Shawnee News-Star Sunday July 15 2018 Becky Emerson Carlberg Strawberry season in Oklahoma usually runs from May into June.   This I know from being in one of the floods that periodically washed through Wister even after the construction of Lake Wister Reservoir in 1949.   The most famous roared through town in 1927.   Practically all of […]

Shawnee News-Star Sunday July 15 2018

Fresh Strawberry Jam

Becky Emerson Carlberg

Strawberry season in Oklahoma usually runs from May into June.   This I know from being in one of the floods that periodically washed through Wister even after the construction of Lake Wister Reservoir in 1949.   The most famous roared through town in 1927.   Practically all of Wister was flooded with water up to the second floor in many buildings.   The tracks of the Frisco and Rock Island that crisscrossed the town were washed away by the force of the water.   Construction of a new state road inadvertently diverted Mountain Creek through town.   I always thought that was ironic since the railroad bridges slowed the flow of Mountain Fork and Caston Creeks following heavy rains.

Wister, a railroad junction town established in 1890, has seen its share of calamities.   The Rock Island railroad tracks dissected the town.   One fateful spring morning in 1909 a smoldering cigarette caught a bed on fire in the Brown boarding house.   Flames rapidly engulfed several other wooden establishments, restaurants, and stores. By noon, only smoking embers were left of businesses north of the tracks.   Unbelievably, two hours later, on the south side, a clerk in Shippey Drug Store somehow ignited a can of wood alcohol.   The other half of town then perished, including a mercantile store, Masonic Lodge Hall, barber shop, post office, and my grandmother's uncle's confectionery.   The town was wiped out.  Seventeen years later they had a major flood.

Water over the Lake Waster Spillway 20 May 2015

Several earthen dams were built along the creeks upstream to prevent more floods.   Mother Nature has a strange sense of humor.   A second flood occurred May 18th 1961 after six inches of rain fell in one hour.   A cloud burst over Cavanal Hill sent the creeks back into town and water stood eight feet deep.

Nine inches of rain fell during the day of May 14th 1968 before a tornado was seen whirling above Cavanal.   As the whistle blew, my sister and I were tasked with bailing out water from the cellar through the window (our cellar had an escape window.)   There was loud pounding on the front door and the train man screamed it was flooding on the north side of town.   Our dad yelled for us to get back upstairs and throw whatever was on the floors to the tops of the beds.   The water crested at the railroad tracks and then surged like a mini-tsunami up and over.   It followed State Highway 270 around the corner past the front of the house.   The road was about four feet lower than our yard.   We helplessly stood and watched furniture, propane tanks, cows and horses from the sale barn bob up and down in the fast-moving water as it flowed into Caston Creek. My father used a pole to mark the advancing waves of water as it came closer and closer to the house.   Standing there with the soil washing away beneath his feet, he turned to remind us there were strawberries in the kitchen that needed capping.   My father loved strawberry jam.

Capping Strawberries

Yup, a galvanized metal bathtub full of Stillwell berries sat in the middle of the kitchen floor.   Just minutes before our neighbors had raced up the hill leading their horse Rusty by a rope.   Rusty was tied to a tree near the house. We all watched the water rise rapidly to the ceiling in their home.   Someone left a lit flashlight on the couch that usually sat in front of the picture window. It cast an eerie glow across the water as the couch floated upward.   One by one the light poles in town sparked and fell. The power went off, leaving us in total darkness as we listened to the deafening roar of the flood waters.

The floodwaters tapered off nearly as fast as they had come.   A group of us stood in the kitchen capping strawberries by candlelight. It was something to do.   Those strawberries became jam made on the gas stove in the heavy aluminum Dutch oven with plenty of sugar and Sure Gel.and paraffin.  Then, it was very common to pour melted wax over tops of freshly made hot jam to seal the jam from the elements.

The morning after the flood was sunny.   The school gym became a staging area for dry furniture, clothing, the Red Cross and tetanus shot center. The flood was right before graduation.   Our neighbor's gown was rescued from his house and washed in our bathtub to remove the mud and debris.   A slit was cut in the cap to let out the water.

This past week we discovered organic strawberries in the store.   Purchased all five containers. I looked at my mom's jam pan now residing in my cabinet and remembered the huge tub of strawberries that eventful night. Those were a lot of berries. Even though it is now July, California berries are harvested until the end of the month.

The strawberries had good flavor and sweetness.   I went to work preparing, dicing, measuring and boiling the berries with sugar and Sure Gel (my mother's recipe.)   A headier aroma will not be found when strawberries are cooking.   Foam was scraped off and the liquid hot jam poured into sterilized jars, covered with lids and set aside to cool.   I knew the lids had sealed when they made loud pops. Six jars of jam had airtight covers; one did not. The first homemade jam this season.   The celebratory piece of bread was toasted, buttered and topped with warm jam. Oh wow.

Fresh strawberry jam is hard to beat. Every spring my mother started her jam journey with strawberries followed by her beloved Damson plums, raspberries and ended with peaches.   We ate the veggies fresh from the garden.   Only tomatoes were occasionally canned; I should say glassed, since she used glass jars.

Flooded US Hwy 270 outside Wister May 2015

After the 1968 flood and smaller 1970 flood, the dams upstream were either rebuilt or reinforced. Since then the water at Lake Wister has risen and gone over the spillway several times and caused Caston Creek to back up, but only flooding the lowlands.   In 2015 Lake Wister was inundated with water.   The spillway coped with the excess, surrounding low areas went under water for weeks, Monkey Island disappeared, Quarry Island was nearly submerged and parts of Wister were evacuated.   The downtown area remained flood free.