In 1949, when Stilwell, Oklahoma’s “Strawberry Festival” was just one year old, crooners were applauded when they cut loose with Dear Hearts and Gentle People. They got extra points if referencing their own hometowns or the communities where they were appearing at the time.
One such singer was Gene Autry. They “whooped and hollered” in his hometown that was named four times before they got it right—“Gene Autry, OK,” 200 crow-flight miles from Stilwell.
The song was “tailor-made” for Stilwell, too, where values remain strong, cooperation still is underscored, neighborliness is commonplace and every kitchen is bulging with recipes calling for strawberries….
Oklahoma became a state and Adair became a county in 1907, but the town of Stilwell was thriving a decade earlier, when visionary and committed citizens laid groundwork for churches, schools and civic undertakings.
Members of the Kiwanis Club kicked off the “Strawberry Festival” in 1948. It has expanded every year since, now boasting “wow” participation and far-flung notoriety. The Kiwanians still sponsor it, but now have additional help, what with hordes of people descending on the second Saturday in May for “all things strawberry.”
They parade, crown a queen and kick up heels with much merry-making in the town of 4,000.
And “hordes” will have to do, because accurate attendance numbers are hard to come by. Conservative estimates are 20,000, some claim 30,000 and a few “upwards of 40,000.” Whatever, the one motel in a town with five traffic lights in the foothills of the Ozarks can’t begin to accommodate the masses. Folks with extra beds in Stilwell and Adair County wind up hosting relatives they didn’t know they had….
Puts me in mind of Brownwood, Texas, my hometown. In May, 1948, it hosted the State Democratic Convention. Hotels and tourist courts displayed “no vacancy” signs early on.
Front page appeals in the Brownwood Bulletin urged residents to “sleep Democrats at your house.” (Later in the year, Lyndon B. Johnson became the Democratic candidate for the U. S. Senate.)
Shortly after leaving the presidency, LBJ spoke in Brownwood at a luncheon honoring the late Coach Gordon Wood. The president smiled at mention of the long-ago convention, where the expression “politics make strange bedfellows” was revived….
I digress. I’ve a strong hunch that Stilwell folks have a “tried and true recipe” with ingredients for happiness. They know that true contentment comes from giving back. An example is the Adair County Historical and Genealogical Association, whose volunteers have led the renovation of the old railroad depot.
Stilwell folk recognize the importance of reaching both forward and back, claiming what is new and better without tossing aside time-honored principles.
They care, they work and they believe that the same God who has intervened in the affairs of man throughout history is still in charge….
It is a community that believes in itself. Long before the Oklahoma Legislature in 1949 decreed Stilwell to be the “Strawberry Capital of the World,” the Democrat Journal was chronicling community goings-on.
The newspaper itself is an institution, publishing weekly editions since 1898.
It has grown up with the town. Brothers Keith and Darrell Neale have been in tandem for most of their adult years, the former editing the Democrat Journal where he’s worked 35 years, and the latter the Westville Reporter, a dozen miles away….
Stilwell newspaper distribution is unique. They print about 5,000 copies, with some 500 mailed to subscribers. The rest are sold in businesses around the area.
For almost 40 years, most sales are credited to a person “hawking” papers four hours each week. At least 400 and sometimes 600 copies are sold to motorists passing by the newspaper office.
It’s a Wednesday morning habit for many. Don Duke held the job for 16 years, even when he was on oxygen. Another man with bad eyesight got too close to a car, resulting in a crushed foot….
Many jokes are told about small towns.
Reality suggests, however, that many youngsters who can’t wait to leave home in a few years are eager for opportunities allowing them to return.
In Stilwell, hearts are still dear, people are still gentle and community pride is very much alive….
Dr. Newbury is a speaker in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Inquiries/comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone: 817-47-3872. Web site: www.speakerdoc.com. Twitter: @donnewbury.