Okmulgee Rising: What is Community?

Okmulgee’s 1st “Reunion Cruise” night.

There are countless stories of small communities across the country that have lost their spark. In Oklahoma, cities that were once vibrant and growing have seen tremendous decline over the past few decades. There are certainly many reasons for the decline.

We’ve all heard stories about industry moving across the globe and young people moving to more metropolitan areas. But are these causes or simply symptoms of the problem?

My hometown is a pretty good example of a once promising city that has seen an economic and population decline over the years. I once saw a newspaper headline from the early part of the 20th Century that declared Okmulgee was home to more millionaires per capita than any city in Oklahoma. Even in the 60’s and 70’s, Okmulgee was a vibrant community with many locally owned business and good industrial jobs.

Okmulgee still has a lot to offer. Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology is a world-class technical institute with enrollment of nearly 4,000 students. The Muscogee Creek Nation is a continuing source of support and growth for the area. The Okmulgee Main Street program has made tremendous progress in preserving and rehabilitating the once vibrant downtown area.

Even so, it’s hard to deny the hardships faced by these small towns. Jobs paying above the poverty line are hard to come by. Substance use and domestic violence are usually higher than average. Empty buildings, dilapidated houses and overgrown lots are external signs of the internal problems faced by Okmulgee and other communities.

Several weeks ago, some of us started talking on Facebook about the “old days” when Okmulgee was buzzing with activity. We decided to get together for a “reunion cruise” to relive the past. Finally, on Saturday night, August 16th, the city came alive. There were hot rods “dragging main” and people walking and talking up and down the sidewalks.

Suddenly, Okmulgee felt alive again. First of all, let’s give credit to the many local residents who have been working for years to keep the downtown area alive. Were it not for them, we wouldn’t have had much to see and talk about down there. Nevertheless, something felt better about that night than many of us had experienced in connection with our hometown for many years.

So I started thinking, what causes a community like this to decline and how do you rebuild one once it has? My first thought was to look up the word community. The first definition is pretty basic and says community is “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common”. 

That’s a pretty basic definition and doesn’t give much insight to the questions of decline or rebirth. Then, further down the list of definitions I came across “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals”.

Ah ha! That’s what we had that Saturday night. That’s why everything felt different…the fellowship, the coming together, the relationships and people sharing fond memories and discussing plans for the future. In short, the renewed spirit of community moving beyond the first definition more in tune with the latter.

In fact, I would argue that the second definition of community is what made places like Okmulgee special in the first place. And most importantly, that type of community is key if we hope to see these towns survive and thrive in the 21st century.

I am hopeful we can build from this experience and continue to strengthen and foster the relationships that are key if we hope to succeed. Social media and the ability to connect online has and will certainly continue to contribute to these efforts so for more information about Okmulgee, Oklahoma check out the following pages:

Okmulgee Main Street Facebook Page

Bring Back the Mac – a great restoration project now in progress

Okmulgee Online

Muscogee (Creek) Nation Website

Okmulgee News Network

Orpheum Theatre Facebook Page

I’m so Okmulgee Facebook Page

I can’t believe I forgot to add 1240 The Brew – please include any other links I may have neglected in the comments.



8 thoughts on “Okmulgee Rising: What is Community?

  1. I think it’s going to take 20+ years to become a great town again. All area schools need better coaching none of our your players amount to much we can’t allow this to happen. We don’t allow big businesses to come in Applebee’s, IHOP and etc. this needs changed quickly because everyone drives to Tulsa to go have fun and eat.

    1. If that’s true then it’s all the more important that we start now. However I prefer to look at recovery and decline as directions not destinations. It’s more about where we’re headed than where we’re at.

  2. Daniel–very well written!! I’m not originally from Okmulgee (my husband is) but have lived her almost 20 years now and was excited for this event. (I unfortunately already had plans to be out of town.) I saw the pics and heard peoples excitement…what a great idea!

    Stephen–you might wanted to read this blog and think about the definition of Community. It’s way more than football teams.

    1. Thanks for the comment Nancy and of course I hadn’t even thought about football teams when writing the article. Of course I do remember, I think it was 1983 that the Bulldogs were undefeated in the regular season. It was an awesome season!

  3. Good article but it’s going to take more than groups of people meeting for a cruze night once in a while. I agree with Stephen, it will not grow until we have something to offer. Yes we have a college here but there needs to be more restaurants and places to shop. If you want Mexican or Chinese to eat you are ok, but anything else you have to leave town.

    1. Thanks Glenda and of course it will take a lot more than a few people cruising to rebuild Okmulgee. However, I think my point is that community relationships can be the foundation of that growth. A variety of places to eat are nice but that alone isn’t going to change the culture and attitude of a town. I think one of the lessons of the past 20 or 30 years in the United States is that bigger isn’t always better. We’ve got a higher standard of living than at any time in recorded history and yet people are miserable and depressed in record numbers. I believe it’s because we’ve lost that sense of “community” that gives live purpose and meaning. People stay in their houses and never speak to their neighbors. Okmulgee can and will grow if we realize that what we have to offer is a sense of community and belonging.

  4. Great article Danny,
    The Cruise was great and was a success because of the energy that has been building over the past couple of years.
    We need not over complicate.
    It started with a thought and then a thought shared.
    We start with small things to energize the minds of the people and the memories they have for the community.
    Two things will rebuild these small cities.
    1. Where there is no vision the people perish.
    The cruise was a vision shared that became a reality in the minds of the people before the date ever came.
    We saw what we had once lived and that drove us to get up, get excited and get out!
    2. Marketing 101: KISS
    The building blocks are simple easy to do events and processes that gain buy in from the people in order to see the vision.
    Keeping things simple is the second step towards growing into greatness.
    Sam Walton kept it simple by starting with women’s under garments. Inexpensive, everyone can partake and everyone needs. KISS!
    This will then excite people to do things and see things differently.
    I now want to be a part of the community.
    I now care about who we are.
    I can help grow the potential.
    I can be a part of the whole process.

    The Vision is #okmulgeerising and #bulldogrising
    I heard Margaret or Mary one say it is like the old saying “it takes a village to raise a kid”. How profound that is when relating it to community!
    You are doing great work Danny and thank you for sharing your thoughts on Community.

  5. My wife and I are new comers to Okmulgee. For us it is a Destination filled with Hope! As we meet people and hear stories about the city — we see a new tide arising.
    Over the next 65 years – the projection – is there will be 7 counties in Oklahoma that will not grow and Okmulgee is not one of those! Yeah! There is much hope for us as we serve one another (as we would like to be served), care for children (preparing them to carry on a lagacy of a bright Hope), and Opening our streets and heart to others who want the values that Okmulgee is rising too (caring, doing, and raising a strong standard to work together with others). Thanks to all who caught the cruise — it might be a Recovery, or maybe we could say a “Refreshing from a Bubbling Brook” the people from Okmulgee. I’ll see you around this place filled with Hope!

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