories, hotels, cotton gins, convention halls, opera houses, and banking institutions. By 1903, a streetcar system delivered customers to downtown businesses. Shawnee Milling Company, dating back to the 19th century, is one of Oklahoma’s oldest continuously family operated businesses.

Main Street was cupped on three sides by railroad tracks and designed without a central square. Although Shawnee didn’t have a town square, it did possess Woodland Park. The park was located two blocks north of Main Street and designed with fountains and formal gardens. Woodland Park was the site selected in 1905 to build the Carnegie Library, Municipal Auditorium, and public swimming pool. Both the auditorium and pool were WPA projects.

The skyline of downtown reflects the onset of the 1920’s Oklahoma oil boom. The Aldridge Hotel, where many oil deals were made in the lobby, the Masonic Temple, with its beautiful ceremonial ballrooms, the Mammoth Department Store, and the old State National Bank building reflect the height of the oil boom. Other historic properties include the Kress Store, ACH Hospital, and the Ritz Theatre.

At the time of its closing in the 1980’s, the Ritz Theatre was the oldest family operated theatre in Oklahoma. Today, the Ritz is part of “Save America’s Treasures” and fund raising efforts are underway to restore and recreate the theatre into a performing arts center.

With its historic buildings and brick streets, Downtown Shawnee still reflects its agricultural, railroad, and oil dynasty era. Bell Street is now on the National Register of Historic Sites and the downtown district continues to be a business and social hub for Shawnee.

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