On the way home from Missouri this weekend, I stopped for lunch in Vinita, OK. Normally, I’d stop in at Clanton’s…but today I opted for the Hi-Way Cafe just west of town. I’d heard good things and the timing was right. I’m very glad I did.
I pulled in to the gravel lot to find it quite full. I walked around the building and took a few photos before heading inside. I took a stool at the counter; an old man that had walked in behind me took the seat to my right.
“I saw you takin’ some pictures outside,” he said as he sat down. “That’s good! They’ve got some good stuff to photograph,” he said proudly. I remarked on the murals I’d captured as a waitress came over. “Hi, Leonard,” she said with family-like familiarity. “Coffee?” she asked, though it was mostly rhetorical. I followed his lead.
I asked Leonard if he was from the area. “Lived here my whole life,” he confirmed. I asked him if he remembered when Route 66 was the main highway in these parts. “Well, I remember when this was just a two-lane,” he said. “I remember when my uncle…great uncle, I guess it would be…came in to Vinita on the train. I’m 72 now so this was a long time ago. It used to flood so bad around here the only way we could get out was in my Dad’s truck. He had an old…it was old then…a 1941 International Harvester. You know what that is? Yeah…well, it was the only vehicle we had that could get to town when it was like that.”
We ordered our food; a single biscuit and gravy for Leonard and a burger for me. “Where are you from?” he asked as our tickets were passed back to the kitchen. I said Tulsa and the old man searched his memory again. “I had family in Tulsa that we’d visit from time to time. When we’d get to town, I remember seeing a tower. No, I think it was three. They was at Denver and Pine. We’d drive all the way into town, stay a while, and pass those same towers on the way home.” I smiled and told him I knew what he was remembering: the old KVOO towers on the east edge of town…also on Route 66. I added that KVOO was the station that broadcast Bob Wills to the masses back in the day and it sparked another memory for Leonard.
“There used to be a barn on Highway 60. It was, oh, about a mile off of 66. Had a big round top on it. Bob Wills and his boys would come up from Tulsa and play sometimes. People would come from miles around, on horseback and such, to hear them play. Those were good times,” he recalled fondly. I asked him if that barn was still standing. “No, it burned down. The owner was loadin’ hay into his truck and left the engine on while it was still in the barn. Somethin’ sparked and the place went up. I could see the smoke from the house I grew up in. Real shame.”
Our conversation dwindled once our food arrived; it was delicious. Leonard noticed a group of guys at a nearby table and chastised them (between bites) for not mowing their grass in a timely manner. Something about a ditch and right-of-way, but I tried not to eavesdrop. I looked around and noticed the entire place was filled with locals; I appeared to be the only out-of-towner. That’s good; that means this place should be around a while.
I finished my meal and thanked Leonard for the enlightening conversation. I stepped over to the cash register and our waitress fiddled with an iPad so she could take my debit card. “How was everything?” she asked with genuine interest. I said everything was perfect. “Is this together?” she asked, nodding towards the old man who was still engaged with his neighbor. I smiled and nodded. It’s a small price to pay for a local history lesson.