LOCUST GROVE — At a groundbreaking for the Cherokee Turnpike in 1990, then-Oklahoma Gov. Henry Bellmon told about 500 people who gathered for the event to expect one of the most beautiful highways in the country. “Maybe in the world,” he said.
More importantly, the turnpike would finally connect Tulsa to northwest Arkansas by a multilane thoroughfare. Here comes an economic boom.
But what about small towns, ones on the “old” highway, that were bypassed by the turnpike?
The biggest map dot on the old route is Locust Grove. The town’s Main Street was negatively impacted by a decrease in vehicle traffic, and it absorbed another hit last year when DJ’s Diner, a business that pre-dated the turnpike, burned to the ground.
Can anyone reverse the tide? The Perkins sisters are providing a caffeine-fueled jolt.
Kelly Perkins Palmer and her husband, Mark, are the owners of Wonder City Coffee, a Main Street business launched in 2016. Sisters Roxann Perkins Yates and Shaun Perkins work there throughout the week and are the “heart” of the shop, according to Kelly.
Wonder City Coffee, which stages events like the upcoming Wonder City Wordfest on April 27, has become a go-to place for Main Street activity — or inactivity if you prefer to lounge around and socialize.
“Wonder City just brings a certain coziness to Main that is much needed,” Melissa Pattison said. “I love that little place.”
Pattison is a Locust Grove alum. But those without ties to the town have taken notice, too.
The Oklahoma Arts Council announced honorees for the 43rd Governor’s Arts Awards. Wonder City Coffee was chosen as the recipient of the Businesses in the Arts Award, which recognizes individuals, businesses and corporations that exhibit outstanding support of the arts in the state. On behalf of Wonder City Coffee, Kelly will travel to the state Capitol for a Tuesday, April 16, awards ceremony. Of course, Shaun and Roxann will be there to watch because, as attempted downtown revivals go, this one is a sister act.
‘More than a little sad’
When Roxann (Locust Grove High School class of 1977), Kelly (1979) and Shaun (1980) were kids, the one-block hub of Main Street was populated with businesses like Fleming Drug, a grocery store, Otasco, Ford’s Variety Store, Gore’s Furniture and an In-N-Out convenience store where Charlie (he was on a first-name basis) entertained customers with nifty coin tricks. All those businesses? Long gone.
The Cherokee Turnpike opened one day before Labor Day in 1991. Kelly was asked if it made her a little sad to see Main Street sort of fade away in the years after the turnpike bypassed the town. She told a story about sitting with her sisters for a Sunday breakfast, and Roxann’s word of the day was “shunpiker.” A “shunpiker” is someone who avoids toll roads.
“We find that more and more people are shunning the turnpike to drive a more scenic route to experience something other than green road signs and pastures,” Kelly said. “The turnpike virtually killed downtown Locust Grove. I remember working at Cook’s Restaurant during my high school years, and the Main Street was always busy. So, yes, it made me more than a little sad.”
Cook’s Restaurant was among casualties, too. Kelly said lighting a spark on Main Street was the primary motivation for opening a business in the middle of downtown.
“I think we get to an age where we reminisce more about our childhood and how many good memories we have of growing up,” she said. “Where you grow up is a huge part of our memories.”
The sisters’ memories were filled with images of a busy little downtown. Kelly said the sisters threw around several ideas about what kind of business to open to infuse some life into the community. Initially, they considered a game room (not a pool hall), but they didn’t feel like a business of that type could sustain itself. They settled on a coffee shop and included a game room element. There’s a foosball table just inside the front door. Board games are available for use. A sprawling jigsaw puzzle, partially completed, was spread out on a table there during a recent visit.
High school students Rylee Copeland and Kara Walker walked to Wonder City Coffee after school Tuesday, enjoyed two drinks each and stayed until closing time.
“It’s a good environment and the people are nice here, and we enjoy spending time here,” Walker said.
“It’s a good place just to hang out and have fun,” Copeland said.
Where else might they go?
For accuracy’s sake, it should be pointed out that Main Street is not abandoned. Businesses have cycled in and out since the turnpike was christened. Current heart-of-Main Street occupants include Ingram’s Custom Rods, Bank of Locust Grove, a shirt shop, a photography business, a vapor shop, beauty salons, a flower shop and an office shared by the Chamber of Commerce and the Locust Grove Arts Alliance.
The former In-N-Out territory is home to Horsefeathers Embroidery, Pirates Paradise Resale, Country Critters, Kern Insurance and a rummage store that raises funds for the Rural Oklahoma Museum of Poetry west of town. Shaun is the founder of the Rural Oklahoma Museum of Poetry (ROMP). Wonder City Wordfest, an annual celebration of poetry and community, is co-hosted by Wonder City Coffee and the quirky poetry museum. Wonder City Coffee has a free “library” in the back for customers who want to borrow or swap books. The Perkins sisters had a love of words passed down to them. Their mother, Betty, is a former English and journalism teacher at the high school.
‘Passed up by turnpikes’
“I drive Highway 33. Pray for Me.”
You could find those words on bumper stickers before the Cherokee Turnpike came along.
Curvy old Oklahoma 33, since renamed U.S. 412, was a two-lane highway that snaked through burgs like Chouteau, Locust Grove, Leach and Kansas (often called Little Kansas by those from the area). Of course, a safer, speedier way to get from Tulsa to northwest Arkansas was needed. Tulsa insurance man Dan P. Holmes championed the cause for decades. Holmes died in 1983, but one of his quotes was recycled for a 1991 Tulsa World story: “Try traveling 33 on a rainy night behind a chicken truck and try passing on the curves around Locust Grove. You take your life in your hands.”
Work began 30 years ago on the $115 million, 33-mile toll road. By September 1990, “booms” other than the economic kind were in the news. Some people who lived near Locust Grove said turnpike-related dynamite blasts were problematic. Gary Jones told the Tulsa World that glasses in his cabinet were broken and rocks rained down on his property. Turnpike officials responded by saying the blasts were conducted within safety guidelines. Bert and June Hall said many of their emus stopped laying eggs, and they suspected the noise from the blasts were the cause. “These birds stress easily, and they won’t produce,” he said.
The Tulsa World dispatched a reporter to talk to the mayors of Chouteau, Locust Grove and Kansas days before the opening of the turnpike. The mayors mostly provided a positive spin, saying things like the turnpike will provide their residents with quicker access to Tulsa. Chouteau had the benefit of being on a busy north-south road, Highway 69.
The turnpike opened Sept. 1, 1991. The Tulsa World again visited Locust Grove to see how residents were feeling about the situation. A line from the story: “Many citizens are happy about the turnpike taking the big trucks off Locust Grove’s streets. But even they are wondering what will happen when motorists who once traveled through now speed by on the turnpike.”
Cook’s owner Linda Shipley predicted the turnpike would hurt the town’s convenience stores (pre-turnpike, there were seven) first. Jim Flynn, the manager of Circle J convenience store, told the Tulsa World he expected two to close in a short time. Circle J and Willard’s Day and Night eventually vanished, just like the mom-and-pop stores along old Highway 33 at Sam’s Corner, Woodland Junction and Rose.
Zelma Phillips, Locust Grove’s city treasurer and Chamber of Commerce secretary when the turnpike opened, told the Tulsa World the challenge facing her town was big.
“There are so many towns that have been passed up by turnpikes and just become ghost towns,” she said. “That’s what some are worried about, though they won’t say it.” (Population actually increased slightly from the 2000 census to the 2010 census, when the head count was 1,423.)
The Cherokee Turnpike dedication ceremony took place two months after the turnpike opened. Gov. David Walters hailed it as a significant achievement for the connected turfs. And new Locust Grove businesses sprouted up along Highway 82 closer to the turnpike.
Main Street? The location that once housed Ford’s Variety Store was vacant for many years before it became the home of Wonder City Coffee. In between, it was a computer repair and office supply shop. Kelly said the location was purchased in May 2015, and it took more than a year to get it ready for an unveiling in November 2016. A brother-in-law, Jerry Yates, was instrumental on the construction front. Her husband (“he’s a talker”) continues to be instrumental as a conversation-maker at the coffee shop. She has a full-time job, so she appreciates her sisters and “excellent” staffers for holding down the fort.
Kelly said “none of us” had any experience running a coffee shop, so hours and menus have been tweaked to accommodate a wider range of customers.
“This year, we’ve seen a pretty good upswing in business and are planning to expand our menu to include some breakfast items that are not pastries,” she said.
Special events include “juice box jams” for children on the second Monday each month. Wonder City Coffee (so named because Locust Grove was once called the Wonder City on the Grand River) also hosts painting classes, poetry events, musical performances and karaoke. Space is available for parties and events at no cost unless the group is larger than normal or if the event is outside normal working hours.
“We have people who come in and spend hours in the shop,” Kelly said. “We have free Wi-Fi. There are groups of home-schooled children who meet there. It’s crazy how much can go on in a day.”
If you check out the 1979 Locust Grove High School yearbook, you’ll notice Kelly was selected most valuable to school life. Forty years later, she and her sisters are most valuable to town life?