Most recently updated on June 10, 2021
Posted on March 29, 2021
The restaurant that helped inspire a Pixar movie.
The woman behind a pioneering cookbook.
The town that was the setting for one of our best-known musicals.
The land that was the center of a famous folk story.
And, of course, oil. Lots of it.
All on our agenda today as we set out on our virtual journey from Oklahoma City.
We’re on Interstate 35 north for just a few miles before we turn east on Interstate 44, a freeway that eventually takes you to St. Louis. We won’t be on this highway for very long today, though.
Stroud was known as a “whiskey town” in the late 1800s because its establishments served drinks to cowboys and others who traveled in from “dry” Indian Territory settlements. These towns were usually situated within a mile of areas where liquor was banned. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Stroud also dried up and stayed that way until Prohibition ended in 1933.
During the first part of the 1900s, the local economy was based on cotton farming. The discovery of oil took over the economic engine from the 1920s into the 1990s.
The town suffered an economic blow when a tornado roared through in 1999, destroying the 53-store Target Outlet Center as well as a food distribution complex. The stores weren’t rebuilt and the owners of a hospital left town, resulting in the loss of 800 jobs.
Today, the economy is grounded on light industry and trucking.
Stroud is home to Service King Manufacturing, which makes rigs and other equipment for oil field workers. About 300 people work at its 500,000-square-foot facility.
Stroud also has a number of vineyards and wineries. It calls itself Oklahoma’s Winery and Grape Capital.
However, what brings us to Stroud today is a highway and a café.
Route 66 was built through here in 1926 and the town became a popular rest stop with motels, gas stations and restaurants. Tourist traffic declined significantly after Interstates 40 and 44 were built.
One business that has survived is the Rock Café.
The restaurant opened in 1939. It was built from sandstone discarded during the construction of Route 66.
The café has had numerous owners over the years. Dawn Welch has been its proprietor since 1993 when she bought the café at the age of 24.
Welch grew up in Yukon, Oklahoma, a town of 28,000 just west of Oklahoma City. She told 60 Days USA that her family was poor with a single mother raising Welch and her two brothers.
Welch started working at age 14 at a local pizza parlor. Her shift supervisor was county music legend Garth Brooks, who was a little older than her and lived four houses down. Brooks was in a rock band at that time and told Welch he would be a famous singer someday. Welch said she was going to be famous, too. So, they exchanged signatures on pieces of paper. Brooks wrote “Dawn, I’m going to be more famous than you” and signed it. She wrote “Garth, I’m going to be more famous than you” and signed it.
After high school, Welch worked on some cruise lines and then decided she wanted to open a restaurant in Costa Rica. She went to visit her mother in Stroud. Her mom told her to go to the Rock Café, which was closed at the time, to buy some equipment for her new restaurant.
When Welch met the owner, he suggested she operate the Rock Café for a year to learn the business. He offered her a one-year lease at $200 a month and an option to buy the place after a year for $30,000. She thought it over and took him up on it. Her business plan was that if she sold 10 orders of hamburgers, fries and soda per day, she’d make a profit.
The restaurant did pretty well its first year, so Welch decided to purchase it. Between 1993 and 2001, the Rock Café “squeaked by” with local customers and Route 66 travelers.
In 2001, some Pixar movie makers, including the studio’s creative chief John Lassiter, came through Stroud as they were researching the movie, “Cars.” Lassiter and crew met Welch at 9 p.m. one night. She was embarrassed that her outdoor sign was broken, but the Pixar folks stayed until 3 a.m. anyway.
Between 2001 and 2005, Lassiter and other Pixar representatives would call or visit with follow-up research questions. Welch said she didn’t hear anything for a year until Lassiter invited her in 2006 to come to the premiere of “Cars,” which was being held at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina.
The night before the premiere, Welch got to meet the movie’s voice-over actors, including Paul Newman and Bonnie Hunt.
The next evening as they were settling in to watch the film’s debut, Lassiter told Welch, “Watch the character Sally Carrera because that’s you.”
Welch said she watched in stunned fascination, even crying at times, because so much of her interactions with the Pixar creators was in the film. That included the scene with the non-functioning outdoor sign.
“I was blown away because all the stories I had told them, all the things that happened between us, were in the movie,” she said.
Business tripled after the movie and the Fieri show.
The Rock Café was gutted by a fire in 2008. Welch rebuilt it with some help from National Park Service funds and reopened the next year. She was named by the Daily Oklahoman as Oklahoma’s Woman of the Year in 2009 for her feat.
Welch said she rebuilt for two reasons.
One reason was her son and daughter, both of whom love the café.
“I didn’t want them to think you couldn’t rebuild your life,” she said.
Welch has also been a strong promoter of small businesses along Route 66 and wanted to set an example and provide inspiration.
The fire also gave Welch the opportunity to chat with former Beatle Paul McCartney. The British singer was in Stroud in 2008 and saw the café being rebuilt. He started reading a “fire blog” Welch wrote during the reconstruction. When the restaurant reopened, McCartney called to congratulate her.
“That was pretty cool,” Welch said.
Welch put the café up for sale in 2012 because she had intended to work in the restaurant business for 20 years and then do something else. However, her employees asked her not to sell, so she took the café off the market.
From 2014 to 2020, Welch lived part of the year in Los Angeles, where she helped friends and other entrepreneurs start their own restaurants. She oversaw the Rock Café from a distance.
She returned to day-to-day management when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a period Welch described as “crisis management on steroids.” The restaurant shut down in March 2020 and then reopened from June 2020 until mid-December 2020 when it closed for its usual winter break.
The café was scheduled to reopen in late February 2021, but then the snowstorm that devastated Texas swept through Oklahoma. The cold snap caused the main water pipe to burst, flooding the café floor with 6 inches of water.
The mess was cleaned up and the restaurant opened its doors again in early March.
When you visit the Rock Café, you’ll see plenty of memorabilia from the movie “Cars” hanging on its walls. The items include posters autographed by Pixar executives. There are also cardboard cutouts of some of the “Cars” from the movie outside the restaurant.
Inside is a grill named “Betsy” that has been in use here for 80 years. It’s estimated that Betsy has cooked up 5 million burgers and chicken fried steaks in that time.
Welch says she plans to continue running the business for another 5 to 7 years when she hopes either one of her children or one of the children of her long-time manager will take it over.
In the meantime, Welch said she’ll continue to enjoy being part of the country’s Route 66 culture that personifies Americana.
“Route 66 gives people a little bit of a taste of America that’s not tied to the image of Los Angeles or New York,” she said. “It’s a pilgrimage of sorts.”
Welch will also continue to enjoy living in Stroud, a small town where she says people enjoy the outdoors and take care of each other. If you’re sick, someone in town will bring you some soup.
“It’s definitely a slower pace, but it’s worth cultivating,” Welch said. “Everyone here has got each other’s back.”
Stroud is halfway between Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
That fact is one of the town’s selling points.
However, we’re going to take a little zig-zag detour before we reach our final destination.
So, instead of heading east toward Tulsa on Interstate 44 as we leave Stroud, we head north on Highway 99 before making a left and traveling west of Highway 33.
In a half-hour, that route takes us through the town of Cushing.
The community was part of the Sac and Fox Reservation before it was established during a land rush of 1891.
Cushing, though, remains a center for oil storage facilities and pipelines.
Today, the town of 7,600 residents is still a major trading hub for crude oil. It’s the point where the current Keystone pipeline hooks up with other pipelines to send 700,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada, North Dakota and other locales to the Gulf Coast.
Its storage tanks can hold as much as 90 million barrels of crude oil. As a distribution center, it’s also the place where prices are set for Texas oil.
All this has led Cushing to crown itself as the “Pipeline Crossroads of the World.”
Cushing was also slated to be the arrival point of a new leg of the pipeline system known as Keystone XL, which would have brought another 150,000 barrels of oil per day through town. The additional oil would have included heavier oil from Canadian tar sands.
President Barack Obama rejected the pipeline’s permit to cross the Canadian border in 2015 due to environmental concerns. President Donald Trump reversed that order after he took office.
Construction began soon after on the 1,200-mile-long Keystone XL, but it was halted in July 2020 when the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a federal court ruling that blocked use of a key federal permit. President Joe Biden then revoked the pipeline’s permit in his first days in office in January 2021. In March, officials in 21 states filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration, stating they overstepped their authority in canceling the project.
However, in June 2021, the developer of the Keystone XL pipeline decided to pull the plug on the project, ending a decade-long debate over the pipeline.
As we leave Cushing, we meander in a northeasterly direction, passing through towns that once boomed with the oil industry. Not all fared as well as Cushing.
The settlement sprang up as a boom town when oil was discovered in the nearby Cushing-Drumright Oil Field in 1915. Railroad lines were quickly constructed that year to connect Oilton with other communities.
In the 1940s, a mattress factory opened. In 1954, Southwestern Bell Telephone Company built a facility that housed equipment that enabled people to convert their crank-style systems into dial telephones.
The boom eventually went bust in Oilton.
Today, the city’s economy is now mostly agricultural with 91 percent of residents commuting to other towns for jobs.
Similar story in Jennings, a town of less than 400 people just 10 miles up Highway 99.
The community’s economy was agriculture-oriented until 1904 when oil was discovered nearby. In the 1930s, 11 oil and gasoline plants were operating.
Highway 99 bends in a more northeasterly direction and we cross the Arkansas River amid the small towns of central Oklahoma.
After an hour on Highway 99, we approach our next stop.
A Pioneering Spirit
Lunch or dinner is a good time to arrive in Pawhuska.
Like Chip and Joanna Gaines in Waco, Drummond has made an impact in the town in which she lives.
The Oklahoma native first garnered attention when she started writing her “Confession of a Pioneer Woman” blog in 2006 from the cattle ranch just outside of town that she and her husband, Ladd, own.
Her recipes brought her a book deal and then in 2010 she defeated celebrity chef Bobby Flay in a televised cooking contest. By then, her blog was garnering 20 million page views a month. It didn’t take long for the Food Network to offer her a show. “The Pioneer Woman” began broadcasting in 2011.
Rather than take her fame elsewhere, Drummond opened The Mercantile in a 100-year-old building on Main Street in 2016. The restaurant, bakery and store inside the refurbished facility averages 6,000 visitors per day during a typical year.
She and her husband, Ladd, also operate an 8-room “cowboy luxury hotel” called The Boarding House as well as offering tours of Drummond Ranch, which has been showcased on her television show and where she still writes her blog, now simply called “The Pioneer Woman.”
Drummond is credited with provided an economic boost to a town that was in need of it.
Pawhuska was established in 1872 when a federal office for Indian Affairs was set up in what was then the Osage Nation. The settlement was named after tribal chief Paw-Hiu-Skah and is still the tribal capital for the Osage.
The railroad didn’t come through until 1905. Afterward, lots were sold at auction in 1906. Cattle ranching was the main industry as retail stores and banks were built.
There was an economic uptick thanks to the oil industry in the 1910s and 1920s.
The town suffered through the Great Depression and afterward its economy relied on ranching, a rock crushing facility, an ice factory and a brick manufacturing plant.
That’s why the Mercantile and Drummond’s other businesses are so welcome.
A few other notes as we prepare to head out town.
There is a statue downtown that honors the Boy Scouts of America. It’s here because a scout troop was organized in Pawhuska in May 1909. That was eight months before the national organization was officially formed.
Pawhuska officials say they were the site of the first Boy Scout troop in the country. Other towns have also made this claim, but the folks in this Oklahoma community are sticking by their statue.
Pawhuska is also home to the Osage Nation Museum, which opened in 1938. It’s described as the oldest tribally owned museum in the country. Its purpose is to provide education as well as preserve the history of the Osage people.
We follow Highway 99 back south for a little while before we head east on Highway 11.
We are now in the midst of Osage County, which is less than an hour from the Kansas border and calls itself the Gateway to the Prairie.
Highway 11 twists and turns as it meanders south through this portion of rural Oklahoma before we travel east on Highway 20.
Slightly more than an hour after we departed Pawhuska, we reach the town of Claremore.
You can’t really get more Oklahoma than Claremore.
It’s the area where humorist Will Rogers was born. It’s also the hometown of singer Patti Page.
Most importantly, it’s the locale for the musical, “Oklahoma,” which was inspired by a Native American writer who lived in Claremore.
The first Anglo settlers arrived in the 1850s. One of them was Clem Rogers, father of Will Rogers. He started the Dog Iron Ranch, which eventually grew to 60,000 acres. Rogers County, the home of Claremore, is named after him.
The railroads came in the 1880s. Two rail lines still cross in the center of town. There have been discussions about building an elevated track downtown to improve traffic flow jammed up by the town’s 34 daily trains.
The early economy in Claremore was centered on farming and ranching.
One farmer discovered sulfur water while digging for oil. He called the liquid “radium water” and promoted it as a medical cure. He even built a bath house and spa called “Radium Town.”
Beginning in 1926, Route 66 brought travelers and tourists.
The economy today in this city of 18,000 centers on coal and oil. There are strip mining operations both north and south of town. There’s also Baker Hughes, a company that specializes in oil field services.
Some famous folks hail from Claremore.
Will Rogers was born in the nearby hamlet of Oologah in 1879, but he referred to Claremore as his hometown. Rogers, who was part Cherokee, left Oklahoma as a teenager to perform in Wild West shows. He went from there to vaudeville and then Broadway. He parlayed that success into some roles in silent films in the 1920s.
Rogers died in a plane crash in Alaska in 1935 along with journalist Wiley Post.
Rogers is remembered in Claremore at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum & Birthplace Ranch. The archives and galleries have the world’s largest collection of Will Rogers memorabilia. There is also a sunken garden that serves as the Rogers family tomb. The museum is on 20 acres Rogers purchased in 1911 for his retirement. There’s also a Hotel Will Rogers downtown.
Claremore is also the hometown of Lynn Riggs, a Cherokee who wrote the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” in 1931. That play was the basis for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “Oklahoma.” The story is set in the Oklahoma Territory near Claremore in 1906, the year before Oklahoma became a state. Riggs is remembered at the Claremore Museum of History.
Page spent much of her childhood in Claremore. She was discovered as a teen in Tulsa. She went onto music stardom with hits such as “Tennessee Waltz” and “How Much is That Doggie in the Window.” Page came back to visit Claremore in 2010 before she died in 2013 at the age of 85. There is a Patti Page Boulevard in town in her honor.
Finally, there’s a museum in town that recognizes John Monroe Davis, the six-time mayor of the city in the 1900s. Besides being a politician, Davis was also an avid gun collector. The J.M. Davis Arms & Historical Museum features a collection of 12,000 firearms as well as military hardware, posters and other memorabilia. It’s reportedly the largest private gun collection in the world. The museum opened in 1969 under the strict conditions set by Davis that the collection be housed in a fireproof facility in Claremore and that no admission be charged.
Oil, Folk Songs and Telecommuters
Out of Claremore, it’s back to Interstate 44, known around here as the Will Rogers Turnpike.
This time, we head back west for a half-hour, where we hit the city of Tulsa.
Once considered the world’s biggest hub for oil, Tulsa is the second most populous city in Oklahoma with slightly more than 400,000 residents.
The region was settled in the late 1820s by members of the Creek tribe after they were relocated from their homes in Georgia and Alabama.
The area was relatively uninhabited until after the Civil War when the federal government forced the Creek tribe to open up their land to white settlers. The St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad arrived in 1882. The town initially set up its economy to service the railroad before it became a center for the cattle industry.
Oil was first discovered in 1901. Four years later, the large Glenn Pool reserve was tapped. By 1927, Tulsa was home to 1,500 oil companies. It became the center for the U.S. oil industry and was dubbed “Oil Capital of the World.”
Tulsa was also the place where Route 66 was born. Cyrus Avery, a local business owner, first proposed the Chicago to Los Angeles highway. When it was built in 1926, Route 66 rumbled through the middle of Tulsa.
Oil and the new highway helped the population swell to 140,000 by 1930, but the city needed the assistance of the military industry to get through the Great Depression. That led to the creation of an aircraft industry that is still prevalent in Tulsa today.
Tulsa is the home for American Airlines’ primary maintenance facility. It’s the world’s largest airline-owned maintenance complex. The facility houses 22 buildings that encompass 3.3 million square feet. Nearly half of the airlines’ maintenance work on its 1,000 planes happens here. The plant provided more than 5,000 jobs before the COVID-19 pandemic. In August 2020, 170 maintenance workers were furloughed as American grappled with the loss of business caused by the pandemic. The airline was looking at another 13,000 layoffs in early March, but the recently approved federal stimulus plan prompted American to cancel those pink slips.
In 1971, the Port of Catoosa was opened, giving Tulsa the nation’s innermost port with access to international waterways. The docks are at the western end of a 445-mile system that links the Arkansas River with the Mississippi River. About 70 companies occupy the port area today, employing 3,000 people. In an average year, more than 1,000 barges pass through.
The city rode through a series of oil booms and busts before local leaders decided in the early 1990s to diversify their economy. They brought in financial, telecommunication and technology industries.
In 2003, voters approved the Vision 2025 program to revitalize the city’s economy. The measure consisted of a one-cent addition to the city’s sales tax over a 13-year period. One of the big projects was the BOK Center, which was completed in 2008. The 19,000-seat arena is used for sports, concerts and other major events.
In August 2020, the city’s economy got another boost when Amazon opened a 600,000-square-foot distribution center during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. The facility is expected to eventually employ 1,500 people. In May 2021, Amazon announced it was building another 270,000-square-foot distribution facility in Tulsa that will employ 200 people. It’s expected to open later this year.
In September 2020, the city did receive a blow when WPX Energy merged with Devon Energy. The new company moved its Tulsa operations to Oklahoma City, leaving 400 employees here in limbo.
Looking toward the future, Tulsa is making a play for the new world of telecommuters.
The Tulsa Remote program set up shop downtown in 2018. Since then, they’ve been offering people $10,000 in rent subsidies and stipends to move to Tulsa. Their focus is on entrepreneurs and people who can work from home. The program is funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, a Tulsa-based philanthropic group.
The idea is to lure people who don’t need to go into an office to move from other areas of the country to Tulsa. Participants must agree to stay in town for at least a year.
In its first year, Tulsa Remote received 10,000 applications. They selected 100 participants and 70 accepted the offer. Only two left town early.
The program is certainly catching a trend wave. Telecommuting in the United States increased almost 160 percent between 2005 and 2017. In early 2020, it was estimated that 5 million Americans worked from home at least half the time. It’s estimated that 26 percent of the U.S. workforce is working remotely this year due to the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even after COVID-19 subsides, it’s estimated 22 percent of U.S. employees will work primarily from home in 2025.
Officials at Tulsa Remote say the pandemic increased the demand for their services.
Tulsa made national news in June 2020 when President Donald Trump held an indoor campaign rally in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only about half of the BOK Center was filled when the president spoke. A few days after the event, it was revealed that six staff members on the president’s team had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Three weeks after the rally, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases in the Tulsa area. Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who attended the Tulsa rally, contracted COVID-19 in late June and died on July 30.
The campaign rally also brought to the surface an ugly episode in Tulsa’s past.
The original date for the event was June 19, the day of the annual Juneteenth celebrations to mark the date when slaves in Texas received word from Union soldiers in June 1865 that the Civil War had ended and that President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to set them free.
Critics of President Trump said he shouldn’t hold his rally on that date, so the rally was rescheduled to the following day.
The debate evolved into a discussion on civil rights and brought to light a race riot that occurred in Tulsa in 1921. The upheaval happened in the city’s Greenwood neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street,” where prosperous African-Americans lived and worked.
During the 16-hour riot, white civilians attacked Black residents. In the end, as many as 300 people were killed, 1,200 homes were destroyed and 35 city blocks were torched.
President Joe Biden visited Tulsa on June 1, 2021, to mark the centennial of the massacre. He met privately with survivors of the riot and spoke publicly about the need to bridge the wealth gap between the African-American and white communities.
You can find more details on the 1921 incident in a special Spotlight report on this site.
You can find a much different feeling at the Woody Guthrie Center, a downtown museum dedicated to not only the folk singer but to “spreading Woody’s message of diversity, equality and social justice.”
Okemah had a short-lived oil boom in the early 1920s. When the industry tanked later that decade, a 19-year-old Guthrie headed to Texas. In the panhandle town of Pampa, Guthrie met and married Mary Jennings in 1933. They had three children together.
During the Dust Bowl era of the mid-1930s, Guthrie walked and hitchhiked to California in search of work to support his family. He played guitar and sang in saloons along the way to earn a little cash.
In Los Angeles in 1937, Guthrie landed a job at a radio station, singing old-time classics as well as original songs he wrote. He specialized in songs that gave voice to the disenfranchised.
Guthrie traveled to New York City in 1939 and recorded an album for RCA Victor. The Oklahoma native found success in Manhattan and was able to move his family there.
Guthrie divorced Mary in the early 1940s and a few years later married a dancer named Marjorie Mazia. They had four children together, including son Arlo Guthrie who gained some musical fame himself in the 1960s and 1970s.
Guthrie was hospitalized most of the final 13 years of his life, dying in 1967 at the age of 55.
During his life, Guthrie wrote 3,000 song lyrics as well as published two novels and created dozens of pieces of artwork.
All of this is on display at Tulsa center.
Tulsa has a variety of options for lunch and dinner.
There’s also barbeque places that play on the fact that Tulsa has been described as being “between pig country and cow country” due to its location between Texas and Kansas.
There’s also the Mother Road Market, the first food hall in Oklahoma. The complex along Route 66 features 20 establishments, including restaurants, bars, retailers and even a miniature golf course with the famous highway as its theme.
Near the market is a place known as the Center of the Universe. It’s a concrete circle in the midst of downtown where people say your voice will echo back much stronger than you speak it. A sort of private amplified echo chamber.
There’s one more stop here in Tulsa.
It’s Cain’s Ballroom, which was built in 1924 as a “dime a dance joint.” The musical venue was made famous when the Texas Playboys began playing regular there from 1935 to 1942. The group is credited with inventing Western Swing music, a genre of upbeat country tempo.
Since then, country music legends such as Hank Williams, Tex Ritter, Kay Starr and Tennessee Ernie Ford have played the hall.
The ballroom is known for its spring-loaded, square dance floor that actually bounces a bit while people dance.
The venue struggled after COVID-19 shut down businesses a year ago. The ballroom organized a fundraiser in March 2020 and then pleaded for government and other assistance in July. The ballroom did survive the economic downturn and remains open.
We’ll take off our dancing shoes here and rest up for tomorrow.
On Day 11, we finish Oklahoma and head east into Arkansas, where we’ll stop by a town that finds its strength in spinach before arriving at the 4th state capital on our virtual journey.