Five Tips for Housing Covid Sick and Covid Well Kids in the Same House

By Amy Dee Stephens

“You’ve got three negative Covid tests and two positives.”

It was an unexpected outcome at the medical clinic. Yes, there had been an exposure, but we all felt fine. After seven quarantines over the last 18-months, it never occurred to me on that Wednesday to be ready to shift gears.

Within five minutes of diagnosis—life changed.

Who needed to be notified about exposure?

How would I navigate work responsibilities for the next 10 or more days?

Most importantly, how would our blended family separate the “sickies” from the “wellies” in our house?

The first practical decision was to move those with Covid to one side of the house and those without on the other side. I moved into the living room in the middle and operated between both sides. It was stressful for everyone, but looking back, I think we did a lot of things right in preventing the spread of germs and keeping the boys, ages 8-11, busy for 10 days.   

So, Here Are My Five Top Tips

#1 Clear Shower Curtains Over the Doorways

I used tacks to attach clear shower curtains around the top frame of each bedroom door. This brilliant idea came from my daughter-in-law in the medical field. I put the tack holes close to the door frame, so no one will ever see them except my 7-foot-tall friends. This barrier slowed the air-flow of germs, but I could still see the kids in their rooms! Luckily the boys are all in upper elementary, so they didn’t require non-stop supervision. On the sick side, I also added a shower curtain across the hallway, where they walked to go to the bathroom.

Note that the shower curtains don’t go all the way to the floor. On the sickie side, I cut off some extra plastic from the sides and used packing tape to lengthen the bottom to the floor. On the well side, however, I didn’t do this; so the boys could run a Hot Wheels tracks between the rooms and the dogs could roam freely—both decisions that we decided to live with.

Warning: You will hate this next part if you are a home decorator or one of those moms with a showcase home. After our isolation was over, I rolled the shower curtains up above the door in anticipation of the next quarantine or isolation. I made ribbon loops with Velcro on each end from sewing box scraps, rolled the curtain up, and tacked the loops above the door.

(Shower curtains rolled up above the door for (gulp) next time)
(Loops made with Velcro sewn to ribbon scraps)

Go NOW and buy clear shower curtains, so you have them ready when you need them. The dollar-store variety shower curtains are made of thinner plastic than other stores, but both versions worked fine.

#2 Food Tubs

Everyone in the house got a plastic tub outside their door so I could pass food and items without having to go into the room. I filled the tub, slid it under the shower curtain, and after I moved away, they would pull it toward themselves. When I was ready to reclaim dirty dishes, I wore gloves and sanitized.

Normally, I staunchly object to disposable dishes cluttering the landfill—but I made an exception for the duration of our isolation. Oh, and if you have indoor dogs, pick tubs with lids! A few times, the dogs beat the kids to the food.  

#3 Remove Window Screens

Imagine having kids who feel perfectly fine being stuck in their rooms for 10 days! They had to get out sometimes. To keep them from walking through common areas of the house, I removed the window screens during the day and allowed them designated times to crawl outside and get some fresh air.

Since this event happened in the fall when the weather happened to be lovely, it was nice to have the windows open and create airflow in the house. The one complication was flies. Once the kids crawled out, it was hard to close the windows from the outside. We ended up propping the screens back over the opening the best we could while they played outside.

(Crawling through the window and wading through the bushes for some outdoor time)

#4 Outdoor Movies and Storytimes

Being an anti-screen parent on a good day, I was determined that the boys would not spend the week staring at their iPads. Nor could they see the TV from their shower curtained doorways. So, each night, I set up my computer screen on a small table outside. The kids crawled out the windows and sat in well-separated lawn chairs to watch an hour-long video.

Our two favorites: First, Pink Panther cartoons have brilliant physical comedy, no dialogue needed. I can’t tell you how many times they laughed out loud. Second, I showed them 1970s episodes of the Hardy Boys. They became hooked. The fact that the characters are brothers who get along, act politely, and use their brains to solve problems was a real plus—and not something often seen in today’s male leading roles.

Storytime was a little tricky, because shouting through a shower curtain from the other end of the hall wasn’t working. So, for the sick side of the house, I began a flashlight story time through the window. I think the neighbors found this process curious, but it worked great. I stood outside, six feet away, and read aloud. Chapter books required listening only, so the boys could lay in bed and listen as usual.   

(Our nightly outdoor time for the “well” kids–no fancy screen/projector needed)

#5 Walkie Talkies

A few days into isolation, a friend sent us walkie-talkies via mail. Brilliant, because this gave everyone a chance to communicate from separate rooms instead of yelling across the house. No surprise, there was a certain amount of fighting and interrupting over the air waves, so I had to establish some ground rules and designated talking times. I suggest supplying a good joke book for the kids to read from. We got WisHouse brand walkie talkies, and they actually worked, unlike many cheap ones we’ve had over the years.  

(Walkie Talkies allowed for communication with the sickies inside)

In Conclusion, Get Ready NOW:

Obviously, we creatively went beyond the CDC recommendations for household isolation. I will not say that having Covid in our household was fun (it was stressful on me), but the above modifications made a big difference in keeping the kids entertained between homework sessions. At no other time would nightly outdoor movies, walkie talkies and window escapes have become an acceptable routine. Now that a little time has passed, we are starting to forget the stressful moments and remember those fun new traditions we started. And sometimes, we still watch the Hardy Boys in the back yard for old time’s sake.

So if you are not in isolation right now, be proactive.  Buy those clear shower curtains, pre-order walkie-talkies, and have a plan before that next Covid test surprises you. And hopefully, you will come out on the other end with a few positive memories, like we did.  

(Note: And hopefully, you will find out that in the end, you had false-positive results, like we did–which caused me to roll my eyes and feel relieved at the same time)

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Two Strange Christmases: The Similarities Between 1941 and 2020

By Amy Dee Stephens (Photos Courtesy Edmond Historical Society & Museum)

Merry Masked ZOOM Christmas!

We all know Christmas 2020 is different. The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken all the pine needles from our tree of holiday tradition.

Events are online.
Shopping is online.
Santa is socially-distanced.
Presents are exchanged at arm’s length

More poignantly, the way we interact with people has had to change. Seniors are isolated. Grandparents have missed out on a whole year of hugs from their grandchildren. Grown children are forced to carry on as usual, unable to visit a sick parent in the hospital. The absence or loss of our friends and family is certainly the toughest aspect of this holiday.

Historic Similarities
By looking back into history, you will find some striking similarities between this Christmas and the Christmas of 1941—the other year when the world was forced to alter tradition.

Just 18 days before Christmas, a bombshell was dropped on America, both figuratively and literally, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Everyone had seen it coming as war ramped up in Europe, but suddenly, peace was really gone. Really! What was going to happen?

Remember knowing that a coronavirus pandemic was looming (surely not!)? Then came the lock-down and our freedoms were gone. What was going to happen? For starters, there was a rush on toilet paper, just like there was a rush on sugar in 1941. Both years faced different-but-similar Christmas challenges.

Rethinking Resources
Leaders have grappled with the gravity of keeping all people safe from Covid-19, from city officials to store owners and managers in the workplace. Although germs are a different kind of enemy, World War II leaders also had to make life-saving decisions for the masses.
Here are some decisions from 1941 that share similarities with 2020:

• Certain industries, like shipyards and manufacturing plants, altered processes to accommodate defense materials. In 2020, many Edmond, Oklahoma companies modified their productions to make hand-sanitizers and hospital equipment.

• In 1941, industries ramped up the number of workers and added a night shift to prepare, invent and refit machines for defense. In 2020, our medical companies went into overdrive to work around-the-clock to find a vaccine.

• Just weeks after the Pearl Harbor bombing, the employment commission sent an appeal out for Edmond workers who had any underutilized skills that could help the defense industry. The skills ranged from tool makers and metal workers to engine operators. Edmond famers, meanwhile, were recruited to saved scrap iron. Here’s where 2020 was different. Our major industries, like oil and gas, shut down. Instead, unskilled workers were sought to stock groceries and make deliveries.

• For national war-time defense, telephone customers were asked to avoid long-distance phone calls on Christmas day to keep the lines clear. Even so, in Oklahoma, Southwestern Bell requested patience during long call-waiting times, with so many customers calling loved ones who couldn’t come home. We have certainly seen an increase in phone (and computer) communication this year. And like this year, the post office delivered record amounts of mail.

• Edmond officials followed the national war-time suggestion of preparing for air raids at the American Legion building and placing armed guards and extra lighting at the water and electricity plants. Covid-19 did not necessitate such measures, but we’ve all seen the extra “safety workers” at the grocery stores wiping down carts and dispensing hand sanitizer.

Staying Home
As saddened as we are to have smaller family gatherings, it is not a unique situation to history. Instead of coming together at Christmas, families in 1941 became separated by the requirements of war.

• Americans were encouraged to stay home (sound familiar?). The goal was to keep all travel vehicles, such as planes, subways and trains, free for transporting soldiers. All but essential travel was considered unpatriotic. The lyrics, “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams” were written during WWII for a reason, and they resonate again in 2020.

• College students at military schools, such as WestPoint, were not allowed to go home for the holidays, finding themselves sequestered on campus in case they were needed for duty.

• In Boston, the archdiocese prohibited midnight Christmas services to avoid having hundreds of people out after dark in the event of an emergency. Similarly, many churches have cancelled or modified in-person services this year to prevent the spread of disease.

Since Edmond was a quiet agriculture town, it found its population in flux in 1941. The day before Christmas alone, 250 men registered at City Hall for civil defense, and recruitment ads ran nonstop. College enrollment shot down, but newcomers arrived in record numbers as senior citizens and relatives began fleeing big cities, fearful that the higher populations were first on the list to be bombed. The wide-open spaces of Edmond seemed safer. Spending time in wide-open spaces has seen resurgence in the Covid-19 world, too, and Arcadia Lake is seeing higher numbers of RV tourists from California and New York than previous years.     

Changing Patterns
That first year during the war, the buying of Christmas food and presents remained fairly normal. Saving every scrap of metal was not yet in practice widescale, and there were not yet radio commercials explaining to children why Mommy needed to buy war bonds instead of toys.

It wouldn’t be long before food rationing was required, however. An editorial notice on January 22, 1941 from Edmond grocers encouraged women to “Don’t Hoard Sugar,” explaining why over-buying supplies increased pricing. It’s a lesson we can relate to after the toilet paper run of 2020, although it was just a temporary setback for us. On January 30, 1941, the government enacted the Emergency Price Control Act—and sugar was one of the first food items to be rationed.

In 2020, ceremonial moments changed as gathering sizes became limited to avoid super-spreader events. Whether hosting an awards ceremony, throwing a birthday party or planning a wedding—modifications were unavoidable.

Edmond did not see huge ceremonial changes initially during WWII. The newspaper still had long lists of house parties, club meetings and social gatherings, but the Society Page did see a sudden influx of weddings! Just ten days after Pearl Harbor, an aspiring Edmond jeweler advertised wedding and engagement rings “for the solider boys.” Edmond’s first “war bride wedding” occurred December 18, 1941. From that point on, nearly all wedding announcements concluded by naming which branch of the military the groom (and later, the bride) had joined.”

Helping Others
Did you know the phrase, “these uncertain times,” was used in 1941, too?

A banking editorial in the Edmond Sun encouraged people, “Start a nest egg that you may need in these uncertain times.” Although it is natural to protect ourselves and our resources first, major events, including WWII and Covid-19, have historically brought out the best in most people. We help each other. The “Oklahoma Spirit” that we hear about after a tornado or shooting—was just as prevalent during the 1940s.

Just weeks after the war began, Edmond’s social clubs began to shift their purposes. Tea parties and game night became knitting circles and scrap drives.

• The Edmond community center immediately began offering Red Cross nurse training.

• The Campfire Girls collected thread spools and buttons (over 6,000) for bandages, uniforms and winter gear. Mrs. R. Halsell volunteered to make buttonholes.

• On December 18, 1941, a request went out that Edmond families consider entertaining two or more soldiers from Will Rogers airport for Christmas.

Finding the Christmas Spirit
Although many people have good reason to feel like this Christmas is ruined, history provides glimmers of hope into how people in the past have survived life’s trials. They adjusted, just like we have, and they hope for a better future.

In 1941, The Edmond Sun publisher shared a family conversation about how to achieve holiday spirit after a tragedy. “Let’s decorate more and have a prettier tree. Everyone [should] laugh more. We can make [our own] little gifts. We can make it a merry Christmas, in spite of the situation we happen to be in.” President Roosevelt also knew that keeping morale high was important during “darkest days.” The night of Christmas Eve, he lifted the blackout order in Washington D.C. to light the national Christmas tree. In his speech, he asked, “How can we pause, even for a day, even for Christmas Day?…Our strongest weapon in this war is the conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas Day signifies more than any other day.”

Holiday decorations and lights have been a beacon to those seeking holiday cheer in 2020. Edmond Luminance has provided a safe, Christmas wonderland. Because it is outdoors and very spread out, even folks who’ve mostly stayed home have ventured out to Mitch Park.

The people of 1941 couldn’t know that WWII would drag on for four years. When that Christmas hit, people were still in shock and denial. We, however, have had months to adjust to the pandemic roller coaster, and we can be pretty confident that we are on the downhill slope of the Covid-19. There is hope for a return to normalcy in 2021.

Christmas Wrap Up Our Christmas may be different this year, but it is not entirely unique to human history to bow to the changes of a world event. As the First National Bank of Edmond wrote in 1941, “When the darkness about us is deepest, we clasp hands tightly within our secure circle of Christmas light and love.”

Many newspapers from WWII shared this sentiment that “the only gift people really want this Christmas is peace on Earth.”
Maybe we should modify that slightly for 2020…
Here’s wishing you the gift of peace AND HEALTH on Earth.

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Top 6 Reasons to Listen to Old Time Radio Shows

Written by Amy Dee Stephens for the Edmond Historical Society


Amy Stephens was a fan of Old Time Radio even during her high school years.

I’m an 80’s girl. I grew up in the era of big hair, leg warmers, and Whitney Houston. Unlike my teen peers, I had an unusual interest in the “oldies.” I thought it was fun to watch black-and-white movies and read old books. But listening to Old Time Radio shows became the habit that has stuck with me for life.

When I was in high school, the local oldies station, KOMA, ran a throw-back of 1940-1950’s radio shows in the wee hours of the morning. For Christmas I had gotten a fancy alarm clock with a cassette tape deck—and I could set it to record something from the radio. While most kids my age were recording Madonna and Bon Jovi, I was recording Old Time Radio Shows. As I was getting ready for school (spending an hour on my 80’s big hair), I would listen to these shows.

And I started learning a lot of history—about how people lived during the 1940s and during WWII.

I’ve been a fan ever since. Even still, when I go to the gym or take a walk in the neighborhood—I listen to a 30-minute episode. Depending on my mood, it might be a mystery, a comedy, a big band concert, or a Fireside Chat with President Roosevelt.
So, I want to share my personal Top 6 Reasons why anyone of any age can enjoy listening to Old Time Radio.

1. Good shows, Minus the Screen Time
I give credit to the radio show writers, because they were master storytellers. They used only words, voices, and sound effects. I can stroll through the neighborhood and enjoy scenery while listening to The Shadow–using my imagination and not looking down at my phone.

2. A Fun Way to Learn (or Re-live) History
As mentioned, I was the quirky teenager who preferred Bob Hope jokes to Seinfeld humor. I’ve now realized that I gained a solid understanding of the social and political issues going on during the early radio era–from the stock market crash to war rationing. These shows prepared me for my museum career. I’ve also had the pleasure of sharing lively conversations with the “senior citizen set” who actually remember listening to the radio as kids.

3. Kid-Friendly, Clean Content
Have children at home? Then you know how hard it is to find clean, appropriate television shows. Questionable content and cuss words have crept into today’s commercials, the news, and even cartoons. Radio shows are safe. A strict board of censors kept things squeaky clean. I do have disclaimers, however, because radios shows occasionally include items that are no longer considered acceptable, from fat jokes to wide-spread cigarette use. Even as a teenager, it was obvious to me that these were part of a different time in history—but realize that a rare teaching moment might present itself about how things have changed.

4. Easily Accessed by Phone or Computer
It’s as easy as YouTube. No more midnight recordings or cassette tapes for me! There are many online sites that offer original recordings that you can listen to, download, or buy on CD. One site has a phone app, which offers a different show each day—that’s what I listen to when I head to the gym or am doing housework.

5. No Commercial Interruptions
No commercial breaks every 3 minutes! Most radio shows were sponsored by one company, which received mention at the beginning, the end, and sometimes the middle. For example, during the Fibber McGee & Molly Show, the sponsor would “drop by” for a visit with McGees, but always managed to turn the conversation about a lost hammer or a cake recipe toward Johnson’s Wax. Sometimes it was sneaky, usually it was blatant, but it in either case, it propelled the storyline forward.

6. A LOT of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby Music
Crosby and Sinatra both began as big band singers, but soon starred in their own radio shows. I was probably their only Generation X-er fan during the 1980’s when most people my age only knew them as Christmas singers. Then, “crooner” popularity resurged again in the 1990’s, and suddenly their music was heard in movies and restaurants everywhere. But I’m claiming it! I knew their music before that happened. Thanks to old radio, I’ve enjoyed a lifetime of their music, and often heard song versions that didn’t make the recording studio cut.

Have I convinced you that the golden-age of radio is the coolest? Give old radio a try next time your eyes need a screen break. Turn to the Radio Classics channel on your satellite station during your next road trip. Let your sick child lay in bed and listen to old radio (haha—yes, I’ve done that). If you’re looking for a great way to enjoy classic stories, hear your favorite Sinatra song in a new way, or learn a little history—listen to old radio shows.

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Cooking at the Ranch (When I Was Supposed to be Writing)




I accidently stumbled into a Hallmark movie. You know, one of those sappy Christmas romances that takes place on a ranch in the snowy mountains of Colorado. Except this was a real working ranch, not a movie set.DSC_0167

My husband and one of his clients was invited to go on a private elk hunting trip on this 40,000 acre ranch. I invited myself along, because I figured I could hang out at the lodge and have my own private writing retreat. And I did write a little, but…

…we pulled up to this idyllic landscape of log cabins surrounded by mountains. From the lodge (parts of which date back to the 1860s), we could see horses racing in the meadow and mule deer wandering freely about. It was a little distracting! DSC_0101

Then, since I was the only female guest and the only one not off hunting during the day—the staff kindly invited me to join them for breakfast: one of those Pioneer Woman kind of breakfasts, with fresh cow milk and about ten home-cooked choices of food.

I easily convinced myself that absorbing different lifestyles enriches my writing, so with the staff’s blessing, I wandered around to see how a real ranch operates. What I learned is that they really work hard, they operate like a big family, and the cooking staff are very serious about serving three homestyle meals a day.

Four hours before dinner, the chef and a prep cook were already buzzing around the industrial kitchen at top speed. Not the “thawed prepared meals” kind of cooking, but the “making everything from scratch” kind of cooking. Not “bottled” salad dressing or barbeque sauce, but “homemade condiments” kind of cooking. I know, because I kept peeking into the kitchen.DSC_0102

Although the ranch employed several shifts of wonderful cooks, I’m particularly grateful to Chef Jennifer Sunde, who noticed my interest and invited me to join her in making a meal. I was already in awe of her food. So were the 14 men I was sitting around the large dinner table with each night.

It turns out, Chef Jennifer came from culinary school and has taught many cooking classes. Her family is also featured in various books and articles because of their “farm to table” lifestyle.

In cheerful fashion, she walked me through the steps of baking yeast rolls and a coconut pie—enough to feed 10 staff and 15 guests. I then helped her and the prep cook, Isaac, finish up the other five dishes and set the table. It was a four-hour race against the clock.
Following ranch custom, Chef Jennifer waited for the guests to gather at mealtime to announce the food menu. She shared with the men which foods I had prepared. Silly as it sounds, I felt inordinate pride watching them enjoy the food I had cooked. DSC_0105

As an average cook at home, with a less than enthusiastic audience, I now understand why Chef Jennifer feels such joy cooking for large admiring crowds. Although I’ll never have her natural talent in the kitchen, I’m pretty sure my family will happily accept yeast rolls and coconut pie as part of my cooking repertoire.

I’ll deeply regret leaving this beautiful ranch; the walks in the snow and three home-cooked meals a day. The only thing missing from this Hallmark movie experience is the movie crew and a marriage proposal (already did that, dear husband). But I’ll always have a few photographs and these two cherished recipes to remember my experience by. And I suspect that one of my future books will someday be set on a ranch.

Chef Jennifer kindly said that I could share her recipes:

Jennifer’s Macaroon Pie

1 1/2 cups milk

1 cup sugar

3/4 cup coconut (plus 1/4 to sprinkle on top)

2 eggs beaten

3 Tbs all purpose flour

1 Tbs melted butter

1/4 tsp vanilla

Stir together all ingredients. Pour into prepared pie crust

Bake at 350 degrees for 50 min.


Sunde’s Farm Bread

2 cups warm water

1 1/2 Tbs yeast

4 Tbs sugar

2 tsp salt

2 Tbs oil

6 cups bread flour

Dissolve sugar and yeast in warm water (hint: sprinkle in to prevent lumps). Stir with wooden spoon and sit until puffy. Stir in salt and oil. Gradually add flour. Knead until smooth. Place in greased bowl. Let rise 30 minutes. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 min.


Filed under Inspiration for Writers

Our Christmas Turtle Miracle

turtle 1Since March, we’ve been caretakers of a 2-inch Mississippi Map Turtle, creatively named Turtle. He lives in a fish tank and has had a variety of fish/tadpole/snail roommates (largely depending on what the boys find in the creek).

Holiday or not, Christmas Day was tank-cleaning day. It was too cold to put Turtle in a tub in the backyard for some sun and exercise. We set the turtle on the kitchen floor to walk around as I finished cleaning the tank and Mike finished a project. Bad idea. Within minutes, that speedy little guy had zipped off to somewhere unknown.

How hard could it be to find a turtle on the run? We scanned every wall, moved furniture, shined a flashlight under every piece of furniture and behind every household appliance. Knowing that the turtle couldn’t get out of the house, we left for the Stephen’s Christmas dinner.

Turtle (1)That evening, we repeated our turtle hunt to no avail. Feeling like terrible pet owners, we set a space heater and a tray of water on the kitchen floor in hopes that he would seek the water and warmth overnight. No turtle. So the next morning, the deep cleaning began–which included pulling out furniture, clearing the closets, more flashlight tours, and taking apart the boys’ bedroom. No turtle.

Our kids, grandkids and Brayden’s new puppy arrived to open presents. Everyone had strict instructions to “watch where you step and watch for Turtle.” Cooper said, dramatically, “We need to find Turtle. We need a Christmas miracle.” Leah said, “Maybe he’ll be one of the presents under the tree.”

Sure enough, at the end of the evening, as everyone was chatting and preparing to leave, Chris said, “Amy Dee, is that your turtle?” He pointed to the floor beneath the Christmas tree. Crawling out from under the tree skirt—was Turtle!

Cooper jumped up and said, “It’s a Christmas miracle!” Then he modified his statement. “Since Chris found him, it’s a Chris-mas miracle.” We all laughed and took Turtle back to his tank. We’re not sure how he escaped being crushed by the boys, who had rearranged and shaken all the presents under the tree at least three times that day. Needless to say, Mike and I felt relieved that our 2-inch charge had reappeared–and in grand, holiday style.  Turtle (2)

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Gayla Peevey’s Hippo Song…Still Going!

I’m always honored to write another article about Gayla Peevey.  This one was published in Outlook Magazine Dec 2017 (see link). After it came out, I escorted Gayla and her family to the Oklahoma City Zoo’s Sing-a-Long.  You’ll see a teaser that the Zoo planned to make a “big” announcement.  As you might have guessed– we got a new hippopotamus for Christmas this year, and Gayla was on-hand to welcome her second hippo in her lifetime~Amy

Photo provided by Gayla Peevey

“I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas….”

What is it about this chipper little song that has stood the test of time? Oklahoma radio stations have kept the song alive for 64 years because of its distinctly historical roots. It was sung by an Oklahoma child-star, Gayla Peevey. She presented such a darling request that the community jumped on a promotional band wagon to actually buy Gayla a hippo! The Oklahoma City Zoo gladly accepted the responsibility of caring for Mathilda for the next fifty years.

But it takes more than a good back story for a song to reach the status of American holiday classic. The song’s original artist, Gayla Peevey Henderson, has her own insight into the song’s longevity. “The hippo song is a well-written, well-constructed song. The arrangement, the storyline and everything about it was quality. That’s why it’s stood the test of time.”

In the last 10 years, the song has not only seen a resurgence, it’s become a pop culture presence. Hallmark can’t keep its annual hippo ornaments, which play the song, on the shelf. A growing number of modern artists, including Kasey Musgraves and LeAnn Rimes, have recorded the song. In December, the hippo song is one of the most highly-downloaded holiday ringtones on iTunes. The United States Postal Service used the song in their holiday advertising campaign last year, which ranked as the #2 National Television Commercial by Billboard.

“All of a sudden, the song got rediscovered,” Gayla said. “I started getting calls from DJs around the world–Canada, Ireland, Great Britain, and Australia–claiming it as the most popular Christmas song on the air.” (This line was cut from the published version, for spacing)

Gayla Peevey with 2017 hippo merchandise at the OKC Zoo. Photo by A Stephens.

The song’s resurgence also changed Gayla’s life. For 50 years, she’d pretended that the song had little significance. Most people in her life had no idea she’d sung it as a child. “I didn’t want to be a “has-been” because that felt like being a failure, so I just never mentioned it.”

Following Gayla’s hit song, Columbia Records pigeon-holed her into singing kiddie songs, like “Kitty in the Basket.” Even Gayla thought they were silly and poorly written. Belting out country songs like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” was how she’d landed on “The Chuckwagon Gang,” a local WKY-TV show, and later, national shows including “Saturday Night Revue” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Gayla’s parents, lacking show business savvy, were overwhelmed by her popularity. They uprooted her to California, and by the time she was an adult, her recording career had ended. Her adult friends had no idea that she’d once performed on stage with Dean Martin, Jimmie Durante, Grace Kelly and the Count Basie Orchestra.

The hippo song, however, continued to live a life without her. In 2007, Gayla was visiting family in Oklahoma and she chanced to meet an Oklahoma City Zoo employee who was aware of her role in securing the zoo’s first hippopotamus. The zoo began planning a live sing-a-Long event for 2011 to celebrate the song’s story. Gayla was nervous that no one would show up to see her, but a large, enthusiastic crowd arrived, and Gayla was surprised by the long line for autographs.

Gayla Peevey and Amy Stephens, Dec 9, 2017 at the OKC Zoo ZooZeum.

This year, the zoo is again hosting Gayla for a live sing-a-long on Saturday, December 9th. Gayla will perform and share her memories of receiving a 700-pound Christmas gift in 1953. Afterward, attendees are invited to meet Gayla in person and view artifacts from her personal history. Gayla will also be sharing a big announcement on behalf of the zoo.

“After an ordinary life, this is like stepping back in time. I’ve been so rejuvenated to know that people remember my connection to the zoo. It’s a happy, positive, joyful song to be remembered by, and I now treasure that.”


To view Outlook Magazine Article:

To visit Gayla’s official site:

Other Gayla articles by Amy:

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Filed under History, Interviews, Published Article Announcement, Zoo

ZooZeum Added to the National Registry of Historic Places

by Amy Dee Stephens

zoozeum dedication“You’re glowing today.”

That’s what my co-worker said when I arrived at work on Sat, Feb 18th, 2017. I didn’t know it showed, but it was a proud day for me. The day represented the culmination of twelve years of hard work: rescuing lost zoo history, saving an important building from destruction, reminding folks that the zoo is in the entertainment memory-bank of nearly everyone in this state for 115 years!

Landing the zoo’s bathhouse on the U.S. Department of Interior’s Register of National Historic Places was a triumph—but not just for me. This stone structure, currently named the Patricia and Byron J. Gambulos ZooZeum, has a place in history this is a result of many people over many years.

It came into existence during a dramatic time in America’s history—the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the Civilian Conservation Corp, and a unit of young men arrived at the Zoo in Oct 1933. The men lived in tents on zoo property, rose to a bugle call each morning and reported to the flagpole to receive their daily work orders. Over several years, they built some amazing structures that have stood the test of time. Many are still in evidence in the Zoo today: roads, picnic benches, the amphitheater and the bathhouse.

The bathhouse’s original purpose was for swimmers to the lake, but over time, the bathhouse also housed the train and stored Halloween props. In the mid-2000s, the idea for restoring the building and turning it into a zoo history museum started coming to fruition. Zoo director, Bert Castro, saw the value of preserving the culture and memories of the Zoo—in the building that had stood watch from the corner of the zoo since 1935.

In 2011, the ZooZeum opened with the purpose of helping guests discover the zoo’s history and reconnect with their own zoo memories. Landing on the National Registry came with the blessing of zoo director, Dwight Lawson, and the assistance of the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation office, who navigated the complicated paperwork with the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The weather was beautiful on Feb 18th. The ceremony was simple. A small stage, podium and flag sat in front of the bathhouse. The guests were people who cared about the building’s architectural legacy. After a few short speeches, Dwight Lawso

zoozeum boys

n and Blake Cody, representing the Byron Gambulos Family, unveiled the bronze plaque placed on the bathhouse door.

For me, the next two activities were most symbolic, although most people

probably missed their significance. First, the public was invited to walk up the twisted staircase into the ZooZeum tower for the first time ever.  Second, an oak sapling was planted: in honor of the day, in honor of the CCC “tree Army” boys who built the bathhouse, and in honor of the zoo’s location in a historic oak landscape.

I had gone to the source of an underwater spring on the other side of the lake to collect the bucket of water for guests to ladle onto the sapling. The spring originally fed zoo lake—and was the reason why the bathhouse was built in the first place. The child attendees really seemed to enjoy putting their dippers into the bucket and giving the tree little drinks of water. It made me happy.

After the dedication, I returned to my office, changed back into work uniform, and got back to my Saturday-as-usual routine. I walked among many zoo visitors who didn’t know about the history-making ceremony that had just taken place. But I knew that something important had happened that day. After a decade of work, I’d helped save the bathhouse for all those people. For future generations.

That’s why I was glowing.


Special thanks to:

The CCC boys who built the bathhouse and all the Zoo directors who came afterward and kept the building intact. The Zoo caretakers, such as Ernie Wilson and Tommy Bryant, who provided maintenance to protect the building from deterioration over many years. The Gambulos family, who funded the conversion and are honored with their name on the building. Sherri Vance, Yvonne Lever and Karen Jones who helped guide the formation of the archive and galleries housed within the bathhouse walls.

This article was published on the Oklahoma City Zoo website blog:

zoozeum blog image


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Mimi, Tell Me A Story

Cooper (7) and Brayden (5) are going through a stage where they want me to tell them stories all the time. Not fairytales, REAL stories about things that really happened to me. Like the time I broke my ankle in a bicycle accident….the time our school bus fell on its side into a ditch…or the time an elephant charged at me while traveling in Africa.

They want to hear these stories over and over again. Just when I think I’ve told them every possible thing I can remember—something else pops into my head.

Last week, I read that hearing stories isn’t merely for entertainment, it’s a powerful teaching tool that prepares us to face issues that arise in our life. For children, especially, it’s like a dress rehearsal on how to face future problems. It’s a reassurance that they will survive accidents, dramas and unexpected events—just like we did.

In a culture saturated with storytelling (books, radio songs, movies, YouTube), kids favorites are still the true stories about their family or what THEY did as a baby.

I don’t guess this is surprising, though. Jesus used the same technique by telling parables to his listeners. His life lessons about mustard seeds, lost coins and wandering sons were passed along through storytelling. Since writings were unavailable to common people—word of mouth was the only venue, and eventually, whole communities knew these stories. Can’t you image the philosophical discussions about lost sheep that occurred around the water wells?

Today, people are holding the same types of “lessons learned” discussions around the water cooler and on Facebook, but the stories are circulated via books and screens instead: There’s no place like home. Don’t trust the wolf on the way to Granny’s house. A kind boy with friends can overcome evil Voldemort.

True, sometimes it is hard for a mere Mimi to compete with television or tablet—but I’ve found some ways around that. I tell the boys stories in the car, at the dinner table, and at bedtime when they spend the night. I remember when Brayden was about four, I was reading him some picture books before lights out. He stopped me and said, “No, I want stories from your mouth.” It’s a phrase he’s used many times since when he wanted me to tell him a “real” story.

I like this quote from the book Turning Memories Into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories by Denis Ledoux. “We want stories to reassure us that the inner strength we can muster will be sufficient against self-doubt, loss, grief and disappointment…It’s not out of idle curiosity that your children and grandchildren want to know about you and your life. Your stories have power, and if they are preserved, they can offer meaning and direction for your children and grandchildren.”

I was thinking about that last weekend during a 5 hour road trip with Brayden and his mom, Leah. I must have spent 3 hours of that trip telling Brayden stories “from my mouth.” I wanted to make sure that I was reinforcing some life lessons at the end of each story, so I started asking, “Why do you think I did that?” or “Here’s what I learned from this situation….was that a good choice?” We had some good discussions—and he really seem to get some of the important points!

The boys favorite stories are about the girl that lived across the street while Laurie and I were growing up. She was the only kid we had to play with, so we had to endure her–but she ran wild and did all kinds of shocking things, like stuffing a wet cat into our mailbox, tying me to the basketball pole and going home for lunch, and being a general bossy britches.

We had a ditch in the front yard that connected to the creek alongside our house. Every summer, thousands of water snails would get into the creek and start laying egg sacks. Laurie and I spent a lot of time playing with those snails or taking them home as pets. One day, bossy britches was mad at me about something and she started jumping up and down on the snails, intentionally killing them.

I don’t lose my cool often, but I could hear the sound of hundreds of shells cracking. I snapped. I started yelling at her, “I can’t believe you are killing hundreds of innocent snails on purpose—you are a murderer and I don’t want to play with you ever again!” She looked shocked. I’d never stood up to her before. As I recall, I didn’t talk to her or play with her for several weeks after that. It was a big deal in my kid-world, that, and the fact that she gave me wide berth for a time.

Cooper and Brayden delight in hearing that story. They think she is the meanest person on the planet! I use that story as an opportunity to talk about bullying. It’s a tricky lesson, because I don’t normally advocate yelling at people when they make me mad–but in this rare case, I felt righteous indignation down to my core, probably much like Jesus did when he found his temple turned into a market. Aren’t some wrongs worth standing up for?

I know that between the family stories and the Bible stories they are learning—these two boys are being well-coached for the future. They are versed in showing compassion like the good Samaritan. They know that if you throw snowballs at someone’s face, you can break their glasses (right Laurie?). They know that when they turn 15, they should not sneak off in my car and wreck it like their Daddy did. At least I hope they’ve learned that lesson, because I’ve preached it often enough!

As a writer, I constantly hear that children’s books shouldn’t be preachy—that kids should be free to develop their own conclusions about a story. I think there is entirely too little guidance going on these days—and that questionable television shows and mainstream media are now shaping society’s current belief system. I see every conversation with a child as a golden opportunity to teach them the Biblical principles they need to live by, and when they ask me for a story, they’ve handed me that opportunity.

From now on, I’ll be infusing a little more “moral of the story” chatter as I tell them about the time I taught inner-city fourth graders…got lost in Munich…traveled with an acapella singing group…took a boat down the Amazon river…or had to be rescued on a skiing trip. Real stories where I learned a little about life.

P.S. The boys don’t know that I wrote this article last night, but this is too coincidental not to share. A few minutes ago, Cooper asked me to tell him a story while he ate supper. I said, “Sure.” He said, “Mimi, one of the best things about you is that you tell stories.”

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Family Memories from the 1930s Dust Bowl

In 1994, I was one college class short of having a minor in history. The professor allowed me to do an independent study and write a thesis about Oklahoma during the Great Depression.

After some research, I decided to do oral interviews of people who remembered living through the 1930s. I set up a group interview at Tealridge Manor, a retirement center hosted by Oklahoma Christian University. I also talked to both my grandmas, Edna Eades and Myrtle Davidson, and they shared some wonderful stories. I’m so glad to have their words preserved. My mom, Phyllis, also shared insight and memories as a child born to parents who lived through the depression.  

I’m so thrilled to have this written record—and when I found it buried in a file cabinet recently, I decided it needed to be shared. Although this is different than what I usually post, I’d love it if a descendant of one of these people might find this paper and read the words of their ancestor–maybe stories they’ve never heard before.     ~Amy

“I Never Thought They Were the Good Old Days”

Memories of Life During the Depression in Oklahoma

By Amy Dee Smith, November 1994

My great grandparents holding my grandfather, Garvin Davidson, in 1921.  Just a decade later this family would live through the Great Depression in Oklahoma.

My great grandparents holding my grandfather, Garvin Davidson, in 1921. Just a decade later this family would live through the Great Depression in Oklahoma.

Table of Contents:

  1. What We Take for Granted
    1. Living Without Luxuries
    2. Living Without Food
    3. Living With Sickness
    4. Living With and Without Animals
  2. Dust Bowl Dilemma
    1. Why the Storms Came
    2. Keeping Dirt Out
    3. Dust Bowl Doozies, The Big Storms
  3. The Migration Situation
    1. In Oklahoma I Busted, In California I Trusted
  4. Relief Programs
    1. Governmental Assistance
  5. Enjoying “Depression”
    1. A Guide to Inexpensive Entertaining
    2. Dust Bowl Funnies
  6. Ending
  7. Bibliography and Sources

I Never Thought They Were the Good Old Days

“I never thought they were the good old days.”

Most Oklahoman’s who lived through the nineteen thirties agree with the sentiments of Myrtle Davidson (my paternal grandmother) from Cement, Oklahoma. Economic challenges, compounded by environmental changes, caused double hardship for a majority of Oklahoma families. The label of “lower class, middle class and upper class” disappeared; everyone was in the “poor class.” Although the Oklahoma panhandle faced the most difficult challenges with the dust storms, every family felt the impact of the depression.

  • What We Take for Granted

Living Without Luxuries

Oklahoma people from the twenties and thirties learned to live with a lower standard of living. Today’s society is often accused for not appreciating what we do have. These people did without many things that we take for granted today.

Maurietta J. Patterson lived in a shanty in Cleveland, OK, and shared it with animals. They had a borrowed divan which made into a bed. They had no table, chair, hardly any dishes or silverware, scarcely anything to cook in, no towels, clothes, money or anything else. “After getting an emergency government wheat loan on the crop, a government permit to get building material, and a gift from friends, we planned a house on a paper napkin as we drove to purchase materials. The time living in that makeshift place was pure horror, so moving into our unfinished house was delightful.”

In 1933, Roosevelt appoint young men as "soil soldiers" to begin to repair the damaged landscape.  Workers also built many community structures at parks.  This photo from the OKC Zoo Historical Archive, 1935.

In 1933, Roosevelt appoint young men as “soil soldiers” to begin to repair the damaged landscape. Workers also built many community structures at parks. This photo used with permission from the OKC Zoo Historical Archive, 1935.

Phyllis Davidson (my mother), native of Blue, OK, and daughter of Edna Eades recalls that her grandmother, Nanny Duncan, reused her dishwater in Chandler, OK. She would put it under the sink until the next washing. “I don’t know how we kept from getting more sick back then. We didn’t have no soap, and after we washed dishes, we could just wring the grease out of the dish rags,” said Edna Eades.

What are considered necessities today were considered luxuries back in the thirties.

“We had no Chapstick back then. Kids used to go around with a red ring around their mouths where they had licked their lips. Daddy would tell us to put ear wax on our lips. I’m not sure if it was to help our lips, or because it tasted so bad that we wouldn’t lick them,” said Phyllis Davidson. “We didn’t have hand lotion or Kleenexes; things we take for granted today. I remember one time we found a bottle of hand lotion real cheap, so we got it. It sat around until it turned sour. We felt like it was the only lotion we had, and it had to last for the rest of our lives, or that we had to save it for company.”

“I think people from our generation are awful pack rats. We didn’t have much, so we were very careful with what we did have,” said Myrtle Davidson.

“That may be the reason it is hard to spend money. I think your raising had an effect on how you are through the rest of your life,” continued Edna Eades. It is hard for her to get rid of old clothes because, “They’re perfectly good clothes, they just don’t fit anymore.”

Phyllis Davidson remembers cleaning through her mother’s closet a few years ago. “We found several electric blankets in there that she’d received for Christmas; all of them were unopened. She said that she was afraid of those new electric things, plus she was saving them in case someone came over.”

Lois Marshall of Sayre, OK, feels like rough times made better people. “Now when we get something, we appreciate it and make a dollar go a long ways. Some people may call us stingy but the thirties made us that way.”

Living Without Food

Food shortage was a common problem for Oklahoma families. Ida Stevens, a school teacher in Cromwell, OK, remembers going home and crying because she knew her children were hungry. “I told the children to bring a bowl and spoon to school. My mother and I cooked a pot of stew for them. We went to the school board and asked for apples and oranges–apples one day, oranges the next–every other day. The principal went to the President of the board to ask if they would, and they did. From them on we did it until the children could bring their own.”

A teacher from Elmore City, Fan Joe Potts, had similar experiences. Her children liked cornbread, so she told them, “Bring cornbread in your school lunch tomorrow and I’ll bring beans.” She would then cook the beans on a pot-bellied stove in the classroom.

Dr. Richard Lowitt, historian, blames food as the original cause of the depression. According to him, over-production and under-consumption was the problem that ushered in economic failure. Women were largely responsible for this because when the flapper style became popular in the 1920s, women began dieting, lowering food consumption. (9)

Food became short for people and livestock. “The government shipped in hay by the cartloads, and the men lined up for their quotas. Then the government started giving out commodities, which gave people something to eat. Schools began receiving canned meat, and children would bring a few vegetables, mostly potatoes, and the hot lunches were born. We got an old coal oil stove and someone brought a wash boiler in which we cooked our stew,” said Thelma Bemount Campbell of Woodward, OK.

“There was the lunch the government gave us at school. We had two cups, one for soup and the other for wheat pudding, which sometimes had raisins in it. We were very thankful for the warm food,” said Lois Marshall.

Many kind-hearted families shared what little they had, such as the family of Ernestine Scoggins of Tulsa, OK. Her dad got up early in the morning to get helpers for the farm, people without jobs. “This is the good way mamma and papa carried it out. Negroes stood by the mailbox waiting. Dad would take about ten. The wives of these men loved to help mamma cook. She did not skimp on their food, either. They had the same thing we did, and my mother had seven kids of her own.”

Juanita Kemena recalled her father’s concern for the hungry as well. He was working at a building job. At lunch, he and the other workers noticed that one man ate his sack lunch in the corner by himself. They went to find out why, and all he had was “a boiled or baked potato, then he saved the peelings for his lunch for tomorrow.” The men took up a collection for him that day.

Some families found themselves so hard up that they turned to stealing food. Ida Stevens relayed one story of a man going into her father’s general store. The man was poor, but he filled a sack full of groceries. “It come to almost twenty dollars. The man said, ‘I can’t pay you, but if you try to take it from me, I’ll fight you.’ The man left with the groceries, but later he sent a check for thirty dollars after he got a job somewhere.”

Some Oklahomans didn’t have such trouble finding food. Farmers with land in the southern parts of the state, away from the dust bowl, were able to provide good food for their families. According to Edna Eades and Myrtle Davidson, they weren’t effected much by the depression.

My grandmother, Myrtle Roberson Davidson was born in 1930, so the Great Depression effected her entire childhood.

My grandmother, Myrtle Roberson Davidson was born in 1930, so the Great Depression effected her entire childhood.

“We were basically self-supporting and we grew our own food. We saved our own corn seeds. Nowadays, they use this hybrid seed that you can only use one year. We’d gather our crop, then get out and help other people for money to buy our clothes,” said Edna Eades. “Often we read in the paper about how other people were in soup lines, but it’s not much different than today with the Jesus House and all those places.”

“Except everyone did it back then, except farmers,” added Myrtle Davidson.

However, farmers in the panhandle had problems with growing crops. According to Allen A. Aaron of Woodward, OK, it rained less than five inches during a three year period. “Pastures were ruined. The wind had blown the soil away from the grass roots and finally the plants themselves were blown out of the ground. The fields were just mounds of blowing dirt without a plant of any kind alive as far as we could see in any direction.”

“In the last of March 1935, we had a duster which destroyed most of the wheat crop in Nebraska–half of it in Kansas and a fourth of it in Oklahoma,” said Maurietta Patterson. “It had so much static electricity that it burned the wheat to a crisp brown before it continued all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.” She remembers that the food they did eat had to be consumed carefully. Paper towels were laid on the plates at dinner time. When a bite was eaten, the paper cloth was lifted quickly, then put back down before the dust could get on the food.

Canned food was a staple diet for many families. Troubled farmers relied on the food saved from past crops. Canned food even posed difficulty. Ernestine Scoggins remembers canning peaches that weren’t fit to can. “They were more like dried peaches, grown after only one rain on them, but nobody ever complained about eating them.”

For the most part, people in need were assisted by friends and neighbors, although Myrtle Davidson does remember one case otherwise. One of the richer farmers was trying to sell a crop of potatoes, but he had them priced so high that no one could afford them. “He got mad, and instead of helping all the hungry people, he dumped the whole bunch in the river and ruined them all.”

The government did develop a system to help out the hungry. Food stamps, or rations books were born on March 13, 1939. For some people, this and the soup lines were the only hope for being fed.

Living With Sickness

Disease was a large problem and a great fear of early Oklahoma people. Medical technology was limited and costly. Lack of food, poor sanitation, and exposure to the elements all contributed to the problem of illness. Infancy death rate was high, and dust suffocation was prevalent. Lola Moor Long felt lucky to have even made it. “I started life in a dust storm. When it was time to make my arrival, it came up a dust storm. Mom was scared to death. My dad took her down into a half dugout– half a house and half a dugout–and that’s where I was born.”

Children braved the element when walking to school. Stories of getting lost because the dust was so thick, and walking backward so that the sand would not sting their faces were common. Winter time posed other hazards. Fan Joe Potts remembers her students coming to school frozen. “Kids who rode horseback to school would be frozen when they got there. It took the first half of the day to thaw their feet out.”

“I remember putting cardboard in my shoes to keep out the cold snow, and making sure I kept my feet on the floor in school so that the others couldn’t see the holes in my shoes,” said Lois Marshall

Edna Eades made her children’s shoes with a heavy khaki, lined with unbleached muslin. She cut out the shape, put little lace-up holes and “run” a string through them. “Houses were so cold. Mom took legs of pants to make comforters and heavy quilts.”

She also remembers cold rides in the wagon. “It’s what caused my sick spelling. When we got a cold, we were scared that we might die—today we just figure we’ll go to the doctor. That’s when I developed the habit of worrying.”

Dust storms in the panhandle caused numerous health problems.

“Instead of viral pneumonia, dust pneumonia was a problem. Coughing and blowing the nose brought forth mud. Hospitals were full and many older people and babies were dying,” said Maurietta Patterson. In some areas, the Red Cross distributed gas masks to dust bowl families. The mask had been made during World War 1 to protect soldiers, but they took on the duty of covering children’s faces during the night to protect them from suffocation. Tents made of sheets were hung over the beds at night to keep the dust out.

Homemade cures and traditions often dictated the medical procedures for preventing sickness. Maurietta Patterson remembers the cure her dad prescribed to her husband, Frank. “He cooked a big iron skillet full of onions and put them in a sugar sack. He told Frank to remove his shirt and lay down. Dad put that very hot sack of onions across Frank’s chest. After the first complaints of being burned alive, Frank endured the treatment and got over the pneumonia. To this day, however, he cannot stand the taste or smell of onions.”

Women, during “that time of the month” were taught not to take a bath or wash their hair. It was believed they would be more susceptible to illness.

Living conditions partly contributed to sanitary problems. Squatter camps, or ditch camps, were breeding grounds of disease. Epidemics grew and spread. Ida Stevens, who lived in Cromwell, OK, remembered a time when the town was little more than a squatter camp. “The judge of Seminole county in 1926 cleaned up Cromwell. The place was full of wild shootings outside saloons. There was a lot of fighting and drinking.” They were compared to living like animals. Those lucky enough to have shelter often had little more than a roof over their heads. Ida Steven’s visited one such place. “They had a dirt floor in their house—I called it a shack. They cooked on top of the heater. It was pitiful.”

Living With and Without Animals

Animals served as help and hindrance during the depression. An article in the Daily Oklahoman reported, “A Tahala farmer offered to give away 100 hogs to anyone who would take them, so he wouldn’t have to watch them starve to death.” (8)

Edna Eades remembers pouring used dishwater into buckets and giving it to the hogs. “It couldn’t hurt them, we didn’t use no soap back then.” Farmers were known to haul water up to 20 miles in an attempt to save their stock while others drove their cattle as far as 10 miles to water.

According to Thelma Bemount, “The government sent crews to kill the cattle and hogs because there was no feed for them. They paid a small fee for each one killed. People followed crews and butchered the better cattle, taking the meat home to can. It wasn’t prime beef by any means, but we were grateful to have it.”

Lois Marshall remembers similar circumstances. “President Roosevelt gave the farmers five dollars a head for their cattle, then shot them. They let people have what they wanted of the meat. I remember my mother and aunt set up all night canning beef…men killed rabbits which were eating up the crops. I never could eat wild meat, so I ate greens.”

Controlling animals was another problem all together, whether it was keeping them in or out.

Fern Pounds of Elmwood, Oklahoma, recalls trouble keeping the cows in. “The fences had blown full of weeds and then the blown dirt drifted in to cover the posts and wire. Cattle could walk over the fences and go any place they wanted, looking for food.”

Maurietta J. Patterson had trouble keeping animals out. She was living in an unused garage shortly after her house burned down. “One day while getting dinner, I heard a slithering noise and looked around to see three big bull snakes enjoying my living quarters. I cautiously moved toward the door, grabbed a hoe, and chopped down on all three, each trying to get into the same hole. Fearful that one would get away, I was afraid to life the hoe for another whack, so I held it down with all my strength and cried, screamed and called for help. No one showed up until about 45 minutes after I had killed them.”

Rattlers, bull snakes and diamondbacks were a common sight to Frank and Maurietta Patterson, but not one snake ever got away. “One morning…less than a quarter of a mile from the house they saw a rattler. Frank drove back to the house for a shovel and gun. Instead of one snakes, he killed 448 in that one den.” Shortly after that they moved into a new chicken house. “The two or three chickens we had were a lot better company than snakes.”

“Chickens helped keep the bugs down. We never had problems with cockroaches because they ate them up before they got to the house,” said Myrtle Davidson. “It’s amazing how nature can take care of itself. I always thought the cats and dogs were just around for pets, but now I know that the cats kept the mice away, and the dogs scared off the coons and other predators. Even the snakes helped keep the mice down. I just wish I knew how nature takes care of flies. There was never anything we could do about that.”

  • Dust Bowl Dilemma

Why the Storms Came

Often, the dust bowl is mistakenly taken as the cause for the depression. Actually, the dust bowl caught the tail end of a chain of events during the depression era and extended hardship for those in its path. A troublesome economic crisis was the first blow to farmers. The stock market crash of 1929 was the fateful day when the bottom fell out of the market in New York City. Farmers suffered from surpluses, low prices, excessive debts and high costs throughout the 1920s. Despite Herbert Hoover’s Federal Farm Board, wheat and cotton prices fell to disastrous levels.

A severe drought was the next step. Intense hot, dry weather hit first in the northern plains and spread gradually to the south and west. As summer came to Oklahoma in 1934, the state set new records almost daily for high temperatures and the longest period without any rainfall. There were 83 days of temperatures over 100 degrees, with the high being 116. It rained less than five inches during a three year period. (8)

Problems of drought were compounded by the practice of unsound farming techniques.  Erosion and over-cropping had damaged the soil. Farmers had not given the land a chance to rejuvenate.

The frequency and severity of the dust storms during the 1930s became major news items. Following the April 14, 1935 Black Blizzard, Robert E. Geiger of the Associated Press released a series of articles, the first from Guymon, Oklahoma, for the Washington (D.C.) Evening Star. In his story, Geiger inadvertently, but appropriately used the term “dust bowl.” Geiger ignored this term in his next two articles, and in his last story from the area, he referred to the region as the “dust belt.” The public and the Soil Conservation Service, however, adopted the term Dust Bowl almost immediately and used it when referring to this windblown, drought-stricken area. (4)

Keeping the Dirt Out

Dust storms were nothing new to farmers on the Great Plains, they had just never reached such magnitude. Geologist worked out a method of determining the origins of each storm: “If the dust was black, it was from northeast New Mexico; when the dust was golden, from Colorado and western Kansas, and when white, from the alkali beds of northern Nebraska and the Dakotas.” (5)

Those in the path of these storms, particularly Oklahomans from the western  panhandle, had to readjust their living conditions. There are many stories to draw upon that depict life during the dust bowl. A common problem was keeping the dust out of the house. Maurietta Patterson explained that, “No matter how well the house was built, trim was needed. Masking tape was a common trim around windows and seldom-used doors. For wider cracks, we tore rags into strips and tightly packed them into cracks. Even wet towels or blankets wouldn’t keep the dust out during the high winds.”

Thelma Bemount Campbell dipped gunny sacks into old tractor oil and tacked them over the windows to keep out as much dirt as possible. She covered the furniture and bed with sheets and shook them out before going to bed. She remembers scooping the sand out of the attic because it got so full it was causing the plaster to fall.

Allen A. Aaron learned his dust lesson the hard way. He had been warned to go to the lumber yard and buy a roll of brown, sticky tape to tape around cracks in the house. He did not buy the tape, and sure enough, after the next storm, he came home to a house covered with dust inside. “On closer inspection, we noticed small mounds of dirt on the floor near the baseboards. Soon we observed that there were several small nail holes in the walls, through which dust was coming and piling up on the floor below, much like water from a sprinkling can.” The next day he purchased the sticky tape and puttied the holes in the walls.

The dust caused destruction to more than just houses. Cars also experienced damage. Sand filtered into the air filters and carburetors, down cylinder walls, past the rings and into pans. The rings were sometimes completely eaten away by the sand particles, or the cylinder was so scarred that it needed reboring. Motors were often replaced. (17) Farm machinery also faced similar repairs. Overall, the dust filtered into every nook and cranny of peoples’ lives.

Dust Bowl Doozies

Getting caught outside during a storm was even worse. Thelmas Bemount Campbell remembers Black Sunday, April 14, 1935. “We could see it rolling toward us at a terrific speed like a prairie fire—except there was no fire. Then it became still and black; it was rolling and boiling and the air was full of static electricity. And since we lived on a high hill, we could see it coming three miles away. My father was changing clothes to do chores before the storm reached us. I remember telling Dad it was coming fast and asked if I should put the car away. He said he would do it as soon as he could get his shoes on. I looked again and said, ‘You don’t have time. It’s here right now!’ And it was upon us. The wind was so strong that we heard later it had broken the wind gauges…When it hit, everything became very still and we were enveloped in this terrible blackness. We couldn’t see our hand in front of our face. Some people thought they had been struck blind. …I wanted to light a lamp but father said, ‘No, better not even strike a match.’” Some of her neighbors had been caught in their cars for over an hour, saying that the car lights couldn’t penetrate the darkness, so they had to stop at the side of the road.

Allen A. Aaron had a similar experience. One time he got caught in a duster during church. It was so severe that no one could leave, so they went to the basement to fellowship. “By three o’clock, the wind had subsided sufficiently to give ten-foot visibility so, within thirty minutes, we all left the church. We had to drive no more than ten miles an hour with the headlights on.” Several weeks later he experienced the worst storm of his life. “Within two minutes it was so completely dark I couldn’t see my hand when I placed it before my eyes. It was total darkness. It raged for seventeen days, during which time we never saw a trace of the sun. It was light enough most of the time so we could see to walk, and we continued having school, but no one could drive a car. Once inside a building with the lights on, business could be carried on as usual. People became accustomed to this pattern and learned to live with it.”

  • The Migration Situation

In Oklahoma I Busted, In California I Trusted

“The Arkies and Okie in nineteen thirty six,

Cranked up their flivers and came west Sixty-six…” (6)

Most experts agree that Oklahoma migration was due to a variety of reasons, although a common myth is that the dust bowl was the primary reason. In 1940, Oklahoma Governor Leo. C Phillips appointed a committee to study the problem of migration. The reasons ranged from excessive freight rates to drought. The committee also noted that Oklahoma was the youngest state at the time, thirty years old, and settlers of Oklahoma tended to be migratory anyway. It was typical for Oklahoma farmers to pull up stakes every year or two. Incidentally, the Depression was never noted as a cause of migration by the committee.

Farm laborers were needed less with the increase of tractors and machinery. “We didn’t hire our work done, but did it with old machinery and every penny saved went for interest,” said Thelma Bemount Campbell.

“The ‘Dust Bowl,’ as popularly perceived, affected a relatively small portion of Oklahomans…without question, drought and dust storms caused many people to leave the farms, but many other reasons can be cited.” (2)

Allen A. Aaron explains his reason for moving on. “We liked the people and were happy with our jobs, but at the end of the school year, we’d seen enough of the dust storms in the panhandle and decided to leave. Those were hard years.”

The California migration is the best-known, largely because of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, although migration often occurred within the state as people began to gravitate to cities. “By 1935, a network of “squatter camps” began to emerge around the city (Oklahoma City). One of the worst of these was the May Avenue Camp.” Camps such as these were the breeding ground of disease and poverty. (2)

As Oklahoman’s flocked to California, the state experienced the same problem as squatter camps cropped up around major cities. California residents highly resented “Okies.” This term also grew to include migrants from Kansas, Texas and Arkansas, but Oklahomans comprised the largest group of these people by far. The term “Okies” was an insult meaning lazy vagrant. In 1939, a sign appeared in the foyer of a local theater that read, “Negroes and Okies upstairs.” One letter written to President Roosevelt said:

“Knowing the character of migrants, from my experience in dealing with them, I object to these hordes of degenerates being located at my very door.

These ‘share croppers’ are not a noble people looking for a home and seeking an education for their children. They are unprincipled degenerates looking for something for nothing.

The fact that they are leaving their native land unfit for human habitation is not surprising. Their ignorance and maliciousness in caring for trees, crops, vines and the land is such that California will be ruined if farming is left to them…” (2)

Overall, the migration of Oklahomans was viewed as a very negative experience. Oklahomans who stayed felt like they made the correct choice. Thelma Bemount Campbell may express it best. “Those that stayed and hung onto their land were far better off than those who gave up…It wasn’t easy trying to pay mortgages and interest. My folks were among the stayers and saved their land—and passed it down to me…It took several years to get the land back into production…and we can grow almost anything.”

  • Relief Programs

Governmental Assistance

The government started several programs to help struggling Oklahomans to feed their families during the depression. In September of 1930, 500 farmers in Latimer County passed a resolution requesting aid, and reported that six out of seven families needed assistance.

Programs of federal relief, crop rotation, and soil conservation mandates were instituted to prevent future problems. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933 to provide work for unemployed single men, and to work on project restoring farm lands. The Shelterbelt Project, planting hundreds of miles of trees, was instituted to slow high winds. According to Myrtle Davidson, some areas of the Shelterbelt remain, and rows of trees can be seen by airplane.

In 1935, Congress passed the Social Security Act. U.S. Rep. Henry Ellenbogen, D-Pa., explained that, “The idea will be security of the individual from birth to death.”

One highly-beneficial program was the Works Progress Administration, which was begun in the mid-1930s by Roosevelt. WPA, known as “wuppa,” provided public service jobs to men who needed a job to provide for their families. Community improvements were the main service that the WPA workers provided. Many of these are still evident today. Parks were created, the North Canadian River was straightened, 1,010 statutes were built, bridges and roadways were improved, and libraries, jails, city halls, armories and swimming pools were built. WPA was also responsible for converting an abandoned railroad yard in the center of Oklahoma City into the Civic Center Music Hall, as well as starting the first Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra. (7)

Will Rogers, Oklahoma entertainer and columnist, volunteered his service to raise money for drought stricken families. During a twenty-day tour, his traveling appearances and newspaper articles raised a total of $193,382 in relief aid. (1)

  • Enjoying “Depression”

A Guide to Inexpensive Entertaining

Most of the memories from the thirties are of hardships and trials, but a few good things could be found. Oklahoman’s relied on each other to make the times more bearable.

“There was no money to go to shows,” said Thelma Bemount Campbell, “So we had parties, programs, and the church held everyone together.”

Edna Eades recalled the parties they had in Chandler, OK. “One of my brothers played the guitar, one sister play the mandolin, and one played the piano. People would come to hear music and play that Carom game. (Carom is similar to pool, but chips are hand-flicked into side pockets). When we all got to be young folks, old enough to go out and date, we’d go to each other’s houses and play music.”

Some farmers did not have neighbors close enough to associate with often. Family members then had to rely on each other for entertainment and companionship.

“All of the children had certain chores to do,” said Myrtle Davidson. “When those were finished, we had free time. Often, several family members would get together and make up games. We had a few fights, but for the most part we got along.”

“That’s what an American-style family is all about—sticking together through good times and bad times,” said Lois Marshall of Sayre, OK.

There was more time to relax in the early nineteenth century.

“The only good thing about it (the thirties) was the leisure time. We weren’t so busy all the time like things are now,” said Myrtle Davidson. “Once the sun went down, kerosene lamps were the only source of light. When it got dark, farming stopped. “People think it sounds terrible for us to have gotten up at the crack of dawn, but we went to bed a lot earlier back then. When it got dark, there wasn’t much else to do.”

Dust Bowl Funnies

The term “Depression” says a lot for the mood of the twenties and thirties. Oklahomans caught in the dust bowl had even less to be cheerful about, however. Those who remained to face the storms developed a bitter and ironic sense of humor to cope with their individual tragedies.

Women, who learned to turn their plates upside down to keep out the dust when they set their tables, told about the woman who cleaned her dishes, pots, and pans by putting them out the window to be blasted clean by the blowing sand.

“Farmers laughed about the rancher who went to the bank to secure a loan and looked up to see his farm blowing past the window.” (2)

According to Woody Guthrie, Oklahoma entertainer, “Every time you sneeze out the wrong window, a bank fails.”

There were stories of frogs who drowned when they were thrown into a pond because they had never learned to swim.

The story was also told about the man who fainted when he was hit by a drop of rain and had to be revived by throwing a bucket of dirt in his face.

Farmers insisted that they gauged the intensity of the great storms by tying a log chain to a tree: if the chain blew straight, the wind was calm; if it popped like a whip, there was a breeze; if it uprooted the tree, there was a blizzard.

In Kansas, a newspaper reported that the blowing dust was so thick that Lady Godiva could ride through the streets without even the horse seeing her. (5)

It is rumored that one woman gave her children teaspoons and let them play in the dirt on the dining room table.

Fan Joe Potts told the old joke that cow ranchers had an awful time during the dust bowl. When the cowboys went to round up the herds, they couldn’t find them because they were buried in the sand.

Others told the story of a rancher who bought a bucket of gravel to throw on his rooftop at night so that his children would know the sound of falling rain.

This joke leads perfectly into a true story of a similar case. Allen A. Aaron was teaching one March morning when it began to rain. “Several boys and girls in my room would look occasionally at the water running of the window panes. There was a knock on my classroom door. I answered it and saw Miss Bull, our first and second grade teacher. She said, ‘Mr. Arron, I need some help. Do you have time to come to my room?’ I asked if she were having trouble and she replied, ‘I surely am. My kids are all crying and I can’t get them to quiet down. I’ve tried everything I know.’ I asked why they were crying and she replied, ‘my pupils can’t remember ever having seen it rain before. The rain hitting the window panes is scaring them to death.’”

We returned to her room, and it was a serious problem. Everyone was crying and some were screaming for their mothers. I got the middle-grade teacher and the three of us worked for thirty minutes to quiet them and make them feel at ease.”


In retrospect, the Depression was a difficult time for Oklahoman dwellers. Financial constraints, poor living conditions, and extreme weather situations caused many hardships. Statements given by people who lived during this era demonstrate every-day routines that were quite different from what we face today. Although we hope to never face problems of such magnitude, the courage and tenacity that these Oklahomans showed gives us hope that we, too, can confront any situation that life throws our way.

It would be improper to say that the Depression brought nothing but disaster. Past mistakes in economy and soil conservation practices now give us better insight on how to prevent a recurrence in either of these areas.


  1. Collines, Reba Neighbors. Will Rogers: Centennial Year Celebration, 1979.
  2. Hendrickson, K. Hard Times in Oklahoma: The Depression Years, Oklahoma Historical Society, 1983.
  3. Hull, W. H. The Dirty Thirties, Stanton, 1989
  4. Hurt, R. Douglas. The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History, Nelson-Hall Chicago, 1981.
  5. Schuyler, Michael. The Dread of Plenty: Agriculture Relief Act of the Federal Government in the Middle West 1933-39, Sunflower, 1989.
  6. Stein, W. California and the Dust Bowl Migration, Greenwood, 1973.

Other Sources

7. Jones, Charles T. State Response to Great Depression with Resourcefulness, Sunday Oklahoman Centennial Edition III, April 24, 1994.

8. Jones, Chris. Dust Bowl Defined Worst of Times, Sunday Oklahoman Centennial Edition III, April 24, 1994.

9. Oklahoma Passage Telecourse: The Great Depression.

Personal Testimonies

Personal testimonies were taken from current Oklahoma City residents, November, 1994. Former residence, referring to the time period of the 1930s, is stated.

  1. Phyllis Davidson, Blue, OK
  2. Edna Eades, Chandler, Ok
  3. Myrtle Davidson, Cement, OK
  4. Lola Moor Long, Ok
  5. Fan Joe Potts, Elmore City, OK
  6. Ernestine Scoggins, Tulsa, OK
  7. Ida Stevens, Cromwell, OK

Other Testimonies

The following testimonies were personal letters written for publication in The Dirty Thirties.

  1. Allen A. Aaron, Woodward, OK
  2. Thelma Bemount Campbell, Woodward, OK
  3. Juanita Kemena, OK
  4. Lois Marshall, Sayre, Ok
  5. Maurietta J. Patterson, Cleveland, OK
  6. Fern Pounds, Elmwood, OK


Filed under History, Interviews

The Big Story About Saving Tiny Lives

I was so proud to interview these dear friends and share the story of how this important juvenile non-fiction book about “the man who saved blue babies” came to life.

Written by Amy Dee Stephens in the June 2016 Issue

If you haven’t heard the name Vivien Thomas yet—you will soon. Oklahoma City author, Gwendolyn Hooks, is celebrating the release of her 20th children’s book, Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas. It’s already earning rave reviews.

Gwendolyn Hooks with Anna MyersBack in the 1940s, Vivien developed a technique that is still saving thousands of babies born with low oxygen, sometimes called “blue baby syndrome.” But decades passed before he received any credit for his discovery. After all, he was only a research assistant.

Fast forward to 2010. Gwendolyn Hooks was up late A text came through. “Are you awake? Call me.” It was from Gwendolyn’s friend and fellow author, Anna Myers. It was after 11 o’clock, it must be trouble. “Gwen, Gwen,” Anna shouted into the phone. “I just saw a movie about the man who saved my little Will’s life. His name is Vivien Thomas. You have to write his story.”

Little Will, Anna’s grandson, was born a perfect angel—but a few hours later, he developed signs of serious heart defects. Will’s tiny lips and fingers started to turn blue. His oxygen levels were too low. Will needed a delicate surgery to open valves in his heart and increase blood flow. He required the surgery developed by Vivien Thomas.

Now, Will is ten years old and doing fine, but the fear Anna’s family experienced can never be forgotten. So when Anna’s brother saw a movie about the little-known Vivien Thomas, he called Anna in tears, insisting she watch the movie. Anna was equally moved. She could now put a name to the man who saved her grandson’s life.

“Anna, I’ve never heard of Vivien Thomas.” Gwendolyn said. “He means something to you, you should write it,” Gwendolyn said.

“Gwen,” Anna said, “this story has to be told, and the author has to be African American. God told me you’re the one to write this.”

When Anna speaks emphatically to her author friends, they pay attention. After all, Anna is in the Oklahoma Writer’s Hall of Fame. So, Gwendolyn watched the movie and started to research Vivien Thomas. What she discovered was the remarkable fortitude of a man who cared more about saving lives than taking credit. Vivien was unable to afford medical school, so he took a job as a research assistant.

It took Vivien a while to realize that because he was a black man working in an all-white university, he was treated differently. Vivien wasn’t paid as a lab technician, his official job title was janitor. He couldn’t walk in the front door. He wasn’t allowed to wear a lab coat, which indicated doctor status.

In 1943, Dr. Alfred Blalock was asked to develop a surgery to save blue babies, but since he was busy with other projects, he asked Vivien to do the research. Working with Dr. Blalock, Vivien’s natural aptitude led to the creation of a procedure for shunting arteries and sewing the vessels together. Vivien developed miniature tools and experimented on animal hearts, sewing arteries together with tiny stitches. It worked, and it was ground breaking!

When Dr. Blalock was asked to try the technique on a dying baby, Vivien stood behind him on a stool and coached Dr. Blalock through the surgery he’d developed. The baby survived.

Anna Myers with Gwendolyn Hooks

Vivien then stood over Dr. Blalock’s shoulder and talked him through 150 additional surgeries. However, the procedure was named after Dr. Blalock and another colleague, who wrote a scientific paper about the procedure. Vivien was never mentioned. Nor was he invited to the celebration in which Dr. Blalock was nominated for a Nobel Prize for the surgical technique.

As Gwendolyn dug further into Vivien Thomas’ life, she was amazed by his humbleness. Despite being ignored professionally, he and Dr. Blalock maintained a congenial working relationship. Vivien continued his work and generously trained hundreds of doctors on his technique. It wasn’t until 26 years later when Vivien was acknowledged by students for his medical contributions, and his portrait was placed at Johns Hopkins University.

With Anna’s encouragement, Gwendolyn spent three years writing and rewriting Vivien’s story. She contacted Oklahoma doctors who had trained under Vivien or who perform the blue baby surgery, such as Dr. Harold Burkhart.

Since Gwendolyn was writing a children’s book, she didn’t want the emphasis to be the racism issue. Vivien’s treatment might have been “the norm” in the 1940s, but his ability to see past himself was not. Gwendolyn wanted readers to know that Vivien could have been bitter and walked away, but he focused on his goals instead of his feelings.

Gwendolyn also pushed aside her own doubts that her book would ever be good enough. Her husband kept saying, “You can do this! But maybe you should come to bed now—it’s 2 o’clock in the morning.” Despite having already published 20 books herself, writing about such an important topic didn’t come quickly or easily—but Gwendolyn forged through dozens of “clunky drafts” until she had written a story that honored Vivien. “The words didn’t come magically—but the final manuscript gave my agent chills,” Gwendolyn said.

Gwendolyn spent two more years revising the book. Another year passed while illustrator Colin Bootman finished the watercolor illustrations. Bootman is a previous winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for outstanding books by African Americans.

According to Kirkus Review, Gwendolyn’s story is told with a “gently insistent message of perseverance.” It’s exactly what she hoped would come across. “Vivien couldn’t afford medical school, so he grabbed at the detour that came his way. By focusing on his goal, his dream was fulfilled,” Gwendolyn said. And Anna stood over Gwendolyn’s shoulder and encouraged her to trust in her talent.

“Gwen worried that she couldn’t do this story justice,” Anna said. “But I knew she could—and she did it beautifully.”

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