Oklahoma Stories

What’s in a name?

By Charles Sasser September 2017

Some wit remarked that folks were running out of conventional names for cities and towns by the time Oklahoma joined the Union as the 46th state in 1907. Consequently, settlers tagged towns with a lively assortment of tributes to everything from favorite women and amphibians to bugs and cookies. For example, Martha, Maude, and Tussy. Or Bugtussle, Cookieville, and Frogville, the latter due to an amphibious population large enough to consume ducks.

Nearly every Indian tribe that once occupied the Territory has a city named in its honor—Kiowa, Seminole, Cherokee. Oklahoma even has a “New York,” or at least the Cherokee pronunciation of it—Nyuka. And perhaps when the shortage of names grew acute, numbers or even initials sufficed, such as Forty One and IXL.

Picturesque though the names might be, the history behind them is just as colorful and weaves a unique tapestry of a state that developed piecemeal from open prairie and woodlands.

According to myth, Sallisaw was named after soothing words to a milk cow, “Saw, Sally, saw.” The region is loaded with history, mystery and place names like Moonshine Road. Local brothers E.W. and Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd grew up to ride opposite sides of the law. E.W. became county sheriff while “Pretty Boy” turned into a notorious bank robber branded “Public Enemy No. 1.” His death in a shootout with FBI in 1934 attracted more than 10,000 to his funeral in the little cemetery in Akins northeast of Sallisaw.

Stringtown was supposed to have been “Springtown,” but the misspelling stuck. Clyde Barrow of “Bonnie & Clyde” fame, breezed into town one night in 1932 to attend a dance. The notorious fugitive gunned down Atoka County Undersheriff Eugene Moore when Moore attempted to arrest him. A stone monument at the edge of town commemorates the event.

The village of Gene Autry celebrates notoriety of a different sort. In 1939, singing cowboy movie star Gene Autry, who grew up in Oklahoma, purchased the famous Flying A Ranch west of Berwyn, the town’s name at the time. Berwyn honored the star by renaming itself. 

The Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum that occupies the old school building houses the world’s largest collection of Singing Cowboy memorabilia. Those represented include Rex Allen, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Tex Ritter, and Tom Mix.

“Here, we’re all about their stories,” explains Leslei Fisher, executive director of the museum.

Fisher’s great-aunt was Annie Oakley. Her grandfather sat on Buffalo Bill’s knee to listen to his tales.

Mix has his own museum in Dewey located across the street from the Dewey Hotel Museum, one of the first examples of Victorian architecture in Indian Territory. Built in 1899, the hotel-museum features pre-statehood Oklahoma, including a “Cowboy Poker Room” with an entryway shaped like a coffin.

The old hotel, says docent Joe Sears, is haunted by the ghost of a mysterious lady in a red dress. A number of people claim to have encountered her, most recently when her eerie peal of laughter startled a lone visitor outside the coffin-shaped door.

When it comes to spooks, nearby Miami claims “Spook Light Road,” a 4-mile stretch of isolation also known as “The Devil’s Promenade.” Locals in 1886 first noticed the eerie ball of light bounding through the terrain, scaring cattle and making dogs bark. According to legend, the wife of an elderly Indian decapitated him during a family squabble and hid his head, which he has been looking for ever since.

Nicole Mangold of Miami’s Visitors Center staked out the road and witnessed it personally. “It was like a dancing street lamp, and then it vanished.”

It remains one of America’s greatest unsolved mysteries.

Rhonda McMinn and Guy Carnes operate the Coleman Theater in Miami. The oldest continuously operating theater in Oklahoma, it opened for vaudeville in 1929. Will Rogers, fan dancer Sally Rand, the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby are among the stars who have performed in the palatial 1100-seat auditorium.

Today, the theater produces a variety of entertainment ranging from classic and silent movies to live acts of vaudeville, ballet and opera, jazz and dance bands, and others.

At the other end of the state’s cultural entertainment lies Beaver, the “Cow Chip Throwing Capital of The World,” where contestants hurl dried cow dung for the annual championship. Drew Russelly holds the current record with a toss of 188 feet 6 inches.

The historical military site of Fort Gibson near the present-day city of the same name lay further west than any other post in the U.S. when it was built in 1824, part of the north-south chain of forts that maintained peace on the American frontier. Famous people stationed at or visiting the fort included Robert E. Lee, Zachary Taylor, Jefferson Davis, and Sam Houston.

Each town or city in Oklahoma, of traditional name or otherwise, boasts its own singularity.

Tahlequah became the capital of the Cherokee Nation in 1939; Vinita was the state’s first town to receive electricity; the J.M. Davis Museum in Claremore, home of Will Rogers, displays the world’s largest privately owned gun collection; world-famous ballerinas Maria and Marjorie Tallchief claimed Fairfax, named after a hotel in Washington D.C., as home.

Foyil has the world’s largest concrete totem pole, Goodwill its two-headed calf, Boise City a life-sized metal dinosaur. Medicine Park is famous for its cobblestone architecture; PETA offered Slaughterville $20,000 if it would change its objectionable name to Veggieville; and Slapout, so the story goes, earned its name from a local store owner who was often “slap out” of goodies.

And southeastern Oklahoma reports more sightings of the legendary creature Bigfoot than any other place in the nation.  

Category: Oklahoma Stories

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