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Depew is home to history, international art, stripped-down fun

M. Tim Blake / Red Dirt Report
Wayne Cooper stands next to the sign that bears his name.
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DEPEW, Okla. – The only other person on the four-mile hike besides me was the naked old man sitting by the lake smoking a pipe.

He wore a floppy hat over a face covered in facial hair as thick as a shepherd’s coat, and his legs were crossed over his just-as-floppy bits, which was bare for the lake, the woods and other hikers like me to see.

I smelled the pipe tobacco before seeing the naked man, but I waved and shared a few short words of chit-chat before continuing my hike with my body as much on display as his was. Besides my own floppy hat and a pair of hiking sandals, I was as nude as Mr. Pipe Smoker.

Drive along the Turner Turnpike between Oklahoma City and Texas, and likely you’ll speed right on past a town that’s full of history, art and stripped-down enthusiasm.

Depew, a town of roughly 550 souls, is nestled along Route 66 between Stroud and Bristow.

Like many old oil boom towns, its heyday has passed, but I was in the area not to explore history, but to try naked hiking at one of America’s largest naturist resorts outside of the town of Depew.

Depew may be home to a nudist resort, but the small town offers more than just a clothing-optional recreation. Not only does history pass right through the city in the form of Route 66, but it also serves as home base for international western artist Wayne Cooper.

Acclaimed western artist Wayne Cooper in his gallery.

Welcome to Depew.

Boomtown

Depew, located near Stroud along the Turner Turnpike, actually started as a small settlement named Hall in 1898, when St. Louis and Oklahoma City built a line between Sapulpa, Oklahoma and Oklahoma City. In 1901, Walter F. Malley named the community “Depew” and opened a post office, making the small settlement a legitimate town. The town was named after U.S. Sen. Chauncey Depew of New York, who was also a major player in America's railroad building in the late 19th century.

Times were good for Depew. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, the town served mostly as a railroad town and an agricultural center. But soon, banks and a newspaper called The Depew Independent opened, and by 1909, Depew had about 150 residents.

Business was even better after oil was discovered near Depew in 1911, and another rail line was built connecting Depew to the town of Shamrock about 12 miles northwest. By that time, a livery and two cotton gins were doing business, and business was so good that two more cotton gins were built by the 1920s.

In the mid-1920s, Depew was a bustling township. It had three lumberyards, three service stations, four hotels, three gasoline plants, two indoor theaters and more.

Then came Route 66.

This stretch of concrete that runs just north of Highway 66, is a remnant of the original Route 66.

Route 66, the famed Mother Road that ran from Chicago to California, ran right through the heart of Depew, and travelers from all over the world passed through the small town.

But like many oil bust towns, the Great Depression took its toll. Although Depew had more than 1,000 residents in 1930, the decades to follow the Great Depression siphoned off people as businesses closed and the Chamber of Commerce shut town. A decade later, the population had dropped to 875 residents. By 1960, only roughly 680 people remained.

Rowdy history

One of Depew’s rowdiest secrets was that it allegedly was home to a brothel called Pete Hawkins Bar, located in a two-story building with the bar on the first floor and rooms to "rent" on the second. Hawkins was a flamboyant character who wore a black derby hat and always had a cigar holder in his mouth, and on the second story balcony, the ladies would wear skimpy clothes to advertise their "availability,” according to legend.

Although the building is no longer standing, the legend remains. According to Cooper, Hawkins was shot by his wife in a jealous rage, but Wayne couldn't confirm that he died from the wound.

Today, Depew resembles a ghost town.

"We have lots of ghosts here, but we like them," Cooper said.

Art in the heart

Wayne Cooper, who achieved national and international fame as an esteemed Western heritage artist, grew up on a small farm just north of Depew.

“I grew up around cattle and horses, and I had an uncle who worked at the famous 101 Ranch, so I grew up hearing those stories about the Old West,” Cooper, now 74, said. “When I was a child, Depew was a farming area and also had three cotton gins in town. It had hitching rails and wagons downtown. Every Saturday was a big shopping day, so it was pretty busy.”

Cooper’s father instilled a love of drawing in his son at an early age. He would draw mules and horses on a blackboard so he could show Wayne the difference.

“Whatever dad drew, I drew, because whatever dad did, I wanted to do… because dads are great,” Cooper said.

Cooper attended college in Indiana at Bacone College, where he trained with Woody Crumbo, a celebrated Potawatomi artist and teacher. His professional career began in 1964 in Chicago and continued to New York City from 1974 to 1981. The gallery he worked for in NYC boasted of 35 galleries across the U.S., and Cooper found himself on the road on the art fair circuit.

“It was the right place at the right time,” he said. “I worked alongside artists like Norman Rockwell. In my later years, I started doing a lot of more Western-style art.”

Western artist Wayne Cooper painting in his studio.

Cooper's media includes oils, watercolors, charcoals, pencil and bronze sculpture, as well as lithographs. The Oklahoma State Capital has commissioned more than 20 pieces of art from Cooper.

Although he lived all over the U.S., Cooper returned to Depew in the mid-1980s to care for his ailing mother.

“I built a little studio by her house, and it certainly grew,” he said. “I stay because I have friends and family here. That’s important. I can work right here as well as in New York or Chicago.”

Residence of Wayne Cooper.

In addition to being a favorite contributing artist to the Oklahoma State Capitol, Cooper has presented special shows at the Will Rogers Memorial, is part of the permanent collections at the Gilcrease Museum of Art in Tulsa and Woolaroc in Osage County, at Oklahoma State University, OSU Tech and has been featured in countless other shows and museums.

Besides painting, Cooper was commissioned by Perkins, Okla., to create two 12 foot bronze sculptures of legendary cowboy Frank Eaton, also known as OSU’s mascot “Pistol Pete,” and of Iowa chief “No Heart.”

Today, the Wayne Cooper Art Gallery is located at 719 W. 7th St. in Depew.

Wayne Cooper’s gallery.

“It’s not hard to find because 7th St. is only about three blocks long,” he said. “I still do a lot of commission work, but I’m semi-retired, if that’s the right word. But I still wake up every morning and I can’t wait to get started again.

“Painting is like a puzzle to me. I think that’s why it’s always a challenge to me. I try to work that puzzle into a piece of art. That’s what drives me – I want to fix the puzzle in the painting, and I truly love it.”

Naturist lifestyle

The Oaklake Trails Naturist Park sits on more than 400 acres in Depew and butts up against the always-busy Turner Turnpike. In fact, at mile marker 180, if you look quick enough at the top of the hill to the south of the turnpike, you may catch a glimpse of pale skin and bare buttocks before zipping past at 75 miles per hour.

Yet, despite its size, the existence of such a clothing-optional is unknown to most Oklahomans and even to the residents of the area. Dennis Duncan, office manager, didn’t even realize the resort was in his backyard for a decade, and he wants to change that.

He also wants curious souls to bare it all and give the naturist lifestyle a chance.

“We opened in 1992 as a park, and Oaklake Trails was started by six members of another naturist resort near Tulsa,” he said. “They wanted to expand on the availability of clothing-optional resorts in the state, so they found the 440 acres here in Depew.”

The resort, which was recently awarded Business of the Month from the neighboring city of Stroud, says not only does it offer family-friendly, wholesome clothing-optional recreation, but it is a good neighbor to Depew, Stroud and Bristow.

Oaklake Trails Naturalist Park is one of Depew’s major tourist destinations.

“We try to be good neighbors, and we are active in community service in Depew, Stroud and Bristow,” Duncan said. “We have a high regard for family values, so this is a great place for family fun in a natural environment. We are also one of the first members of the American Association for Nude Recreation, which has a pretty strict set of guidelines.”

Oaklake Trails, along with other naturist societies, are fighting to attract a younger generation to enjoy the feeling of freedom. They yearn for younger couples to join the community and to understand that nudist organizations are not about sex and perversion, but about enjoying the total freedom of letting go of body issues and shameful ideas about the beauty of a naked form.

“We are here to be nude, not to see nudity,” Duncan said. “It’s such a healthy, wholesome activity to enjoy. If you love the outdoors and sunshine, this is a great place to go and not be encumbered by clothes.”

Miles of hiking and jogging trails wind around eight lakes and ponds, through rock formations and along a seasonal waterfall.

Oaklake Trails, open year-round to members and visitors, also offers recreation like two heated swimming pools, a hot tub, volleyball and shuffleboard courts, an expanding club house and plenty of camping or cabins for extended stays.

Other events include dancing, murder mystery theatre, social events and anything else you’d expect at a resort… except clothes.

“We have members ranging from young couples to retirees,” Duncan said. “It’s is a great equalizer. When you enjoy recreation in a clothes-free environment, you don’t know what the guy across from you does for a living. It allows you to build friendships based on personality. We also offer wholesome, family fun.”

The resort does background checks on members to weed out those convicted of serious felonies or sexual assaults, but it also prides itself on strict privacy.

“We are a family-oriented nudist facility. We promote the idea that social nudity with your friends and family is wholesome, relaxing, healthy and just plain fun,” Duncan said.

For more information about Oaklake Trails Naturist Park, visit oaklaketrails.com.

RDR’s M. Tim Blake contributed to this story, and all photos are by him.

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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