|Published May/June 2007|
Oklahoma’s Tahlequah preserves Cherokee heritage
and offers great outdoor delights.
By Karen Gibson
| Standing in the Removal Room at the Cherokee Heritage Center sends chills down the spine. Ghostly life-size statues are bent against the wind. Voices tell what it was like on the Trail of Tears, and a young girl is heard saying, “There is much sickness among us and a great many little children died of whooping cough.”
This is one of six rooms in the permanent Trail of Tears exhibit created with the National Park Service. Visitors are encouraged to touch the bead wall in this room where 16,000 handmade beads represent Cherokee people who were impacted by Indian Removal. The white beads represent the people who survived the hardships of the Trail of Tears and created this refuge known as Tahlequah (tal-uh-kwah) in Oklahoma.
Located along the Illinois River in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, Tahlequah is not only the Cherokee capital, but also one of the best small towns in the country (“The 100 Best Small Towns in America,” MacMillan). Approximately an hour from Tulsa, this northeast Oklahoma town of 16,000 draws history buffs and outdoor enthusiasts in a charming setting, offering something for everyone.
Tahlequah’s Cherokee heritage is evident everywhere, from its historic buildings to the street signs and storefront signs printed in English and Cherokee. Learn about the tribe at the Cherokee Heritage Center, 21192 Keeler in Park Hill, three miles south of Tahlequah. Located in a wooded area, the center includes a museum and two replicated Cherokee villages. The ancient village of Tsa La Gi shows how the Cherokee lived before the presence of Europeans. After the presence of white pioneers, a Cherokee village might have looked like the 19th-century village of Adams Corner.
There is no admission fee for Adams Corner, and admission to Tsa La Gi ranges from $5$8.50.
South of the Heritage Center is Oklahoma’s last known remaining antebellum home, Hunter’s Home, but locals call it the Murrell Home, 19479 E. Murrell Home Road in Park Hill. The name, Hunter’s Home, came from George Murrell’s fondness for fox hunting. Once a successful plantation, the Murrell home was spared during the Civil War, which devastated much of Tahlequah. Period furnishings decorate the home, which is operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.
Tahlequah’s historic district, east of the downtown area, contains post-Civil War buildings, including the Cherokee Capitol, located at 100 S. Muskogee Ave., and several homes. A self-guided tour map can be picked up at the tourism council office, 123 E. Delaware. The walk is beautiful on a pretty spring or summer day.
Tahlequah takes pride in being home to Northeastern State University, which started educating young Cherokee women in 1851 as the Cherokee National Female Seminary. By 1909, it had become a state school and is now the state’s fourth-largest university.
Muskogee Avenue is Tahlequah’s main street, ending at Northeastern State University. South of the university is the downtown area where visitors can find restaurants, art galleries, shopping and an active community theater. Follow the locals to Sam and Ella’s Chicken Palace (419 N. Muskogee St.) and watch them laugh at your surprise when you say “Sam and Ella’s” quickly. Another surprise is that Sam and Ella’s isn’t known for chicken, but for pizza and subs. Poultry is part of the décor, however, whether it’s paintings or rooster salt-and-pepper shakers.
In spite of all the interesting history and charm, Tahlequah is best known for its recreation. Along twisty Highway 10 is the Illinois River, part of the state’s protected scenic waterways. It is also the site of many float trips. In summer, the river teems with canoes and kayaks as people enjoy its easy currents and kind rapids. The river winds through Green Country, which offers plenty of scenic places for a picnic or swim. Several outfitters along the river rent out canoes, rafts and kayaks.
The Illinois River meets Tenkiller Lake about 10 miles south of town. The lake allows sailing, motor boating and skiing. Nearly 13,000 acres of clear water provide a great site for scuba diving. Fishermen can be found on the river and at the lake in search of largemouth bass and catfish among more than 70 species of fish. Celebrate Independence Day at Tenkiller State Park in Vian as the fireworks reflect off the lake’s surface.
Camping, cabins and lodges are available along the water or stay in town at any of the bed-and-breakfast inns or motels. Herrin’s Riverside Bed and Breakfast (918-456-1813) provides both the appeal of a bed-and-breakfast and the scenery of the river.
One visit is all it takes. Soon you’ll find yourself agreeing that Tahlequah is one amazing small town.
Karen Gibson is a contributor from Norman, Okla.
Above: The Illinois River BalloonFest is a favorite outdoor activity in Tahlequah. Oklahoma Tourism photo
Below: The Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah features poignant exhibits about the Trail of Tears. Karen Gibson photo
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