Most recently updated on March 30, 2023
Driven on March 29-30, 2023
Originally posted on March 28, 2021
Oklahoma beckons, but there is one more virtual swing through Texas we need to do before we finally leave the Lone Star State.
Fort Worth is only a half-hour west of Dallas along Interstate 30.
It’s often mentioned in the same breath as its more famous neighbor, but Fort Worth is a commanding city in its own right.
It has more than 970,000 residents, making it the 13th most populous city in the nation, although only the 5th most populous in Texas.
It’s the headquarters of companies such as American Airlines and Pier 1 Imports.
It also boasts a median annual household income of $67,000 and a poverty rate of 13 percent.
Not bad for a city that has had a bit of a rough and tumble history.
The town was established in 1843 when none other than Sam Houston helped negotiate the Bird’s Fort Treaty with local Native American leaders. The tribes agreed to reside west of a line drawn through the future site of the city. That line marked “Where the West Begins,” a slogan still used today in Fort Worth.
In 1849, an army outpost was built on a bluff overlooking the Trinity River. It was the northernmost of the Texas forts we discussed during our visit to San Angelo two days ago. They named this one after Major General William Jenks Worth.
The fort was abandoned in 1853, but settlements had already sprung up around it and they adopted the name Fort Worth.
In the 1860s, Fort Worth became a stop on the Chisholm Trail. It soon developed into a center for long horn cattle drives and a developed a strong ranching industry that fed a thriving stockyard business.
Around those stockyards grew a district of saloons, gambling halls and prostitution houses. It was nicknamed Hell’s Half Acre. The neighborhood was so rowdy that Texas Christian University (TCU) was established in 1873 as an alternative. There were a number of attempts to shut down Hell’s Half Acre, but the district survived until about 1900.
The seedy neighborhood did not slow down the local economy.
Between 1866 and 1890, more than 4 million head of cattle came through town. The local industry started because Fort Worth was halfway between Houston and Abilene, Kansas, on the Chisholm Trail. Cattle could rest up for a few days in Fort Worth while drinking from the city’s abundant water supply and dining on its plentiful fields of grass.
The arrival of the railroad in 1876 strengthened the city’s position as a major shipping point. Now, cattle only had to make half the trip from Houston before being shipped off. The Fort Worth Stockyards were built in 1887 to coordinate the transportation.
In 1902, Armour and Swiss both opened meat packing plants at the stockyards so the herds could be slaughtered there instead of being transported elsewhere. The jobs brought in new residents, swelling Fort Worth’s population from 26,000 in 1900 to 76,000 in 1910.
During World War Two, the stockyards reached their peak, processing 5.2 million livestock. The stockyards, however, faded as freeways and trucking took over. Armour closed in 1962 and Swiss shut its doors in 1971.
Twice a day the stockyard district puts on a small cattle drive of long horns for visitors to enjoy. During a visit in March 2023, we heard an emcee with a thick Texas accent deliver a thorough and interesting history of Fort Worth, spiced with some good old country humor, before a couple dozen head of cattle with eye-popping long horns were escorted down the road.
Among the crowd was Christine Porada from Detroit, Michigan, her son Zach and her friend Anne Reinhardt. Christine had seen the cattle drive a couple of times before. She brought along her son, who is attending college in Dallas, and her friend Anne for the first glimpse of the cattle display. All of them were impressed.
“It’s amazing. I love it,” Christine told 60 Days USA.
The oil boom did have an impact on Fort Worth with eight refineries operating in the region by 1920. The city also had a network of pipelines to transport oil products as well as a number of oil stock exchanges.
Today, the city has a number of natural gas wells tapping into its portion of the Barnett Shale, one of the largest natural gas fields in the United States.
A 2018 report discussed Fort Worth’s economic limitations, including a tax base that is heavily dependent on residential property. It warned that Fort Worth risked becoming simply a suburb of Dallas. It recommended the city hold onto to its western, cowboy heritage that brought it the nickname “Cowtown.”
There are landmarks in addition the stockyard museum that exhibit that culture.
One example is Billy Bob’s, a tavern extraordinaire in the stockyard district. The owners of the bar claim they have the “world’s largest honky tonk.” It’s 100,000 square feet with 30 bar stations and room for 6,000 customers. Billy Bob’s opened in 1981 and a world record was set there in 1983 when country singer Merle Haggard bought more than 5,000 people a shot of whiskey. The tab for that gesture was $12,000, the world record for the largest drink round ever purchased.
We got a personal glimpse during a visit in March 2023. The honky tonk is indeed large but also well organized into sections with pool tables, bar areas, memorabilia walls and, yes, a corral with a dirt floor where professionals ride live bulls every Friday and Saturday night.
Billy Bob’s is open Wednesday through Saturday. Jill Williams, the establishment’s night manager, told 60 Days USA that they will get between 300 and 1,000 people on Wednesday and Thursday nights. That number swells to between 4,200 and 5,500 on Fridays and Saturdays.
She said most people come for the overall experience and many are overwhelmed when they enter.
“I like seeing people come through the door and watching their jaw drop,” said Williams.
She said the bull riding arena is also a surprise because some people assume the signs are referencing a mechanical bull.
“I tell them there are no mechanical bulls here,” Williams said.
Among those visiting on this particular night were Karen and Matthew Trumbo from Northern California. They were in the midst of a 40-day RV trip to New Orleans and back when they dropped by Billy Bob’s.
The couple had purchased the RV three years earlier and retired a year and a half before embarking on the first of a half-dozen trips in the ensuing years around all the states with the exception of Hawaii (since they can’t drive their RV over there). They were impressed with Billy Bob’s.
“It’s one of the highlights of the trip,” said Karen.
The city’s free spirit and western flavor is also captured at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.
The 33,000-square-foot facility honors 238 women who are part of the history of the West. The honorees include singer/actress Dale Evans, stuntwoman Alice Van Springsteen and eight-time world champion cowgirl Tad Lucas. Also in the hall is Narcissa Prentiss, the first pioneer woman to cross the Rocky Mountains. Among the other inductees are Native American guide Sacagawea and famed sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is even here as she is quite a horseback riding enthusiast herself.
Indeed, we witnessed the richness of the history and culture of cowgirls from their colorful clothing to their amazing skills during a visit in March 2023. A large section of one corner is devoted to Annie Oakley and her popularity while performing during the Buffalo Bill traveling wild west shows.
Carol, a concierge working at the front desk and gift shop on this day, said more women than men visit the museum, but she said the men are equally impressed with what’s on display.
“You see what the women really did in the West,” she told 60 Days USA. “They helped shape the West.”
Before we leave Fort Worth, we want to mention a cultural note.
The city is home to the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Van Cliburn, a Texan who won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition at age 23 in 1958, lived in Fort Worth in his later years and organized the event. The contest is held at Bass Performance Hall every four years with contestants ranging from 18 to 30 years of age.
It began in 1962. The 2021 competition was postponed to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was held from June 2-18. The junior piano competition will be held in June 2023.
It’s time to head north so we jump onto Interstate 35W out of Fort Worth.
About 45 minutes later, we’re passing through Denton, a community of 147,000.
Denton has a typical Texas town history. Originally, it was an agricultural trade center with some light farm-related manufacturing industry serviced by the newly arrived railroads.
It’s also a city that benefitted in the mid-1900s from the opening of Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport as well as the construction of freeways like Interstate 35W.
Denton’s economy has also been aided by the state’s oil and natural gas industries.
However, in November 2014, the citizens of Denton broke the mold. They approved a ballot measure to ban hydraulic fracturing at the 277 gas wells that dotted their landscape.
Dozens of communities across the United States have prohibited or tried to prohibit fracking.
But not in Texas.
By its vote, Denton became the first city in the Lone Star State to ban the fracturing of shale to obtain natural gas.
Texas has had more than 50,000 fracking wells drilled since 2005, so the Denton vote really went against the grain. State leaders reacted quickly, passing a law in 2015 that prohibited cities from regulating the oil and natural gas industry.
Denton officials complied and repealed the fracking ban.
The saga in Denton was captured in a 2017 documentary on YouTube called “Don’t Frack With Denton.”
Since then, the natural gas industry in the Denton region has faded. Most of the fracking action is over in the Permian Basin we visited three days ago. Denton, in fact, hasn’t issued a permit for a new gas well since 2014.
This mid-sized town has had a number of homegrown celebrities.
One of them was Phyllis George, the 1971 Miss America and first lady of Kentucky from 1979 to 1983. She was born in Denton in 1949.
Sylvester Stewart was born in Denton in 1944. If you don’t recognize the name, you might remember the band he founded – Sly and the Family Stone.
Finally, the musical group “Bowling for Soup” is from Wichita Falls, Texas, but the members are now based in Denton.
Interstates 35W and 35E merge at Denton to become simply Interstate 35. A half-hour up that freeway and we’re within 7 miles of the Oklahoma border.
We make note of Gainesville as we glide along the final stretches of Texas. This town of 17,000 residents in a region known as Texoma actually played a historic role in the development of the ranching industry in the western United States.
The community was settled in 1841 by pioneers who received from 320 acres of land for an individual to 640 acres for a family by swearing allegiance to the Republic of Texas. The settlers also agreed to build a dwelling on their property, cultivate crops and fence in at least 10 acres during the first three years of their occupation.
The town grew as a supply post for cowboys who were driving cattle to Kansas along the Chisholm and Shawnee trails.
In 1862, the city was the site of The Great Hanging where 40 people suspected of being loyalists to Union forces during the Civil War were lynched. There’s a memorial in town at the spot where the killings took place.
In the 1870s, the local economy blossomed as railroads arrived and cotton farms sprung up.
However, it was in 1875 when Gainesville gained its place in western lore.
That’s when Henry Sanborn, a salesman from the Joseph Glidden Bar Fence Company in Illinois, arrived. Sanborn was selling this new invention called barbed wire. He convinced two stores to buy 10 reels of this new type of fencing. It was the first barbed wire sale in Texas.
Barbed wire changed ranching. With it, cattle could be cheaply and easily fenced in while ranch owners effectively sealed off their property. It allowed ranchers to increase the size of their herd since fewer cattle wandered off or became victim to predators or cattle rustlers. The new fencing also permitted ranchers to control what their animals ate since they were no longer roaming the countryside.
The idea caught on quickly. By 1876, the Glidden company was manufacturing 3 million pounds of barbed wire per year.
The fencing ended what was known as the free range movement where everybody’s livestock sauntered over everybody’s land.
Historians point out the new product hurt smaller landowners as well as Native Americans who were now limited on where their animals could graze. However, without barbed wire, it’s unlikely the ranching industry would have grown like it did in the wide open spaces of the Wild West.
There’s even a barbed wire museum in La Crosse, Kansas, as well as a Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas, to commemorate this simple invention.
Barbed wire fencing is pretty much used today as it was 150 years ago, but Gainesville never became a center for the industry.
The main employer in town today is Safran Seats USA, a manufacturer of airline seats that employs 1,300 people at its Gainesville factory.
Gainesville is also the nation’s only Medal of Honor Host City. The town usually holds an annual four-day event in April in which it invites Medal of Honor recipients from across the country to attend.
They’ve averaged 17 recipients per year at their ceremonies. Since 2001, the city has hosted 56 Medal of Honor winners. This event and the city’s historic downtown prompted Rand McNally to name Gainesville as the “most patriotic small town in America” in 2012.
In April 2022, the city and North Central Texas College held a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Medal of Honor Host City Museum.
It only takes a few more minutes on Interstate 35 to cross the border into Oklahoma, the sixth state on our trip.
Oklahoma has had a varied and interesting history.
The first European visitors were Spanish explorers in 1541. French explorers claimed the region in the 1700s. Kiowa, Apache and Comanche tribes also moved into the territory.
The United States took over with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The region was part of the Arkansas Territory from 1819 to 1828 before eventually becoming the Oklahoma Territory.
During the 1800s, thousands of Native Americans from 30 tribes began arriving in the region after being driven from their land elsewhere. The region quickly became known as “Indian Territory.”
Cattle drives and railroads helped spur the economy in the second half of the 1800s.
Things changed quickly in the 1880s thanks to some programs that made land in Indian Territory cheap and easy to obtain for white settlers.
First, the Dawes Act of 1887 divided tribal lands into family-sized allotments allowing Native Americans to farm. More importantly, it permitted the federal government and the railroads to buy up property.
There were also a number of land rushes where settlers could grab a piece of property by crossing the Oklahoma border and registering as soon as an application period began. Some of the pioneers actually cheated a bit and raced into the state before the starting gun sounded. They were said to have come in “sooner,” which led to the nickname of the Sooner State.
The biggest of these rushes was the Land Run of 1889, where 1.9 million acres was made available by President Benjamin Harrison. More than 50,000 people rushed into Oklahoma at noon on the designated day of April 22. Towns such as Norman and Guthrie appeared almost overnight.
Despite all the new residents, it wasn’t until 1907 that Oklahoma lost its territory status, becoming the nation’s 46th state.
In the early 1900s, an influx of Black settlers arrived after leaving their homes in the South. Social tensions escalated as urbanization brought conflict in some towns. Jealously also rose as some whites realized that African-Americans were doing quite well in some of the state’s All Black towns.
The Ku Klux Klan saw an opening and took advantage. They invaded Oklahoma during the 1920s. By 1921, there were an estimated 2,500 Klan members in Oklahoma City and another 2,000 in Tulsa. However, resistance to the Klan grew and by 1928 the organization had pretty much disappeared from the state.
About the same time, some poor farming practices were in place that would lead to the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. That calamity wasn’t just in Oklahoma. Western Kansas and parts of Colorado and Nebraska also were blown dry.
In his 2005 book “The Worst Hard Time,” Timothy Egan explained in detail how this happened.
For decades, the grasslands in this area of the Midwest were used for cattle grazing. However, in the 1920s, farmers dug up that grazing land to plant wheat to take advantage of rising prices for that crop around the world.
Things went well for about a decade until wheat prices declined and a severe drought scorched the middle of the country. Without native grasses to grab hold of the soil, the dry ground was simply whisked away by any strong wind that came through.
Clouds of dust called “black blizzards” rose into the sky. One dust storm in April 1935 scattered an estimated 300,000 tons of Great Plains top soil into the atmosphere. That was more dirt that was removed to build the Panama Canal.
Those floating particles of dirt gave people nasty illnesses such as “dust pneumonia” and “brown plague.”
During the Dust Bowl era from 1930 to 1939, 100 million acres were decimated and 2.5 million people left the midsection of the nation for literally greener pastures. About 440,000 of those refugees were from Oklahoma.
The Sooner State did eventually recover.
Irrigation and new dams helped store and more efficiently use water. Farming methods were altered to avoid a repeat of the slash and burn tactics of the 1920s.
Today, Oklahoma actually has a relatively healthy agriculture economy. It’s third in wheat production as well as having the fifth largest cattle industry among states.
It also is fifth in natural gas production and is ranked third in wind energy production, behind only Texas and Iowa.
An industry that Oklahoma is now number one is somewhat surprising. It’s medical marijuana.
Right now, the Sooner State allows marijuana to be grown, sold and used for medicinal purposes, a law that was approved by voters in 2018.
Oklahoma is now the biggest medical marijuana market in the country on a per capita basis.
In 2021, the medical cannabis industry in Oklahoma brought in $150 million in state and local taxes. That compares with the $30 million generated in 2019.
The industry grew so quickly in its first few years that the state implemented a program to slow it down. Nonetheless, the state currently has 2,800 licensed dispensaries and 10 percent of the adult population has a medical license to buy and consume cannabis.
Officials say Oklahoma’s unrestrictive laws on medical marijuana have helped the state soar past other jurisdictions in recent years. Unlike other states, there is no limit on the number of business licenses and cities cannot ban medical marijuana businesses within their borders. The licensing fees are also among the lowest in the nation.
The growth of the state’s marijuana industry has led to the nickname “Tokelahoma” with a number of businesses using that moniker.
However, Oklahomans don’t appear to want to take this any further. In March 2023, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have made recreational marijuana legal in the state.
Despite all its expanding industries, Oklahoma remains a somewhat sparsely populated state.
It’s the 20th largest in size but 28th in population with slightly more than 4 million people. That’s about the size of Los Angeles.
Among the residents are the citizens of 39 Native tribes that are headquartered in the state.
There is an average of 58 people per square mile in Oklahoma, tying it with Arkansas and Iowa for 36th on the list of state population density.
In fact, more than half of Oklahoma residents live in either the Oklahoma City or the Tulsa metropolitan areas.
You can see this open land as we zip along the high flatlands of southern Oklahoma.
Five miles over the border, we hit Thackerville.
The town was founded in the 1880s by Zacariah Thacker when he set up a camp near an Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad depot.
Thacker worked in cooperation with Chickasaw Nation members to plant and harvest corn. He eventually built a corn mill, which helped lure more settlers.
Thackerville never became a large community. It has less than 400 residents today. Its median annual household income is $44,000 a year and you can buy a house for about $220,000.
Despite these modest demographics, Thackerville is home to the largest casino on Earth.
The WinStar World Casino and Resort contains 400,000 square feet of gaming floor divided up into nine city-themed plazas.
There are 10,000 electronic games as well as 100 gambling tables and a 55-table poker room. A steakhouse and a 500-seat buffet restaurant are also inside.
The three-tower complex has 1,400 hotel rooms and a 65,000-square-foot convention center complimented by two golf courses and a spa.
The casino began in 1991 as an Indian bingo hall before undergoing major expansions in 2003, 2006, 2007, 2013 and 2015.
It is owned and operated by the Chickasaw Nation, which oversees 30 gaming resorts in Oklahoma as well as 100 other businesses in 38 states. Overall, Oklahoma’s 33 tribes operate 143 casinos across 50 counties.
Tribal gaming is big business in the United States.
The National Indian Gaming Association oversees the operations. Each one has a contract with its state. They fall under the auspices of the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
In August 2022, the association reported that the tribal casino industry took in a record $39 billion revenue nationwide during fiscal year 2021, despite COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. More than $6 billion was recorded in Oklahoma and Kansas.
The National Bureau of Economic Research reports that these casinos provide jobs for rural Native Americans as well as raise the standard of living in tribal communities.
There are detractors, however.
Critics say the gaming resorts lead to more crime and bankruptcies. They also note that most casino employees are not Native Americans. They are also concerned that the gambling institutions are destroying tribal culture. In addition, there have been cases where Native American tribes have been defrauded by bureaucrats, business owners and others.
Heading north on Interstate 35 out of Thackerville, we are now in the midst of what is known as Tornado Alley.
This unofficial region stretches from central Texas through the middle of Oklahoma and up into Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota.
Scientists say this swath of territory is prone to tornadoes because it commonly creates conditions where a warm, humid layer of air sits near the ground with colder air in the upper atmosphere combined with a strong southerly wind.
In May 2020, however, some meteorological experts noted that they believe the Southern region of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee known as Dixie Alley is actually more vulnerable to tornadoes than the Midwest.
Their theory was certainly given credence in March 2021 when at least 23 tornadoes ripped through the South and killed at least 6 people.
The phenomenon of tornadoes as well as the geographical and meteorological features that make them prominent in Tornado Alley and Dixie Alley are detailed in an episode of the 2022 Netflix series, “Earthstorm.”
Texas still reports the most tornadoes among states with an average of 155 per year. Kansas and Oklahoma have the most tornadoes per square mile.
In 2019, Oklahoma set a state record with 146 tornadoes in one year. There were only 39 reported in 2020. There were 63 recorded in 2021.
So, it seems appropriate that our next stop is Wynnewood, a community of 1,800 an hour north of Thackerville.
It was founded in 1886 along a proposed route for the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway. Its early economy was based on agriculture with pecans, peaches, corn, wheat and cotton being the main commodities.
The discovery of oil in the early 1900s changed that dynamic. In 1922, the Texas Pacific Coast Oil Company built a refinery here, one that is still operating under the auspices of CVR Refining.
The town was also once home to the Eskridge Hotel, a 30-room inn built in 1907 by a traveling cotton salesman to serve railroad passengers traveling between Dallas and Oklahoma City. The lodge was declared the finest hotel in what is now the I-35 corridor. It became famous for comfortable beds and chicken dinners. It closed in 1970 and the building is now a local history museum.
However, what Wynnewood is best known for is tornadoes.
The community averages about three twisters per year. It’s estimated the town has been hit by 175 tornadoes since 1950. The largest tornado to ever hit Wynnewood was a category F4 in 1972 that killed five people. The last big one was in 2016.
Wynnewood has also been the setting for a storm of controversy that past couple years. The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park is here. That’s the zoo featured in the 2020 Netflix document “Tiger King.”
The park was once owned by Joseph Maldonado-Passage, who went by the moniker of “Joe Exotic.” The wild animal complex is now closed to the public after the U.S. Department of Agriculture did not renew its license after it expired in August 2020. In late May 2021, federal authorities removed the last of the 68 big cats that were housed at the park.
With all this talk about extreme weather, it also seems natural that our next stop would be Norman, a city of 133,000 an hour north of Wynnewood on Interstate 35.
Norman is the third most populous city in Oklahoma. It’s also home to the University of Oklahoma.
More importantly to this morning’s topic, the National Weather Service has a regional office in Norman.
The town is also the site of the National Weather Museum and Science Center. The facility opened in 2016 and has been adding to its collection every year since then.
Inside are weather-related artifacts, including the first Doppler weather console, weather measurement technology and cars damaged by tornadoes. Its purpose is to tell the history of meteorology as well as be a learning center for weather and science.
The area around Norman was originally one of the places in the 1830s where the U.S. government sent members of the Five Civilized Tribes, a term used by European settlers to describe the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole. These were tribes thought to be “civilized” because they had adopted some European customs and generally had peaceful relationships with white settlers.
Nonetheless, the five tribes were relocated from their communities east of the Mississippi River to places farther west under the Indian Removal Act signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830.
The relocation was part of the “Trail of Tears” campaign in which more than 60,000 Native Americans were uprooted from their ancestral homes in the eastern and southern United States and moved to designated territories in places such as Oklahoma.
The tribes were promised they could live on their new land indefinitely if they left their original communities voluntarily rather than being led away at gunpoint. That promise wasn’t kept as railroads, oil, gold, silver and other things encroached on the Native Americans’ new homes.
That was the case in Norman, which began to slowly grow after the Southern Kansas Railway laid down tracks in 1887.
Then, the Land Run of 1889 happened, making property in the Indian Territory more enticing to white settlers.
On April 22, about 150 pioneers camped overnight near Norman, eyeing this site along the new railroad tracks. At noon, they swooped in and grabbed land. Construction of a downtown started the next day. The University of Oklahoma was founded the following year.
For the first half of the 1900s, Norman was known as a “sundown town.” These were communities where African-Americans weren’t allowed to live or stay overnight.
In these towns, it was OK if Blacks came during the day to shop or visit, but they were expected to leave when the sun dipped below the horizon. Historians estimate there were 10,000 “sundown towns” in the United States between 1890 and 1960. They were mostly in the Midwest and West.
The “sundown” rules were initiated in many communities after The Great Migration, which began in 1916 and eventually resulted in 6 million Black Americans leaving their homes in the rural South and moving to other parts of the country. We examine this historical event more in depth in a Spotlight story on the 60 Days USA site.
In some towns, the rule was posted on signs that bluntly stated “Whites Only After Dark” and “(N word) Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You.” The town of Edmond, Oklahoma, actually had postcards printed in the 1940s with the slogan, “A Good Place to Live… No Negroes.”
A lot of these communities were along Route 66, which made traveling that popular highway difficult for people of color.
Blacks who didn’t obey the sundown rules were harassed, beaten and sometimes killed. Black motorists who drove through town in the evenings were often followed by police cars until they left the city limits.
Towns also adopted discriminatory housing laws and boycotted any businesses that served Black customers. Although Blacks were the primary target of these restrictions, some communities used the rules to discriminate against Jews, Asian Americans and Native Americans.
The “sundown law” was in effect in Norman until the 1960s.
The construction of Interstate 35 allowed Norman to become a bedroom community of Oklahoma City. The 20,000-student university remains the city’s largest employer with more than 12,000 workers.
Norman made national news a decade ago when chromium-6 was discovered in the city’s drinking water. This is the same chemical we discussed on Day 1 in Hinkley, California, the town that made Erin Brockovich famous.
A 2010 environmental report stated that 31 of 35 U.S. cities had the chemical in their tap water. It listed Norman, Honolulu and Riverside, California, as the places with the highest concentrations.
Norman city officials formed a task force to study the problem in 2011.
In 2016, concerns were raised once more and a pilot study was launched. In 2019, the drinking water was again declared safe, although chemical traces were still being detected.
Norman has a number of well-known hometown residents.
Actor James Garner, best known for his television roles in “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files” was born in Norman. There’s a 10-foot statue of Garner as Ben Maverick downtown.
Hoda Kotb, one of the hosts on NBC’s “Today” show, was also born in Norman.
Remembering With Resolve
It takes less than a half-hour on Interstate 35 out of Norman to reach Oklahoma City.
The metropolis is smack in the middle of the Sooner State.
It’s by far the most populated city with more than 700,000 residents. Oklahoma City is also the nation’s 22nd most populous city, just behind Nashville and ahead of Boston. At 607 square miles it’s the fourth largest city by area in the continental United States.
This region was once home to the Creek and Seminole tribes.
In fall 2021, Oklahoma City became home to a monument to these initial occupants of what is now Oklahoma.
The First Americans Museum looks at U.S. history “through the lens and collective stories of the 39 distinct tribal nations in Oklahoma today” in both “traffic and triumphant” stories.
In fact, the word “Oklahoma” comes from two Choctaw words, “Okla” and “Homma,” that mean “Red People.”
During a visit to this impressive, colorful museum in March 2023, we saw the detailed displays of Native American history from the first settlers 20,000 years ago to the forced relocation in the 1800s to the status of tribal nations today. There’s also a section that shows some of the stereotyped products and literature about Native Americans over the decades.
The museum also highlights tribal culture, including art and music as well as some of the professional sports stars with Native American roots.
Brittany McKane and Avery Underwood were working the front desk on this particular day. They said the museum teaches visitors about tribal history as well as helps instill pride in Native Americans who walk through the halls.
“It’s about us being able to tell our story in our way,” said McKane, who is Muscogee and Seminole.
Underwood, who is Seminole and Comanche, said he also finds the displays of art to be “really powerful.”
Life changed for these native tribes as white settlers began to move in. The wheels of change began to accelerate when the railroad rumbled through this region in 1887.
Two years later, Oklahoma City, like Norman, changed almost overnight due to the Land Run of 1889. On April 22, more than 4,000 pioneers rushed into the region, gobbling up parcels of land.
The stampede is commemorated by the Oklahoma City Land Run Monument just south of downtown. The monument consists of 45 bronze statues depicting land rush pioneers that stretch out over 100 yards with a canal running through the middle.
It sits between Interstate 40 and a small shopping center, dominating the grassy area set aside for it.
Oklahoma City’s early economy was based on agriculture, mostly wheat, cotton and cattle. A corn mill, cotton gin and grain elevator were built in the late 1800s.
The city’s population doubled to 10,000 between 1890 and 1900. It replaced Guthrie as the state capital shortly after Oklahoma was admitted to the Union in 1907.
Oil was discovered in 1928 and that industry has been one of the dominant factors in the local economy ever since.
The city sits on an active oil field and oil derricks still dot the outskirts of the metropolis. The state Capitol, in fact, had a working oil well underneath it called “Petunia Number One” that produced 1.5 million barrels of oil between 1941 and 1984.
The city also has retained a strong cattle industry. It still has one of the largest livestock markets in the world. The Oklahoma National Stockyards opened in 1910 and the cattle pens there still fill up for auction every Monday and Tuesday. It’s listed as the world’s largest stocker and feeder cattle market.
OKC, as it’s called, also benefitted from the establishment of Tinker Air Force Base in 1941. The facility still has 26,000 military and civilian employees. It’s the largest military air depot in the nation.
The city enhanced its status as a distribution center when Interstates 35, 40 and 44 were built in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1971, Oklahoma City became the first city with a population of more than 350,000 to elect a woman as mayor when Patience Latting took office.
However, the city’s most prominent notoriety came on April 19, 1995.
That’s when an explosives-packed rental truck detonated outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building just north of the city’s downtown core.
The blast killed 168 people, including 19 children in a day care center. The federal complex was destroyed and 300 nearby buildings were damaged.
Timothy McVeigh, an anti-government militant, was charged two days later for the terrorist attack. He chose the April 19 date to mark the two-year anniversary of the Branch-Davidian complex fire in Waco, Texas. He selected the Murrah building because it housed a number of federal agencies. McVeigh was executed at a prison in Indiana in 2001.
His co-conspirator, Timothy Nichols, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Another co-conspirator, Michael Fortier, was sentenced to 12 years in prison as part of a plea deal. He was released in 2006.
The Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum was built on the decimated federal site. The memorial plaza, which is situated in the urban city block where the federal building stood, was dedicated in 2001.
There are two entrances to the complex. The first Gates of Time has a permanent 9:01 a.m. clock to mark the minute before the explosion. The second gate has a permanent 9:03 a.m. clock to mark the minute after the 9:02 a.m. explosion, “the moment healing began.”
There is also a reflecting pool and a field with 168 empty chairs arranged in nine rows to mark the nine floors of the Murrah building where people died. There are 19 smaller chairs representing the children killed.
There’s also a Survivors Wall with the inscribed names of 600 people who survived the attack.
A Survivor Tree, a stately elm that survived the blast, has a Rescuers Orchard around it.
A Memorial Fence is also present as is a Children’s Area for youngsters to leave thoughts.
The Memorial Museum highlights the history of the bombing as well as its aftermath.
Hailey Franks, a National Park Service ranger, was on duty when we visited in March 2023. She said the memorial is designed to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those who were forever changed.
“It’s important for the community,” she told 60 Days USA. “It’s also a part of Oklahoma and national history.”
From the memorial, we drive a short distance to the downtown core, an area the city has been working to improve for three decades now.
In 1993, the city approved the $350 million Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) to revitalize the downtown region. Among the projects are a center library, a baseball park and a water canal. The program was funded by a limited, one-cent sales tax. The original project proved to be so popular that voters approved similar MAPS programs for schools and redevelopment in 2001, 2008, 2009 and 2019.
In 2009, a $2 billion “Core to Shore” public-private partnership was implemented. The project moved Interstate 40 one mile south so a boulevard could be constructed to provide a landscaped entrance to the city. The plan also called for the construction of shops, hotels, residential units and a convention center.
Part of the downtown area includes the Bricktown district, an urban renewal area where old brick warehouses were converted into shops, restaurants and other businesses. This redevelopment was one of the 1993 MAPS projects.
As we walk through these streets, we should note a little bit of trivia. Oklahoma City was the first city in the country to have a working parking meter. Park-O-Meter No. 1 was installed at the southeast corner of First Street and Robinson Avenue in July 1935. By the end of that month, 175 meters were operating along 14 blocks downtown. They cost a nickel for an hour.
The idea of parking meters was opposed by some who viewed them as a tax on cars. However, local merchants loved them because they created a quick turnover of parked cars, allowing more customers to venture into the downtown area.
The idea spread quickly. By the early 1940s, there were 140,000 parking meters operating in the United States. That first meter is now on display at the Statehood Gallery in Oklahoma City.
The district also is home to the American Banjo Museum. The 21,000-square-facility is designed to capture the history as well as the spirit of the banjo. Inside are a collection of 400 instruments as well as films, videos, printed music sheets and memorabilia.
Among the instruments are banjos played by African slaves, classical banjos from the late 1800s, the popular banjos from the instruments heydeys in the 1920s jazz and vaudeville eras and post-World War Two instruments strummed in bluegrass and folk songs.
There’s, of course, an exhibit dedicated to banjo-loving comedian Steve Martin, who visited the facility in 2019 and donated one of his banjos. Other banjo players such as Roy Clark and Pete Seeger are also featured.
Margie Smith-Robbins, the museum’s assistant administrator, told 60 Days USA during our March 2023 visit that the facility plays an important role because “the history of the banjo would be lost without us.”
She said most visitors are people who don’t play the banjo. Many see the museum as they walk by or notice it on a map or social media post. She said most are intrigued by the role the banjo has played.
“They’re surprised about the evolution of the instrument,” Smith-Robbins said.
Finally, we have to mention the Mickey Mantle Steakhouse near the Mickey Mantle statue on Mickey Mantle Drive.
Mantle was born in the small town of Spavinaw, Oklahoma, in 1931. However, the Hall of Fame baseball star who played 18 seasons for the New York Yankees was well known for his Oklahoma roots, hence the honors here.
The downtown area also has streets named after native sons Johnny Bench, a Hall of Fame catcher for the Cincinnati Reds, and Joe Carter, an outfielder who played the bulk of his career with the Toronto Blue Jays.
We park our virtual vehicle here to end Day 9. Tomorrow, another swath of Oklahoma awaits us.
We’ll pass through a town that was an inspiration for the Pixar movie, “Cars,” as well as visit a town known for its “pioneer woman” and a region humorist Will Rogers called home that was also the setting for the musical, “Oklahoma.”