Talihina -- British author Elspeth Huxley titled her memoir of growing up in what was then the British Colony of Kenya “The Flame Trees of Thika” in recognition of the bright red leaves that covered the trees in the Rift Valley where her family’s farm was located.
A fall journey to the rural Oklahoma community of Talihina, situated between the Kiamichi and Winding Stair Mountains, reveals a vista of leaves of a similar color that intersect with a sky the color of robin’s eggs. People coming to see this natural beauty are making their way to this community that describes itself as the gateway to the Talemena Scenic Highway. Even if it takes you more than a tank of gas to make this trip, it seems a worthy entry for The City Sentinel’s “Tank-U Oklahoma” series.
Talihina takes its name from a combination of the Choctaw words for “Iron” and “road” that were used by Native Americans to describe the railroad that came from Fort Smith through what was then Oklahoma Territory in the late Nineteenth Century. It was also the name of Sam Houston’s Indian wife who is buried in Fort Gibson National Cemetery in Muskogee County.
Today, the community’s two biggest employers are the Choctaw Indian Hospital and the Center operated by the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs. Talihina is now a community of approximately 1,274 souls. Its main thoroughfare, Dallas Street, is undergoing renovation under the auspices of the Main Street Program operated by the Oklahoma Department of Commerce.
Rhonda Sears, proprietor of a combination lunch counter and gift shop on Dallas St. known as “Treats and Treasures,” explains how several structures are currently being revitalized so new businesses can be opened.
Sears, chairperson of the Talihina Main Street Association, has purchased a building adjoining hers that will eventually be occupied by a women’s clothing store. When the aluminum façade that graced that building for decades was stripped away, a row of transom windows were uncovered that no one had known existed. The removal of a layer of stucco revealed the original brick storefront, but Sears reports that those bricks had what appeared to be bullet holes in them, and they had to be covered as a result. How those holes got there was originally a mystery, but it is now believed that they drilled there to support the stucco.
The ceiling of that building has an elaborate wrought iron design. A picture of that iron work was examined by Ron Frantz, architect for the Main Street Program in Oklahoma City, and he was able to trace its origins to a foundry that existed in Missouri in the early decades of the last century. Frantz, who will be able to assist Sears in the event that she needs to find replacement parts for damaged areas of that ceiling, reports that those who renovate buildings in Oklahoma’s downtown areas often make discoveries that include long forgotten windows and holes of unknown origin.
Sears speaks with enthusiasm about the events currently planned for Talihina through the Main Street program. They include a Fall Foliage Festival and a car show, and what is described as a ‘pony express ride” in which people on horses will compete to see who can reach destinations in the community in the shortest time. She envisions Talihina as becoming a tourist destination for people from neighboring Arkansas and Texas who wish to partake of the area’s natural beauty and the recreational activities that it offers.
Hang gliders that can be seen descending from the surrounding mountains are indicative of the increasing popularity of the area for tourists. There are now several cabins and a bread and breakfast in operation to provide lodgings for visitors, whose numbers may increase as word spreads of new recreational opportunities in the area.