News » Metro

Landmark Oklahoma company's files set off historian's radar



Is it possible to tell the story of Oklahoma through the history of one company? Bob Blackburn thinks so.


The executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society and his entire staff have just completed the acquisition and cataloging of what Blackburn calls the largest corporate collection ever given to the Oklahoma History Center. It comes from one of Oklahoma's largest and most influential companies.

On the day Kerr-McGee Corp. announced it was being sold to Anadarko Petroleum Corp. in Texas back in June of 2006, Blackburn immediately picked up the phone and tried to call Kerr-McGee CEO Luke Corbett.

"I say, 'Luke, this is Bob Blackburn. I don't know what's happening, but I'd like those collections, whatever you have. I don't know what's going to happen with the collections, but I want you to know we're very interested in the collections down there on the history of Kerr-McGee and the people who built the company.'

"I really didn't know what they had," Blackburn said. "It was just kind of a hunch, knowing the corporate culture they have there, (that) they would have some stuff."

But it took weeks before Blackburn even heard from Corbett's secretary. Then, a few weeks after the secretary told the historian the company was well aware of the request, the call finally came. Blackburn remembers every word.

Corbett: "Bob, this is Luke. Are you still interested in our collections?"

Blackburn: "Yes, sir, I am."

Corbett: "Well, we've had others express interest in it. We even had one group offer to buy part or all of the collection. But I've talked to the Anadarko officials and we think it belongs at the history center."

There was one catch, however: Blackburn and his staff had three days to haul the stuff out of Kerr-McGee's offices in downtown Oklahoma City. Not an easy task to remove 77 years of history in 72 hours.

"I go to the museum staff," Blackburn recalled. "I go to the research staff. I said, 'Guys, hate to say it, but drop everything.' They, of course, have the same sense of excitement as I have and they said, 'Let's go.'"

The company's roots go back to 1929 when Robert Kerr formed Anderson & Kerr Drilling Co. in Ada with James Anderson. Dean McGee joined eight years later, and the company name changed to Kerr-McGee in 1946. Among the company's accomplishments was building the world's first offshore commercial oil well in the Gulf of Mexico in 1947.

Kerr would go on to become governor of the state, as well as one of the most powerful U.S. senators during his time in Washington, D.C. The original office desk Kerr used at the company now sits in the history center's storage vault.

The collection consists of 190,000 photographs, 823 films and videos, 150 volumes of library material and 182,000 documents, including some of the company's most important papers.

"One day, Luke calls and says, 'Come down, I want to show you some stuff in my office,'" Blackburn said. "I go in, and he says, 'This is the good stuff.' He starts pulling out tubes, and it's all of the original incorporation records for Kerr-McGee. We have them now in special storage."

But what really set Blackburn's history senses off were the hundreds of Kerr-McGee retail artifacts and merchandise the company handed over.  Everything from ashtrays to oil cans to wallets now sits on shelves in the history center's vault. Some of the earliest gas pumps will soon be on display.

The collection also includes busts of Kerr and McGee, paintings, large-scale models of drilling rigs and some of the early Kerr-McGee signs.

There is also a file on the Karen Silkwood case. A laboratory analyst for Kerr-McGee at its Cimarron plutonium plant near Crescent, Silkwood became contaminated in November of 1974. One week later, on her way to meet with a reporter to discuss Kerr-McGee and her situation, she was killed in a car accident under suspicious circumstances.

But conspiracy theorists shouldn't get too excited; Blackburn said the Silkwood file only consists of newspaper clippings and press releases.

"About the only thing (is) how the public relations people responded to it," he said. "They were gathering what the public's response was. There is nothing from the inside of the company. It's all from the outside coming in."

The collection is not available for public viewing yet, but an exhibit is planned for next year.  "Scott Cooper

Latest in Metro

Add a comment