Bloom Town: Muskogee, Oklahoma

This whole city comes into bloom during its Azalea Festival.
Tanner C. Latham

Sunshine seeps down through the azaleas and fills red and yellow tulip cups on this cool April morning. I bend my knee to eye the blooms, the sound of a trickling stream perfectly complementing the wash of colors. I question softly, "Is this Oklahoma?" Joel Everett, special projects coordinator at the Muskogee Parks and Recreation Department answers with a smile, "You better believe it."

A Festival of Flowers
The first thing you need to know about making a day trip to Muskogee's Honor Heights Park, site of its Azalea Festival (April 3 through 18), is that you won't be alone. Hundreds of thousands of flower lovers have descended upon this city, 50 miles southeast of Tulsa, every April since 1967. Don't be surprised to find yourself in a motorcade slowly idling through the park's curvy lanes. Instead of craning your neck, park in the lot located in the south end of Honor Heights close to the lake, and get out among the flowers to truly experience this place.

While the more than 20,000 azaleas take center stage, the park's 122 acres also showcase dogwoods, redbuds, and grand spreads of bedding plants and flowers all in bloom this month. Arrive in the early morning (park hours are sunrise to sunset) not only because the crowds are lighter, but also because the sunlight is just beginning to illuminate the landscape. Be sure to stand in the Conard Rose Garden gazebo overlooking a hillside blanketed in purple phlox and red tulips. Spend some time strolling through our favorite area of the park, the White Garden, one of the lesser known azalea walks on the southern end.

Take Some Azaleas Home
The beauty of Honor Heights Park triggers impulse buys like you would never believe. "When people walk through here, they decide they want to do the same thing at their houses," says Ray Wright, a 35-year azalea-growing veteran and owner of Green Country Landscaping. He's got a miniature flower shop set up in the park and one at the Honor Heights Methodist Church on Honor Heights Drive. His best sellers, by far, are the 30 varieties of azaleas in 1-gallon ($3.99), 2-gallon ($8.95 to $12.95), and 4-gallon ($20) pots.

For any of your other gardening needs, consider a trip downtown to Thompson's Seed House & Garden Center. You'll love just walking through this old-fashioned store, where Dean Thompson sells seeds from the same antique counter his father used more than 40 years ago.

For more information: Call the Muskogee Convention & Tourism at 1-888-687-6137, or visit www.cityofmuskogee.com.

 

Art in the Park
Muskogee's strong American Indian heritage blossoms as well this month, especially at The Five Civilized Tribes Museum. Housed in the 1875 Union Indian Agency building in Honor Heights Park, the museum hosts the annual Art Under the Oaks juried competition. Artists who are members of the tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) submit pieces in specialized categories such as basketry, pottery, beadwork, and textiles. While the artwork is judged the first weekend of April, all submissions will remain on display for public viewing throughout the month.

You'll also want to make a special trip across town to the Ataloa Lodge located on the Bacone College campus. Built in the thirties, the lodge serves as a museum featuring an extensive collection of American Indian baskets, textiles, pottery, and other arts and crafts. The most popular exhibit includes an intriguing collection of 88 cottonwood kachina dolls.

Director John Timothy, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, can lead you on a tour through the facility if you're interested. Be sure, though, to ask if the Bacone Memorial Chapel right next door is open. Here you'll find a painting by Richard West called The Last Supper, which depicts the famous scene of Jesus and the disciples, except they are Indians sitting around a fire eating corncakes instead of bread.

Blooming Appetite
Now that you've experienced the local colors of Muskogee, you're ready for the flavors. For lunch, try the 'cue at Smokehouse Bob's Barbecue on North 11th Street. Bob Newton and his brother, Eugene, smoke their pork, beef, chicken, bologna, and hot links in a scientifically calculated mixture of pecan and hickory wood. Squeeze in at one of the community tables where you may make a few new friends after you polish off a slab of ribs ($18 per slab, $6.75 for a rib dinner).

For dinner, we recommend a trip downtown to Miss Addie's Cafe & Pub, an elegant restaurant with the feel of an old English tavern. While enjoying the atmosphere, start with a cup of the tortilla soup ($3.50), a local favorite. For an entrée, try the potato-crusted salmon ($14.95) served on a bed of julienned vegetables and finished with a lobster cream sauce. Relax and reminisce on your day spent soaking in the unforgettable colors and aromas of Muskogee in April.

This article is from the April 2004 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.