Once when my father (who then lived in Washington state) visited me (in Texas), we sat on the back patio, slurping iced tea on a very hot day. As I refilled our glasses, a tiny bit of tea spilled onto the wooden planking of the patio floor, emitting an audible sssssizzle. My father, mopping his brow with his red kerchief, cursed: How can you live in this hell hole?!
When temps are that hot and winds blow dry dust-swirls at your feet, you do wonder if you’ve slipped into hell. That’s why this oasis in Oklahoma is like heaven. Medicine Park, founded on July 4, 1908, is just that, heavenly, and on this day in June, a hellish 109 degrees in the shade, the water is a cool draw.
Kids tube, chilling off their backsides; grandparents escort grandkids who splash and yell; and each generation finds its own way to cool off, whether it’s just dipping your toes in the water or taking the full-body bath.
Named for the healing waters that feed it from Medicine Creek, Medicine Park is the first planned tourist resort to be built in Oklahoma. At first it was just a scattering of tents, but then native cobblestones were used to construct the houses and hotels and restaurants, composing a rustic look in the pristine landscape. The rich and (in)famous ventured from near and far, including Pretty Boy Floyd, Al Capone, and Bonnie and Clyde. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans made the resort their honeymoon retreat.
Cobblestone is an abundant natural resource in Medicine Park, shown to advantage in this and other original cabins that still stand today.
We made the stop because we’re interested in the buildings as much as the waterscape. In the old days, there were two inns, Baird’s Health Sanitarium, a dance hall, canteen, petting zoo, bath house, general store, a bait shop, a hydro-electric power plant (providing water for the new town of Lawton was one of the reasons Medicine Park was developed) and a cafe. Now there is a row of tourist cabins where you can buy anything from Icees to fine art, and there are inviting restaurant and pub options. The Outside Inn, now called The Old Plantation, shows off the cobblestone construction repeated throughout the compound.
Medicine Park was recently named by Budget Travel Magazine as one of the Top Ten Coolest Small Towns in America.
We strolled along the sidewalks, shot photos, and mopped our brows–much like my father–in the heat. Little did we know that that the hellfire conditions of our day’s venture were a portent of the flames that were soon to come.
On Thursday, June 23, artillery practice at nearby Ft. Sill started a small fire. Strong winds swept the fire beyond interior firebreaks, and drought conditions fueled the flames. Before long, more than 5,000 acres were on fire and thirteen Medicine Park homes were destroyed. Residents of the area were evacuated and did not return until Saturday.
For a video account, see:
Among the more than 250 fire and emergency respondents to the heaven-on-fire blaze were members of the nearby Paradise Valley Volunteer Fire Department.
There’s a happy ending to this story. Medicine Park will continue with its 4th of July bash this weekend, celebrating its 103rd birthday.
This Home & Away entry is from the Great Plains Expedition, Summer 2011