Summer’s a perfect time to dig into the state’s little-known spots and hidden gems

The summer has come. Now is the time to hop in the car and take off across Oklahoma to find its obscure, dirty little secrets.

First up, take Route 66 north to Catoosa and the Blue Whale. This notable icon of Oklahoma is 80 feet long and nearly 40 years old.

“The whale itself was built between 1970 and ’72,” said Blaine Davis, son of Blue Whale creator Hugh Davis. “All of it was built by my father. The whale was the last part of a three-part amusement enterprise on Route 66. It started in the ’60s and progressed on to end in ’88.”

The enterprise started with an alligator ranch, with live gators shipped in from Arkansas. As time passed, more animals arrived, and a children’s zoo was opened. The area was named Nature’s Acres until it included the A.R.K. (Animal Reptile Kingdom). Once the Blue Whale was built, interest in the odd swimming area was so great, the Davis family closed the A.R.K. area. The Blue Whale remained open until the park closed in 1988.

“My dad wasn’t the type to sit in a rocking chair all day,” Davis said. “He had to have something to do. And he was starting to get grandkids around the time it all started. So it was built for the kids, really. He didn’t care about what adults thought.”

Hugh Davis died in 1990, and the park fell apart. But a decade later, it was rejuvenated by local volunteers and fundraising. Now the Route 66 icon sees people from all over the world. 

“I recommend coming in May and June,” Davis said, noting it’s open daily from 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. “That’s when the weather is the best. And admission is free.”

An interesting fact about Catoosa is that it’s a seaport town. Yep, there’s an inland seaport town. Catoosa is the farthest U.S. inland seaport because it’s linked to the Arkansas River system that travels the long and weary distance to the Gulf of Mexico.

Now, head back to Route 66 and travel just about 30 minutes northeast to Foyil, home to Totem Pole Park.

“Ed Galloway started the largest totem pole in 1937,” said Carolyn Comfort, park director. “He started with rock, steel and cement. Its almost 90 feet, including a weather vane, and 18 feet wide.”

The park has many totem poles in all shapes, sizes and designs. Galloway found inspiration in American Indian artwork and culture, using postcards and National Geographic magazines to create his pieces.

Situated on 14 acres, the park is dotted with a number of Galloway’s creations, but the centerpiece is the massive one touted as the largest contrete totem in the world. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

“There’s a gift shop, too,” Comfort said. “That’s a really popular part. It’s in the museum that’s in the building called Fiddle House, where he used to live. Galloway was known for making fiddles. He made them so the rest of the world would know about wood. The museum has 135 of the fiddles he made.”

Galloway also created portraits of all the presidents until his death in 1962, but most of them have been stolen over the years.

“I have a book at the museum that lists unusual parks in the world, and Totem Pole Park is one of them,” Comfort said.

The last stop jogs away from Route 66 to Ripley, a town southeast of Stillwater. There stands a monument to Washington Irving, the author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” 

The monument is simple, yet catches the eye for the sheer oddity of its existence. It rests at the campsite where Irving stayed during a 1832 trip through Oklahoma with Henry Ellison to survey the land for Indian Territory. Irving later wrote a highly romanticized book about the land that had people clamoring to have a piece.

This off-the-beaten-path town also features a Washington Irving Trail Museum filled with unique exhibits about Oklahoma’s best-kept secrets.

“Our museum strives to be interesting and unique,” said curator Dale Chlouber. “We’re in an unusual location, and we’re an unusual museum. I’ve had people from all over the United States come and visit. And I’ve had people who have been to the Smithsonian and the Louvre, and they say we’re very refreshing.”

photo
Located in the town of Ripley, the Washington Irving Trail Museum is filled with odd exhibits. photo/Washington Irving Trail Museum

Kelsey Marcussen

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