It’s true and also the most common compliment visitors make. Nowhere is that friendliness stronger than in the hundreds of small towns that dot the state. One doesn’t have to venture far outside the metro to find these places, and many of them are worth visiting for much more than a kind word and sunny smile. Unique shopping, recreation and dining make a daytime jaunt worthwhile this summer.
Go west, fast
A few minutes west on Interstate 40, El Reno’s Canadian County Fairgrounds are home to the “Grascar” racing circuit. Teams support drivers going fast on modified riding lawnmowers around a dirt track. It’s a fascinating micro-culture of extended families, greasy gearheads and often cutthroat competition.
Onion burgers sizzle in a vendor’s trailer, a 6-year-old girl may sing a wobbly national anthem over the PA, and then the loud-as-hell mowers are off to the races.
Competitors range from grade-school age to old enough to know better. For $5, you can wander through the pit areas, observing the occasional drama, but mostly it’s just relaxed good times. Watching from the grandstand is free.
There’s racing in most parts of the country, of course, but this experience is particularly unique. Grascar runs through November, approximately every other Saturday evening. For more information, call 637-7787 or visit elrenograscar.com.
Go east, slow down
Head to Shawnee for cultural enlightenment. The town is home to St. Gregory’s University campus, which hosts the independent Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art, 1900 W. MacArthur Drive. Its permanent collection boasts an enormous early 20th-century painting of Pope Pius X, yards away from a collection of ancient Egyptian cat mummies and a full-sized princess mummy.
Museum preparator Daniel J. Lay revealed that the pope’s painting is an original. An identical canvas at the Vatican is a copy after the artist pulled a fast switcheroo. There’s nothing like a little pontifical shadiness by way of the Sooner State to generate intrigue Also in the collection are an immense 19th-century Chinese blue ceramic egg jar, a suit of medieval armor and a U.S. Cavalry painting by Frederic Remington.
The museum has just a handful of rooms, but there’s plenty to see. The juxtaposition of African wooden sculptures, Pre-Columbian figures and 16th-century European paintings in the same space is curiously refreshing. Admission is free throughout the summer until Sept. 1.
If your trip is around lunchtime, don’t go anywhere but Hamburger King, 322 E. Main. It’s kind of like a museum, too, because the joint has been there since 1927.
On one wall hangs a photo of original owner George Macsas in cowboy hat and boots, holding a fat stogie.
He’s posing with legendary Western swing musician Bob Wills on one side and silent movie cowboy Jack Hoxie on the other.
The cheeseburgers are terrific.
The challenge is to finish one and follow with a slice of homemade monkey tail pie.
You won’t need a visa to enter the Citizen Potawatomi Nation right down the road. Its Cultural Heritage Center, 1899 S. Gordon Cooper Drive, is an impressive circular building filled with art, artifacts and documents related to the proud Potawatomi heritage. Life-sized dioramas illustrate previous times from the forests of the Great Lakes to the Trail of Death and subsequent treaties that brought the nation to Oklahoma.
Another section, the Veteran’s Wall of Honor, displays photographs, uniforms and medals of the many Potawatomi warriors who have served in the U.S. military. The tribe now oversees a local empire of businesses, industry and financial and social services.
The cultural center, which does not charge admission, includes a gift shop with baskets lovingly handmade and signed by tribal members. The nation’s Grand Casino, golf course and powwow grounds are adjacent to the complex.
Go south, play in the dirt
Just south of Norman and a half mile off Interstate 35 at the Goldsby exit (No. 104) is Marcum’s Nursery. It has an Oklahoma City store, too, but it’s more fun to drive out to where cattle are mooing in nearby pastures and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are performing an aerial ballet. Marcum’s specializes in trees and has varieties — including European Fan Palm, Leyland Cypress and Spiral Juniper — you may not find elsewhere. The nursery is expert at xeriscaping with extreme drought-tolerant plants such as salvias, Russian sage and yuccas.
It even has potted prickly pear; our ancestors would have laughed about ever cultivating those tough flora thugs of the prairie.
Marcum’s is a tranquil place many days, with gurgling fountains and thousands of kinds of flowers such as Red Dragon Hibiscus and Sun Impatiens from which to choose.
Three generations of the Marcum family run the place, and they pride themselves on being superior in service, advice and product to the big box stores. The staff is laid-back, helpful and couldn’t be friendlier.
Oh, and Libby’s Cafe, 111 Main St in Goldsby, is right next door, with its terrific catfish dinners and chickenfried steaks making it a real country excursion.
Go north, have an adventure
Ain’t sayin’ she’s a gold digger, but Gloria Stuart definitely was one. After all, the enticing blond Titanic actress starred in Hollywood’s Gold Diggers of 1935. Her lobby art portrait is on permanent display in Ponca City’s Poncan Theatre, a grand old movie house that dates back to 1927 and is an excellent reason to drive north.
During a modern restoration of the Spanish Colonial Revival-style building, more than 30 hand-painted 1930s-era movie posters were discovered tucked away in a closet. Along with Stuart are rare pictures of Will Rogers, Wallace Beery and Smiley Burnette (“The West’s No. 1 Comic”) and many others. These nearly lost treasures now grace the Poncan’s lobby and mezzanine walls. Guided tours are available for $5 from 1 to 5 p.m. on weekdays.
Bottled Head Country barbecue sauce is sold in 1,000-plus stores in Oklahoma and as far away as Wyoming and West Virginia. But there’s only one Head Country restaurant, and it’s in Ponca City at 1217 E. Prospect. People line up at opening for sampler platters piled with ribs, brisket, ham, hot links and two sides.
The motto is “Winning hearts and championships since 1947.” Your cardiac muscle may not swell, but your stomach certainly will.
Nothing says Oklahoma like oil. If the iconic Phillips 66 badge gives your pulse a bump, Ponca City’s Conoco Museum, 501 W. South Ave., is the place to fill your soul. It’s a celebration of the teamwork and achievement in a competitive industry. You’re invited to “visit an outdoor doodlebugger worksite” and “see what it’s like to work in a 1950s research and development laboratory.”
Then bop over to the E.W. Marland Mansion and Estate, 901 Monument Rd., and see how one of Oklahoma’s maverick oil barons of the last century spent his big bucks.
Lovingly maintained, the 1920s-era mansion remains one of Ponca City’s shiniest crown jewels. Marland’s 55-room domicile is testimony to a man whose life ambition was, as he put it, “the sense of satisfaction that came from tapping a treasure house of nature, filled with liquid gold.”