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From Frontier to Retro in Oklahoma City

Oklahoma City, the capital and largest city of Oklahoma, bills itself as “The Modern Frontier.” And it’s easy to see why. Founded during the famed Land Rush of 1889 that first opened Oklahoma Territory to non-Native settlement, the city celebrates its past as one of America’s first Western outposts while boasting a diverse mix of thriving, modern downtown dining and entertainment districts.

There’s no shortage of things to see and do in OKC, as the city is known to locals, from the poignant Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, which pays tribute to those lost in the 1995 bombing of the city’s Murrah Federal Building, to a day trip to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, which boasts one of the world’s largest collections of glass art by famed maker Dale Chihuly.

But no trip to the city would be complete without a tour of its rich history and heritage, on display at a wide array of sites that celebrate the people, places and cultures that make OKC unique.

First Americans Museum

Set to open in September, the long-anticipated First Americans Museum, on the banks of the Oklahoma River, will include state-of-the-art exhibits of Native American culture and art, as well as live educational demonstrations. Its Discovery Center will include immersive, hands-on activities, and its on-site, full-service restaurant will offer Native-inspired cuisine. The museum store will feature handmade items crafted by the state’s premier Native American artisans.

The new facility promises to offer visitors a great starting point to explore the collective histories of the 39 distinctive First American Nations present in Oklahoma today. The museum’s planned Tribal Nations Gallery will include 140 objects on long-term loan from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.

“I love that it is completely owned and operated by the 39 tribes,” said Sandy Price, vice president of tourism at the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It is the first time they have felt like they have been able to tell their story the way they want to tell it.”

National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

Founded in 1955, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum houses one of the nation’s premier collections of Western history, art and culture.

Its exhibits include works of art by famed cowboy artist Charles M. Russell, weapons and day-to-day relics from the settling of the American West, an in-depth look at pioneers of American Rodeo and a rich sampling of Native American artifacts, among other highlights.

Recently, the museum added Liichokoshkomo’ — Chickasaw for “Let’s Play” — a new, 100,000-square-foot outdoor space for learning and family fun. Visitors can try their hand at tasks from the Old West such as grinding corn, weaving on a giant loom or loading a pioneer wagon. The outdoor exhibit also includes life-size replicas of several Native-style buildings, including a Kiowa tepee, a Puebloan cliff dwelling, a prairie sod house and a Chickasaw council house.

A visit to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in tandem with a stop at the new First Americans Museum will “truly be the best of cowboys and Indians within 15 minutes of each other,” Price said.

Centennial Land Run Monument

The mad dash to stake claims in Oklahoma City’s Land Rush of 1889 is captured in life-size drama through the 45 bronze figures that make up the city’s Centennial Land Rush Monument. Created by artist Paul Moore and located in a city park near the Bricktown Canal, the series of figures depicts the varied participants of that historic day, from the gentleman in charge of the noon-sharp cannon blast that started the run to the men on horseback and families in wagons racing to find the launching point of their new lives in the American West.

“It’s like the whole energy of that day is frozen in time,” Price said. “Everyone is depicted in motion. At some point, the monuments cross the Bricktown Canal, and the entire park just makes a great place for group photos.”

Conestoga Wagons and Tepees at the Orr Family Farm

Groups wanting a taste of frontier life will want to consider an overnight stay at the Orr Family Farm, where Conestoga wagons and tepees offer an unusual glamping experience that blends the historic mystique of the Old West with must-have modern amenities, including luxury bedding, charging ports and private bathrooms and showers at each site.

Though offering a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the entire campground can host only up to 100 guests and is best suited to hosting smaller groups, Price said.

Accommodations include a four- or five-person tepee, a four- or six-person wagon, or the less glamorous “camper” wagons that can fit up to eight people in bunk beds. Groups can include an optional Campfire Meal of hotdogs, chips and lemonade.

Both wagons and tepees are temperature controlled, and guests can enjoy access to charcoal grills and fire pits as well as the farm’s many activities, among them a gem mine, a fun yard, a playground, a fishing pond and a swim spa.

Classen Inn

Fans of midcentury modern style might prefer a night’s stay at Oklahoma City’s Classen Inn. Recently renovated, this classic 1963 motor lodge boasts plenty of retro flair with furnishings and decor that are a nod to bygone American road trips of the past.

As a testament to Oklahoma City’s historic location along Route 66, the Classen Inn offers 15 guest rooms, all done in midcentury colors and themes.

Several rooms include a private balcony, offering guests a wonderful spot to relax and unwind while taking in the inn’s iconic “Googie”-style architecture, a futuristic style heavy on geometric shapes that was influenced by the Space and the Atomic ages of the 1940s through 1960s.

“Groups can rent the whole hotel,” Price said. “It’s a very cute, very fun, very cool hotel.”

Oklahoma History Center

Home to collections that explore Oklahoma’s Native populations as well as its early settlement, the civil rights era, the modern scientific contributions of its residents and more, the Oklahoma History Center offers something of interest for every visitor.

Situated on 18 acres, the center features over 200,000 square feet of exhibits that focus on everything from the state’s natural geology and cultural heritage to the evolution of commerce and transportation in the region.

The newest exhibit, “Launch to Landing,” includes a Skylab 4 Apollo Command Module and focuses on telling the story of Oklahomans in the U.S. Space Program, as well as those who played pivotal roles in early U.S. aviation history.

Another popular exhibit, “Realizing the Dream,” lets visitors view re-creations of important sites in Oklahoma’s civil rights history, including Richard Lewis’ barbershop and Clara Luper’s living room.

The museum’s Sam Noble Gallery includes a tribute to the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma!” and the ways that it shaped a new era in modern American musical theater. Other key exhibits explore the roles of the natural gas and oil industries in the state and Oklahoma’s rich military history.

The History Center is “very hands-on and covers a wide scope of the history of Oklahoma,” said Price.