March 11, 2007

Get Your Giant Whale Fix on Route 66

Spring has gone and sprung here in Tornado Alley, and after a long winter cooped up with a colicky newborn, I was ready for a change of scenery and some fresh air. So last week Mr. Sweetheart and I loaded up our little Sugar Pea and all her accoutrements, and headed out for a short day trip. Since we live just two miles from old Route 66, we thought we'd see a couple of the famous landmarks this part of the Mother Road is known for.
Not far from Tulsa lies Catoosa, Oklahoma, a town of about 6,000. It was here in 1970 that Hugh Davis, the retired director of the Tulsa Zoo, chose to express his deep, abiding love for his wife, Zelta, on their anniversary by presenting her with a giant concrete and steel whale. Not exactly a diamond tennis bracelet, but sweet nonetheless. Actually, it's extremely sweet considering he constructed the 80 foot mammal mostly by himself, with occasional help from a friend who could weld. It seems Zelta collected whale figurines, so the gesture was actually very thoughtful, and, it is assumed, put the tchochkes and knick knacks in her collection to shame. And isn't a homemade gift from the heart always better than some impersonal store bought item?

The whale was originally intended to be a fun replacement for a rickety old dock the family used when they swam in the spring fed private pond on their property. But an enormous, smiling, bright blue whale just off Route 66 attracted more than a few visitors. Locals and road trippers came by the hundreds to jump off its tail, slide down its fins, and relax in the shade near the pretty little pond. Well, what could Mr. Davis do but truck in sand, build some equally cartoonish concrete picnic tables, erect a concession stand and open the attraction to the public? The property already contained an alligator farm and a huge wooden boat that housed a snake pit and other exhibitions called the A.R.K. (Animal Reptile Kingdom). My mother in law grew up just down the road from "Nature's Acres", as the attraction was called, and can remember riding her bike there almost daily during the summers to swim and see the gators. In fact, the alligators provided quite a thrill for visitors since they were allowed to slither and swim freely, with no walls or fences to separate them from the small children who regularly roamed the park. My mother in law remembers once being alone and trapped on a small island, forced to wait out a huge gator until it finally lumbered away, unblocking the low bridge that had led her there. Amazingly, there were never any maimings or accidents, and Hugh had full faith in the gentleness of his reptiles. I'm not sure he could afford to be so relaxed in today's world of rampant lawsuits. Another memory she has of the kind and thoughtful Mr. Davis is the time she brought him a litter of coyote pups she had rescued. Later he told her he had traded them to a zoo in Japan, and outside their habitat a plaque would read, "Donated by Kalyne _____". She was thrilled to know her name would be displayed on the other side of the world.

in the belly of the beast

a portal to one of the fin slides

the diving platform on the tail

In 1988, with their health failing, Hugh and Zelta could no longer maintain the attraction and made the decision to close it to the public. In 1990 Hugh died, and without his creator, the blue whale fell into a deep depression and began to deteriorate. In 1997, volunteers and the Catoosa Chamber of Commerce revived the old guy, and he once again smiles (despite the addition of a giant hook to his lip) and beckons visitors from the side of the highway. In 2002, further sprucing up was done, and the whale and his little park, complete with bathrooms, are open to the public. Swimming is no longer allowed, but looking at the algae-choked, muddy water you'd have to be a much braver soul than I to attempt it, anyway.

the old ark

It's so great to see a relic from the past resurrected and maintained with such care. Too many pieces of our shared history are slowly eroding and will not last for our children and their children to enjoy. You can learn more about the blue whale and Catoosa here and here. Well Dollfaces, I hope you enjoyed yourself on this little excursion as much as I did. I'll save the next destination on our trip for another time.

1 comment:

my house is cuter than yours said...

it's been a long time dream of mine to visit this whale.