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Mississippi travelblog: Traveling through Little Dixie

I love Oklahoma. I love seeing Oklahoma. From the Arbuckle Mountains in the south to the massive farm land in the north. From Mount Scott in the southwest to the Ozark foothills in the northeast. From Oklahoma City to Tulsa. From Norman to Stillwater. From Elk City to Sallisaw. From the Panhandle to, well, there’s a hole.

There was a piece of Oklahoma I never had experienced, at least not in my memory. The far southeast corridor of our great state. I’ve been as far as LeFlore, in Le Flore County, and Talihina, just south of Wilburton. Both are tucked into the Ouachita Mountains but both are more than an hour north of the Red River. I’d never been down to the corner, where Idabel and Broken Bow reside.

So Wednesday, returning from our Mississippi trip with a final-night stay in Texarkana, Texas, we decided to make the final leg of our trip through Little Dixie. Highway 3, which gradually goes northwest from the corner of the state.

It might have been my favorite part of the trip. Haworth, Idabel, Broken Bow, Antlers, Atoka, Coalgate. Finally into Ada, which is territory I know well.

Before reaching Oklahoma, we cut through a sliver of Arkansas, primarily the town of Ashdown, and it was pretty country. Then Arkansas highway 32 becomes Oklahoma 3, and soon enough I was filling the hole in my Oklahoma geography.

Just a few miles into the state, we went through the hamlet of Tom. My heart soared. Tom is the hometown of my friend Myron Patton, the Fox-25 sports director and a longtime friend. Myron has told me about Tom for years, but I had forgotten about it until I saw the sign. Tom is just a tiny little place, with a store and a church. Not even a school. Myron went to high school in Haworth, now a town of about 296 people but with a high school enrollment of about 154. I snapped a couple of photos and texted them to Myron. Pretty cool that a kid from these sticks has fashioned a long media career, television and radio, covering the Sooners and now the Thunder.

Haworth was bigger than I thought, with a little commerce, and then it was on to Idabel, the McCurtain County seat. Idabel’s estimated population is 6,843, and I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. I thought it would be more scenic. I always pictured Idabel and Broken Bow as nestled in the mountains, but the mountains don’t really start until north of Broken Bow. Idabel’s downtown is lackluster, but it’s got a lot of commerce going in and out of town.

Same, really, with Broken Bow, which is a tad more scenic. Broken Bow has an estimated population of 4,085 and actually is a tourist hub, with hundreds of cabin rentals in the surrounding era, with Beavers Bend Resort Park, Broken Bow Lake and Hochatown State Park bringing visitors from all around the region, including many from Texas.

I stopped and shot a couple of photos in Broken Bow and texted them to James Butler, the great sprinter who made the 1980 U.S. Olympic team but was denied a chance to run when Jimmy Carter ordered the boycott of those Moscow Games. Just last week, I wrote about Butler, who has lived in Florida for decades. The street that cuts around Broken Bow High School and in front of the track is named for Butler.

For such a small town so far away from Oklahoma City – 218 miles – I’ve known a bunch of people from Broken Bow. Attorney and prolific author Bob Burke. Chris Norris of Stillwater’s famed Chris’ University Spirit Shop. OSU basketball star Randy Rutherford. All from Broken Bow.

In Broken Bow, I saw a sign I would see again in Antlers. A warning that Broken Bow school personnel could be armed. Duly warned.

McCurtain County is timber country. Weyerhauser historically has owned much of the land as it harvests the forests. We saw a bunch of harvested timber, but we also saw a bunch of young forests, where the company has replanted. My brother-in-law on the trip with us, Louie Williams, says that Weyerhaeuser is one of the biggest private landowners in North America. I looked it up, and Weyerhaeuser owns 12.4 million acres of timberland in the U.S., plus manages 14 million acres in Canada.

Next was Rattan, home of one of Oklahoma’s top high school baseball traditions. I don’t know why southeastern Oklahoma is such baseball country, but it is. There’s not much in Rattan; I saw the baseball field but didn’t get a good look. I’ll bet it’s pristine.

We then hit Antlers, the Pushmataha County seat, and what a pleasant surprise. Antlers was a jewel of a town. An estimated population of about 2,300. Lots of commerce. An historic downtown. Several restaurants.

And we had the most delightful lunch at Sacred Grounds Coffeehouse. It opened in February 2018 and looks like a Colorado cabin, with a great porch. Inside, the ceiling is made of ornate tin, with a magnificent light fixture made by owner Wayne Tipps. It has two cool bars, one with Native American artifacts inside.

Sacred Grounds serves all kinds of coffee plus excellent sandwiches. I had a French dip, which was outstanding, and part of Trish the Dish’s chicken salad, which was good.

The place was bustling. All kinds of people coming and going. Tipps, the owner, stopped by to chat with us and was quite the storyteller. He said he’s the only electrical contractor in Pushmataha County, but he got tired of people saying nobody ever did anything new in Antlers, so he hatched the idea of a coffeehouse.

There were skeptics. Antlers, Oklahoma, doesn’t seem like the place for “foofoo” coffee. They hunt deer in Pushmataha County, not the perfect cappuccino. Tipps said he lost $4,000 a month in summer 2018. But he kept believing, and soon enough his business turned.

Women had always supported the business. The men eventually did, too. “Guess what?” Tipps asked. “They like foofoo coffee.”

So much so, that customers asked for bigger cups than the 16 ounces he was selling. They wanted 32 ounces. “I don’t want you dead, I need you as customers,” Tipps said. So he compromised on 22 ounces. Some people who once told him he was crazy for selling $5 cups of coffee now gladly buy $8 cups of coffee.

Tipps was charming. He cut short his story to make a delivery, then returned and finished. He was the 2019 Choctaw Nation Entrepreneur of the Year.

It struck me that he was a lot like Ben and Erin Napier, down in Laurel, Mississippi. Someone who loved their town and decided to do something to make it better.

“Too many times, we get hung up on normal,” said Tipps, who has introduced crabcakes and lobster bisque to Antlers. “After being an electrician for 30 years, you come here, every day’s a joy.”

He’s still in the electricity business. It’s just now, the good people of Pushmataha County have to wait a little longer.

After Antlers, we went through Lane, just south of McGee Creek Lake, which some say is the most beautiful body of water in the state. I thought Lane was the home of the late Lane Frost, a bullrider killed in the 1980s whose story was told in the movie “Eight Seconds.” I looked it up, and sure enough, Lane Frost was from Lane. The day before, I read a story from our man Ed Godfrey about an injured rodeo cowboy, which included several references to Frost. I hadn’t thought of Frost in years, then in back-to-back days, there he was.

We crossed under the Indian Nations Turnpike and arrived in Atoka, the Atoka County seat with an estimated population of 3,000.

Atoka is an old town, with an Indian settlement there dating back to the 1830s, and white settlement going back to a Baptist missionary in 1867. Atoka clearly is struggling economically, but its location isn’t bad. Atoka is 32 miles north of Durant on U.S. 75, and 75 is home to that massive sprawl that has reached Sherman/Denison in north Texas and threatens to spill into Durant. Atoka: a Dallas suburb. Who knew?

The last jewel on the list was Coalgate, the Coal County seat and a nice-looking town of 1,900. My mom had an uncle who lived in Coalgate, and when I was a kid, we once went to Coalgate and I rode a horse. Might have been the first horse I ever rode.

After that was Ada, and most people know a lot about Ada, which I consider the gateway to southeastern Oklahoma.

But what a splendid day of driving through Little Dixie. The Highway 3 trip wasn’t quite as scenic as I imagined, but it was more charming, if that makes any sense. The void in my Oklahoma experience has been filled.

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Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›