Each year as Lake Altus dwindles, people begin to recall the story of Lugert. Occasionally, because of heavy irrigation or a lack of rain, the remnants of the town are exposed. Then curious visitors look for souvenirs in the drying mud, or point to the locations of former buildings. But what happened to the town, some ask, and why is it beneath the lake?
The story begins in 1883 with Frank Lugert, who immigrated to the United States from Austria. Only thirteen years old at the time, Frank traveled alone across the Atlantic to join a nineteen year old brother who lived in Wisconsin. After a third brother immigrated to the United States in 1885, Frank moved to Iowa. He became a naturalized citizen in 1891, and later moved to the Oklahoma Territory where he operated a general store and saloon. In 1893, Frank made the run into the Cherokee Strip, but sold his farm outside Perry a few years later and moved into town.
When the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache reservation opened to settlement in 1901, Frank Lugert filed a claim on 80 acres near the base of the Wichita Mountains, bordered on the west by the North Fork of the Red River. He sold parcels of the land as town lots, and approximately one hundred people settled in or near the new community, named Lugert, within the first few years.
But the days of the prosperous little town were numbered. On the afternoon of April 27, 1912, a tornado devastated Lugert. Forty-one of the 42 buildings were destroyed. Five days later the Hobart Republic declared, "Lugert can be properly spoken of only in the past tense." Ironically, Frank Lugert's general store was the single structure that survived. Even the bank that stood nearby was reduced to rubble. The town never recovered from the disaster. Most of the residents left, but Frank Lugert stayed. He bought many of the lots as they were sold and even constructed new buildings.
In 1926, Altus passed a $690,000 bond issue to build a dam on the North Fork of the Red River in the Wichita Mountains. The aim of the project was to create a stable water supply for the city. The resulting lake, named for the nearby town of Lugert, connected to a reservoir on the outskirts of Altus through a wooden pipeline.
Along the 16-mile route, farmers tapped into the water carried from the lake. The success of their crops encouraged plans for an expanded "irrigation district" in Southwest Oklahoma. A new design came into being, known as the Altus Project, that called for a much larger dam to be constructed. Frank supported the Altus Project, but the new, bigger "Lake Altus" would cover the town of Lugert. As a part of the project (completed in 1947), the Lugert depot and grain elevator were relocated three-quarters of a mile to the east; Frank Lugert moved his inventory to a new store nearby. He continued to operate the business, first established in 1901, until a few years before his death in 1958.
The passing of Frank Lugert marked the end of a notable life. From a childhood in Austria to old age in Southwest Oklahoma, Lugert's experience spanned the Atlantic Ocean, a land run and a land lottery, the founding of a town, a devastating tornado, and the creation of one, then another, lake. Today the water that covers the town Frank Lugert founded, that might seem to have washed away his memory, occasionally withdraws and reminds us again of a fascinating Southwest Oklahoma story.
The Western Trail Historical Society is currently working with the descendants of Frank Lugert to place a state historical marker near the southeast shore of Lake Altus. The monument on State Highway 44 will memorialize the founder of Lugert and the town. Anyone interested in the project should contact Dennis Vernon or Raymond Fox (of the Western Trail Historical Society), Paul or Evelyn Long of Altus or Gary McLaughlin of Blair, or telephone the Museum of the Western Prairie at 482-1044. Donations are tax deductible.
Bart McClenny is historical facility manager of the Museum of the Western Prairie.