Since I started traveling around Oklahoma with my camera, there have been a few things I’ve seen that have stopped me in my tracks and filled me with a child-like sense of wonder. The abandoned high school in Skedee, the old Bird Creek bridge in Avant, and the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School immediately come to mind. There’s one thing that stands out to me above all others in this regard, though, and it sits on old Route 66 outside of Stroud.
Just east of town sits a small collection of metal memorabilia, including a cactus, a Martian, a pair of cows, and the jewel of the set: a child-sized locomotive called the Lincoln County Express. The first time I saw the little rusted relic off to the side of the highway, Samantha and I were returning from an all-day trip on Route 66. I’d been driving all day, from Sayre on the western state border heading back home to Tulsa. Since I had been on the stretch of road between OKC and Tulsa before, I was somewhat on auto-pilot. I had missed the train previously, as it’s hidden by trees when driving westbound…so when I saw it out of the corner of my eye, I was shocked. I slammed on the brakes as if a child had run out into the road. My surprise was exceeded only by my giddiness as I turned around & pulled over to the side of the road.
I hopped out of the car and dashed over to the little train, breathless with excitement. It was originally painted green, though there’s a significant patina now. It sat on a little facsimile bit of railroad track and was surrounded by tall grass and trees. I must have spent half an hour snapping photos and admiring the collection. I thought for sure someone was going to appear from the bushes at any moment and tell me to scram, perhaps trying to confiscate my camera in the process. It felt like I’d stumbled across a secret that was closely guarded and fiercely protected…but there were no fences, or signs telling me I was trespassing. The surrounding countryside was quiet aside from the occasional car that sped by, no doubt wondering what the heck I was doing. This was in June of last year, and the foliage nearby threatened to overtake the area. I’ve stopped a few more times over the last few months to observe it in the winter. For me, the little train represented the whole of Route 66 and the state of the historic highway. It was a reminder of a bygone era, when a trip was as much about the journey as the destination. If one takes the time to truly look around, you will find something amazing.
Last month, I shared one of my photos on Facebook. A few days later, I received a message from the daughter of the man that built it; someone had shared my photo on their wall, who then shared it with her. A few days after that, we had a lovely phone conversation and I learned more about the train’s history. Paul Hicks was born in 1921 and worked as a pipeline welder in northeast Oklahoma. In the mid-seventies, he used his metal sculpting skills to assemble this wonderful little roadside attraction. People have been stopping at his little expression of pride for decades to take pictures while children play in the field it calls home. Over the years, various groups have shown interest in this Mother Road gem: Volvo came out in the early nineties and took photographs for one of their automobile catalogs, the Children’s Miracle Network inquired about buying it, and Paul himself was even featured on a local PBS broadcast. Sadly, Paul passed away in 2001. Although the collection has fallen into disrepair, it hasn’t halted the flow of travelers showing interest…like myself.
Paul’s family is planning on refurbishing the train this year so that children can once again come by and play on the Lincoln County Express, ensuring that Paul Hicks’ legacy remains intact for years to come. I also plan to meet up with them this spring to meet in person and perhaps pick up a paint brush myself.