A savvy mix of Native American culture, hometown brews, one of the most important U.S. pre-Columbian sites and a restful nirvana make for an intriguing Oklahoma adventure.
My best friend, Jim, who is also my husband, and I set out to celebrate our anniversary in Oklahoma’s rolling eastern hills, and we find ourselves enchanted by a mélange of cultural experiences. There’s nothing quite like America’s rowdy, rambunctious culture, and Oklahoma’s hearty servings of Americana rank as some of the best in the nation. Friendly people, fascinating stories, loads of fine food and flat-out decadent relaxing make our time together immersed in Oklahoma’s brand of Americana a special anniversary trip we’ll long remember.
Tuskahoma, known in the Choctaw language as Tushka Homma, is tucked away in the Fourche Mountains of southeast Oklahoma. It’s home to the beautifully restored Choctaw Nation Museum. Erected in 1884, the historic capitol building of the Choctaw Nation is now a museum filled with Choctaw art, exhibits, artifacts and a well-stocked gift store.
Among the jewels here is an exhibit illustrating the heartbreaking story of Choctaw removal from their native lands in present-day Mississippi. One exhibit quote crystallizes the tale of suffering, “Observers told of seeing departing emigrants touching the tree trunks, twigs and leaves about their homes in token of farewell to these old friends.”
From Tuskahoma, we drift to Krebs, a small community in southeastern Oklahoma brimming with fabulous Italian restaurants and lively Tuscan culture. We flash back to small, family-run marketplaces of yore when we step into Lovera’s Family Grocery in Krebs. This amazingly compact, yet amply stocked store, established in 1946, boasts a fine selection of their own delicious homemade sausages and cheeses, along with specialty olive oils and gourmet items. Plenty of strategically placed sampling stations offer tastes of their tantalizing products. Jim had to pry me away from the cheese section (ah, cheese, glorious cheese). Mark this stop a must-see not only for yummy wares, but for vibrant resilience, carefully preserved ambiance and commitment to community.
Speaking of family, heritage and history, you’ll find plenty of all three at the Krebs Heritage Museum. The town of Krebs – known as Oklahoma’s Little Italy, due to the Italian immigrant roots of many of its residents – was incorporated in 1903 and is steeped in coal mining history. Before coal played out, Krebs sported an opera house and interurban electric streetcar line from Krebs to nearby McAlester. Displaying a vast and varied assortment of historical memorabilia, the museum provides insight into Krebs’ history and founding families. Our two favorite artifacts: antique band instruments and a tiny, silver-encased opium bottle.
When Pete Prichard opened the legendary Krebs’ restaurant Pete's Place in 1925, he served beer made from a recipe Choctaw Indians had given him. When Prohibition descended, he kept making the beer, even though he was convicted not once, but twice. Today, Pete’s grandson Joe Prichard legally continues the family tradition at the Choc Beer brewery which is adjacent to the restaurant. On a brewery tour led by witty Michael Lalli, Choc’s self-professed beer geek, we have fun chatting about beer making, and we learn that high demand has led Choc to double its capacity in the past year. After tasting all six Choc beers, we totally understand why.
Maintaining food quality and consistency in the restaurant business is notoriously difficult, but at Pete’s Place, which has more than 80 years under its belt, any speculation about consistency is laid to rest by an exceedingly comfortable ambiance, luscious, soulful food and Jimmy, our cheerful and totally hip waiter. He’s hands down one of the most professional waiters we’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. We dine on toasted ravioli, homemade Italian sausage from Lovera’s, spaghetti and meatballs, succulent fried chicken and delicately seasoned pork loin. Thoroughly satiated, we leave Pete’s wistfully, wishing we had room for more, hoping we’ll be able to return soon.
Our next stop is Robbers Cave State Park in Wilburton, just a hop, skip and back road away from Krebs. The park, nestled in the hilly woodlands of the San Bois Mountains, offers a night of snug comfort in a clean, spacious cabin, complete with wood-burning fireplace and essentials-equipped kitchen. Later that night, nature entertains us when an arriving cold front conducts a wind-in-the-pines symphony. Stepping outside the next day, we take in the early morning sun rising above the rugged bluffs behind our cabin, and breathe in clean, crisp air while sipping steaming cups of coffee – all in all, the perfect wake-up call.
After breakfast at Wilburton’s Sonic Drive-in, we take U.S. 270 through a bucolic plain that lies between the scattered high ridges and mountains comprising part of the Arkansas Valley ecosystem. At Heavener Runestone Park, the scenic ridge-top view is inspiring. When we hike down to the actual runestone, the winding trail and impressively crafted stone stairs feel like something out of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The actual provenance of the runestone remains a mystery, but we have fun reading the speculation about the stone’s origin, which some believe indicates that Vikings once visited the area.
Some people look at a dilapidated passenger rail car and see history destined for the scrap heap; others see opportunity. Fortunately, Debbie Crabtree, owner and pie maker of the Southern Belle Restaurant in Heavener, saw opportunity. Thus we lunch inside a refurbished 1905 passenger car once used on the Kansas City Southern Railway. The Belle’s booming business thrives from serving delicious, made-from-scratch meals. Our lunch of crispy fried catfish and french fries, salad and creamy, homemade Oreo cheesecake is all that. It’s the kind of warmly memorable, down-home dining experience that haunts the dreams of hungry travelers. We’ll be back.
Just south of our lunch stop in Heavener, on an alluvial plain that cozies up to a gentle curve of the Arkansas River, lie the remains of a once thriving and famous, sophisticated center of civilization. Its complex trade and communication network covered two-thirds of the area now known as the United States. With its 11 mounds, Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center comprises one of the most important U.S. archaeological sites. Dennis Peterson, site director, tells us that a large percentage of the mounds and surrounding area have yet to be excavated. As we tour the museum exhibits and the interpretative trails around the mounds, we wonder what this site may yet reveal about America’s original people.