Driving the old Shawnee cattle trail is scenic and entertaining as you pass through a delightfully eclectic set of towns such as Durant, Muskogee, Pryor, Vinita, Sand Springs, and Bartlesville.
The Shawnee Trail, sometimes called the Eastern Trail, was the sole route used by cattle drovers to take longhorns from Texas to railheads and stockyards in Missouri. The trail is closely mimicked by U.S. 69, which I followed from Durant in the south to Vinita in the north. Since I was already in Green Country, I took a detour to visit a few other interesting places on the way home.
I headed to Durant on a Friday evening. At the center of the town’s booming economic development is the Choctaw Casino Resort, where I spent the night. It’s the modern version of a saloon and gambling hall, where the rooms are clean and comfortable and no one’s in the corner with a shotgun. There’s a 12-story hotel tower, along with new restaurants and an expanded casino. The jewel is the swimming pool complex, which includes hot tubs, fresh and saltwater pools, waterfalls, a water slide and cabanas available to rent. The complex also has a health club, an arena for large-scale shows and a conference center.
The casino has a gift shop and three restaurants, including a good buffet. There is blackjack, poker, high stakes poker and a room dedicated to penny slots. I made my contribution at a $5 blackjack table with a friendly, happy dealer before retiring for the night.
Less than 20 minutes north is the town of Caddo, which might be the most authentic Western town still standing. Driving in from the highway, I passed Victorian homes and historic churches before coming into a downtown that felt like a movie set. Much of Caddo’s downtown was burned in 1900 and rebuilt over the next five years. A few of the oldest homes are still preserved (check with the museum for exact locations), and a couple of them still have horse hitching posts out front.
I nearly expected the sheriff to tell me I had to tie my Volkswagen to a hitchin’ post and felt as though I should, but managed to enter Norma’s Jeans 'N Boots without incident. The store is the consummate cowboy store, with boot-cut jeans of every brand and boots in every size and color. They carry Western clothing for children, too, and a good supply of Western hats, belts and some silver jewelry. It’s not Park Avenue, but it’s clearly the place every farmer, rancher and cowboy in the area buys clothes.
My next planned stop was in Muskogee, two hours and 15 minutes away. The drive up U.S. 69 is pretty, with hills, trees and rivers. Although drovers surely enjoyed the scenery on this trail, it must have been the most difficult on which to move cattle, as the natural obstacles are far greater in number than on the Chisholm or Great Western trails. Just north of Caddo, there’s a series of fruit stands that offer locally grown produce, honey and homemade peanut butter – for my money, that’s the sort of thing that makes driving more fun than flying. There were no lakes here in the cattle drive days, but the drive now includes a stretch along the shores of Lake Eufaula and a dozen or so intriguing small towns.
Kenny Greer started this barbecue restaurant with his father, Mahylon Greer, in 1995. Kenny says he learned from his father, who spent a career in the restaurant business, that cleanliness and quality matter. To that end, the Mahylon's building looks barely 14 days old, much less 14 years. I was hungry by the time I arrived and sampled a little of everything. I liked it all, but on my next visit my first choice would be the ribs with a side of the potato salad, which is excellent. The banana pudding is terrific, as is the sundae with the homemade brownie on the bottom. Kenny and his sister, Vicky, keep the place running, cooking all the meat in a wood-fired pit.
The best part of the Five Civilized Tribes Museum is the building in which it’s housed. That’s not to say the museum’s collection isn’t worth a look – the gift shop and art gallery alone are worth the modest admission. The building, though, was built in 1875 as the Union Indian Agency, with the superintendent’s offices downstairs and living quarters above. It later served as a school and an orphanage. It was incorporated in 1955 (and opened its doors on April 26, 1966) and hosts five art shows each year. The permanent collection includes works from tribal artists – notably Stickballer, Jerome Tiger’s only major sculpture.
I headed north about 45 minutes to Pryor, where the Coo-Y-Yah Museum is in the former Katy railroad depot right on U.S. 69. Coo-Y-Yah, meaning “huckleberry” in Cherokee, was the town’s name until it became Pryor Creek. That was in honor of Nathaniel Pryor, soldier and member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, who settled here with an Osage wife and negotiated at forts Smith and Gibson for a time on behalf of local Indians. The museum’s collection includes a huge original oil portrait of Pryor and a local Native American art gallery, as well as very early local history exhibits.
Another half-hour north and east and I was in Vinita, where I met the delightful Wanda Norton, curator of the Eastern Trails Museum. The museum is a mishmash of local history and culture, nearly everything in the collection having been donated by local families and businesses. Longtime Vinita Daily Journal newspaper publisher, the late O.B. Campbell, started the museum. Norton took over with an “I’ll take it” attitude, and the collection now bows the walls of the museum’s home in the town library. The many artifacts include a McClellan saddle and several Bartletts. But the biggest treasure here is Wanda, who will keep you entertained with tales of local history while she shows you around.
I skipped dinner, still full from the spread at Mahylon’s and behind schedule after my encounter with Wanda, and headed off the trail to Sand Springs for a night at the Meadowlake Ranch. It was dark when I arrived, but a ranch hand found me and got me to my cabin. The ranch has three lakeside cabins with large comfortable beds, full kitchens and whirlpool tubs for two, along with two bluff-top cabins. It was a pleasant surprise opening the blinds in the morning to discover my front door overlooked a charming pond lit beautifully by the rising sun. After a ranch-style breakfast of eggs, sausage, toast and coffee, I got a tour of the ranch. Hunting and fishing are available, but most come for the dude ranch experience, as Meadowlake offers everything from ranch chores, campfires, shooting lessons, hayrides, and knife- and tomahawk-throwing instruction. A new little stream with year-round bass fishing will make patio weddings and group retreats even prettier.
Back on the road and about an hour north of Tulsa, I stopped in for lunch on Bartlesville’s west side at Murphy’s Steak House. It’s roadside fare with chrome and red vinyl counter stools and ads for local businesses on the tables. The thing to eat at Murphy’s is the hot hamburger, an open-face burger on white bread buried under a cowboy-size helping of fries, all of it swimming in branding iron-hot brown gravy. Diet? What diet?
The best part of a road trip, besides the food, is the eclectic mix of people. Peggy Berryhill is to the Tom Mix Museum what Wanda Norton is to the Eastern Trails Museum. Her domain has an extensive collection of clothing, guns, saddles and other memorabilia once owned by the film star known as the King of the Cowboys, Tom Mix. Mix was Dewey’s town marshal and a performer with the 101 Ranch Wild West Show when his performing career took off and he headed for Hollywood. His third of five wives, Olive Stokes, was a Dewey resident. The museum has a life-size replica of Mix’s well-known mount, Tony the Wonder Horse, well-presented artifacts and a fun little theater that shows one of his talkies, My Pal the King, co-starring an 11-year-old Mickey Rooney. Oklahoman Jim Thorpe is also in the film.