July 5, 2017

​Good Medicine for Medicine Park, Oklahoma

  • By: Sophia Dembling
Buffalo Gal rental cottage

photo by: Sophia Dembling

A restored rental cottage in Medicine Park, Oklahoma.

Candace and David McCoy lived in McAllen, Texas, and had already purchased land to relocate to Central Texas when they took a jaunt north, to visit Medicine Park, Oklahoma, a little town that figured largely in Candace’s family lore.

“My father ran the park in the early ‘50s, and I was born there,” Candace says. “We moved away when I was a baby, but I always heard stories about swimming in the creek, the water slide, burro rides, the gangsters ….”

Sitting the edge of the 59,000-acre Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, which attracts two million visitors a year, Medicine Park was founded in 1908 by Oklahoma Senator Elmer Thomas as a resort community. At one time, the town boasted a dance hall, a couple of inns, a health sanitarium, and a collection of distinctive cottages built from the area’s naturally formed round cobblestones.

Medicine Creek, which tumbles through the center of town, was refreshing respite for visitors from nearby Lawton and beyond. Will Rogers, Al Capone, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and Bonnie and Clyde were all visitors to Medicine Park.

But as automobiles grew more common and people traveled farther afield for vacations, Medicine Park started a downward spiral, becoming derelict, druggy, and dangerous by the 1980s.

In April 1995, the McCoys visited, saw the town’s potential, and got to work.

Today, the town is reborn. Once-uninhabitable cottages are selling for six figures and welcome vacationers again. People play in the river and stroll across a pretty new bridge. Shops are opening. On June 10, 2017, the first stage of the ambitious Medicine Park Aquarium and Natural Sciences Center opened on eight acres the McCoys donated. Lawton native Doug Kemper—whose resume includes founding director of aquariums in Seattle, Tulsa, and Moody Gardens in Galveston—is at the helm.

It was all a matter of vision, money, and Medicine Park’s good bones. We talked to the McCoys about making it happen (edited for clarity).

Visitors enjoying the creek

photo by: Sophia Dembling

Visitors enjoy the creek running through the center of town.

What was your first visit like?

Candace: All my friends said that it was very scary and rundown, but we saw great possibilities and had tremendous vision from day one. It had a beautiful river running right through the center, with waterfalls and trees. It had all the bones.

David: It was just so pretty. We walked across the bridge and Candace said, ‘If we had a little restaurant, we could sell hamburgers.’ As we were looking for a place to relax, a lady was putting a sign outside a restaurant. We bought it. Signed a contract on a napkin.

C: We sold our land in Bandera [Texas] and moved lock, stock and barrel. We were there within thirty days of first seeing it. At that time, very few of the cottages were habitable. We lived in the back of the restaurant the first six months.

How confident were you?

D: I worked in the oil field and construction and development all my life. We knew we could do it. Of course, confidence is what you have before you fully understand the situation.

C: When I was doing the business plan for the Riverside Café, a gentleman told me, ‘I’ve heard if you build it, they will come.’ This place already has two million visitors! They were already coming. They were driving right through it and past it, and there was nothing there.”

How did you get started?

D: We didn’t really have any money, but we had really good credit.

C: In the beginning, the banks didn’t want to fund Medicine Park because it had a bad reputation. But we found one bank that would. And we did it step-by-step, and committed to sell what we built, to bring some other people in that would have an investment in the community.

Was drawing in other people difficult?

C: You show other people your dream, and they either get it or they don’t. If they can’t see past what’s there, then they’re not the right ones. But if they see the vision, you’ve got the people you’re looking for.

Candace and David McCoy

photo by: Candace McCoy

Candace and David McCoy.

For instance, a girl I worked with in McAllen was doing a clinic at OSU and brought her sister. I showed her around. She was amazed. Her husband was a builder as well. They were here within about sixty days.

How did you approach your restorations?

D: We tried to stick with the authentic style but with new infrastructure, new plumbing. We used the original cobblestone, original mortar, a lot of the same type roofing.

We had a lot of old pictures, so we tried to make them look like the pictures. We stuck with the same footprints. We tried to do the doors the same and the corbels; we found the 117 novelty siding and five-crimp roofing tin. We tried to put the sleeping porches back on the house, where they were closed in.

C: We have learned that when you are restoring and preserving, you’re looking at about twenty percent more in cost. It’s tough.

D: When we did the hotel, we left a lot of the cobblestones in the front. We tore everything out but that facade. It cost us more than just leveling it and rebuilding.

And beyond restoring buildings?

D: We wrote grants to get the roads paved. We’ve had a lot of support from different organizations and banks. We’re building up the fire department and police department through grants. We get a lot of the credit, but it’s a group effort.

C: We bought the creek region and donated that to the town, so it could be under their control. We built the Granite Ridge subdivision, new, to look like Medicine Park, very retro. We did an entire area of shopping, with residences on top.

Some cottages are still in ruins. Will those be restored?

D: Some have been in families forever. We try to get people to either fix ‘em or sell ‘em, but it’s hard to do.

C: In the past six months, there’ve been another ten properties restored.

How stringent are restoration guidelines?

D: A lot of the time they can do what they want, unless they’re within so many feet of a historical building. Otherwise, we like it to have the flavor of Medicine Park—and you have the 1900s flavor, the 1940s flavor, the 1980s, the 2000s.

We’re kind of like Austin. We try to keep it weird. We don’t want cookie-cutter stuff. As long as it’s still Medicine Park, it can be modern. I like to put cobblestones on everything I do, but you can have modern Medicine Park.

What about those cobblestones? Still available?

D: We probably own more cobblestones than anybody. You dig them up on your own property, or you can purchase them. They’re a little bit hard to acquire, but if you want to get them, you can find them.

C: You can’t take cobblestones out of Medicine Park. There’s a fine of $1,500 per stone.

D: I don’t think we’ve ever prosecuted anybody, but the signs are up.

What's the town like now?

D: It’s like living at summer camp. We’ll walk around at night you hear music coming up the creek, people laughing and having a good time. It’s Mayberry RFD crossed with the Twilight Zone. We have church parties and picnics by the creek; next weekend we have a Bandidos [motorcycle club] wedding; retirement-home buses driving through; the Park Stomp [an annual music festival], young hippies, mountain bikers are becoming a really big thing. We have a lot of quirky stuff.

Dallas, Texas-based writer Sophia Dembling is author of "100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go," "The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas," and other books. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Texas Journey, and many other newspapers, magazines, and websites.

@sophiadembling

Donations from people like you make the work of the National Trust possible. Support our work today to save places that matter.

Donate Today