IDABEL, Oklahoma– So many North Texas residents cross the border into McCurtain County in far southeastern Oklahoma each week that the area has earned the nickname “Dallas-Fort Worth Hamptons.”
With its clean rivers and lakes, these forested foothills of the Ouchita Mountains are dotted with luxury cabins, and a tourism boom over the past two decades has given the region a renaissance. Jobs are no longer confined to the lumber industry or the chicken processing factory, and parents are more optimistic their children won’t have to leave the community to find work.
But growing optimism about the county’s future got a gut wrenching last week when the local paper identified several county officials, including Sheriff Kevin Clardy and a county commissioner, who were caught on tape discussing the killing of journalists and the lynching discussed by blacks. One commissioner has already resigned, and elected officials, including the mayor of Idabel and Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, have called for the others to resign.
“Just hearing it over audio, coming from the mouths of our elected officials in a gathering, made my stomach churn,” said Lonnie Watson, a lifelong county resident and 7th-grade teacher and coach, who is black. “It was shocking. It was sad. It was hurtful. Just hearing the hate… was just heartbreaking.”
For its part, the sheriff’s office has released only one formal statement since the McCurtain Gazette-News published the story last weekend, in which the sheriff’s office did not address the remarks, instead claiming the record was obtained illegally.
“Unfortunately, all of our attorneys are telling us to keep quiet,” Undersheriff Mike Manning told The Associated Press on Thursday, declining to comment further. “I would love for everyone to hear both sides of the story.” On Friday, the governor who called for Clardy and others involved in the recorded conversation to resign released a letter he sent to Attorney General Gentner Drummond and asked him to investigate a possible impeachment of Clardy for willful misconduct.
“As I understand it, Sheriff Clardy has at least willfully failed or failed to diligently and faithfully ‘keep and keep’ the peace of McCurtain County,” the letter, signed by Stitt, reads. “Should you determine that there is good cause for such a complaint, I urge you to institute proceedings to oust Sheriff Clardy from office.”
A spokesman for Drummond said investigators are already investigating the case.
“The prosecutor is investigating this matter. Attorney General Drummond will review the governor’s letter and take appropriate action,” said Drummond spokesman Phil Bacharach.
While many county residents say the racist remarks are a throwback to a bygone era, they still worry about the negative impact the incident will have on the community’s reputation.
“We have concerns. We do it. Anyone in their right mind would do it,” said Tommy “Blue” McDaniel, who owns and operates the county’s first legal distillery, Hochatown Distilling, in the heart of the county’s tourist region. “But the stuff down there is a bunch of individuals. It’s not what McCurtain County is, and it definitely isn’t what Hochatown is.
“It’s a diverse community, a welcoming community.”
McDaniel’s assessment was shared by many in the county. With a population of approximately 31,000 and bordering Arkansas and Texas, the county is part of the state known as “Little Dixie” due to the influence of white Southerners who immigrated there after the Civil War. Although about 60% of the county is white, there are significant numbers of Native American (18%), Black (8%), and Hispanic (7%) people.
Like many communities across the country, particularly in the South, McCurtain County towns were historically separate but have become more integrated since the 1960s. Idabel, the county seat, was the scene of racial violence in 1980 when a riot broke out after a local black teenager was fatally shot outside an all-white club. Tensions rose to the point that martial law was declared and the governor called in the National Guard, said Kenny Sivard, a local historian.
“What didn’t help was that the Ku Klux Klan’s great imperial wizard came down to the Idabel Courthouse and showed up,” Sivard said. “That didn’t help matters at all, as you can imagine.”
The county also has a long history of lawlessness, dating back to the days before statehood in 1907, when Oklahoma was Indian Territory and bandits took refuge in the mountainous region, said Bob Burke, a McCurtain County native who has authored more than 100 non-fiction books on the subject wrote Oklahoma and its people.
With its clean rivers and remote locations, the area also became a paradise for moonshiners, who set up stills in the densely forested hills. This reputation for operating outside the law continued into the later half of the 20th century, when the methamphetamine epidemic swept the area. Though Oklahoma was the last state to ban cockfighting in 2002, animal rights activists say the blood sport still occurs in the region and that local law enforcement sometimes turns a blind eye. A state legislature from nearby Atoka County is still working to reduce penalties for cockfighting.
Still, McCurtain County has worked hard to shed its reputation for lawlessness and racial strife, helped in large part by the construction of Broken Bow Lake in the heart of the county in the late 1960s. Fed by the Mountain Fork River, the clear lake surrounded by forested hills remains a major tourist attraction to this day.
The Choctaw Nation Historic Reservation encompasses all of the county and most of southern Oklahoma, and the tribe is breaking ground on a $165 million, 18,580 square foot resort hotel and casino near the lake and Beavers Bend State Park which is scheduled to open later this year.
It’s projects like this and the growing tourism industry that residents like McDaniel, the distillery operator, hope McCurtain County will be known for.
“I see a bright future,” said McDaniel. “We have some issues to work on, but these issues, these are dying tracks. That’s some death cries from people here who want to keep the old ways, but we’re moving forward, and forward doesn’t include what’s going on down there.”
Follow Sean Murphy on Twitter: @apseanmurphy