picture of downtown durant

The City of Durant: Beyond the Casino

Durant, a small town just north of the Texas-Oklahoma border, is known by most as the place of Choctaw Casino & Resort. One of the main casinos in Oklahoma, people come here from all places in hopes of winning big. But did you know that Durant is also home to other places of significance, such as the headquarters of the Choctaw Nation? Over this past long weekend, I decided to pay a visit to this town of over 17,000 to see what was there besides the casino.

After a one and a half hour drive up from Dallas, my first stop was at the Bryan County Courthouse, in the heart of downtown. Built in 1917, this three-story building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

image of bryan county courthouse
The Bryan County Courthouse.

Like most courthouses in the south, this one had a military memorial, as well as a Confederate statue on its front lawn.

bryan county courthouse military memorial
The military memorial.

Down the road from the courthouse was the Durant City Hall. Normally there isn’t much to see at a city hall(unless it’s the one in Addison, Texas), but a rather interesting display sat outside. It was none other than the world’s largest peanut!

surant city hall
The Durant City Hall.

Well, not quite. After doing some research, it turned out that this peanut isn’t the world’s largest anymore, but was at the time it was built. In fact, Oklahoma is nowhere near the top when it comes to states that have a peanut harvest. Kind of a nutty deal, but nevertheless it was a neat little attraction.

Since I was already in downtown, I decided to stroll down one of the main streets. Like many of the town squares I’ve seen in Texas small towns, this area was dead quiet. As I recall, there weren’t too many vacant buildings, but most of the stores were closed due to Columbus Day.

picture of downtown durant
Downtown Durant.

From there, it was off to the Southeastern Oklahoma State University, located about five minutes away. I had heard about SEOSU in the past due to their aviation program, but never really looked much into it. Thus, when I was doing my planning for this trip, I was surprised to find this university so close to the Texas-Oklahoma border.

The buildings consisted of a mixture between old and new.

southeastern oklahoma state university

southeastern oklahoma state university

While this university is quite small, some of its buildings don’t look bad at all! The library had a fairly grand look to it, and the Greek-style design made it fit into the campus environment well.

southeastern oklahoma state university

Walking in these buildings, however, I have to say that there wasn’t anything notable about the interior design. The various hallways and classrooms were quite dated, and had somewhat of a high school-like feeling to them.

southeastern oklahoma state university

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Being that this university is located in Oklahoma, there was a connection to Native Americans. I passed by this building, which housed the Native American Institute. Here, there are a multitude of programs centered around Native American education.

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Speaking of Native Americans, the Choctaw Nation Headquarters was my next stop.

image of the choctaw nation headquarters
The Choctaw Nation Headquarters.

This new building, opened in 2018, houses the various offices of the nation’s third-largest Indian tribe. From member registration to the legal department, pretty much everything is combined under one roof. Although no one was available to give me a tour, the first and second floors were open to the public. While the second floor had nothing but offices, there was some stuff on the first floor, such as the Hall of Chiefs and Tribal Council displays.

Choctaw Nation Headquarters

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The Constitution of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
The Constitution of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

The Chief’s office was also located on the first floor, and I got to tour his office, thanks to his friendly receptionist. It was pretty neat seeing the room in which the leader works out of.

Choctaw Nation Chief's Office
Chief Gary Batton’s office.
Choctaw Nation Chief's Office
The waiting area outside Chief Batton’s office.

In the lobby, there were some display cases containing Choctaw Nation artwork. If you want to take some Choctaw merchandise home, a gift shop sells t-shirts, artifacts, and more.

Choctaw Nation Headquarters

Being that this was the heart of Choctaw country, many of the signs had Choctaw language on them.

Choctaw Nation Headquarters

As I walked down one of the hallways, a display talking about domestic violence caught my eye. Domestic violence is still an issue within the Native American community, with 64% of Indian women being assaulted in their lifetime, according to the Choctaw Nation. There are facilities here where tribal members can seek help.

Choctaw Nation Headquarters

After all this sightseeing, I was ready for lunch. I decided to eat at Roots Cafe, an office building-like cafeteria attached to the headquarters.

Choctaw Nation Headquarters roots cafe
Roots Cafe.

Usually, I would expect the food of a place like this to be quite bland, but the Fettuccine Alfredo and green beans I got were actually pretty delicious!

picture of a meal at roots cafe in durant
Surprisingly delicious!

After lunch, I had to start heading back to Texas. I found it pretty cool to see the Durant most folks aren’t privy to, as well as learning more about the Choctaw Nation. If you happen to be passing by Durant on Highway 75 and have some time to spare, I would suggest a detour, even if it’s just to see the world’s largest peanut and visit the “White House” of the Choctaw Nation!

 

picture of houses in dish texas

This Denton County Town is Named After Dish Network

Texas is full of cities named after different places – from Athens to Italy, and all the way to Palestine. However, the town that I visited recently wasn’t named after a country or even a U.S. state- rather it carries the name of a satellite TV provider. Welcome to DISH, TX. Yep, that’s right, in all caps.

I first heard about DISH as I was browsing around on Wikipedia. On a page listing the different municipalities making up the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, the unique name caught my eye right away. Upon doing some Googling, I learned about the interesting story of this tiny town. Located about 16 miles to the southwest of Denton, it was originally known as Clark. In 2005, this community of less than 400 voted to rename their town in an agreement with Dish Network. In return, all residents received ten years of free basic service, a satellite dish, and a DVR.

Upon arriving in this town of only 1.6 square miles, I noticed the number of relatively new homes there. Given that there are many new developments in the nearby town of Justin, it didn’t come off as much of a surprise.

photo of homes in dish texas

photo of homes in dish texas

One thing I wanted to see was how many homes still had Dish Network satellites, since the agreement had expired in 2015. As ironic as it sounds, I saw many more DirecTV dishes! Maybe that would have been different had Dish Network continued to give at least some sort of discount to these residents. Perhaps it was just the quality of service. Really can’t say either way.

In many of these ranch-style houses, the backyard area was fairly large. I’m sure the residents wouldn’t be complaining of being crowded here! All this space made it look like a relaxing place to live and enjoy life.

picture of houses in dish texas
The spaciousness in this neighborhood was nice.

However, this town has had its share of problems. On the other side of the neighborhood were natural gas drilling sites. DISH sits in the Barnett Shale, a huge source of natural gas spanning seventeen counties. Some residents have reported health problems as a result of the chemicals emitted from production. Other folks, like town founder L.E. Clark, say that there are no issues. “There is a sniffer checking air quality. The pump is located 1800 feet from my house, and if anybody would be breathing it, it would be me. I have had no problems.”

picture of a natural gas site in dish texas
One of the natural gas sites.

Just down the road from the natural gas sites was the town hall. A small single-story metal building, it is only staffed for less than 3 hours a day, four days a week. A satellite dish was erected in the lawn close to the roadway – a landmark of sorts.

picture of the dish texas town hall
Dish’s Town Hall. I wonder what company the satellite dish atop their roof is.

An equally tiny park sat right behind the town hall. The playground equipment looked to be surprisingly modern and well-equipped for such a small community like this.

picture of a playground in dish texas
Behind the town hall was this playground.

Another neighborhood, this one considerably older and consisting of mobile homes, was located right across the street. Unlike the stereotypical trailer park most people have a mental image of, this neighborhood wasn’t cramped at all, and there was plenty of space in between units.

picture of mobile homes in dish texas

picture of mobile homes in dish texas

Having been to many of the small towns on the outskirts of the Metroplex, I enjoyed this mini trip to this very unique, yet relatively unknown little community. If you find yourself driving by DISH, pop in and check out it out- regardless of which satellite TV company you prefer!

 

 

downtown of West, Texas

The Tiny Texas Town Shook by a Fertilizer Plant Explosion, Five Years Later

April 17th, 2013 began just like any other day in the tiny town of West, located just north of Waco. In this tight-knit community of under 3000, the adults went to work, kids went to school, and it was life as usual in a small Texas town.

West, Texas welcome sign

However, before the day ended, life as residents knew it would drastically change. At 7:50PM, the West Fertilizer Company plant exploded after a whole stock of ammonium nitrate caught on fire. Two schools, a nursing home, and numerous neighborhoods nearby sustained extensive damage. With 15 people killed and another 200 injured, the West tragedy was one of the worst industrial accidents in Texas history.

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An aerial view of the explosion site a few days after the event. (Photo by Shane.torgerson / CC BY-SA 3.0)
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President Barack Obama delivers remarks at a memorial service for the victims of the fertilizer plant explosion at Baylor University in Waco on April 25, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

After an extensive investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms concluded that the incident had been an act of arson. To this day, there have been no strong leads. But whatever happened to this tiny community, stricken with grief and overwhelmed by loss? I wanted to find out, so I paid a visit to West over Labor Day weekend to see how much recovery had been done in the five years following the disaster.

downtown of West, Texas
Downtown West.

Once inside the city limits, it was only a few minutes before I reached the former plant site, where the explosion originated. What was an area flooded with first responders and later investigative personnel now sat there as a vacant lot.

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The former grounds of the West Fertilizer Company.

Talking with West Mayor Tommy Muska, he spoke very highly of the immediate recovery effort. “After the explosions, over 140 charitable organizations from all over the country came to lend a hand. From the Salvation Army to various churches, it was truly a faith-based recovery process.”

Not far away from the explosion site was the new combined middle and high school. Before the explosion, they were two separate campuses, with the middle school located right behind the plant and the high school just down the road. Both buildings suffered severe damage, and were rebuilt as one facility on the site of the high school. Classes were held at a temporary location until the new campus opened in 2016.

West,Texas middle and high school
The new West Middle/High School, opened in 2016.

The new school looked very nice, and was a gleaming example to the world that West would only let a tragedy like this make them stronger. Another sign of this town’s comeback were the many new homes seen in the neighborhoods lining the plant. Many of them were damaged beyond repair, and had to be razed. The new homes taking their place looked nice, and had I not known they were in West, I’d have thought this was a new development in Frisco or something!

west, texas new homes

west, texas new homes

Although recovery has come a long way, reminders of that tragic day can still be found. Just down the road from the plant site, I saw this now-abandoned duplex. Damaged in the explosion, the brick held but the windows and doors didn’t make it.

West, Texas abandoned duplex

Beyond physical damage, Mayor Muska said that post-traumatic stress disorder is still an issue for many residents. The community has stepped in to help heal emotional wounds as well, with Baylor University providing counseling services and other guidance to residents.

Another reminder of this incident came in the form of something much more positive – a park containing a memorial, commemorating the lives lost and providing a peaceful place for all. Mayor Muska said the memorial is expected to be dedicated next year, on the anniversary of the explosion.

West, TX memorial park
This park and memorial, located just behind the plant, will remember those killed in the explosion.

As I left West, I could feel the spirit of the community, and how strong they were to pull through this disaster and prevail. Despite all that happened, Mayor Muska said that today the local economy was healthy, and that the residents are very blessed. I could feel the same resolve while visiting Joplin, Missouri as well, the site of an EF5 tornado in 2011. As Americans, we may not agree on everything, but at the end of the day, everyone coming together to overcome tragedy is what makes our country so great.

West, TX Water Tower