Beth Hilburn, co-owner of the Hi-Way Café at the west edge of Vinita, is bothered that people following Route 66 have been bypassing her hometown of Vinita. She may not need to worry about that much longer, however, if plans announced in July for a major tourist attraction materialize.

Officials announced that a 125-acre theme park, part of a 1,000-acre tourist development, is planned for a site just west of Grand Lake on Route 66. The American Heartland Theme Park and Resort, with its first phase set to open in 2025, will include a 300-room hotel, indoor water park and other amenities.

Before the big announcement, Hilburn had taken the lack of traffic into her own hands. Together with volunteers, she and her husband, Alan, brought a 22-foot-tall fiberglass statue to town. Muffler Man, used in a synthetic motor oil promotion along Route 66, now stands sentry outside the Hi-Way Café. Muffler Man even has an additional name – Big Bill, in honor of Hilburn’s father. Her parents owned the nearby Western Motel during Route 66’s heyday.

“We just felt like Big Bill needed to be watching over us,” says Hilburn.

She hopes the imposing statue will entice more people to take the historic Route 66 through town, rather than staying on the nearby Will Rogers Turnpike.

“We’re trying to generate as much as we can for Oklahoma,” she says. “We know people are going through and driving right by. We have to get people to stop and spend their money in Vinita.”

Already, she says, “people are stopping by to take pictures with him.”

If the effort to increase traffic through Vinita succeeds, visitors will find a bustling community of 5,500 folks. Sitting roughly halfway between Tulsa and Joplin, Mo., Vinita is about 35 miles from the borders of Kansas, Arkansas and Missouri.

In addition to Big Bill, visitors will find other attractions throughout Vinita and nearby. The city’s website, in fact, proclaims Vinita as a place “where the golden prairies meet the foothills of the Ozarks.”

Vinita might be better known for another landmark, one that traverses the turnpike – the Will Rogers Archway. Built in 1957 and at that time proclaimed as the largest McDonald’s in the world, the 52-foot-tall archway now is owned by the state of Oklahoma. A McDonald’s that’s closer in size to most others in the hamburger chain still occupies part of the space, along with a sandwich shop, service station and convenience store.

McDonald’s manager Zachary Laning says customers frequently ask about the Archway, remembering that the store was once the company’s largest. No longer the biggest store, Laning says, the Vinita store retains one distinction:

“We’re the only store inside a state landmark,” he says.

The renovated Archway was reopened in 2014. With its spectacular turnpike view, the Archway serves as a gathering place for community events.

Added to the mix of Vinita attractions is the Cherokee Nation’s two-story, 9,400-square-foot Anna Mitchell Cultural and Welcome Center, situated on eight acres just off I-44. Named for a renowned Cherokee artist, the center opened a year ago and offers travelers valuable information, indoor and outdoor Cherokee art displays and a venue for meetings, events and classes.

In July, the tribe hosted its first-ever ribbon skirt fashion show at the Cultural Center. Whitney Dittman, Cherokee Nation Business’ communications manager, says the event drew a crowd of more than 300, with another 300 participating in a livestream.

Vinita will also host one of the state’s longest-running rodeos, the annual Will Rogers Memorial Rodeo, Aug. 22-26. 

Brian Prince, city clerk and acting economic and community development director, says Vinita, his hometown, is well worth the visit.

“Vinita has been a great community for my family and a lot of other families,” says Prince. “You can’t go down the street without waving at someone you know.”

Did You Know?

A few miles south of Vinita is the Civil War Cabin Creek Battlefield site. In September 1864, a Confederate force of 2,000, mainly Gen. Stand Watie’s Indian Brigade, intercepted a 130-wagon supply chain headed to nearby Fort Gibson, loaded with about $1.5 million worth of goods. 

Gen. Watie’s forces captured the supply chain after a heavy battle, which was the last major Civil War engagement in Indian Territory. 

The Oklahoma Historical Society says that while not considered historically significant to the war’s outcome, the battle encouraged the Confederate troops under Gen. Watie to fight until June 1865, when Watie became the last Confederate general to surrender.

For More Information:

City of Vinita


Cherokee Nation Anna Mitchell Cultural & Welcome Center

953 E Illinois Ave.


Eastern Trails Museum

215 E Illinois Ave.


Previous articleThe Art of Parenting
Next articleScene