A Town Using Its Noodle

Pauls Valley lures visitors seeking the quirk factor with its annual barehanded fishing contest and action figure museum.

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Pauls Valley might consider a slight change in its nickname – from Queen of the Washita River to Queen of Quirkiness. The town presents itself that way.

Take the Toy and Action Figure Museum. In 2000, city leaders and residents formed a committee to find ways to lure visitors.

“At a meeting, I joked that my studio, which already had several thousand action figures, was already an unofficial tourist attraction,” says toy designer, musician and artist Kevin Stark, the museum’s curator. “People had found out that I had this huge collection and sometimes knocked on my door to ask if they could see it.

“There are a lot of toy and doll museums, but we’re the only one that I know of dedicated to action figures.”

The collection is in the old Lintz department store, a Pauls Valley landmark for 75 years. Private donations and money from the city’s tourism tax funded renovations to start the museum, which draws 10,000-15,000 visitors annually since its opening in 2005, Stark says.

The 7,000-square-foot facility rotates 13,000 action figures because not all of them can be displayed at once. Some of the rarest pieces are prototypes, such as a winged Balrog (from Lord of the Rings).

Stark says the Adult Collectors Bedroom Diorama – “thousands of action figures taking over the room; many mothers can relate to this” – and the Bat Cave – “thousands of figures, play sets and Batmobiles” – are must-see exhibits.

Photo COURTESY OKIE NOODLING

The city also goes all in on the Okie Noodling Tournament, whose 20th anniversary is June 14-15. Chickasaw Country sponsors the main stage, where noodlers hold up their hand-caught fish and a free concert (this year by country singer Casey Donahew) is performed.

Fun-loving crowds in the thousands hang out both days. Food and drink vendors and play areas for kids draw entire families.

“People get real excited when the fish start coming in,” says Jason Selman, one of the event’s organizers. “We blow an air horn with each one and people rush to the stage to see.”

For noodlers trying to win the tourney, 2015 and 2017 champion Nathan Williams says “it’s really serious. Noodling takes passion and dedication. You spend a lot of time in the water. You have to have a lot of courage.”

Williams holds the tournament record with a 73.5-pound flathead catfish. His son Jayce won last year’s junior tournament as a 15-year-old.

Anastastia Spruell, last year’s Noodle Queen and herself a noodler, says the entire event “is a blast. It’s a laid-back hillbilly type of thing.”

Participants must catch fish with their bare hands in any Oklahoma body of water before weigh-ins. Polygraph tests verify the veracity and timing of the catches, which often come in muddy shallows.

“People get scared of what’s down in there because they can’t see through the murky water,” Williams says. “Their imagination gets the best of them.

FUN FACTS

Population

6,169

Rolling Stones song?

Visitors can see, and adopt for $125, wild horses (and burros) at the Bureau of Land Management’s off-range corral on 400 acres across 12 pastures. About 75 equines, brought in from their free-roaming habitats in the West, are put up for adoption the second Tuesday of each month.

Gervase Duan

Those names account for the initials of character actor G.D. Spradlin, born in Pauls Valley in 1920. He often played dark, seedy authority figures, such as in The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now and North Dallas Forty. He died in 2011.

Gimme a Brick

OKC has its Bricktown; Pauls Valley is a brick town because it has the most brick streets (17,986 square feet) of any U.S. town, according to its historical society.

Pie-ling on

Known throughout Oklahoma (and shipped nationwide) is Field’s pecan pie. The Pauls Valley company will be 100 years old in 2022.

Inversion

Smith Paul (not Paul Smith), a North Carolina transplant, and his Chickasaw wife established a large farm in 1847 at the confluence of the Washita River and Rush Creek. An eventual post office and railroad stop called the area Paul’s Valley. The apostrophe got dropped over time.

Whistle stop

Instead of letting its beloved train station get demolished 1989, the city bought it and created the Santa Fe Depot Museum. It’s across the street from Amtrak’s stop for the Heartland Flyer, running from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth, Texas.