I worked this past weekend. In my current role, my rotating weekends start at 6:00 AM and last until 3:00 PM. That schedule typically discourages me from travel, but there was an event in Oklahoma on Saturday that I couldn’t miss. A couple of my friends were gathering in the Sooner State’s capital city to say goodbye to the Charcoal Oven, a vintage roadside burger joint with a magnificent neon sign. A week ago, they announced they were closing their doors for good; ever since, I’d wanted to go down and take some pictures. This was the perfect opportunity. I hemmed and hawed about going, as I was already a little tired, but I finally decided to drive to The City on Saturday afternoon.
Of course, a trip to the center of the state wouldn’t be complete without a few extra stops while I was there. I arrived with plenty of time to take in a few sights I’d marked on my map. My first stop was in the Film Row District downtown. Today it’s a trendy district of brick buildings and artistic businesses, but the name comes from the area’s historic role of being a distribution point for many Hollywood studios. As such, there’s a new mural on one of the buildings featuring Charlie Christian, Joan Crawford, and Woody Guthrie.
It’s a beautiful rendering, but unfortunately the artist that painted it didn’t obtain the proper permits before proceeding; an old Paramount ghost sign was painted over in the process! The future of the mural is up in jeopardy so I figured I’d better capture it while the capturing’s good. It also reminded me that one of my favorite podcasts, You Must Remember This, is doing a summer series on Joan Crawford. I gotta check that out soon.
Afterwards, I headed south of the Oklahoma River to see the new Ferris Wheel. The wheel originally spun at the end of the Santa Monica Pier in California, famously the modern terminus for Route 66. When they upgraded their wheel, the old one was purchased, moved, and refurbished to provide amusement to citizens in the middle of the Mother Road’s footprint. It sits in the newly-christened Wheeler District at the edge of an old airfield runway. The city plans to build a new neighborhood and commercial district around the wheel, though today the area is pretty barren aside from the wheel and surrounding park. Many families were out and enjoying of the space, taking photos with the oversized OKC letters, and playing a few of the lawn games scattered about the park. I didn’t ride the wheel this time (don’t know why, I just wasn’t motivated enough to give it a spin) but it was really nice to see the area coming together — and I’m sure the view of downtown from the top is spectacular!
I had time to make another stop before heading to the Charcoal Oven. Still on the south side of the river, an old rail yard is home to an abandoned antique of the railway industry. An old Frisco turntable sits in the weeds, cordoned off by a small barbed wire fence. Back in the day, these rotating sections of track were used to turn locomotives around in a limited space. I have no idea how long this has been out of use, but it’s been a while. The track is all rusted, the wood is rotten, and I’m sure it would be completely overgrown if the gravel lot it sits in wasn’t still used to some degree. In fact, there’s no evidence of tracks leading to or from the turntable anymore. You could easily see downtown from the rail yard, but the surrounding area was totally quiet. Very happy I found out about this place while it’s still here!
Finally, as the sun began to set, I headed to the Charcoal Oven. When I was half a mile away, I could already smell the charred burgers cooking. Opened in 1958, this roadside eatery claims to be a local pioneer in offering drive-through service and the first in town to offer patio seating. The magnificent neon sign features a chef and stands 52 feet high next to the Northwest Expressway, beckoning travelers to stop for a bite. The drive-through itself is interesting, as it doesn’t wrap around the building. Instead, the building is on the back of the lot and the vehicular lane instead surrounds a well-kept lawn and aforementioned patio. Once through the line, there’s adequate parking under car-hop style awning, also decked out in neon. It’s a beautiful place, and though I can appreciate the owners wanting to retire it sucks that this place will be torn down in a month to make way for a tire shop.
When I arrived, my friend Fred from Topeka was already there taking pictures. By the time I parked and ate my delicious dinner, my buddy Nick from Amarillo showed up and brought several more friends with him. When the neon tubes started buzzing to life, there were nearly a dozen of us wandering the grounds, taking photos and sharing our passion for roadside signage. One lady even came up from Houston, visiting Oklahoma for the first time! It was a wonderful gathering and I took a moment to just stand there and appreciate my time and place. I was among friends, celebrating and mourning the passing of a location that most of us had no long-standing ties to — it was just the principle of the matter. I’d never even actually eaten there before that evening. I smiled and waved as car after car came through to pay their respects, with the drive-through line sometimes backing up into the main road. A few of them stopped to chat a moment with us about their memories of the place in their youth.
I waved farewell before the sky was completely dark, very aware that I had a two hour drive ahead of me before another long, early workday. The drive back was no struggle, though, as I relived the evening over and over again in my mind as I chased those turnpike stripes back home. I’m so glad I went.
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