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Historic Bartlesville photographed with oil wells stretching to horizon. Photo courtesy of Bartlesville Area History Museum.

Bartlesville Area History Museum

Incredible History

Pioneers of the caney

The People Who Shaped the Foundation of Bartlesville

Debbie Neece, Bartlesville Area History Museum, author

During the 1800s, Native Americans lived on this land — they hunted the abundance of game and fished the Caney River for its bounty. Trees were few and trails aimlessly crisscrossed bluegrass prairie. And, white men allowed to trade in the Cherokee Nation were required to be married to an Indian maiden, adopted into the tribe, or purchase a trade permit.

Indian Territory was sparsely inhabited and freely roamed by the likes of Osage Chief Black Dog. His trail from Claremore passed his Silver Lake hunting camp and proceeded north crossing the Caney River near the current Adams Boulevard Bridge, north to cross the river at the horseshoe bend, and then followed the river west to cross Black Dog Ford at the confluence of Butler Creek and the Little Verdigris — later known as the Caney River — just south of Oak Park. Fording the Caney River safely required a rock or shale bottom to cross, thus these locations.

At Black Dog Ford, James Leontine Butler, an intermarried Cherokee, established an early trading post and added the Little Verdigris post office December 1859. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Butler recruited a unit of Cherokee Mounted Rifles that included Will Rogers’ father, Clement Rogers. Confederate Captain Butler served under General Stand Watie and after the Civil War, he retired to Texas and the post office closed.

During the Civil War, former Indian Agent turned Confederate Colonel, Douglas H. Cooper, was tasked with forcing Creek Indian Chief Opothlyahola’s band of free blacks, runaway slaves, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole Indians north to Fort Row, KS. A series of three Indian Territory battles — Round Mound at Yale, Chusto-Talasah at Sperry and Chustenahlah near Skiatook — called the Trail of Blood on Ice, resulted in a Civil War skirmish on Black Dog Creek as Opothlyahola’s band fled to Kansas. Winter hampered their travel with frostbite, hypothermia and starvation. In the wake of battle, the land was scarred and soaked in blood.

Oklahoma was not yet a state — this was still Indian Territory. Once slaves escaped into I.T., there was a slight sense of protection from law officers and bounty hunters under the wing of the Five Tribes as sovereign nations. It was not a coincidence the battle occurred at Black Dog Creek. The free blacks and runaway slaves traveling with Chief Opothlyahola were aware of the “Underground Railroad” trail that passed Gap Road and Silver Lake, following the Black Dog Trail along the Caney River to freedom in Kansas.

New York born and Kansas transplant, Nelson Franklin Carr joined the Civil War in 1861 and served with the Sixth Kansas Calvary. In March 1862, Carr was discharged due to malaria which required several hospitalizations, one at the Kansas “Old Soldier’s Home” where he met Reverend Joseph Sykes, a Methodist minister, who told of buying provisions prior to the Civil War at a millsite below the Kansas line, along a bend in the Verdigris River.

Recorded deep in Indian Territory history, Georgia transplant, Joel Mayes Bryan arrived in 1832 and owned at least ten stores, two gristmills and the Union Salt Works in the Cherokee Nation. Historians believe the Caney River millsite could have belonged to Joel Bryan or the earlier mentioned Butler family.

Carr settled at Oswego, KS where he was postmaster for a year, operated a trading post and married Cherokee Sarah Ann Rogers. In 1867, the Delaware Indians removed to the Cherokee Nation from their Kansas lands and the Carr’s moved to the Black Dog Ford of the Caney River. Approximately 300 yards north of the crossing, Carr established his home, trading post and sawmill.

After an 1868 Indian raid left his trading post ravaged, Carr turned to farming corn, but remembered the conversation with Reverend Sykes and set out to trade at a different location. Finding the millsite ruins Sykes spoke of, Carr went to work establishing a corn gristmill and sleuth/millrace at the narrow neck of the Caney River horseshoe bend, just north of the current Cherokee Bridge.

When the Osage moved southward, Chieftain Hard Rope’s band camped on the south side of the Caney for several months prior to Carr’s north side arrival in 1870. Hard Rope vacated when Carr settled.

Carr continued to develop his millsite until Jacob Bartles made a proposition Carr could not refuse — sell the millsite for $1,000. The sale was finalized March 20, 1875. Described as a wise, visionary, Carr continued to farm, ranch and develop oil holdings until retiring in Bartlesville.

Carr and Bartles were not strangers; both were Union Civil War veterans of the Sixth Kansas Cavalry.

After the war, Bartles returned to Wyandotte County, Kansas and married Nannie Journeycake Pratt, daughter of Delaware Chief and Baptist Minister Charles Journeycake. Nannie was a widow with three young daughters, Nonie, Ella May and Ida. They lived on Nanny’s farm where their son Charles was born and died 13 months later.

When Reverend Journeycake moved to establish a mission church at Silver Lake, the Bartles followed, arriving in 1873, just missing the mass exodus of the Osage tribe who moved to the Osage Reservation and established Pawhuska at Bird Creek.

Upon arrival in the Cherokee Nation, Jacob and Nannie Bartles remarried according to the “laws and customs of the Cherokee people” granting Jacob trading rights in Indian Territory. Later, in 1876, Bartles purchased citizenship for his three step-daughters giving them the rights and privileges of Cherokee Citizens at a cost of $852.00.

Seeking greater trade opportunities, Bartles moved to establish a trading post at Turkey Creek in 1874, where son Joseph Bartles was born December that year.

In March 1951, the Indian Territory Pioneer Association and Don M. Tyler of the Dewey Portland Cement Company placed a cement monument at the site of the Turkey Creek Post Office at Bartlesville, I.T. The historic marker faces west due to the trail that past the trading post at that point. Although located on private property, south of the Edgewood and Frank Phillips Blvd. intersection, behind the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, you can still visit this site.

In 1875, Bartles purchased the Carr gristmill and began improvements. In 1907, he was quoted as saying, “I had twenty yoke of work cattle and I put eighteen yoke to work hauling stone. I kept them at it from fall till grass came. Most of the stone came from the Blue Mound quarry in the Osage Nation. There were some stone that weighed two tons. I had a pile of stone that looked as if it was big enough to build the entire mill. But we used up all of the stone before the foundation was completed. It had cost me about $4,000 to get that far. It had 32,000 perch of stone in it. Part of the mill machinery was hauled overland from Vinita and part from Coffeyville. The keystone on the arch of the original millrace bore the date 1877.”

The eight-foot drop from the west side of the millrace to the east hastened the water flow and increased the grinding power of the mill. Bartles enhanced the height of the Caney River dam to create a greater force. In addition, he added an office to the north end of Carr’s mill building, more than doubled the south side of the mill, installed fine burrs to grind flour and a dynamo generator to supply electric power to the millsite. This became the first commercial flour mill in Indian Territory.

He also installed a sawmill north of the millsite to supply walnut lumber for his 25’x100’ two-story building with a general store on the base floor and living quarters with a meeting room above.

During the construction, Bartles discovered the millsite was a “way station” on the mail hack route from Coffeyville to points south near Tulsa. As an added bonus, he was aware his Turkey Creek trading post was located on the U.S. postal service “Star Route.” By 1871, Vinita was the source of Star Route service for this portion of the Cherokee Nation, when the railroad reached that point.

The assignment of postmaster was a political endeavor. Bartles’ application arrived during President Rutherford Hayes’ administration and an explosive postal corruption scandal. His assignment arrived May 6, 1879, but shortly thereafter, the U.S. postal service was reorganized resulting in the elimination of the three level contract bidding system for Star Route mail delivery.

Bartles was an entrepreneur with business dealings in Nowata, Alluwe, Claremore, Pawhuska, Caney, Milltown near present Catoosa and several other sites and states. He planned to retain the Turkey Creek trading post while establishing his Caney River settlement. However, in 1880, after the Star Route disappeared, he moved the Turkey Creek trading post building and post office to his Caney River settlement which was on the Coffeyville postal route to the Tulsa area.

Bartles brought cabinet makers to the millsite to fashion furniture for the family home and the Turkey Creek building became the furniture shop, which was later moved to Dewey as the Dewey World newspaper office.

It seemed nothing could slow Bartles’ prosperity. He bankrolled settlers to grow wheat which was ground at his mill and the profits rolled in. He created electric power, an icehouse for storage of ice cut from the Caney River and water works with running water, which greatly pleased Nannie. He added implement sheds, several small homes, a hotel (later rented by S.A. Thurston), and a blacksmith and wagon shop.

Inspired by Nannie Bartles’ religious upbringing, the Union Sunday school was held on the second floor of the Bartles store/home, where the Christian, Baptist and Methodist Churches were organized.

Jacob Bartles’ northside community continued to grow but the population never reached the required 200 residents to become an incorporated town — an award that was obtained by the competitive settlement on the southside of the Caney River.

After a series of losses to the Johnstone and Keeler southside community and floods that greatly upset Nannie, Bartles made arrangements to move north to his wheat field and establish Dewey, I.T. in 1899. Happy wife, happy life!

Moving the one-hundred foot long store building was a feat of engineering genius. According to Joe Bartles, the move took six months and goods were sold every day of the move, except Sunday. Although the move took a little trial and error to begin, soon the plan was laid. Jacob Bartles’ traveled to Joplin to get railroad rails and ties to create his own rail system to move the store. The building moved about 400-yards a day as horse teams pulled the large building down the railroad grade to the new townsite of Dewey.

In the meantime, the future town of Dewey was a beehive of activity in anticipation of the store’s arrival. Bartles had workers constructing a half basement and foundation for the store building to rest upon while his massive three-story Victorian hotel was being built across the street to the north. The large store building, soon called the Pioneer Building, arrived in Dewey in the fall of 1899 to wide-eyed onlookers.

After a very brief period for repairs, residents living on the south side of the Caney River were again lulled to sleep by the rumbles of the mill wheels grinding flour throughout the night. Jacob Muller leased and operated the Bartles’ mill as the “Bartlesville Roller Mill” producing “High Patent” flour. In 1904, Muller flew into a jealous rage, shot his wife six times and was imprisoned for life. The mill continued to operate through 1907 under the name “Riverside Roller Mill” with Carl Washington Hymer as manager and then sat quiet for a number of years.

Herb Sheller came to Bartlesville as a sign painter in 1903. He established the Sheller Sign System in Bartlesville and was well known for the finer signs on businesses and office doors. One of his early hobbies was photography and he took a photograph of the Carr/Bartles mill from the Johnstone Park area. Sheller’s photo has become the supporting documentation of the west entrance of the millrace showing the dynamo generator and, most importantly, has allowed us to uncover the operation of the mill which he described from his personal observations: “The mill wheel run flat under floor.” Which indicates the mill operated as a water turbine, thus no visible mill wheel.

In September 1908, the County Commissioners rented the old thirteen-room “Bartles’ Hotel,” previously operated as the Thurston Hotel, for $25 a month, for use as a county poor house.

Reportedly, Joe Bartles had been offered over 1.2 million dollars for his father’s mill and out buildings consisting of 35-year old seasoned walnut lumber; however, the childhood sentiment was closer to his heart than the cash. He politely declined, saying: “Boys, as she stands there, she isn’t worth tearing down; she brings in no rent, but my father meant’r to stand, and til the timbers rot away, she is not for sale.”

However, after Joe’s marriage to Miss Edith Ross of Oklahoma City on June 18, 1913, he had a change of heart. That September, Bartles had the mill dismantled and the walnut lumber was hauled to Dewey for use in his new home.

John Demetry Bitinis was a Greek immigrant who arrived in Indian Territory in 1906 and his early employment was selling ice-cream downtown from a horse-drawn wagon. He married Eunice Warehime in 1913 and the couple purchased the “Old Bartles farm” from Joe Bartles in 1923.

The Bitinis’ and their five children lived in the old Bartles’ Thurston Hotel on the east side of Bartles Road while building their home on the Bartles’ store/home foundation along the river bank. Veshelo John "Shela" Bitinis, the last of the six Bitinis children was born September 1925 in Bartles’ Thurston Hotel.

Their home construction began during the record 1926 flooding, “which left Bartlesville an island,” and they completed the building early spring 1927. One of the grinding stones from the old Bartles’ mill became a doorstep for their home. The doorstep was in the care of Shela Bitinis Ward in her later years, while another set of stones are on exhibit at Dewey’s Tyler Memorial Library.

Living and working along the Caney River as self-employed gardeners, the Bitinis’ supplied their own vegetable stand along Bartles Road and the Warehime open-air vegetable stand across from Murphy’s Steak House on Frank Phillips Blvd. During the Great Depression, the Bitinis’ employed local workers to help feed area needy families from their garden in Bartles’ grove.

During the life of John Bitinis, “Bitinisville” was a thriving business community with a BBQ restaurant, Bitinis Service Station, Bitinisville Night Club and the Johnstone Park Tourist Camp with cottage rental for overnight guests. Shela also operated a very “lucrative root beer stand” at that location. After John’s death in 1958, the Bitinis “empire” fell to ruins, ending nearly a century of “Pioneers of the Caney.”

But one more thing! It was a blustery winter morning on December 6, 1950 when the silence of the early morn was broken by the whaling sirens of the Dewey and Bartlesville Fire Departments advancing towards the fully engulfed Pioneer Building — Bartles’ store/home. The firemen worked throughout the day and into the following day to extinguish one of the “hottest fires in history.” The solid walnut building, one of Washington County’s oldest landmarks, had stood the test of time and travel, but succumbs to carelessness.

Local resident, C.R. Shriver witnessed the event and said, “The Pioneer Building was a tavern with a grill and rooms rented upstairs. Someone had an open flame stove that caught the building on fire. I vividly remember the building burning; it was bitterly cold, the fire bell went off and we watched from the old bank building corner. The building was completely consumed. The walnut lumber just burned and burned. A week later it was still smoldering and smoking. They pushed the debris into the basement.”

One of the most important business, political and social centers in Washington County was Bartles’ Pioneer Building. The building held years of memories and the half basement was full of Joe Bartles’ memorabilia — early photographs, taxidermy trophies, family heirlooms and the remnants of Joe Bartles’ WWI airplane factory. All lost!

In the years that followed, the corner has been occupied by the Bowersock Grocery store and currently the Tom Mix Museum.

Originally published June 2020 by bmonthly Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

Special thanks to Debbie Neece of the Bartlesville Area History Museum for writing this article, and her commitment to keeping history alive in Bartlesville.

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