March 20-22, 2019 | Slideshow | Photo Album
Our 2019 Spring Break included a brief vacay down in South Central. Not a vacation to LA’s South Central, mind you, but instead to south central Oklahoma, with two stops in Shawnee and a couple of nights at The Artesian Hotel in Sulphur. I had to work on Monday and on Tuesday visited the Gilcrease Museum and the Tulsa Botanic Garden, enjoying the sunny weather. But on Wednesday we loaded Wendy’s minivan and headed south.
A rough start in Stroud
We drove down US 75 to Tulsa and then southwest along the Turner Turnpike to Stroud. There we had lunch at the Rock Café, known these days for how its owner, Dawn Welch, inspired the character of Sally Carrera in the 2006 Pixar movie Cars. Dawn was named the Oklahoma Woman of the Year after she had the restaurant rebuilt in 2009 after a fire.
Wendy had looked up the restaurant and noted that restaurateur Guy Fieri recommended it as part of his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show. Since he had likewise recommended Clanton’s Cafe in Vinita, which she liked, she was game to try this one.
We had to wind our way around the building to find a working entrance and were promptly seated. We both ordered one of the German dishes Dawn introduced to the historic restaurant after she bought it in 1993.
Jagerschnitzel is a pounded, breaded, and fried pork cutlet served with a brown gravy that includes bacon, mushrooms, and onions. It comes with spaetzle, a hand-cut egg noodle that also is drizzled with the gravy. I thought the Jagerschnitzel was fine, although I could live long and prosper without more spaetzle, but Wendy was truly repulsed. Afterward, she declared she had lost faith in Guy Fieri’s palate and made me promise we would not be eating at any more diners!
National travel in one state
All along our trip to Sulphur there was signage noting our passage from one tribal nation to the next. We began at our home in the Cooweescoowee District of the Cherokee Nation and then traversed the Muscogee (Creek), Sac and Fox, Citizen Potawatomi, Absent Shawnee, and Chickasaw nations, touching base with the Kickapoo and Seminole to boot. This quilt of nations within my home state reflects the forced relocations of various Native American tribes in the 1800s. The Cherokee were originally from the modern-day Carolinas, Tennessee, and Georgia; the Creek were from Georgia and Alabama; the Sac and Fox were from the Lake Huron and Michigan areas; the Kickapoo were from Wisconsin; the Citizen Potawatomi were from Indiana; the Absentee Shawnee were from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania; the Seminole were from Florida; and the Chickasaw were from Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee.
We were over a month too early to enjoy the Kolache Festival in Prague (which is pronounced Pray-g in Oklahoma instead of Prahg). When the Sac and Fox Reservation was terminated by an 1891 land run, many Czechoslovakians settled there. Food acts as its own preservative in some small Oklahoma towns, with kolaches in Prague preserving a taste of Czechoslavakia, pasta in Krebs recalling its Italian settlers, etc. Buffalo burgers don’t count as a remembrance of Native American cuisine, however, since Plains Indians cut the meat into thin slices which were dried until they were hard and brittle for long-term transport and consumption.
We noticed various sites named after Jim Thorpe, the renowned Sac and Fox athlete, who was born to the southwest of Prague in the lost community of Bellemont on the line separating Pottawatomie and Lincoln counties.
Shawnee’s Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art
It was about 45 highway miles from Stroud to Shawnee, which was the home of the only Catholic university in Oklahoma, St. Gregory’s, until it suspended its operations in September 2017. Hobby Lobby bought the campus for $8 million and is leasing it to Oklahoma Baptist University. On the campus is the independent Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art, which opened in 1979 and features the works and collections of Rev. Gregory Gerrer, a Benedictine monk.
Gerrer was a dynamic figure, born as Robert Francis Xavier Gerrer in 1867 in France. His parents immigrated to Missouri and then Iowa, with Robert learning to play various musial instruments. When he was 23, he joined the Hulbert and Leftwich Circus as a clarinetist, playing his instrument while riding a trick bronco.
Later that year he met the abbot of Sacred Heart Mission in Shawnee, which later became St. Gregory’s, and took the train to Purcell and then a 40-mile trip by prairie schooner to the Mission to become a monk who was given the religious name of Gregory. Eight years later he was sent to Rome to study art. Gerrer traveled throughout Italy and the Near East during his time in Rome, including a mission to the Holy Land. He entered a competition of artists to paint the official portrait of Pope Pius X, and Pius selected Gerrer’s portrait, saying he chose it because Gerrer painted him true to life and did not minimize his facial warts.
Gerrer was recruited to become an art advisor and instructor at the University of Notre Dame and went on to direct and curate an art gallery there. He would spend his summers at Notre Dame, autumns in eastern cities as an artist, critic, and collector, and the remaining months at Shawnee. He displayed art and artifacts in the rectory of St. Benedict’s Church in Shawnee, where he was assistant pastor, and later in his painting studio behind the church. He moved his works and collections from the studio to the newly constructed St. Gregory’s High School and College in 1919.
Gerrer created an encyclopedic museum with everything from taxidermied animals, natural history items, weapons, and Renaissance art. By 1942 he had 218 paintings and 6,347 artifacts. He was commissioned to paint 79 portraits during his lifetime and often traded his own paintings in exchange for pieces for the museum. He passed away in 1946.
In 1957, the museum hired a director and the collection was loaned to the Kirkpatrick Science and Arts Foundation in Oklahoma City in the 1960s, eventually returning to Shawnee to occupy a new building through a challenge grant from the Mabee Foundation, with some of its features based on the Kimbell museum in Ft. Worth, Texas. Back in 2004, fellow teacher Betty Henderson and I marveled at some intricate Etruscan artwork at the museum, which was the only stop in the United States for that exhibit.
The museum is enclosed within earthen berms. Wendy and I gained free admittance via our Woolaroc membership cards, once again benefiting from Woolaroc’s participation in the North American Reciprocal Museum program, which regularly gains us free admittance to Gilcrease, Philbrook, and other museums across the country.
The main galleries now feature vivid red walls for the many paintings, with scatterings of armor, weapons, and other artifacts. A docent was interacting with a group of young children about Giulio Romano’s painting The Adoration of the Magi; later one of the brothers showed them other works.
Wendy and I strode through the museum, pausing at items of interest. She liked the colors in Oscar Jacobson’s Landscape and Sven Birger Sandzen’s Logan, Utah. She also admired Gustave Jean Jacquet’s The Head of a Girl.
I was impressed by William Adolphe Bouguereau’s Reflexion. His The Shepherdess is an emblematic part of Tulsa’s Philbrook Museum, and Reflexion displays the same virtuosity in the girl’s facial features.
An interesting side note is that for years Philbrook’s Rest During the Harvest was also attributed to Bouguereau until an infrared microscope revealed it was actually painted by Bouguereau’s student Francois Alfred Delobbe. The re-attribution did not diminish its appeal for me.
As we drove from the art museum over to the town’s former train depot, Wendy and I noted the famous Shawnee Mills plant, which has operated in the town since 1897. It was bought by J. Lloyd Ford in 1906 and is still operated by third and fourth generations of his family. The plant creates flour, cornmeal, and baking mix products with the flour mill capable of producing 7,000 hundredweight (392 tons) per day of flour from Oklahoma’s red winter wheat and 3,000 hundredweight a day of milled corn products. My peers may remember their TV commercial jingle, “It’s as easy as 1-2-3, and Shawnee adds the ME.”
Pottawatomie County Museum in Shawnee’s Santa Fe Depot
A striking architectural feature of Shawnee is the Santa Fe Depot with its turret tower and tile roof. It was built in 1903-1904 and used as a depot until 1973. The Historical Society of Pottawatomie County raised funds to restore the building and opened the depot as a museum in 1982. Last year a new roadway was built for it using 1905 brick pavers reclaimed from Shawnee’s Main Street.
The museum is a classic hodgepodge of treasures and trinkets. A professional curator would clear much of the dross, but I love the oddities one finds in these places. Witness the foot-long 600 volt fuse given to the museum in 2004 which once protected Shawnee’s Aldridge Hotel. It was part of the original electrical system which was removed when the hotel was renovated into senior citizen apartments, along with 400 loads of plaster and trash, 100 cast-iron tubs which each weighed 300-400 pounds, and what the construction superintendent described as a ton of pigeon droppings.
You can catch a dim glimpse of the museum’s variety of displays in photos on its website, although they strangely fail to highlight Buddy the Bear, an Alaskan brown bear shot by a Shawnee resident. The bear was stuffed and displayed for years in the window at a local hardware store. Years of ultraviolet light turned his brown fur white, making him look like a polar bear.
The entire south room of the museum is filled with a railroad model recreation of Shawnee in 1942 by Dawson Engle. However, the museum staff noted his artistic license in including a train track circumnavigating his model. We had fun locating the mill, the depot, and noting various buildings.
The north baggage room had more train models, with an old-timer working on a malfunctioning engine. He asked me to power on the tracks so he could test it, offering to answer any questions Wendy or I might have. I’m not sure if he was relieved or disappointed that we had none. My dad picked up a big O-scale Lionel train set for me when I was a kid, and I remember being amazed and embarrassed about how much it cost my mother to buy me a single new accessory for it: a weight-activated electric semaphore. That experience convinced me it was too pricey a hobby for me.
We reached Sulphur in the late afternoon, schlepping our bags up to the Hollywood Suite which we had stayed in back in October 2013. It was still beautiful, and after dinner at The Springs restaurant I enjoyed relaxing with a good book on a window seat during the sunset hour.
Wendy and I hiked 3 miles in the Platt Historic District the next day. We started out a few blocks south of the hotel, heading across smelly Rock Creek to reach the trail on its south side that led over to Bromide Hill. The hydrogen sulfide in the water gives the town its name, and later as we walked by some park restrooms Wendy and I reckoned it could be difficult to know if a restroom had malfunctioned or not.
The Chickasaw plum trees were in bloom up on Bromide Hill. Prunus angustifolia is also called the sand plum and ranges from Nebraska to New Jersey on the north and from New Mexico to Florida on the south. A member of the rose family, its white flowers emerge in March in Oklahoma just before the leaves emerge. The tree produces yellowish to reddish fruit in early summer. The Sac and Fox used to boil its root bark to treak canker sores and diarrhea.
We headed on up past the conglomerate rocks of Bromide Hill to reach the top and look out 140 feet above the town. The Artesian was off to the right; our suite was just below the leftmost dome at the hotel’s northwest corner. The next time we stay at The Artesian, I will try to book a suite on the east side of the hotel to get some distance from the noisy trucks on highway 177. But we still thoroughly enjoyed our stay there.
We made our way down to the entrance to Rock Creek Campground and over past Bromide Pavilion, which once dispensed water from Bromide, Medicine, and Sulphur springs. The flow from the Bromide and Medicine springs ceased suddenly in the early 1970s, although the nearby Vendome artesian well drilled in 1922 remained active. It has diminished over time, though, due to falling aquifer levels. While it once spewed as high as 30 feet and sent 3,500 gallons per minute into Rock Creek, in 2019 its spout reaches perhaps only a few feet. In 1998 a new well of corrosion-resistant piping was drilled 20 feet west of the original one, and the water was piped into the center of the historic structure where it still flows…and smells. Wendy and I posed by it on a 2014 visit to Sulphur.
After our hike we returned to The Artesian and had a nice sandwich lunch at its Bedré Café where we also purchased yummy orange Meltaway squares, chocolate covered espresso beans, and a can of Crisps (milk chocolate-coated Pringles) and a can of Twists (white fudge-coated Bugles) which we would give to my parents in OKC the next day. Bedré Fine Chocolate started in the former Homer Elementary School in Ada over forty years ago, and the Chicksaw Nation purchased the company in 2000.
Murray’s Folly was mine too
I thought there was still time in the afternoon to head south to Lake Murray and show Wendy its Tucker Tower. Oklahoma’s most colorful governor, Alfalfa Bill Murray, was a farmhand from Toadsuck, Texas (I’m not kidding) who grew alfalfa and could rhapsodize about the crop at length. He became a self-educated lawyer in Tishomingo, the capital of the Chickasaw nation. Years before his governorship he presided over the writing of the Oklahoma Constitution, the longest governing document in the U.S. when it was ratified in 1907. Murray strongly supported white supremacist and segregationist clauses in its draft which President Teddy Roosevelt thankfully had stricken before ratification. Oklahoma voters have tinkered with it ever since, approving over 150 constitutional amendments.
During the Great Depression, Murray was elected governor with a campaign slogan that is shockingly offensive today: he railed against “The Three C’s – Corporations, Carpetbaggers, and Coons.” And we think today’s politics is extreme! Murray used the National Guard on 47 occasions and declared martial law over 30 times in four years, for everything from policing ticket sales at OU football games to patrolling oil fields.
Anyhow, the story goes that back in 1932 Oklahoma City and Tulsa wanted 3.2 beer legalized but rural politicians supported full prohibition. A deal was struck where the rural pols would vote for 3.2 beer and the city slickers would support building a lake in south central Oklahoma near the Texas border. Alfalfa Bill didn’t see the need for a lake, however, so supposedly the legislature agreed to build Tucker Tower as a summer retreat for Oklahoma’s governors in return for his support.
The veracity of that story is uncertain, but the tower was indeed built and named for Fred Tucker, a state senator. Fred said they did have trouble getting Governor Murray to go along with the lake idea, and Murray only agreed to support it if they would name the lake after him.
The tower was based on photographs of a European castle that Fred Tucker had taken in World War I. Limestone was quarried on site to build the five-story tower with observation deck, including a two-story section intended as a living area. By 1935 federal officials decided the tower was taking too long and was too expensive and halted work on it. It was left open to the elements and the public without windows, doors, floors, or ceilings. Years later the state park service completed the tower, and it opened as a geological museum in 1954. It was still a museum when I visited it some years back. In 2013 it was closed for renovation, including a $3 million 4,000 square foot addition to form a new nature center.
I projected it would take an hour to reach the tower from Sulphur, so we headed off down US 177, but we were trailed by a police vehicle for miles. I normally just stick to the speed limit anyway, but I decided to lose the fuzz by turning off toward Gene Autry. That prompts another tale: Gene Autry was a famous singing cowboy who appeared in 93 films between 1934 and 1953 and also had his own radio and television shows. Most folks know him today for his #1 hit Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and for the first recording of Frosty the Snowman as well as Here Comes Santa Claus, which he composed and performed. His signature song, however, was Back in the Saddle Again.
Autry was born in north Texas but as a teenager lived in Ravia, 15 miles east of another little town called Berwyn. When Autry bought the 1,200 acre Flying-A Ranch on the west edge of Berwyn in 1941 as the headquarters for his traveling rodeo. Townspeople drew up a petition to rename Berwyn in honor of the cowboy crooner, and all 227 residents signed on. About 35,000 people attended the ceremonies which were broadcast live on Autry’s Melody Ranch radio show on the state’s 34th birthday, November 16, 1941. Three weeks later the U.S. entered World War II, and Gene enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He sold the ranch after the war, merging his rodeo with another one and moving his operation to Colorado. His namesake town dwindled to less than 100 people by 1990, when the empty school building became the Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum.
We drove through Gene Autry, noting that the tiny town is still struggling despite having a Dollar General distribution center and other businesses to the north. We should have just pulled in there and seen the museum despite its depressing facade, but I still had my heart set on Tucker Tower. Wendy wondered if it would be too late, but I stubbornly drove onward down the Gene Autry and Mary Niblack roads to Lake Murray and arrived at Tucker Tower at 4:10 p.m.
I should have listened to Wendy! The caretaker told us she was about to close up and at best we would have five minutes to run through the tower.
I was sorely disappointed and tucked in my tail. However, we were able to backtrack and take a stroll through the park’s new lodge: a six-building complex with ballroom, restaurant, and 32 guest rooms. The $27 million project was funded by oil and gas royalties at the lake, with construction beginning in 2014 and the lodge opening in February 2017. I remember how the state’s lodges were pretty run down in the 1980s, back when I worked one summer for the Tourism Department in OKC. So I’m glad we now have new lodges at Quartz Mountain, Roman Nose, and Lake Murray. We’ve stayed at the first two, but I doubt we’ll ever stay at Murray. The “scenic drive” around the lake was mostly invasive cedars rather than lake views, and the fairly flat terrain holds limited interest for me.
We zoomed up I-35 to Davis and then over to Sulphur for dinner at The Springs, relaxing afterward in the Hollywood Suite. The next day we had lunch with my parents in Oklahoma City, dropping off the treats from Bedré and doing a little tech support by getting the online comics working again on my mother’s Chromebox and reviving my father’s old Kodak digital camera with a new battery.
Our vacay to South Central was short, unlike this blog post, and sweet. It was fun to travel in Wendy’s new minivan, and we’re both excited about taking it out west in June to our favorite late spring destinations of Santa Fe, New Mexico and Pagosa Springs, Colorado and a chance to connect with friends in the mountain state.