It is the annual Indian Taco Festival, and Downtown Pawhuska is electric. A handful of traditionally dressed Osage perform, thunderous and ethereal, for an eager crowd. Thousands of visitors from all across the United States crowd the streets of this historic Northeast Oklahoma town situated at the southern end of the Tallgrass Prairie – to taste these curious fried bread tacos, learn about the Osage and see what life is like in small-town, rural Oklahoma.
There are now five galleries in downtown Pawhuska, in addition to a multitude of curio shops, jewelers and clothing boutiques. The Bucking Flamingo is an eclectic metal art gallery that doubles as a pawn shop, and if you wind up in jail while visiting Pawhuska, owners Cody and Lauren Garnett also operate a bail bonds business. The Water Bird Gallery, as much cultural center as gallery, features Osage art and antiques and is perhaps the best place in town to get a copy of Killers of the Flower Moon, Amazon’s book of the year written by New Yorker reporter David Grann. Killers of the Flower Moon is the third book to tell the infamous tale of the Osage murders of the 1920s, outlining the sinister steps of small-town Oklahoma’s darkest narrative. This murderous account of greed and exploitation has even grabbed the attention of Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, who have visited Pawhuska many times over to research an upcoming film. The once-heavy cloud that hung over this small town, like so many in Oklahoma, has lifted – and a new day has arrived.
Once largely abandoned, Pawhuska’s downtown is thriving as a vibrant tourist destination.
Across the way, outside high-end Western boutique Osage Outfitters, kids admire the saddles situated on a sale rack. Inside, fresh off a morning cattle drive, Joey Lee shapes hats while his wife Callie offers fashion suggestions to women visiting from Chicago. Next door, in the Tallgrass Gallery, two dozen tourists browse works by more than 60 artists from across the plains. Bruce Carter’s noteworthy gallery features all types of Osage-inspired art ranging from five figure bronzes from famed sculptors such as John Free to the thought-provoking snapshots of noted photographer and filmmaker Ryan Red Corn.
This town – where only two years ago, a passerby might have seen horses walking down an otherwise vacant and boarded-up Kihekah, the town’s main drag – has transformed into one of Oklahoma’s premier tourist destinations, and while much praise goes to local visionaries who began purchasing and remodeling many of the 90 buildings on the historic register, credit for this most recent boom in commerce goes largely to Food Network star Ree Drummond. Using momentum from her wildly popular show “The Pioneer Woman,” Drummond and her husband have transformed one of the town’s most famous buildings from an empty shell into a world-class restaurant and mercantile.
Folks from across America and beyond take State Highway 60 to this small town for a glimpse inside the ranching world that has made Drummond an international icon. On any given day, thousands line up outside her shop to sample food from menus created by their favorite television chef. This sudden explosion in notoriety has allowed local businesses already based in Pawhuska to expand, but more importantly, has created countless opportunities for young entrepreneurs and visionaries to build new and innovative businesses from the ground up.
Though Pawhuska, thanks in large part to Drummond’s notoriety, is perhaps the penultimate prototype of success for the Oklahoma Main Street Renaissance, this kind of enthusiasm for a return to and restoration of main streets and downtown areas has taken over the state.
For so long, Oklahoma’s main streets were sad amalgamations of boarded windows, busted electronics repair signs and the ubiquitous abandoned martial arts dojos. There might be a dusty greasy spoon favored among locals, or perhaps an antique store, but with the intrusion of box stores and the exodus of youth toward more urban areas, small towns were truly dying. However, at least in some downtowns, that is no longer the case.
“Main streets in small communities are evolving. As entrepreneurs, small businesses and the arts fill the gaps in our business district, we are leading the way in looking at our downtowns as thriving commercial areas, full of prospects and optimism for the future,” says Tallgrass Gallery owner Bruce Carter. “As a small business owner, I feel a responsibility to my community and its residents to improve and move our Main Street forward.” This sentiment is shared across the Sooner State.
This cultural renaissance arguably began in 1993 with Oklahoma City’s first MAPS project. Downtown OKC, like so many of the state’s municipal cores, was largely a ghost town. Slowly but steadily, however, Oklahoma City has elevated itself as one of the most evolving cities in the United States.
“Cities around the country have studied OKC’s renaissance, and it’s no surprise Oklahoma towns may draw lessons, as well. I think the two main takeaways from the last 25 years in OKC are that you have to invest in yourself, and specifically, you have to invest in your quality of life,” says State Sen. David Holt. “If you want younger generations and job creators to call your town their home, there have to be recreational amenities in your town to enjoy.”
Whether the draw toward the small town is because of a college, a celebrity’s involvement, a business venture such as a thriving casino or even an outdoor attraction, it is difficult to dispute that Oklahoma’s towns have become one of the state’s primary draws.
“I think one of the key reasons that Main Streets are making a resurgence right now is because small, locally owned businesses offer customers an experience,” says Chelsea McConnell, executive director of Ponca City Main Street. “Unlike Amazon or other online retailers, when you shop in downtowns, you’re shopping with friends. These business owners see the true value of their customers, and work hard to return that value at every opportunity.”
► Ponca City
Ponca City’s restaurant scene continues to evolve. Brick House Grill, located just off Main Street, offers a sophisticated menu and great cocktails in a restaurant stylistically like something you might find in Oklahoma City’s trendiest areas. A short walk from there is Vortex Alley Brewing – a small-batch brewery that’s a lifelong dream come true for its owners David Thomas, Spencer Boatmun, Marc Spaulding and Jim Allen. Vortex Alley, at least in brewery speak, is considered a nano-brewery, meaning that it produces fewer than 2,000 barrels annually. That small amount, though, doesn’t mean it’s not a huge hit with the local scene, nor that their six taps don’t serve up unique and robust brews good enough to rival the state’s larger breweries.
Ponca’s success is due in part to its restaurant scene, but what sets it apart more than anything is its willingness to try new things. “In the last few years, we’ve started the Battle of the Burger cook-off that takes place in June. We’ve added Ladies Night on Grand in September and our Summer Solstice Sale in June. We’ve reconfigured our Crazy Days Street Party to make it more relevant to our community,” says McConnell. “I think the excitement around our progress is palpable.”
College towns have always been known for youthful energy – just look at Norman. That said, a thriving downtown isn’t built by students alone. Norman’s downtown continues to evolve, not only with the addition of new businesses, but aesthetically, as well. “Permanent lights were installed in the 200 East block of Main Street in the late fall, which really adds to the night events like 2nd Friday Art Walk and other annual events,” says Dan Schemm, executive director of Visit Norman.
“Coming up this spring will be a permanent food truck court in the 200 West block of Main Street,” says Schemm. “The permanent food truck court and the completion of the ongoing beautification project are two things in the very near future that are very exciting.”
Norman is also looking forward to new businesses moving into the area, whether those are new breweries or boutiques or restaurants or bars. “Our area has very distinct personalities between the 9-5 crowd and the 5-9 crowd to the wee hours crowd,” Schemm says.
In many places, the renaissance is due largely to outdoor recreational opportunities surrounding a town. Perhaps nowhere is this phenomenon more visible than in the Sulphur/Davis area. Tourists have long been drawn to this region of the state to explore Turner Falls. These dreamy falls situated on the outskirts of Davis are one of Oklahoma’s most photographed places, and seven miles east of Davis is the town of Sulphur. Folks go to Sulphur to explore the beautiful trails, streams and lakes in the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, but stick around for an evening at The Artesian. The Artesian Hotel, Casino and Spa contains some of the state’s most elegant examples of all three elements, plus fine dining at Springs and numerous shopping opportunities.
Sulphur’s downtown is home to a winery as well as an outdoor outfitter, making it sound more like something off the Pacific Coast Highway than I-35. Once a hardware store, The Rusty Nail Winery features an impressive assortment of wines, and produces its own private label on the premises. It is also one of the town’s best gift boutiques, with crafts from local artists.
Bromide Mountain Company, named after the Recreation Area’s high point that looks out over the town, was the brainchild of entrepreneurs John and Miranda Dickinson. Part boutique, part outdoor adventure store, Bromide feels more like something you’d find in Colorado.
“Bromide is inspired by our love of the outdoors, southern Oklahoma and small-town U.S.A. Downtown Sulphur is special because it’s nestled footsteps away from Chickasaw National Park in the Arbuckle Mountains,” says Miranda. “The area offers an array of outdoor activities, including fishing, hiking, biking, kayaking and so much more.” In addition to locally created merchandise, Bromide carries Patagonia and CamelBak and offers a plethora of outdoor gear.
Guthrie’s main drag is its most historically iconic. The red brick buildings centered on the old state capital are arrestingly beautiful. Guthrie boasts several museums, including an Oklahoma History Museum, the Oklahoma Sports Museum and the Frontier Drug Store Museum, which highlights medicinal memorabilia and artifacts. And while, aesthetically speaking, downtown Guthrie is akin to walking through a portal into another time, the town’s progressive heartbeat is strong.
“Any time of year, you can join us for one of our downtown events,” says Chamber President and CEO Tracy Zserdin. May through September, Guthrie offers Red Brick Nights, with live music, food trucks and much more. In September, Guthrie offers a Wine and Art expo known as Guthrie Escape, and in October is the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival.
In addition to an ever-growing list of events, downtown continues to grow with cool shops and restaurants. Sweet Home on the Range is the go-to Made in Oklahoma Shop. Heartland Rare Coins and Collectibles is an antique boutique and a rare coin collector’s dream. New restaurants Senior Lopez’s Mexican Grill and Knuckle Sandwich Shop recently opened, adding to the list of Guthrie draws that already includes the iconic Stables. Most intriguing and popular among the locals is Boarding House, a snack bar and hangout space that allows people to unplug over traditional board games.
In the spirit of activities and events, historic Shawnee is quick to the game, as well. Shawnee’s Main Street is, in my opinion, one of the state’s most picturesque and historic town centers. Like many Oklahoma towns, Shawnee is situated on the railroad, and its depot is now converted into a museum. Also on Main Street is Hamburger King. This countertop gem has been a part of the Shawnee Main Street scene since its owner Joseph Macsas decided to make a few bucks cooking burgers from a cart, hoping that the wind would waft toward the track and bring rail workers. Now, still family-run and with recipes much the same, it is a Shawnee destination unto itself.
Across the street from Hamburger King is The Arts at 317. This family business, operated by Vernon and Beth Hatley along with Mary Ruth Sadler Hatley, is home to 40 artists, featuring photography, handcrafted jewelry and other crafts, but is also an event center and part of the evolving Main Street scene. The Hatleys are also instrumental in the development of Third Fridays, following in the footsteps of OKC’s wildly popular First Fridays on Paseo and Second Fridays in Norman.
While Ree Drummond is commonly referenced as one of the primary drivers of Oklahoma’s recent main street movement (see above), Blake Shelton is slowly turning the town of Tishomingo, east of Sulphur and Davis and home to the capital of the Chickasaw Nation, into a country music mecca. Shelton, who has long been a devout Oklahoma supporter, has recently opened Ole Red. This stylish bar/music venue/gift shop offers the state’s best brisket tacos, boasts a beautiful bar featuring Shelton’s Smithwick Vodka and turns into a music venue on weekends. Shelton is frequently spotted in Ole Red and plays music periodically for intimate crowds.
Tishomingo, like Pawhuska, extends beyond one famous patron and associated business. Tishomingo swells with creativity and innovation. Folks love to browse the western-inspired accoutrements of the recently opened Stepp West, but the town’s most thoroughly unique shop is Junk Stars. Located just off Main Street on Kemp, next to the Tishomingo Mural, visitors can’t miss the giant truck that protrudes above the eclectic store’s entrance. This curious shop’s owners Dorothy Shackleford (Shelton’s mother) and Kimberly Taylor have taken the concept of refurbishing to the next brilliant level. A visit here is as much an exercise in curiosity and inspiration as it is a shopping experience.