“We’re going on a secret road trip Saturday,” I told Samantha on Wednesday. She asked for a hint; I told her there was a hint in the front yard. She guessed for days. Eureka Springs? A craft show? Some obscure diner in the middle of nowhere? Nothing seemed to tie to the front yard, though. Finally, on the day of our journey, I pointed to the patch of tiny wild strawberries in our front garden, which had gone completely unnoticed until my uncle pointed them out to me last week. The reason we woke early today was 92 miles away, near the Arkansas border: the 70th Annual Strawberry Festival in Stilwell, Oklahoma.
Stilwell has been around since before statehood, another railroad town in Indian Territory. During the Great Depression, strawberries turned into a major county crop; in fact, the town was proclaimed “The Strawberry Capital of the World” in 1949. They’ve built an annual festival around that claim, which pulls in over 40,000 people from all around. That’s quite a boost when the town normally boasts a population of 3200. Capital of the World it may not truly be, but certainly the Capital of the Sooner State.
When we arrived at about 10 am, the parade was going strong. We slowly made our way to Main Street as the floats went by. I saw folks from the Cherokee Nation, farming co-ops, volunteer fire departments, churches, schools, and a variety of agricultural businesses all with some kind of strawberry theme. The entire county seemed to have at least some representation in the parade. It took an hour and a half for the entire procession to make its way down Second Street, all told. It’s great to see so much local pride, even if Stilwell was called out a few years ago as having the poorest economy in the state.
As one would expect, Main Street was filled with vendors of all kinds. Fidget Spinners were the fad of the day, with dozens of booths advertising the little gadgets. Also as expected, strawberry goods were everywhere; we picked out a local vendor in front the old Eagle Theatre and bought a strawberry lemonade.
Sam also got a “Strawberry Dog” which consisted of a pair of twinkies, cut down the middle & filled with sliced strawberries. Whipped cream topped it all off! They did have a visual likeness to a hot dog, but thankfully tasted COMPLETELY different. (Yes, I had a bite even though fruit was involved.)
I happily buzzed around the little car show on the east side of the festival as a line of horses came through, the riders calling out to folks in the crowd by name.
One of the vendors really stood out. Kyzer Pop Art’s booth was full of framed presentations that married vintage pop art (postcards, comic books panels, celebrity photos, and such) with some kind of soda bottle, cap, or label. Every piece was hand crafted and well-curated; but the REALLY impressive part was on the BACK. Each frame has a hand-written history of the subject matters that tells the story of the visuals on the front and a date it was all put together. I was blown away! I noticed a frame in the back that had a bridge orange Route 66 soda bottle and bee-lined for it. It also included postcards for several OKC-area motels from back in the day. When I saw it had been framed on my birthday, I had to have it. Samantha found one with a flower design that she loved, so we both walked away with a unique gift. We took note of the other festivals Kyzer would be at later in the year, too. I could have spent all day ogling the details of his work. When James Kyzer told me he’d been an art teacher for 35 years in Purcell, it made sense.
Once we found the area where local farmers were selling their fresh strawberries, we were ready to go. Though many vendors were present with food, Samantha floated the idea of heading back towards Lake Tenkiller to eat at a diner I’d mentioned on the drive up. I’d never had the opportunity to eat there before, thanks to poor timing on my previous trips through the area. Half an hour later, we pulled into the full parking lot at the Princess Drive-In. Depending on where you look online, it’s either in the town of Dry Creek or Park Hill. However, it’s right on Highway 82 and you can’t miss it.
Most of the diners inside were sporting shirts from the Strawberry Festival and seemed to be locals. “This is our first time in,” I told our young waitress. “What are y’all known for?” She eagerly told us that their catfish was definitely the best-seller, which made me a little anxious. I don’t like catfish, but I hated asking that question and NOT getting the recommendation. Thankfully, she quickly followed up with their BBQ which had just been smoked the prior day. I ordered some of that and Samantha got a burger.
I am happy to report that everything was DELICIOUS. The spare ribs were easily the best I’ve had in years. Samantha’s burger was likewise delicious and the sides were plentiful. The dessert blackboard called out strawberry ice cream, a treat offered only in the month of May. I talked Sam into getting a cone, which was an impressive tower of home-made frozen goodness.
We hit the road home, full and happy. Though I had planned no other stops during our trip, I decided to make a quick detour to Fort Gibson so I could check up on an old bridge. Last time I’d been through, a new crossing was being constructed and I feared for the old span’s life. I was pleased to see it not only standing alongside the new bridge, but also easily accessible to pedestrians. I walked across the Grand River, sandwiched between a new concrete span and a beautiful old railroad bridge. I snapped away afternoon sun, waving to occasional cars that passed by on the new bridge.
After a few minutes, I heard a low rumble. No cars were crossing the new bridge and the boat that had passed beneath me earlier was long gone. I couldn’t place it. Much to my delight, a freight train emerged from the foliage on the north side of the river! The Union Pacific 4264 locomotive sped by, sounding the horn as it raced by. I laughed aloud with pure, giddy happiness. It was a great way to cap off the trip before heading home for the day.