The Rotary Club meets Tuesdays at Roadhouse in Durant.
Tuesday had special guests Judge, attorney and historian Ken Rainbolt and Durant Democrat Editor, photographer, and traveling historian Matt Swearengin making a presentation.
The Rotarians provided grilled hamburgers for guests hoping everyone went away full and content.
Their “Four Way Test-of the things we say or do,” was read by members.
It’s a Rotarian rules to live by: Number One-Is it the truth? Number Two-Is it fair to all concerned? Number Three-Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Number Four-Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
The pledge to our flag was recited as the audience anticipated the two taking them back in time to early Bryan County.
Ken Rainbolt told Rotarians, “We will concentrate on the eastern half of Bryan County in today’s presentation.”
He has traveled America in his pursuit of Civil War artifacts and history.
Rainbolt, when not practicing law or presiding over Municipal Court, is known in Durant as a man who knows more about Bryan County than most anyone still around.
When the old timers talked and told their stories, Rainbolt listened and remembered.
Rainbolt said when asked to present at the noon luncheon, “My first thought was to contact Matt because he has photographed so many historic sites. He’s a wealth of information. Matt said immediately he was in.”
With Rainbolt’s narration, and Swearengin’s photographs, the presentation kept everyone enthralled.
Rainbolt will pass his wealth of knowledge on to anyone interested.
He hopes others will continue his pursuit of things past.
Matt Swearengin is the anchor of the Durant Daily Democrat in his position as editor.
In his off time, or when on vacation, he travels America documenting history, photographically, through his camera lens.
His heart, though is in the Bryan County area where his previous generation lived their lives. His wife Jennifer calls the area home as well as the next generation of Swearengins, his daughter Laura.
The Swearengin family has strong roots in our area.
His Grandfather Rector Swearengin was a respected businessman and friend to many.
His father Bob was the driving force behind another newspaper, long since vanished, the Bryan County Star.
He and wife Betty helped instill in Matt the desire to seek out the story and to photograph what he finds.
His father first traveled the area, documenting locations with his camera and writing about what he saw.
This example is firmly imprinted in the younger Swearengin, who told Rotarians about a visit his father made to a Bryan County location in the mid 1970s.
He said, “My father took photos of these concrete steps in just about the same angle as this current photograph was taken by me. There hasn’t been much change in between.”
Though Matt spent his high school years in Wyoming and New Hampshire, his interest in Bryan County history grows as he gets older.
Swearengin will travel through brush and mud. He will fight bugs and barb-wire fence to photograph sites that will someday be lost to history.
He told Rotarians that he never goes on private property without an invitation and full “permission of the land owner.”
He continued, “Occasionally someone at a site will take me on a tour and tell me the rich history of that area.”
That’s when he feels as though he has hit a goldmine.
Swearengin will listen intently to details of days gone by and record them in his memory for later documentation.
It shows in his stories that he enjoys sharing with readers of the Durant Democrat.
He said he wants to get images of as many locations as possible before Mother Nature reclaims her territory.
Swearengin has explored, located and photographed a large majority of the lost cemeteries in our area.
He said, “Even if some of the history is lost to time, a person can get in the car and go explore, can find these places that are fascinating.”
Rainbolt told the Rotarians about the contribution of Native Americans in the area.
He said, “I want everyone to understand the significance of the Five Civilized Tribes in the settlement of our area. The Chickasaw and Choctaw are rich in history in Bryan County.”
He said religion also played a vital role in the settling of Bryan County.
His presentation included Armstrong Academy which educated Choctaw in the early days before Oklahoma became a state.
He said, “It was a center of the Confederacy. It was a vital part of educating the Choctaw Nation. It burned in the early 20s and there is little evidence that it even existed.”
Concrete ruins still exist among brush and overgrowth at the site with little else remaining.
He said, “They used concrete which was expensive. That means it was a very important building in history.”
Rainbolt is fascinated by a town and school that information of its history is elusive to his research.
White Sands he said, “There’s just no information that I can uncover about the town. It’s east of Bennington near Chubby Lane. You can see remnants of the school and an amphitheater located there. We can’t find out who built it. We assume the WPA because of the concrete there.”
He says postmarks from towns in Bryan County are very rare.
He told Rotarians, “If you look through old letters from previous generations, and you find postmarks from these early towns that had post offices, hang on to them.”
Swearengin photographs many remnants of history.
Many times he’s fascinated by the artistry in nature and what she created, but things created by man fascinate him, too.
He really enjoys photographing cemeteries and piecing together in his mind, the stories the gravestones sometimes tell.
He said, “Mostly the older gravestones are what interest me the most. Some of the older monuments are works of art.”
Many are weather worn, but he will maneuver his lens to capture the brilliance of each stone.
There’s not a favorite cemetery or location for him, but it’s what he finds inscribed about each person buried, that fascinates him most.
Swearengin said, “I can’t think of a monument in particular, but there is one thing I’ve really noticed. I’ve seen lots of markers where the families have lost three or four children, from 3 months to several years old. Many were so young, they hadn’t even been named yet. All they have is the word “Baby” and their last name.”
Children don’t die as frequently or as young as they did back then.
He credits medical advances with the mortality rate of children being much less than it was 100 years ago.
Rainbolt told the group Tuesday how the railroad helped some town flourish, while others died and were abandoned.
He said, “Many towns missed the railroad and they died. The railroad came through Caddo and it grew and is still here today.”
Swearengin conveyed to Rotarians something that motivates his explorations.
Frederick Barnard first used the term in 1921.
Swearengin said, “A picture paints a thousand words.”
Each image, he hopes, tells a story of those who came before and flourished there.
He seeks out, or is led to locations of historical importance that many have never seen.
He said he imagines who lived in the home structures he photographs and he wonders about their lifestyle.
He wonders what made the people who lived there abandon their little piece of earth.
Swearengin doesn’t archive his work in the traditional sense.
Film is a thing of the past, used on the rarest occasions. Digital technology dominates photography and he’s armed with plenty of room on a digital memory card to capture hundreds of images on each excursion into the past.
He said, “I don’t reuse my memory cards. I put the originals with the raw images back, and I buy new ones. They should stand the test of time. Nobody knows for sure how long they will last, but there are 45 year old 8-track tapes that still work.”
Someone will eventually gain that treasure trove of Bryan County history when he passes his images onto the next generation.
Right now, he doesn’t know who will pick up the torch on his life’s work.
He has special places that come to mind when talking about his explorations.
Near Cade, Oklahoma, east of Bennington, Swearengin said he visited the grave of Choctaw Chief Wilson N. Jones.
“If you don’t know where it is, you won’t find it. Not too many people have actually seen it,” he said.
Jones played a role in the hospital in Sherman, Texas that bears his name.
Swearengin said the Wilson N. Jones grave is one of the closest things to his Holy Grail of discovery that comes to mind.
Three Valley Museum Director Nancy Ferris made that memorable trip with with him to the Jones grave.
Cemeteries are the eternal resting place of the dead and Swearengin says they are fascinating. He said he sees more than death in each one he visits.
He said, “It’s kind of sad, while it’s also fascinating. Here’s a lost or forgotten place that few have laid eyes on, and it’s interesting to me that these are monuments to those deceased, but nature is reclaiming that area. I see life there, too.”
Contact Dan Pennington at (580) 634-2162 or firstname.lastname@example.org