Deep in the heartland of the United States of America, you can find the curiously-shaped state of Oklahoma. Though it is sometimes regarded as one of the flyover states, don’t assume Oklahoma is a place to skip.
Get over your fear of tornadoes and deep-dive into this Southern (Southwestern? or Midwestern? It’s up for debate) land of lakes, far-stretching plains, and red clay hills.
Oklahoma is famous for its booming agriculture and energy industries and Native American heritage. Oklahoma is also known for college sports, country music and the iconic Route 66, which passed through the state in its heyday.
Let’s drill deeper into some of the things that make Oklahoma famous.
1. The Sooner State
One of Oklahoma’s nicknames is the Sooner State, named for the Land Rush of 1889. After Native Americans ceded territory to the settler U.S. government, plans were made to open the land to white settlers.
Almost 2 million acres of land in what is now Oklahoma were offered as land for some 50,000 settlers who showed up at the border to claim tracts of land.
Many people, however, slipped beyond the border beforehand to claim land once the rush officially started. Those settlers became known as the “Sooners,” which persists as a nickname and mascot for Oklahomans today.
2. Native American heritage
Oklahoma’s indigenous history stretches back far longer than its history of settlement and carries on to this day.
The state is home to 39 indigenous tribal nations, such as the Osage, Cherokee, and Pawnee nations. More than 300,000 of the state’s residents are Native American. Many of those tribes were forcibly moved there under various acts and decisions by the federal government. Despite the violent history experienced by Native Americans, diverse cultures flourish in and beyond Oklahoma.
The Red Earth Festival, for example, is an annual celebration of Native American culture held in the state’s capital. Members of over 100 different tribes come from all across the country to participate. Twenty-five Native American languages are spoken across the state, including Cherokee and Choctaw, each of which has over 10,000 speakers.
The state also has many cultural centers and museums that dive more into the history and modern cultures of the indigenous Oklahoman peoples.
Speaking of museums, Oklahoma is famous for highly regarded art, history and science museums.
In Tulsa, the state’s second-largest city, you can find the Philbrook and Gilcrease art museums. The former is located in a gorgeous Italian Renaissance villa and hosts a variety of rotating exhibitions.
Oklahoma is known for its Wild West history and the Gilcrease Museum is emblematic of this. It boasts the world’s largest collection of art depicting the American West.
The state’s capital is home to excellent institutions like the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Science Museum Oklahoma, and the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
In addition, Oklahoma’s smaller cities and towns have their fair share of galleries and centers. You can find museums showcasing exhibits about things as broad-ranging as the life of Vaudeville actor Will Rogers, the histories of Native American nations, and the iconic Route 66.
4. Route 66
If you’re heading to Oklahoma, make sure to get your kicks on Route 66. The iconic, now-decommissioned American highway — perhaps the country’s most famous road — passed through the heart of Oklahoma on its way from Chicago to the West Coast.
The road’s name calls to mind long stretches of highway, great sprawling plains, a sun painted by the setting sky…quintessential Oklahoma scenery. But it’s also central to the state’s history. Many migrants fleeing the Dust Bowl used the highway to move eastward or westward.
5. Oil and gas
Since the mid-1800s, Oklahoma has been one of the top oil producers in the country. In 1859, workers drilling for salt first discovered oil by accident near Salina. Commercial drilling began a few decades later, leading to various oil booms as Oklahoma went from a territory to a state.
The state also has deposits of natural gas. Most of the 77 counties statewide have produced oil or natural gas at some point. Oil drilling is so impactful on the state’s self-image that there’s even a 75-foot-tall statue of an oil worker in Tulsa.
6. Wind energy
While oil and gas are exhaustible resources, Oklahoma has a high potential capacity for renewable energy. Half of the state lies in the open, rolling plains that make up North America’s wind corridor.
Take a drive through western Oklahoma and you’ll see wind turbines that spin on and on, generating almost one-third of the state’s electricity.
Windy as it is, Oklahoma is famous for its tornadoes — or maybe I should say infamous.
Situated smack dab in the middle of the Great Plains, Oklahoma gets hit by the warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, the hot, dry fronts from the southwestern deserts and the cool, dry winds from the Rocky Mountains. In short, the recipe for awe-striking tornadoes.
My hometown of Cincinnati sits at the fringes of Tornado Alley where the storms are nowhere near as potent as in the Great Plains. There’s a degree of preparedness, as warning sirens are tested every other Wednesday throughout the city.
Even so, my mom, an Okie through and through, raised me with a healthy fear. “Watch out for green skies and the sound of a roaring train,” she used to say, “and get ready to run to the basement or the bathtub with a mattress thrown over top.”
But don’t let worries of a tornado keep you from exploring the Sooner State. Four million Okies live their lives day in and day out without too much disruption. If a twister does come roaring across the plains, they’ll get you to safety faster than a jackrabbit in a shooting gallery.
8. All things sports
Oklahoma may only have one major league sports team, but that does not mean there’s a lack of athletic culture in the state.
Oklahoma City Thunder is a men’s professional basketball team named for the famous thunderstorms common in the state. With several division championships since the franchise moved to Oklahoma in 2008, the Thunder are sure to continue booming across the league.
The state’s two largest universities — The University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University — are well-renowned for their football cultures, drawing huge amounts of fans to their games. Team loyalty is fierce, so be careful to whom you say “Boomer Sooner” or “Ride ‘Em Cowboys.” Kind as the Okies are, they take their college football seriously.
If you’re in Oklahoma City, watch out for fast-flying softballs, especially during the Women’s College World Series. The tournament is held there every year and the legacy of softball is so prominent that ESPN named the city the “center of the softball universe.”
Last but not least, rodeos. Saddle up and grab your stirrups, as Oklahoma stays true to the heritage of the American Frontier. One of the largest rodeos in the nation is held in Guymon, a town in the iconic Oklahoma panhandle.
9. Rose rocks
These geological curiosities are so unique to Oklahoma that they were named the state rock in 1986. Rose rocks go by many other names, like desert rose, barite rosette and sand rose, which all evoke the flower-like shape of the rocks.
The rock is a kind of crystal formed from gypsum or barite in arid and sandy places. The crystals fan out with overlaid “petals” that resemble a blossoming rose.
Found only in Oklahoma and some locations in the Sahara Desert, these crystals are highly treasured. They put all other ancient treasures to shame — these flowery rocks were formed 250 million years ago when much of what is now Oklahoma was under a great ocean.
The retreating waters over time made the conditions for the red clay that’s common in the American South and left Oklahoma dotted with these delicate, unlikely rocks.
10. Man-made lakes
For the beach lovers, I am sorry to tell you that you’ll no longer find any ocean or sea in Oklahoma. But you will find man-made lakes, more than in any other state.
Oklahoma is known for having more than 200 man-made lakes. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the state was plagued by devastating floods and, later, crippling droughts that choked the land during the Dust Bowl.
While the lakes continue fulfilling an important function, especially in the realm of agriculture, they are also great nature getaways for Oklahomans and out-of-staters alike.
Scenic lakes like Broken Bow and Great Salt Plains are havens for birdwatchers and hikers. Anglers adventure down to Eufaula and Hefner lakes to cast their lines. And don’t let Oklahoma’s land-locked status fool you, as you can find sailboats skimming the surfaces of reservoirs like Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees.
As most of those lakes were constructed in part for agriculture, the state is an agricultural powerhouse. with over 32,000,000 acres of agricultural land. This includes land devoted to crops, grazing and forests.
Oklahoma is one of the top producers of wheat in the country and also produces a lot of corn, pecans and beef, which play a big role in the state’s iconic dishes.
12. Country and western music
If there’s one thing about the Sooner State, it’s that Oklahoma is known for country and western music. Its impact on country music is outsized and legendary.
Folk traditions from all across the south and southwest coalesced during the genre’s nascent stages, such as the western varieties of folk music from Oklahoma. The particular twangs and tunes common in the states’ plains incorporated into country music, helping to define the iconic style.
Oklahoma has birthed country stars like Garth Brooks, Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood and Reba McEntire…the list of famous Oklahoman country stars goes on and on.
Though country legend Merle Haggard was born in California during the Great Depression, his Oklahoman roots defined his life. His iconic “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee” reclaimed a term used to deride Oklahoman migrants following the Dust Bowl and the eponymous song became an anthem for the state.
13. Fried okra
As I’ve already said, Oklahomans are famous for their hospitality. But what’s hospitality without a good, home-cooked meal?
Don’t worry, because Oklahoma is known for its cuisine, with unique takes on regional dishes. One such dish, in particular, is the famous side dish of fried okra, also known as “southern popcorn.
14. Chili con carne
Another style of popular food includes chili con carne. The state is — and has been since the days of the land run — a haven for chili lovers.
The geographic location of the state makes it a crossroads of styles, spices and flavors. It also has a fair share of chili cook-offs and competitions, where you may or may not find my grandpa winning prizes with his secret recipe.
But Oklahoma’s gastronomy doesn’t stop there.
15. State meal
Oklahoma is so proud of its cuisine that it has something no other state does — an official state meal. Let’s see what’s on the menu: fried okra, cornbread, barbecue pork, squash, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, strawberries (state fruit), chicken fried steak, pecan pie, and black-eyed peas.
Try to get through that list without your mouth watering. The state meal alone warrants a trip to explore the riches of Oklahoma.
Whatever your fancy, food-related or not, Oklahoma is sure to have it. If you’re an Okie born and bred or simply someone fond of the state, let us know if there’s anything else to add about the Sooner State.