Like many other men lured to Oklahoma’s Twin Territories, seeking adventure and opportunity near the turn of the 20th century, future politician Elmer Thomas, of Lawton, was no different.
Born on a farm in Indiana in 1876, John William Elmer Thomas was seventh in a family of 12 children. He thought farm work was his lot in life, but it wasn’t to his liking. His mother was a former teacher and encouraged him to pursue education and a teaching career. While attending college he taught in a one-room schoolhouse, but the politics of the day soon caught his attention.
Thomas met William Jennings Bryan in 1896, during the presidential campaign. Bryan was a dominant force in the Democratic party who emerged as a leader in the Populist movement. Thomas began to vigorously campaign for Bryan, saying at the time, “I thought I was able to explain the free silver 16-1 issue … to small town audiences.”
His political experience led Thomas to become a law student at DePauw University in Indiana, where he graduated in 1900. The urge to “go west” infatuated him when he saw a poster for a Rough Riders reunion to be held in Oklahoma City.
“Visions of opportunity flashed through his mind, and he hastily decided to go west. Arriving on Nov. 16, 1900, he at first taught English, received a license to practice law, and went into business with Jay M. Jackson, a real estate agent. In summer 1901, Thomas moved his practice to Lawton,” said an article by David D. Webb for the Oklahoma Historical Society.
In August of 1901, the U.S. government was opening the Kiowa, Comanche and Apache reservation, and Thomas and his partners entered the great land lottery. Prior to the lottery, he operated a “lucrative” business notarizing homesteader documents. An article by Peter J. McCormick in the Fall 1997 issue of the “Chronicles of Oklahoma” relates that Thomas and his partners acquired land in the eastern Wichita Mountains through the land lottery and the release of leases by Texas ranchers.
“Thomas saw the place as a perfect site for a summer resort center complete with a hotel, cabins, homes, fishing, and swimming facilities. It opened in the summer of 1908 as the Medicine Park Summer Resort and Health Spa. It included Thomas’ cabin, several tents, and camping facilities, but grew quickly from its humble beginnings over the next 20 years. Though small, the community resembled the numerous summer retreats that sprang up over the United States at the time,” McCormick wrote. The village of Medicine Park was heralded as “The Queen of the Southwest.”
The historic cobblestone town lies in the foothills of the Wichita Mountains and is named for Medicine Creek. The Indians from the area told Thomas that the creek, which flows through the center of town, had medicinal properties and the future politician and state leader built a resort that attracted people from all over the country. In the 1920s, Medicine Park thrived under Thomas’ vision and leadership.
Thomas began his own political career just as Oklahoma achieved statehood. He was elected to the first Oklahoma senate in 1907. As his career progressed, he served as president pro tempore from 1910 to 1913 and chaired the appropriations committee for 10 years and provided leadership for the State Capitol project. In addition, he had a hand in establishing the state game and fish commission and oversaw the installation of the state’s first fish hatchery at Medicine Park. Thomas often hosted get-togethers at the resort he built, which earned him the nickname of “The Sage of Medicine Park.”
The Medicine Park State Fish Hatchery was established on land once homesteaded by Thomas and was donated to the state in 1912. Opening in 1915, it was built using prison labor. In 1914, as Thomas pursued a political career that took him to the national level, he sold Medicine Park to D.L. Sleeper and Associates of Oklahoma City for $16,000. Due to a default on the loan, Thomas and his partner took possession of the cobblestone community once again.
(To be continued next week …)
Sources for this article include Oklahoma Historical Society, okhistory.org, “Thomas, John William Elmer (1876-1965)” by David D. Webb and “Medicine Park” by M. Lillian Stanfield; www.jstor.org, “Senator from Oklahoma: The Legislative Career of Hoosier Elmer Thomas” by Carolyn G. Hanneman; Chronicles of Oklahoma, gateway.okhistory.org, Vol. 75, No. 3, Fall 1997, pages 244-261, “River Rock Resort: Medicine Park’s Landscape and Wichita Mountain Vernacular Architecture” by Peter J. McCormick; “Medicine Park: Oklahoma’s First Resort” by David C. Lott.