The Not-So-Supersonic History of Oklahoma City

The first thing you notice when you come to Oklahoma City is the dirt. It’s red beneath your feet. Red like iron. Red like the state politics.

Where did all that iron come from? Why is it still bloodying the shoes of people in this frying-pan shaped state? Why didn’t this iron travel to the core of the earth like most of the iron did millions of years ago? That’s a question the geologists are still answering. Meanwhile, Oklahomans are left to sweep the crimson dust from their boots.

Oklahoma City is crazy about three things: football, the Thunder, and donuts. Take a typical drive through the city and you’ll pass by more donut shops than you thought possible. Donuts are so important that the shops don’t even bother trying to lure customers with clever slogans. The signs get straight to the point: “Oh, Donuts!”, “Best Donuts”, “Good Donut”, and simply “Donuts”. It’s hammer-over-the-head and down-the-throat marketing. At some point I imagine an intersection here will be four-cornered with “Donuts” and “Gravy” and “Ribs” and the three-letters “BBQ”, which is like a religion here in Oklahoma, each billboard straining toward the sky to compete for the salivary glands of passing Okies.

Another curious fact about Oklahoma City: it’s unfriendly to the pedestrian. This may be the south’s least accommodating city for public transportation or walking/biking. Most of the city is free of sidewalks, in fact it’s rare to see anyone walking. This seems to trace back to the city’s birth: thousands of people drove (via wagon) into this territory starting in 1889. They were lured not by oil (it was another two decades before oil was gushing generously from the red soil), but by the prospect of free land. Those people who pressed the federal government to give away the land in Oklahoma were called “boomers.”

The first “settlers” of Oklahoma were actually lawbreakers. Those sneaky folks came to the territory and scoped out the best land that would be offered in the land rush by decree of President Benjamin Harrison. They hid near the best land (some of them posed as Indians) and waited for high noon on April 22, the appointed time for the land grab. This land had been used by Native Americans for thousands of years, and those peaceful people didn’t care one iota about “owning” it, but they weren’t consulted when Uncle Sam decided to let oodles of people relocate there. By the time the sun went down on April 22, 1889, in what is now Oklahoma City, there were 8,000 or so people clinging to plots of land. Because they had scampered into the territory early (a tactic which was illegal), they were called “Sooners.”

By 1910 Oklahoma was a full-fledged state by golly and Oklahoma City was the state capital with a population of more than 60,000. It had grown six times over in less than a decade.

That rapid growth at such a pivotal time in the industrialization of America transformed OKC into a sprawling city with disparate neighborhoods connected by gravel roadways traversed by horse, buggy, and new metal creature – the automobile. The city still carries this sprawl — at more than 300 square miles it has a larger footprint than Dallas, Chicago, and the Big Apple. There are clear demarcations here: the southwest part of OKC where the horsemen and cattle ranchers resided, today has poor neighborhoods and wide-open spaces; the middle part of OKC where bankers and civic leaders settled remains affluent with nice parks and public works; the north portion of the city is sprinkled with bedroom communities that sprung up after the city attracted jobs for two of its most important industries in the 20th century (oil and aircraft); the east side of the city contains the capitol building and centralized neighborhoods that once were teaming with trade marts and commerce; downtown is now festooned with tall buildings built from oil money and a tourist district funded by community funds as a renewal project in the 1990s. In some ways the city still feels like a mix of people who came from all over, it’s a mashup of businessmen, mavericks, cowboys, bankers, artists, religious zealots, and the downtrodden. Oklahoma City is as American as America can be.

These people living in the Oklahoma City metro area make up one-third of the entire population of the state. The state of Oklahoma, with it’s nearly 70 million square miles, has a population (roughly 3.8 million) less than that of Los Angeles. But 3.79 million of them are nicer than anyone you’ll meet in southern California.

How friendly and polite are Okies? As someone who has lived in New York and Chicago, I am familiar with east coast “attitude” and “midwestern hospitality.” Chicago rightfully deserves its rep as the “smallest big city” in the U.S. But when it comes to friendliness, the people of Chicago are miles away from those of OKC (literally and figuratively). On one of my first days in OKC I stopped at a 7-11 to gas up and I asked the young man behind the counter for directions. Soon, two people in line were helping me plan my route, and as I walked to my car the most genial of them mentioned that one of my tires was low. Had that same scenario played out in Detroit I venture to guess I would have received a disinterested grunt from the 7-11 employee, glares and eye-rolls from the people in line, and someone would have stolen my Jeep. Detroit, I love ya, but I’m just sayin.

Oklahoma is too far south to be considered “flyover country,” but that’s just what it once was. In the mid-1960s a series of test were performed on the the citizens of Oklahoma City to determine the practical and emotional impact of supersonic flight on a large populace. Over a period of six months the U.S. Air Force flew jets over OKC and pushed them to break the sound barrier, which of course, resulted in a sonic boom.


The U.S. government wanted to know if those sonic booms over populated areas would have any adverse effect on the people on the ground. Oklahoma City was not an unwilling participant in these tests — when the city was chosen from many metropolitan candidate cities, OKC civic leaders threw a parade.

Starting in February of ’64 the jets crisscrossed the OKC sky as many as a dozen times a day, producing a total of 1,253 sonic booms over 24 weeks. (Yes, someone counted them). For the 600,000 or so ears on the ground it was an interesting novelty at first, a nuisance eventually, and ultimately a pain in the ass (or maybe glass, since about 150 windows were shattered by the noise). The fallout from this test (more than $1 million in lawsuits resulted) led the Federal Aviation Administration to determine that supersonic jet travel was not suitable for commercial civilian flight. The “Boomers” would not have booms overhead.

Five years prior to the thunderous experiment in the clouds, a resourceful man named Troy Smith gave his food service business a new name. Thus, Sonic Drive-In was born, and thankfully so or we would have far fewer entertaining TV commercials. Unlike the sonic booms of the 1960s, Smith’s creation proved highly successful, so much so that as of this writing the Oklahoma City-based company has more than 3,500 restaurants in the U.S. and rakes in more than half a billion dollars in profits annually. Smith’s genius was in exporting the 1950s drive-in experience to small communities across America. He chose the name because he challenged his employees to provide “service with the speed of sound.” That’s 660 miles per hour at sea level, but try to get your cheeseburger and fries that quickly.

Can I beat this sonic theme into the red soil? Of course I can.

In 2006 a small group of businessmen started a conversation that would ultimately transform OKC into a big league city. Their intentions may have been born of civic pride, but they were also founded on a big fat lie.

That group of businessmen was spearheaded by Clayton Bennett, who was born in Oklahoma City in the same year Troy Smith renamed his restaurant group Sonic, and who made the wise financial decision to marry an heir to the Gaylord family fortune. His father-in-law, Edward L. Gaylord, helped sustain a family empire that at one time included the Grand Ole Opry, dozens of hotels, millions of acres of prime real estate, an airline, The Oklahoman , and even a theme park. The Gaylord’s were sort of Disney meets Hee Haw.

Bennett and his pals convinced the power brokers of the National Basketball Association to approve their purchase of the Seattle SuperSonics. The franchise was floundering in 2006, both on the court and on the balance sheet. The outgoing owner and the NBA made sure that Bennett and his cronies would agree to do everything they could to keep the team in Seattle. But that wasn’t what the Okies intended to do at all. Twenty four months and several lawsuits later, Bennett successfully moved the NBA team to his hometown of Oklahoma City. In coming months it would become clear that Bennett never intended to keep the team in Seattle at all. No one knows what E.L. Gaylord would have thought of this maneuvering — he died in 2003. Under terms of the agreement with the enraged folks of Seattle, the OKC ownership group was not allowed to use the team colors, name, or any other trademarks of the SuperSonics. They changed the team name to the Thunder. When they left Seattle they took the desks, the chairs, the mousepads, and Kevin Durant.

That’s ancient history now of course, and the OKC basketball team belongs to the people of this city and state, proudly thank you very much. You can’t throw a piece of okra out the window without it landing in the mouth of a passionate Thunder fan. Many of the fans are young people who could have never dreamed of watching three-pointers and slam dunks in person before Bennett pulled his fast one (an homage perhaps to the crooked way many Okies grabbed their land back in 1889?). Durant, the only remaining thread that stretches back to the SuperSonics days, is a hero, a mythic figure who has such a cult status that after The Oklahoman ran a headline questioning his clutch ability, the fan base recoiled in outrage, and the newspaper actually printed an apology.

Surprised? No, the apology was a case of Oklahoma politeness gone a little “supersonic.”