By Matt Goisman
McALESTER — Stadiums create history. Usually, they’re small moments of history — a win or a loss, a record-setting play or a newly dedicated addition to the field — but nonetheless what happens on the gridiron becomes a permanent part of a town’s history.
But sometimes a stadium’s history extends beyond its town. Sometimes a stadium’s history connects it to the greater history of our nation.
Hook Eales Stadium has such a history. As Tom Crowl, former president and current board member for the Pittsburg County Genealogical and Historical Society, said Wednesday, Hook Eales has connections to both the Civil War and the Great Depression.
What’s now called Pittsburg County was once Tobucksy County, an area controlled by the Choctaw tribe. Many Confederate veterans and widows of veterans lived in Tobucksy County, leading to a meeting on March 2, 1891, at First Baptist Church in McAlester at 1st Street and Grand Avenue.
Referencing a newsletter article published by the group at that time, Crowl said R.B. Coleman, a Confederate veteran himself, called the meeting.
“The purpose was to form an organization called a ‘camp,’ which of course consisted of former veterans, their families and widows,” Crowl said. He added that the camp was formed to “keep alive Confederate interests.”
“It was kind of like the Lion’s Club,” Crowl said.
Twenty attended the meeting, Crowl said, discussing among other things the creation of a campground on which they could celebrate the birthdays of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Combining the two names, the new campground would be called “Jeff Lee Park.”
Coleman went to the Choctaws, who granted his group the 20 acres of land that would one day include Hook Eales Stadium, the Jeff Lee Pool and the George Nigh National Guard Armory. The group commemorated their new grounds by exhuming 12 Confederate soldiers buried elsewhere in McAlester and reburying the bodies at Jeff Lee Park.
“Eleven of these men died of disease, mostly measels, when they were encamped in a Confederate military camp called ‘Bokluksi,’” Crowl said, adding that Bokluksi was the Choctaw name for an area between North McAlester and Lake Eufaula.
“The 12th was a murder victim while located in that same area.”
Crowl said the 12 were eventually moved to Oak Hill Cemetery.
Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907, at which point the city of McAlester gained ownership of Jeff Lee Park. From the team’s inception in the early 1910s through to 1936, the McAlester Buffaloes played football at the Fairgrounds, the flat parklands behind Puterbaugh Middle School now known as Mike Deak Field.
The Great Depression hit McAlester as it hit the rest of the nation, but McAlester landed a district office for the Works Project Administration. A program created by then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the WPA paid the country’s massive unemployed population to build public works such as new roads and buildings.
For McAlester, that meant construction of the Armory, the swimming pool and the stadium.
“The people were very happy to have this district WPA office because they had a feeling that this way, they’d get their fair share of the projects they had to delve out into southeastern Oklahoma,” Crowl said.
“That they employed 150 men was the big deal.”
Both the Armory and Jeff Lee Pool opened in 1936, the pool opening on Aug. 16. Crowl, whose given talks previously on McAlester during the Great Depression, said 1936 was the “hottest, driest year that we have ever known” in McAlester, and with temperatures cracking 110 degrees in the three days prior, the pool’s opening day drew more than 600 paying customers.
Jeff Lee Stadium opened a year later, the first home game taking place on Sept. 18, 1937, against Muskogee. At that time the home stands were on the west side of the structure, and according to Clyde Wooldridge’s McAlester: The Capital of Little Dixie, the game drew in more than 2,000 attendees and made approximately $608 dollars in ticket sales — more than five times the average gate the previous season.
Crowl said the day also included a parade and a performance by the marching band in new uniforms. The Buffs lost to Muskogee, 19-0.
Other changes to Jeff Lee Stadium over the next 75 years included McAlester Public Schools purchasing the city’s interest in the land, the home bleachers moving to the east side, the creation and then demise of the minor league baseball McAlester Rockets, and the school system adding a pressbox and new indoor facility.
“They also got access to that land between Parker School, which is now the parking lot,” Crowl said of the switch from west to east for the home stands.
“They made that the home side. Previous to that, it was just a jungle.”
Eventually the name changed from Jeff Lee Stadium to Hook Eales Stadium, and most recently the school system added an artificial field and rededicated it as First National Field.
Hook Eales Stadium has grown and changed heavily over the years. Its history connects it to some of America’s biggest historical events.
And every time the Buffs take the field, that history grows just a little bit more.
Contact Matt Goisman at email@example.com.