Before there was any settlement here, this was the land of buffalo. The herds rolled in thick and dark like storm clouds, thundering down the slopes of the Osage Hills to the waters of the Caney River.
Eventually Indians came, chasing the buffalo for meat and hides. Then white men came to trade with the Indians. A small store took root on a horseshoe bend of the Caney, then a grist mill. The settlement took the name of one of its founders, Jacob Bartles, and by the 1890s, Bartlesville’s wooden homes and Studebaker wagon shop were typical of many small country towns.
Then, in April 1897, there came thunder of another kind.
The explosion of a nitroglycerine charge rocked the earth. Moments later a sticky, black plume burst above the derrick. The Nellie Johnstone No. 1, Oklahoma’s first oil well, was spouting black gold into the sky.
Like a Klondike on the prairie, Bartlesville was soon rumbling with speculators, financiers, and roustabouts. Fortunes were won and lost. The town grew to city size, with statues and parks and oil barons’ estates.
Visit the Bartlesville area today, and the legacy of the past lives on. Most of the people who live here still work for oil companies, although many now are accountants, researchers, and chemists. The Phillips Mansion, once the home of one of the wealthiest men in America, is now a museum, and public concerts are held on the lawn.
Over in nearby Barnsdall, an oil pump in the middle of the street divides lanes of traffic. The Dewey Hotel still entertains guests, just like it did when 500 men a day arrived in town. Their range now limited to a 4,000-acre game preserve, a herd of buffalo doesn’t thunder anymore, but browses quietly in the woods. It’s still cool on the banks of the Caney, though young folks don’t swim in the river anymore. Instead they challenge each other to rock skipping contests where the mill and trading post once stood.
If you go there at the right time on a given afternoon, you might see one particularly happy, active group. They laugh together as some of the rocks only make one big splash instead of several hops across the water. They race each other on the grass in the park. They share a picnic lunch and take time to talk to the adults who are with them.
These are the youth of the first and second wards, and Bartlesville is a place they’re proud to call home.
“Tell people that there are lots of trees and grass here,” said Alan Coffman, 12. It’s true. Bartlesville lies in a part of Oklahoma so fertile that locals refer to it as “Green Country.” “And tell them that the Church is in good shape here, a lot like the Church is in their hometown.”
Alan wasn’t the only one eager to talk about life as a Latter-day Saint in eastern Oklahoma.
“It’s hot and humid, and sometimes it’s cold in the winter,” said Traci Waldrop, 15.
“But it’s real nice in the spring,” Jennifer Johnston, 14, cut in. “It’s fun. There are cultural events—concerts and community plays—once a month in town. The bishop’s daughter, Stacy Vaclaw, was in a play once. She was Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ And there are lots of musically talented people in both wards.”
“I’m the secretary of the Mia Maids,” Traci said. “Only three more weeks, though, and I’ll be a Laurel. I think the Laurels have a responsibility to the younger girls, to be a good example for them and to make them feel welcome.”
Matt Johnston, 17, said priesthood bearers have a responsibility too. “It makes a big difference, especially at school. You know you’ve got the power to act in God’s name. People know you’re a member of the Church. There aren’t that many of us, so we stand out. A lot of people talk about standards, then don’t stick to them. We need to show them that we not only have standards but we live them. I think people respect us for that.”
“The Church gives us guidelines to live by,” said Jill Salisbury, 16. “I’m proud of it because it’s true. Everybody knows what you’re like, and you have something to live up to. If I’m out on the volleyball court and I feel like swearing at the ref, the other girls understand my frustration and help me to calm down so I don’t say anything bad.”
“The Church is very important in my life because it’s true,” Pam Tuckett, 16, chimed in. “Sometimes you’re tempted to look for another way, but you come right back to the right thing. You have to live your life the way you’re supposed to. Don’t let others be a bad influence on you.”
“That’s right,” Jill said. “You’ve got to be proud of who you are and what you represent, and stand for the right in spite of the consequences.”
Michelle Coffman, 15, joined Pam and Jill and they talked about one of their most recent Young Women activities.
“Yesterday,” Pam said, “we made jam—strawberry, raspberry, and grape jelly. We bought the fruit—they grow lots of strawberries around here. I’d never made it before, so I suggested we try it. We all enjoyed it. We’ll be making jam again on our own.”
“Our leaders are real good at accepting suggestions for activities like that,” Michelle said, “especially for homemaking things. We had a lot of fun.”
Leah Truckenmiller and Bonnie South, both 13, talked about a service project at an elderly woman’s home.
“We cleaned windows and did laundry,” Leah said.
“It felt so good to be helping someone that we even had fun scrubbing bathrooms,” Bonnie added.
The deacons, on the other hand, talked about projects they’ve initiated to reach out to the less active members of their quorum.
“We’ve picked a Sunday when we’re going to have appropriate lessons, and then each of us has picked someone to fellowship and invite to our meetings,” Jeff Waldrop, 13, explained.
“The presidency is going to ride around and visit every member of the quorum, whether they come to church or not, and try to get them coming back to church,” said Kevin Knudsen, 13, deacons quorum president in the second ward.
“Activity is important, too,” Jeff said. “We want to show them we’d really like to have them back, and that they can have fun, too.”
Clearly, this is a group of deacons that respects the priesthood.
“I’ve only been a deacon a week,” Trent said. “But I know it’s an honor. That you’re worthy of the priesthood, that you can have it, is a marvelous thing. When I received it, it was a spiritually uplifting feeling.”
“Knowing you’re worthy to hold the priesthood makes you special,” Kevin said. “It’s given by God, given only to a few. And you’re one of them.”
“It helps you conquer your daily problems, helps you choose right over wrong,” Jeff said. “What’s more, it’s an honor only Latter-day Saints can truly have, because we’re the only church with proper authority.”
The deacons also talked about a challenge they received from the second ward Beehives.
“We’re reading the Book of Mormon,” Kevin said. “We’ll be graded 60 percent on how much we’ve read, and 40 percent on comprehension. The winners get dinner served by the others. In four weeks we take the test, and right now the deacons are 36 pages ahead!”
It’s time for a snack, and as the youth and their leaders munch chips and sip soda, the conversations continue.
There’s talk of a wonderful youth conference at Tahlequah Junior College, where there were workshops on how to be a missionary and how to prepare for temple marriage. Memories of temple trips to Dallas, Texas, are shared.
“It’s nice to have a temple closer to home now,” says Brent Coffman, 17. “Now we can go two or three times a year instead of once every two or three years.”
There’s talk about track and cross-country, football and volleyball, French club and dancing, about swimming on summer afternoons when it’s too hot to do much of anything else. Brent talks of mission preparation and how many scriptures he’s studied in seminary.
But most of all, the group discusses a trip they took that morning, a visit to the game preserve where the buffalo live.
“It’s called Woolaroc,” one of the leaders explains. “It stands for woods, lakes, and rocks.” One of the oil barons had it built, maybe as a way of paying back the buffalo for the use of their land.
The youth were allowed to travel a back trail, where they could see the animals close up. They also toured a barn where visitors are allowed to pet animals, and saw cattle and deer that also call Woolaroc home.
“I’ve never been on that back route before,” Bonnie says. “It was interesting to visit with the guide and talk about how they take care of the animals. It made me think of my own pets, how I’m always talking to my dog. I think Heavenly Father must love animals. After all, he created them.”
“Animals are important,” Trent says. “They’re all here for a reason. I like horses. I’ve always wondered how God made them and how he put the world together.”
“I was reading in the Book of Mormon,” Kevin says. “It says God made everything. It’s in Mosiah 4:9, ‘Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things.’”
Someone else mentions that the Pearl of Great Price talks about God creating all the animals (see Moses 2 and Moses 3). Then one of the young women mentions that Adam named the animals (see Gen. 2:19–20).
“That would have been fun,” Leah says.
As the youth sit and talk, there really is a hometown feeling in the park. Nearby, bicyclers pedal down an 11-mile path the community chipped in to build. Over at the Kiddie Park, volunteer labor keeps the cost of a whirl on the merry-go-round to just a nickel. Not far away, watermelons and tomatoes are for sale at the open air market. Tonight or tomorrow night there will be baseball games, a rodeo, tennis tournaments, a concert, or a play. At the edge of the park, a replica of the Nelly Johnstone No. 1 stands as a reminder of what brought most of the people here in the first place.
People walking past the park would look at these young Latter-day Saints talking, and would find them comfortable in their surroundings. Even though Bartlesville is now home to 40,000 people, observers would probably see these youth as happy, wholesome young folks enjoying the benefits of life in a small town. But if they could hear them talk—if they could realize the scope and importance of their knowledge, if they could understand, as these youth understand, that the gospel has been restored and that it makes us all brothers and sisters—then the people would know that these youth have a kinship with all mankind.
And that means, thanks to the gospel, they will have a hometown wherever they go.
Editor’s note: Bartlesville was recently damaged by serious flooding. LDS youth joined in cleanup efforts that again showed their ability to help those around them.