ROOTED IN HISTORY

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ROOTED IN HISTORY
Medicine Park transforms itself into a cobblestoned tourist destination

By Tim Farley

Rooted in colorful history and legends, Medicine Park is transforming itself into a free spirited, unconventional tourist destination that is completely different than any other spot in Oklahoma.

The town, nestled within the Wichita Mountains, is home to less than 400 people but has become a major attraction for thousands with its fun festivals, concerts, creative business climate and its reputation as America’s cobblestone community.

According to historical accounts and some local folklore, Medicine Park once hosted the state’s rich and famous plus a few notorious outlaws like Bonny and Clyde, Jesse James, Pretty Boy Floyd and Al Capone. But there were other less nefarious celebrities who made Medicine Park their weekend and vacation getaway. They included Oklahoma’s favorite son Will Rogers, businessman Frank Phillips, musicians Bob Wills and Les Brown and movie stars Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

Originally founded on July 4, 1908, Medicine Park’s resort economy thrived until the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II. At that point, the resort struggled for the next few decades, but in the early 1990s a pattern of declining investment began to slowly turn around.

Today, Medicine Park has evolved into a community complete with art galleries, restaurants and renovated cobblestone cabins and a mix of eclectic businesses from motorcycle accessories to an upscale dress shop and candy to jewelry, rustic artwork and more.

But that’s not all. Bath Lake and its waterfall area is a major attraction during hot weather months. On any summer day, children and adults can be seen swimming, sunbathing or riding the paddle boats. The entire Bath Lake area is landscaped with gardens, large trees, foot bridges and grassy areas for visitors to lounge and enjoy the natural beauty of the town.

Soulful

Juliette Harding, owner of Luna Joon dress shop and a Seattle, Wash., transplant, said Medicine Park has a “certain soul to it.”

“It has a festival atmosphere even if there’s not a festival,” she said. “We have live music every weekend and during the season, this place is packed. During season, I do more business here in one weekend than I would do in two weeks or a month at my store in Weatherford.”

Most of the cobblestone buildings on the main drag were once built as summer cabins, but now house businesses like Luna Joon and Bullets Burgers & BBQ, which is owned by Chas Callich, a retired Army chief warrant officer who spent 25 years in the military. In fact, Callich bought what is known as Cobblestone Row and also is a member of the Medicine Park Economic Development Board.

For Callich, Medicine Park by itself isn’t the big draw for tourists. It’s the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge that surrounds the town and the many outdoor activities it inspires such as hiking, fishing and mountain biking. There’s other nearby tourist draws like the Holy City, Mt. Scott and the Fort Sill military museum. There are also bike races, noodling and fishing tournaments and 5K races that use the surrounding area.

Then, there’s the unusual – at least for visitors – that occurs almost daily as elk walk through the streets or flocks of geese strut down the sidewalk squawking for food, which Callich promptly provides. He’s even given them names. On a recent sunny day, Callich explained to an ionOklahoma writer that the geese are part of the unofficial Medicine Park family.

“They don’t have wallets and they never pay for their food,” he joked.

Then, without pause, Callich called off the names Viola, Jughead, Meathead and Archie as the four geese who visited that day.

“Sometimes, they bring their friends with them,” he said, with a smile.

On a more serious note, the former criminal investigations commander said the town’s economic development plan is to remain small, but still bring a variety of shops that will attract more visitors to this quaint tourist attraction in southwest Oklahoma.

“We need more gift shops and stores that cater to women,” he said.

Old Plantation stories

Although there are plenty of places to eat in town, the Old Plantation Restaurant offers the more colorful stories surrounding Medicine Park’s history.

Chad Thornton and a partner will buy the restaurant from current owner Forest Ray in June. But already, Thornton knows plenty about the business since he’s managed one of Ray’s other eateries in Altus the past 14 years.

Learning the restaurant’s history has been a fun experience, Thornton said.

“From what I’m told, the place was an old brothel back in the day. They had dancing and eating on the first floor, the ladies worked on the second floor and I’m told there was gambling and booze in the basement,” he said.

Part of the legend includes underground tunnels that allowed Fort Sill soldiers to escape from the basement during law enforcement raids and make their way back to the base undetected.

Meanwhile, a third floor was rumored to have been the spot where guests watched “dirty movies,” according to the restaurant’s web site.

Interestingly, Thornton said he’s met some of the former “working girls” from the old brothel.

As the future owner of the Old Plantation Restaurant, Thornton is enthused about the new image Medicine Park has with tourists.

“It’s a cool atmosphere,” he said. “We have a small shopping community, a great view, good food, the refuge and Mount Scott. We’re nestled in the mountains and it’s a completely different scene than anywhere in Oklahoma.”

The spacious restaurant, complete with a full bar, shows off old photographs of famous celebrities who frequented Medicine Park in its former heyday. Its menu includes steaks, seafood, fresh salads and Plantation specials.

For more information about Medicine Park and the town’s upcoming events, visit www.medicinepark.com.

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