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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


Keyes is located in Cimarron County fourteen miles northeast of Boise City on U.S. Highway 56. In 1925 the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway began building a line from the Kansas-Oklahoma border through Cimarron County and on to Clayton, New Mexico. The company organized a town eight miles southwest of the Willowbar general store and post office, which dated to 1906. Locals wanted to name the town Willowbar, but the Santa Fe preferred Keyes, the name of an assistant chief engineer who had died in 1909. In 1926 Willowbar post office was abandoned and the mail routed to Keyes.

On July 25, 1925, the first train moved into the new town. The north-south streets honored presidents Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Polk, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson, with Polk as the main street. Harry Wilkinson introduced the Star Lumber Company as the first business. He constructed the first "indoor" basketball court in the lumberyard's covered driveway. The Neff Apartments, Kappleman grocery store, a telephone office, and the T. M. Deal Lumber Company soon followed. Within a short time several new businesses opened, including a drug store, two garages, an undertaking parlor, a café, a barbershop, a cream station, a meat market, a grocery store, a bakery, and an ice house, among others. In 1929 Keyes's only newspaper, the Advocate, was established and operated until the dust storm days of the early 1930s.

Originally, Will Williams supplied the town with water from his well and storage tank. Eventually the town granted Cimarron Utilities a franchise to serve the community. In 1927 Keyes opened its first school, as the Methodist and Baptist churches housed the classrooms. The town soon built a large school building that would later become a lunchroom. In the late 1950s Keyes erected a high school, with a large gymnasium and heated swimming pool. In 1962 a new grade school was built. Early in the town's development entrepreneurs established elevators that helped farmers sell or store their grain. Since 1938 millions of bushels of grain have been shipped out by rail.

The drought years of 1933 through 1937 became the bleakest in the area's history. By 1937 seven businesses had closed, and many farmers lost their land to foreclosure. A 1930 population of 350 declined to 227 by 1940. When the rains returned in the summer of 1937, the residents again prospered. World War II was soon a reality, and many area men served their country, some never to return. In 1946 the Pure Oil Company created a boom when it drilled and struck oil and gas in the area. Pipelines were laid into the big line from Dumas, Texas, to Denver, Colorado. Helium gas of 2 percent, some of the highest content in the world, had been discovered in the natural gas, and in 1958 the federal government built a large helium plant nearby.

By the 1960s agriculture had greatly changed, and rural electrification powered the farms. It was no longer said that "the wind pumps the water and the cows chop the wood." In 1960 the population registered 627, slowly dropping to 557 in 1980. In 2000, 410 people resided in the community, but the number dropped to 324 in 2010. The April 2020 census reported 273.

Norma Gene Young

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Learn More

W. David Baird, "Agriculture in the Oklahoma Panhandle, 1898–1942," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 72 (Summer 1994).

Richard Lowitt, "From Petroleum to Pigs: The Oklahoma Panhandle in the Last Half of the Twentieth Century," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 80 (Fall 2002).

Norma Gene Young, Still Not a Stop Light in the County (Boise City, Okla.: Yucca Publishing Co., 1997).

Norma Gene Young, ed., The Tracks We Followed (Amarillo, Tex.: Southwestern Publications, 1991).


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Norma Gene Young, “Keyes,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=KE015.

Published January 15, 2010
Last updated March 25, 2024

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