Creating a Revival in Medicine Park
Learn more about the revitalization of the “Jewel of the Southwest.”
Bath Lake in Medicine Park, Okla., is one of the many attractions bringing visitors back to the tourist spot once known as the “Jewel of the Southwest.” Photo by Joshua Rouse
The once popular tourist destination is now seeing a revival through music and visual arts.
The town's Art Walk is one of eight art shows annually.
Mainly featuring musicians and bands from Oklahoma and North Texas, the Blues Ball now presents 12 to 15 acts during the three-day event.
A debate about the importance of visual arts has prevailed since the first humans were drawing pictures on the walls of their caves. Everyone has their own perception about what is—and isn’t—art, but in Medicine Park, Okla., there are many folks who agree the arts are transforming their town at a key time in its history.
Just a couple decades ago, Medicine Park and its populace had bottomed out. Once known as the “Jewel of the Southwest,” by the 1990s the town in the Wichita Mountains, a 20-minute drive north of Lawton, was marked by a sharp decline in the population and a lack of direction.
A first sign there was a light at the end of the tunnel came when city government and several volunteers began clean-up projects meant to restore the infrastructure and esthetic appeal of the village that was built in 1908. But moving into the 21st century, something was needed to attract tourists and potential residents—and that something turned out to be the visual arts.
“We started the Red Door Gallery with seven artists and now it represents 76,” said Jean Schucker, an artist and Cotton Electric Cooperative member who runs the gallery with her business partner Cynthia Kent.
“There were 13 artists when the Art Walk started, but we partnered with the Flute Festival in 2010 and within two years people were begging us to get in. Now we have to cut off the number of artists at 50. The Art Walk has open-air collections that are juried, no crafts allowed. It is very unique and lots of fun. And it makes money; we made $2,500 last year that was used for internships for students.”
The Art Walk is one of eight art shows annually. Kent, an art collector and 20-year veteran of the Lawton Community Theatre, said about 70 of the artists represented at the Red Door Gallery are Oklahomans.
“About 10 or 12 of them are here in town,” she noted, “and we hope to make Medicine Park a center for the arts. There’s a lot of enthusiasm.”
There’s also diversity in selection around town.
“Kathy’s Caravan is a gallery of treasures, with objects from Africa and around the world,” Schucker said.
Other artwork and craftwork can be found at Mew & Company, Get Cobbled and The Mason Jar. In addition to the galleries, there are 16 pieces from well-known metal sculptor Robert Dean, which can be found on private properties throughout town.
“Medicine Park is a wonderful little town, a very special place,” Kent said, adding that artists find the Wichita Mountains Refuge to be “one of the great sources of painting possibilities in the world.”
The desire to turn Medicine Park into an arts-friendly community gained momentum when former Mayor Dwight Cope took office in 2005. A longtime area teacher and coach, Cope became interested in the concept of using the arts to revive the community, and he’s done so with a series of music events that began when the first Mayor’s Blues Ball was held on a stage downtown.
The idea of using music—free music, at that—as a draw to bring people to Medicine Park caught fire. Since the first Mayor’s Blues Ball, five other music events have emerged—the Park Stomp, the Red Dirt Ball, the Disco Ball, Rockin’ the Park and the Flute Festival.
“I started the Blues Ball because I thought Medicine Park would be a great place for blues music and art shows,” Cope, a Cotton Electric Cooperative member, said. “We had a big flood in 2006 and wanted to raise some money to help pay for the damages.
“The first Blues Ball was on Labor Day weekend and I called in a favor to get musicians to help get it started. It was a one-day event; it expanded to two days the next year, and then evolved into a three-day event. We don’t charge admission, but I was able to get a grant for $2,500 from the Oklahoma Arts Council. Then I got another grant for the Red Dirt Ball, and the other music events evolved.”
Mainly featuring musicians and bands from Oklahoma and North Texas, the Blues Ball now presents 12 to 15 acts during the three-day event. The recently created Red Dirt Ball is even more ambitious, with over 20 acts—like 2016 headliner James McMurtrey—performing during the three-day festival.
“The objective was to get Medicine Park back on the map again. By the 1960s and ’70s, the town was pretty much off the map, and by the early ’90s, the town had a rough reputation. But people have really gotten behind the music events. We’ve got a lot of great sponsors and the only public money spent is on advertising,” Cope explained.
“It’s hard to say how much money the music events bring in, because it’s free admission. For the Blues Ball, we have 10,000 people over the course of three days. Those people eat, visit the shops, and stay the night.”
Music and arts are reviving the town.
During the years Hennessee served as mayor, from 1999 to 2006, the city and volunteers began putting a new coat of paint on the town. Crumbling infrastructure received a facelift that continues today, and new residents began to trickle in, many of them buying into the notion Medicine Park could rise again.
“People began to realize there were positive things being done for the community,” Hennessee said. “There were some skeptics in the beginning, because the town had been dormant for 30 or 35 years.
“Up until the mid-1990s, economic growth was pretty much a dead issue, but things have been very positive in the last several years. There are a lot more people paying attention and becoming involved.
“Our population is now around 400, and we’re working all the time on adding new things to attract people to town.”
As 2016 arrived, Hennessee was serving as interim mayor for a very proactive city council that includes Buddy Dye, Mark Wicks and two former mayors, Chaz Callich and Dwight Cope, whose idea of starting several music events has helped fuel Medicine Park’s rebirth.
In addition to the city council, two other entities have been instrumental in the revitalization process—the Medicine Park Economic Development Authority and the Medicine Park Planning & Preservation Committee.
“We serve Medicine Park as the beneficiary of the town trust,” said MPEDA Chair Jean Schucker. “We assist with loans to businesses for expansion or improvements, and we assist with bringing new businesses to town.”
Barbara Boguski is chair of the Planning & Preservation Committee, where her background of 25 years in the film and entertainment industry is put to good use.
“The Planning & Preservation Committee does what I call the ‘not-sexy stuff,’” the New Jersey native said. “We help regulate business permits, building permits and construction permits.”
Boguski said the committee accomplishes its tasks “while trying to preserve the integrity of the original town’s ‘aura’ as an arts community.
“Our job is to help maintain the original essence of the town but not hinder it from being viable. We weigh in with committee funds and we work hand-in-hand with other entities.”
Among the attractions that bring folks to town are the Medicine Park Trail, Bath Lake Swimming Hole, Gondola Lake and Dam, Lake Drive, thriving fishing holes and the 16 metal sculptures by Robert Dean that are distributed around town. The area’s history is represented by The Old Plantation, which was built in 1909 as the Medicine Park Hotel, the Veterans Monument and the Sanders House.
Also this year, the area’s history will be enhanced by the opening of the Medicine Park Aquarium and Natural Science Center. Tourists can find lodging at The Plantation Inn, Medicine Creek Lodging and The White Horse Lodge. In addition to cabins and campsites, Hennessee said, “There are also many bed and breakfasts in town and in the area.”