Signs of Time on the Prairie - 405 Magazine

Signs of Time on the Prairie

Wind, weather and most of all time combine on the Oklahoma prairie to form a distinctive alchemy with strangely artistic results, and a sense of history that endures even as the material components crumble.

On the Oklahoma prairie, the relentless corrosion brought by time and the elements is fought like a demon. Surfaces are scraped and sanded, painted and repaired. Old barns are replaced by sheet-metal storage buildings. Bales of hay are sheathed in white plastic cocoons. Weathered, painted billboards are giving way to stretched acrylic tarps and, sometimes, digital signs with revolving video and messages.

But vestiges of the past remain, often so much a part of the landscape that they fade into it, unnoticed. Sun-baked iron, weathered wood and ghost-lettered brick, relics of the time between the world wars, have been stripped of the superfluous, seasoned by decades of red dust, distilled to their essence and worn smooth by time.

Clockwise from top: Rusty one way: Payne County; Rusty license plates: Oklahoma County; Rusted door handle: Beaver County; Santa Fe box car converted to livestock shed: Texas County

Like the people who have lived longest on the land, these walls and doors and signs and fences have developed nuances and facets that come only with survival.

Jackson Mammoth, Jackson CountyMany continue to serve their purpose. Rusted markers still point the way, old grain bins store a new harvest, blackened barbed wire holds tight between posts, battered mailboxes stand sentry at the end of a long driveway.

Swept by winds and baked by sun, their authenticity shames the self-consciously distressed flotsam of Americana that dangles from rafters of far-off restaurants and bars in search of a sense of history, and inspires would-be designers to invest in another can of crackle in the hope of achieving that well-worn glow.

Bullet-riddled Cimarron County sign: Cimarron County/Texas County border

Their patina is deepened with time, as the alchemy of temperature swings and alternating droughts and deluges coax out the rich colors and surviving words of long-ago dreams and the people who dreamt them. 

M.J. Alexander (pausing here in Pittsburg County) continues her extended photo essay of Oklahoma with monthly installments of 77 Counties. To view any of the previous segments, visit To suggest an off-the-beaten-track place, contact Her traveling exhibit “Portrait of a Generation: Children of Oklahoma, Sons and Daughters of the Red Earth” – from the book of the same name, winner of a 2011 Oklahoma Book Award – is currently on exhibit at the Cimarron County Heritage Museum, and her work will be included in the inaugural National Weather Biennale, April 22-June 9, in Norman.