Osage County is the largest of Oklahoma’s 77 counties. It’s about the size of the state of Delaware. And I had half a day to check it out during one of the several tours offered during the Central States Chapter conference of the Society of American Travel Writers, which met in Tulsa in April.
First things first, our trio — a travel writer from Ohio, our hostess Trisha Kerkstra from Tulsa’s Post Oak Lodge, and I — stopped for lunch at the Osage Casino in Skiatook. I’m not a big fan of casinos, but the food in the Fiery Grille was impressive. My first clue that I was going to like it — they spelled Reuben correctly. I take points off for menu misspelling! And the sandwich was great: Tender, shaved corned beef with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, 1000 Island dressing on toasted rye bread — perfect!
I ordered the half-and-half soup and sandwich option, so I got to try their loaded baked potato soup. Thick and rich, it was topped with Nueske’s bacon (so special it’s been written up in the New York Times), cheddar cheese and green onions. According to Chef Drew Flatt, their steaks are their signature items and it would be worth a trip to try one.
Then it was on to Pawhuska and the Osage Tribal Museum. While the exhibits were interesting, the best part of the museum was visiting with the volunteers. They were gracious in giving their time to talk to us and share stories special to their tribes. I loved the way Leon Hawzipta — actually Kiowa and Comanche — finished his story: “That’s the way it was; that’s the way it is; that’s the way it always will be.”
For me, the shining star in Pawhuska is the beautiful Cathedral of the Osage, more properly Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. Built between 1910 and 1915, the building shows some French influences, appropriate considering the relationship between the Osage people and French missionaries. The bright, white interior features graceful arches and outstanding stained glass.
The nine apse windows came from a Chicago studio and depict Old and New Testament figures with Christ in the center. Thirteen more windows had been ordered from the Bavarian Art Glass Company in Munich, but World War I intervened. Munich glass was highly prized both for the quality of the glass, which incorporated expensive elements including manganese, copper and gold, but also for the exquisite style of painting on the glass.
Of the German windows, installed after the war, the two most famous ones are found on either side of the transept. The window on the south shows Christopher Columbus meeting Native Americans. The north window depicts a Jesuit priest, Father John Schoenmakers, meeting the Osage Indians in Kansas in 1846. The window is unique in featuring the likenesses of Osages living when the windows were designed, a break with tradition which required special permission of the Catholic Church.
Our final stop was in Hominy at the gallery of Native American artist Chá Tullis. Smack dab in the middle of Osage country, Tullis’ own heritage is Blackfoot and Cherokee. You can see Tullis’ work even before you get to the gallery. A magnificent set of sculptures — 15 mounted Native warriors, each about 20-feet tall, are ranged along a ridge above town. And in town, many of the buildings are decorated with colorful murals by this talented artist.
Tullis works in a variety of media from paint and steel to precious metals and gemstones, creating paintings, sculptures, jewelry and home décor items. For me, he was the biggest attraction — tall, handsome, with flowing white hair and the most beautiful smile.
He’s been asked many times why he isn’t in Santa Fe, Taos or some other more lucrative market. His answer — Hominy is his home and he wants to give back to the community. Art collectors from all over make the trek to this tiny Oklahoma town to meet him and purchase his art.
Time was running out — we had an hour’s drive back to Tulsa — and we hadn’t seen the Tallgrass Prairie. We’d missed the Bivin Garden near Shidler and the work-in-progress Tulsa Botanic Garden, but we did see Woolaroc another day — same for Gilcrease Museum which sits on the far southeast corner of the county.
We had a great dinner that night at Post Oak Lodge (also in Osage County). This spot is making me use a phrase I swore off of years ago — it is one of Oklahoma’s best-kept secrets. Built by the Williams Company as a company retreat, it has great conference facilities in a beautiful setting in the Osage Hills. Individual travelers also can make arrangements to stay there.
It was a busy day with a full schedule, but oh, so satisfying. And like any good destination, it left us wanting to see more. I’m the lucky one. I live in Oklahoma, so I can easily go back. My friend from Ohio will just have to make another trip.
ELAINE WARNER is an Edmond-based travel writer.