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Small Town Matters: Art and gumption at work in Foyil

Shaun Perkins / Red Dirt Report
You haven't seen a totem pole until you've seen this one.
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FOYIL, Okla. - Foyil, a few miles north of Claremore in Rogers County, has two claims to fame: a mighty totem pole park and a mighty runner. Despite these two wonders, a locale on Route 66 and a strong school, the town struggles with the same problem that still blights every part of the Oklahoma landscape.

With a population of 334, Foyil is easy to miss while driving down highway 66. Still, a cheerful Annie’s Diner sign alerts you to a great roadside stop. We had an early lunch inside. My BLT was fresh and tasty, the service great and the atmosphere clean, casual and friendly.

Annie Kellehan runs the diner and has a long history in the restaurant business, having owned and operated Dailey’s Restaurant in Claremore for decades. “It’s smaller here and I’m older and I can’t run the big ones anymore,” Kellehan told us.

“And she’s crazy!” her daughter Tommie Stone added.

Kellehan said the community “hollered before I opened this place that they needed a place to eat here.” It’s the only restaurant in Foyil, and “Peopole do come in and say we’re glad you’re here.” Though she has had some success since she opened last year, Kellehan said, “I’d like to be more busy.”

The diner has homemade cinnamon rolls, pies and cakes, in addition to specials every day of the week. “I’d like for this place to grow,” Kellehan said. “We’re in a good location.”

The location is an area that once belonged to the Cherokee Nation. In 1890, it got a post office and the first postmaster Alfred Foyil, who also owned the town general store.

Always a small town, Foyil’s population has dipped as low as 86 in 1990. The major thing that has probably kept it alive, at least in the eyes of visitors from all over the world, is the Totem Pole Park, a few miles west of Route 66 on highway 28. This park, built by folk artist Ed Galloway, is a one-of-a-kind kitschy dream of multi-colored concrete and iconic art.

The 90-foot-tall totem pole in the park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. The park’s structures and fiddle house, which displays the handmade instruments Galloway made, are Galloway’s life work. Galloway started the park art in 1937 and worked on it every day until he died in 1962. It is an absolute must-see place and also a good picnic spot.

Foyil is also the boyhood home of Josh Brown, who became a player for the Seattle Seawhawks, but the athlete whose sculpture sits along the highway belongs to Andy Payne, the winner of the 1928 Trans-American Footrace from Los Angeles to New York City. Payne’s life is an example of the kind of determination and—there’s no other word for it—gumption—that Foyil, and every town, needs more of.

Payne, who was part-Cherokee, grew up and graduated from Foyil. Andy’s father had left home at the age of 11 to find work and he eventually became a friend of Clem Rogers (Will’s father) and worked on the Dog Iron Ranch in Oologah just down the road, and then later bought a farm the family worked on in Foyil.

Payne was the oldest of seven children and worked hard to help the family farm get by. He was often in charge of the other children in doing chores but realized he had no interested in becoming a farmer himself. After high school, Payne went to California in search of work, where he had little luck, but he did hear about this 84-day race across the country, and he and his dad managed to raise the money for the entry fee.

After winning the arduous race, Payne took the prize money of $25,000 and returned to Oklahoma, paid off his family’s farm mortgage and built his parents a new house. He then bought some land of his own, married, became a state supreme court clerk, served in World War II, became a lawyer and died in 1977 with a sizeable legacy left to his family.

This hard work, rags-to-riches story is a lesson for people today, especially those who opt for the easy buck and give in to addictions rather than make a honest living that benefits one’s family and community. In other words, Foyil has a drug problem. One Foyil resident told me, “Foyil is considered the meth capital of the world.” Now I’ve heard that same phrase said about a lot of towns in Oklahoma, but even saying it suggests a problem.

The town has no police department and is policed by Rogers County. Last year, a county drug task force arrested 12 people, many of them family members, in Foyil for what Sheriff’s Captain Jerry Smittle called a “generational drug operation.”

Our waitress Jamie Thomas at Annie’s Diner said of Foyil, “It’s a good thing that everybody knows everybody here. My whole family is from here.” However, Thomas also said she had moved away in the hope that her children wouldn’t get mixed up with the “bad people and a lot of drugs” that make the town a place she doesn’t want to be.

Thomas also said that the school had improved a lot in the last few years. Perhaps it is a place that can turn things around for Foyil and produce more folks in the Andy Payne-vein. The school’s website has this Michael Jordan quote on its landing page: ‘Always turn a negative situation into a positive situation.’

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About the Author

Shaun Perkins

Shaun Perkins is a writer, teacher and poet and now a contributing writer for Red Dirt Report....

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About Red Dirt Report

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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