Treasured t-shirts are like songs. The right one can be a reminder of something that happened in your past. Like hearing the opening notes, simply feeling the fabric can transport you to a certain time and place. For example, whenever my husband and I pull our Eskimo Joe’s tees out of our respective dressers, we do so knowing exactly where they’re taking us. They’re from a restaurant where we only ate one meal. But they represent a three-day weekend that’s always worth revisiting.
“Blowout Mum Sale,” read the chalkboard sign out front. As a budding botanist—enthusiastic enough to know the chrysanthemum was the symbol of Japanese royalty—I’d wanted to visit The Botanic Garden at Oklahoma State University the second we arrived in Stillwater for our three-day getaway. John, a hobby photographer, couldn’t wait either. Very few places are as photogenic as gardens.
We immediately found the garden to be as aesthetically enticing as it was aromatic. Peculiar, potted flowering cacti presented atop Romanesque pedestals? Check. An orange, collared cat (perhaps the garden’s resident mouser) eyeing exotic fish swimming in a koi pond? Check. And plump squirrels racing around the arboretum? Check! Clearly, this Oklahoma-esque Eden fed them well. As John photographed a living wall with plants growing against gravity, I chatted with a garden ambassador. She invited us to that night’s free Concert in the Garden series. Live music, outdoors? Our RSVPs were resounding yeses. But first, we had to explore downtown Stillwater.
An hour later, we checked into 720 S. Husband St. where my husband drooled over an Eastman Kodak circa 1900, part of the new Camera Classics exhibit in the OSU Museum of Art. The museum’s collections are world-class, and despite some pieces being centuries-old, there’s a youthful feel. Many of the museum’s interns are OSU students. In fact, before leaving, I asked one about other must-sees in the Downtown Stillwater Cultural District. “Museums, galleries and the library. Where do I even start?” the student asked back with a smile.
That night, we found ourselves talking to two OSU alumni, now co-owners of The Ranchers Club. We were having dinner on campus, but definitely not in a cafeteria. Overlooking the university’s formal gardens, The Ranchers Club is where people propose, not prepare for finals. It’s a place for savoring filet mignon while sitting in cowhide chairs at tables covered in white linen and set with silverware so shiny they reflect the paintings of local cattle ranches adorning the walls. Antler chandeliers illuminate the space and complete the ambience. There was no forgetting we were in Oklahoma.
“Welcome to Granny’s Kitchen,” read the chalkboard sign in front of the door of this humble storefront. We could already smell the fresh cinnamon rolls from just standing outside. This humble hole-in-the-wall with a wait-list is a Stillwater institution, and we soon tasted why. When those homemade rolls are on the table, there’s no such thing as friends or family. Sharing something so delicious seems sacrilegious! Even the coffee seemed elevated for a diner.
An hour later, we found ourselves facing 405 Mercantile’s wall of mugs. Named for Stillwater’s area code, this boutique with eclectic kitchenware, Oklahoma State gear and even refurbished furniture started off our tour de Stillwater’s stores. Each shop has its own unique character and such tastefully curated inventories that we almost felt obligated to pay admission. In Everyman, a shop devoted to the “male experience,” John waxed poetically about mustache wax and beard balm. When I playfully spritzed him with a sample of G.I. Joe Cologne, he threatened to wear Everyman’s best-selling Okie shirt (complete with a sewed-in beer bottle opener) to my sister’s upcoming wedding.
We celebrated the successful day of shopping in Iron Monk Brewing Company’s taproom. “This pairs well with Pink Floyd tribute shows,” said the brewmaster, setting a pint of Velvet Antler in front of John. Then, he poured me an Exit 174—a pale ale named for Stillwater’s exit on I-35. There was no forgetting we were in Stillwater.
Stillwater’s craft beverage scene also includes coffee, so we spent the next morning opposite a barista working the kind of fancy espresso machine you’d expect only in Europe. A local informed us Aspen Coffee Company was named one of Oklahoma’s 10 coolest coffee shops. “They opened on OSU homecoming day in ’94,” he added. Imagining him sipping a cappuccino here every day for the past 20-some years, I felt a ping of jealousy.
A few hours later, both John and I felt utterly relaxed. Despite being highly caffeinated (we were so tempted in Aspen Coffee that we sampled several roasts), Stillwater’s Tranquil Bliss Day Spa took us from 60 to zero in no time. And the best part? Karen and Bridget gave us a five-star hotel quality couples massage, albeit at college town prices and sans any air of pretense.
Just an hour after peeling cool cucumbers off our eyelids and blinking away serenity, we were once again wide awake. Simply judging by the lively energy of the place, Eskimo Joe’s—“Stillwater’s Jumpin’ Little Juke Joint”— deserved its position on Sports Illustrated’s list of Perfect 10 College Sports Bars. Our upstairs table boasted the perfect view of OSU’s stadium. Being here for a home game must be nothing short of magical—even if you’re not a sports fan.
“George H.W. Bush is a fan,” the waiter responded when John asked about the “world-famous” cheese fries on Eskimo Joe’s’ menu. If they were good enough for a former president, they were good enough for us. After splitting an order, we devoured Stillwater Slaw dogs (imagine pulled pork marrying an all-beef frank and celebrating with a generous pile of coleslaw) paired with tap beer we recognized from Iron Monk. While we didn’t leave room for dessert, we left time to visit the restaurant’s gift shop. An arrow-shaped neon sign steered us to a t-shirt wall so big, ladders on wheels were in order.
“Customers send us photos of these tees worn all over the world, and we post them,” said the cashier ringing up our purchase—matching Eskimo Joe’s t-shirts. It wasn’t as iconic as Mickey Mouse’s mugshot, but I knew I’d seen Joe’s cartoon face before. I’d just figured it was the logo for a popular clothing brand—not the beloved mascot of a sports bar founded in Stillwater, OK.
There was no forgetting we were in a proud community. Even after spending just three days in Stillwater, John and I had long ago realized they had every reason to be proud.
Plan your visit to Stillwater