Heading off the beaten path is a decision rarely regretted on a road trip, and setting off in search of hidden gems in Oklahoma's Choctaw Country will be no exception. From the crumbling ruins of Civil War forts, to the remains of abandoned early settlements, to Oklahoma's own Circus Town-- where every nook and cranny is filled with quirk and reverence for the past-- there are so many undiscovered stories waiting to be told and experienced. Natural beauty, charming small towns, and amazing stories from the past will seduce even the most traditional roadtrippers on this route through Oklahoma's hidden history.
The Oklahoma prairie was the frontier in the early- to mid-19th century, and with the Chickasaws and Choctaws being relocated here, a military presence was needed to protect the tribes and ensure peace and safety in the area. Fort Washita was built in the 1840s, and was staffed by regiments on "frontier duty.” During the Civil War, it was abandoned by Union troops and taken over by Confederate soldiers from Texas, who used it as a headquarters for the duration of the war. After that, it was given to the Chickasaw, who preserved it until the Oklahoma Historical Society took over. Unfortunately, the recreated South Barracks building that housed many of the interpretive displays was lost to a fire, but you can still wander the grounds and sense the history here.
According to Travel OK: “Fort Washita is also rumored to be haunted by Aunt Jane, a strong-willed woman who was murdered by thieves sometime before 1861 because she wouldn’t disclose the location of her buried money. The money was never found, and Aunt Jane was buried on the grounds of Fort Washita. However, her ghost has reportedly been seen floating near the ruins wearing a white gown. She is also reported to have possessed the body of a young child named Molly Stalcup sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century.” (http://www.travelok.com/listings/view.profile/id.2838)
Hugo, Oklahoma, is about as quirky a town as you can find. For a quick introduction as to just what makes this village so unique, pop into the Frisco Depot Museum, housed in an old train station that operated up until the 1960s. Besides featuring exhibits about the role the railroad played in Hugo's past, you can see an antique whiskey still, eat lunch at the cafe in the converted baggage rooms, and check out a miniature circus and circus posters, an homage to Hugo's big top past. In the 1940s, circus companies started wintering in Hugo; 300 part-time performers from 20 different circuses would stay here and quarter their animals, as they waited for the season to start up again so they could hit the road with their shows.
Another quirky, big top-themed stop is Angie's Circus City Diner. Over the years, it has amassed a collection of memorabilia and antiques that make for quite the setting to enjoy a home cooked meal. When it comes to the food, they don't clown around (get it?). The menu features staples like burgers, catfish, and chicken-fried steak, along with a great breakfast. It's a local favorite, and you'll feel like a regular when you stop by.
Hugo's circus history makes for some interesting attractions in town, like the Endangered Ark Foundation: a retirement ranch of sorts for circus elephants. The foundation holds public tours on Fridays and Saturdays in the spring and summer; you can pet and feed the elephants, see how they're cared for, and learn all about these special creatures. You can even help give an elephant a bath! All the money from the ticket sales goes to helping this endangered species, so it's well worth the price. Book your space on a tour in advance to guarantee a spot!
The last circus-themed stop in Hugo is the Mount Olivet Cemetery Showman's Rest. A Showman's Rest is a plot and memorial where circus performers are laid to rest ... and since the circus played such a large role in the lives of these performers, their headstones are often unique tributes to the big top. Markers for clowns, rodeo stars, ringmasters, elephant trainers, and more can be seen here, along with the graves for the original Marlboro Man and the man who was known as Buster Brown.
For an outdoor adventure back in time, head to Doaksville, the crumbling remains of a once bustling settlement. Founded in 1820 by Josiah Doak, Doaksville had become the commercial center of the Choctaw Nation by 1850. At its peak, it boasted stores, a jail, a school, a hotel and not one, but two newspapers. All in all, more than 30 buildings made up the center of town. Unfortunately, little of that remains. The Civil War was hard on this part of Oklahoma, and nearby Fort Towson was abandoned shortly after. The town was dealt its final blow when the railroad was built a mile south of Doaksville; most moved to be closer to it. However, archaeological surveys in the 1990s have revealed the remains of some of the town's buildings, and a trail through this now-quiet patch of woodland shows you what things might have looked like at Doaksville's peak with interpretive signs.
Few people consider what education and schooling were like on the Oklahoma frontier, and most would be surprised to learn about institutions like the Wheelock Academy. Founded as a missionary school in the 1830s, it was turned into the first Choctaw Nation Academy. As the National Academy, it was an all-girls school that taught everything from geography and science to home economics and Bible studies. During the Civil War, it closed, and a fire ravaged the original campus, but it wasn't long before a new Academy was built. Between 1884 and 1955, it served as an incredible educational space, complete with a barn, a chapel, a seminary, a domestic science building, and an arts and crafts building. Today, you can tour the campus and get a feel for the beloved school.
Beavers Bend State Park might not be a super-hidden gem in Southeast Oklahoma, but if you do a little exploring, you might come across some pretty special stuff. You can rent a yakanoe (it's a combination of a canoe and a kayak) and head out to one of Broken Bow Lake's many islands, tube down Mountain Fork River, see some one-of-a-kind wood art at the Forest Heritage Center, and learn about the native creatures of the park at the Beavers Bend Wildlife Museum.
As you explore ghost towns and learn all about the glory days of the circus, you'll fall in love with this corner of Oklahoma. Its unique and quirky history still flavors the present, and you can sense it as you cruise to some of the most incredibly underrated attractions in the country.
Whether you’re looking to wander off the beaten path, explore hidden gems, take a peek into the past, or enjoy beautiful scenery as you cruise, Choctaw Country in Southeastern Oklahoma has all the makings of the great American road trip.