Luther is too small to fail. As the coronavirus crisis rolls on, unemployment numbers rise and oil and gas prices tank, our town in the northeast corner of Oklahoma County along Route 66 has realized our status as an essential town.
The statewide executive orders to be “safer-at-home” closed businesses around the state, but Luther mostly stayed open. There are no movie theaters, no big-box stores, no hair or nail salons. We don’t even have a medical clinic or a pharmacy. Two of our Main Street businesses, Rustic Farm and Beth’s Baubles & Bits, had to close, but others deemed essential figured out how to “pandemic pivot” to keep their employees working and services and products available.
Farmstead Cafe, named a Made In Oklahoma restaurant earlier this year, expanded the fresh local food in its market featuring local duck eggs from the mayor’s hobby farm, All Hat Beef from Luther, Marak Milk from nearby Meeker and gourmet mushrooms from Down The Road Farms that is down the road from the restaurant. Farmstead baked more cakes, cobblers and cookies, offered family-to-go and Mother’s Day-To-Go meals, emphasized curbside delivery and offered custom-made masks by local artist Felicia Pringle. Our Town Eatery, not yet a year old, pivoted to offer delivery of pizza or anything from the menu and reopened its spacious dining room on May 1. Incidentally, there are no Postmates or Doordash out here, so pizza delivery became a big deal. DJ’s, the barbecue joint, opened its walk-up window, and when that didn’t cut it, pivoted again to offer custom smoked-rib orders on Saturdays, a hit. Main Street Nutrition ramped up its online ordering and social media presence. Happy hour at Sonic, blessedly, continued.
Defying conventional wisdom, the destination dive Chicken Shack actually opened a new location in north Edmond to handle to-go orders; and on May 1, live music was back and picnic tables were spaced out in a social distance appropriate way in the Shack’s Luther backyard on Route 66.
The Luther Feed Mill, S&H Mercantile, Apple Creek Learning Center, Allan Booher, CPA, Boydston-Bailey Funeral Home, Highdy Hole dispensary, tag agent, insurance agency and other essential spots stayed open. The community center operated by the local Church of Christ temporarily stopped accepting donations of clothes, furniture and household items but experienced a 30% increase of folks seeking food and other services, distributed the first three Thursdays of each month.
On the east side of town, Brew 66 kept lattes and donuts flowing out of the drive-thru window, and expanded to offer sno-cones in the evenings. Owner Rachael Payne established a “Blessing Pantry” on her shop’s porch and invited anyone to “take what they needed” or contribute food staples, diapers, Felicia’s masks and, of course, toilet paper.
BancFirst stepped up to help customers with loans and find out if their stimulus checks came through. The Dollar General monitored the number of customers in the store and kept toilet paper in stock.
Although essential, Luther Hardware and Lumber closed at the end of March. Owner Steve Shaw is in a high-risk category. When he reopened on May 4 after five weeks, the Luther Register’s announcement of it on social media became one of the most liked and shared posts of the entire pandemic. His customers thanked him for coming back. That first day, he sold tire sealer to a near-stranded motorist, hardware to a couple of guys building a little house near the dirt road up north and loaded 20 bags of concrete for Brent Byrd, who owns Slim’s Barber Shop in neighboring Arcadia.
Some of Steve’s customers wore masks, and when it came time to pay, a shield of plexiglass separated the shopkeeper and customer during each transaction. Steve made the plexi-guard contagion barrier, using materials available in the store.
The store is a stronghold in Luther. Steve and his wife, Vanna, bought it in 2004 from Sondra LeGrande. She owned it with her husband, Richard, who died suddenly earlier that year. They had bought the yard in 1974 from Richard’s father, Frank LeGrande, who operated it the generation previous.
Steve has had a front row seat to Luther for a lot of years, quietly observing the ups and the downs. He’s optimistic about the town’s future, post pandemic. “You can’t be stagnant – you’re either growing or dying,” he said.
Sales tax revenue runs Oklahoma’s municipalities. Fines from tickets are another revenue source, but less than they used to be. Besides, that’s a topic for another day, the unfortunate reputation as a speed-trap town that lingers. The Town of Luther takes in about $30,000 a month in sales tax revenue, but is on a downward trend and joins every other municipality in the state facing cuts and potential layoffs. The quip is we have the infrastructure and services to prove it – crumbling water lines, a leaky sewer system, a volunteer fire department, empty storefronts and abandoned homes. For comparison, the City of Edmond collects $5.5 million in sales tax revenues monthly.
Luther is too small to fail because we struggle already.
I didn’t quite grasp that reality when dreaming about starting a newspaper. The idea for my own business, hustling news, was irresistible at the end of 2015. The plan was to write news, expose some corruption, hold public officials accountable and tell stories; and readers would pay me for my efforts and advertisers would seek me out. Certainly that was a solid business plan.
Before launching, I sought advice from my friend Steve Lackmeyer, who is also contributing to The Coronavirus Storytelling Project. He humored me and came out to Luther for coffee and lunch at Josephine’s Cafe. I wanted his blessing. He tried to talk me out of it.
We were journalism students together at Oklahoma Christian University. He scored a job at The Oklahoman when we graduated and I went to KTOK. That was thirty years ago. He was one of the first reporters on the scene after the Oklahoma City bombing; I was a media witness for two executions. Steve became an award-winning journalist, book author and captivating storyteller. He remains a venerable veteran reporter at The Oklahoman. But my career meandered – radio news, public relations, crisis communication consults, freelance writing, event planning. In 2010, my family and I ditched urban life in Oklahoma City for land in rural Luther. We got eggs from our chickens, planted big gardens and acquired a llama and livestock/pets. Eventually I yearned to return to my first professional love – journalism.
It wasn’t until I told Lackmeyer that I was not looking to get rich running a newspaper in Luther and I wouldn’t have much overhead as a digital operation, that he gave me the nod.
I remember the table where we sat in that cafe on the corner of Main and First Street. Over the next few years, the restaurant owners became my close friends; I even pulled a few shifts as a server on Sundays and checked in on the “Smart Table” where the retired guys and farmers congregated every morning and would feed me background information on a few “key” issues.
Josephine’s Cafe closed last June. What went into the cash register was never enough to cover the labor, food costs and bills. It was a painful decision and owner Scherrie Pidcock is certain the cafe would not have survived the downturn from COVID-19 precautions. An optimist, she continues to float ideas to put some sort of business in that space.
Last fall, at the third annual Luther Pecan Festival, a production of the Luther Register, Josephine’s opened back up as the “pie hole” and cedar shop. Scherrie, her two daughters and her sister-in-law spent a week baking fresh pecan pies for the day. It wasn’t enough.
The success of the festival that drew more than 10,000 visitors to our 1,200-person town, plus the addition of event venues and agri-tourism spots, like McRay Farms u-pick strawberries, seemed to position Luther for some niche growth. This summer was to be a test. We had been spurred on by Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell’s enthusiasm for Oklahoma’s Route 66 towns. We were ready to market a new “entertainment” district called the Deep Fork District of OK 66, formed to draw our neighbors from the cities out to explore, eat and shop in towns between Arcadia and Stroud. Or maybe attend a wedding.
Jaye Payton owns Eleven Oaks Ranch, one of several new event venues in the area. She spent the beginning of March and all of April with her calendar, rescheduling weddings and assuring brides. Those first few weeks were intense for venue owners, caterers and wedding planners, but Jaye said they’ve found a way to rebook within the social distance guidelines and marvels at the spirit of cooperation.
“Our goal is to pull families to Luther and we know on wedding days Luther gets more business!” she said. “We are ready to roll starting latter May and we know there will be more love in these weddings than ever before!”
Whether the pecan festival or any other large public events, like high school football games, will be able to be held later this year remains to be seen. Until then, we are working if we can, pivoting as we go, taking care of each other and embracing the local and the small, too small to fail.
Dawn Shelton is the founder and publisher of Luther Register News and has written more than 50 stories on the coronavirus crisis. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at berryholler.
The Coronavirus Storytelling Project is a collaboration between the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Watch to help state journalists who have been furloughed or displaced as well as those in struggling community news organizations. The Inasmuch Foundation has pledged $50,000 to launch the project and provide five $500 grants to those accepted into the project each week for the next four months. Apply here.