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The Blue Whale of Catoosa

By Melanee Morin

The first thing you see when driving down a special section of Route 66 in Oklahoma is hints of blue through the trees. When you get a little closer, an image begins to take shape: the sharp lines of a whale's tail, a large gregarious smile, and a bright-blue rounded body topped with an adorable little hat. You are looking at one of Route 66's most famous attractions, the Blue Whale of Catoosa, a Mother Road icon that evokes childhood nostalgia and was born out of one man's love for his wife and his community.

Behind every great icon and timeless attraction along the route lies hopeful, determined, and enthusiastic individuals who cherish their community and its place along an iconic road. "The most important resource along Route 66 is the people," notes photographer and member of the Oklahoma Route 66 Association, Rhys Martin. A native Oklahoman, Martin has traveled around the world and traversed the entire Mother Road, but it is Oklahoma that keeps drawing him back: "The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Oklahoma is right in the name: Home. Not only for me, but for a great many Native American tribes. For people coming here around statehood to try and strike it rich in the Oil Boom. For people that would give you the shirt off their backs if you needed it." Fellow photographer and OK Route 66 Association member Liz Huckleby shares the feeling that Oklahoma's greatest strength is the kindness of its people: it's amazing "how friendly even complete strangers tend to be to each other in Oklahoma." Some of the most famous Route 66-related individuals have harkened from this state, including the father of the Mother Road, Tulsa's Cyrus Avery, and the great entertainer Will Rogers, whose name is also given to the route.

Add to this illustrious list the name of Hugh Davis, creator of the Blue Whale of Catoosa. The Oklahoma stretch of Route 66 is well-known for having more miles of original alignment left than any other Route 66 state, dotted with whimsical roadside attractions such as the world's largest totem pole near Foyil, the 66-foot-tall bottle at Pop's in Arcadia, and the burger joint in Miami (pronounced "Miama") that's built to resemble a giant cuckoo clock. But the Blue Whale of Catoosa remains one of the most visited and beloved attractions along the Mother Road, due in large part to its sense of whimsy, lost nostalgia, and wholesomeness. As Martin states, the Whale "absolutely hearkens back to the golden days of Route 66." But how can a simple, oversized concrete whale embody such a noble and enduring spirit? Because the man who built it was the embodiment of that spirit, and he put everything into his creation.

A Dance Beneath the Stars

It all started with a dance. "[My parents met] at Cain's Ballroom, a Tulsa dance hall that is still packin' em in after nearly one hundred years," recalls Blaine Davis, son of Hugh and Zelta Davis. This historic 1924 music venue, with its neon "Ballroom Dancing" sign still outside, helped create another long-term legacy when it introduced Hugh and Zelta. Hugh was "an adventurer looking for a time and place to happen," says Blaine - he certainly found it at Cain's Ballroom! Hugh was also "a kind and gentle man" with an artistic eye: "He was a good photographer and carried a camera most of the time," elaborates long-time volunteer at the Whale, Linda Ross-Hobbs. Zelta, meanwhile, was "a very energetic redhead." Hugh and Zelta married and had two children, Blaine and Dee Dee Belt, neé Davis (Dee Dee passed away from breast cancer in 2006 at the age of 60). What followed was a loving, countryside existence in touch with nature - the wide open plains, lush forests and vast blue skies of Oklahoma.

"I was raised in a log cabin, and because Dad was curator of the Tulsa Zoo, I grew up with all kinds of animals under foot. There were many specimen-gathering trips and lots of days and nights camped out in remote locations. Pitch black nights with a quadrillion stars overhead, or a full moon with the sounds of nature surrounding us," Blaine reminisces. Hugh had a love and interest of all living creatures, while his wife Zelta was a voracious reader, despite having only a high school education (the walls of their house were lined with books about hundreds of different subjects). Zelta was also fascinated by whales, and had a large collection of whale figurines. Blaine thinks this fascination might have come from reading about whales, although living in landlocked Oklahoma, he doesn't believe she ever saw a live one.

Although the Davis's were incredibly proud of their state and enjoyed everything it had to offer, they also loved exploring the rest of America, especially along Route 66. Hugh and Zelta traveled the entire length of the Mother Road over the years, as has Blaine, but they were invariably always drawn West - broad plains, desert heat, and incomparable hospitality.

Back home, Hugh was always busy with one project or another, with vast interests and a boundless energy. Before she passed, Dee Dee wrote an excerpt about her father and the Whale for the Catoosa Historical Society's "History of Catoosa" book, published in 2003 to celebrate the town's centennial. She wrote of her father, "Hugh believed that every day was a beautiful day, that people should use the talents God gave them, that one should keep busy by thinking, planning and creating, that people should love what they do and do what they love, that you should always finish what you start and that you should enjoy life to the fullest." No better example of this is when Hugh and Zelta's 34th wedding anniversary was coming up, and while looking at Zelta's whale figurines Hugh got a big idea.

126 Sacks of Concrete, 15 Tons of Sand, and an Indefatigable Spirit

There had always been a pond on the Davis property, and Blaine and Dee Dee's childhood consisted of swimming in the pond with friends, canoeing, fishing for perch and bass, picnicking in the summer and skating in the winter. When Blaine had children of his own, they too enjoyed the family pond. After retiring from the Tulsa Zoo after 36 years, Hugh "devoted all of his time to developing facilities to educate people about nature," writes Dee Dee. On the land surrounding the pond Hugh built an A.R.K. (Animal Reptile Kingdom) with cute cut-out wooden animals, then he created the Alligator Ranch and Nature's Acres with its live alligators, snake pit, and prairie dog village, entertaining and educating local children.

In the late 1960s, at the age of 60, Hugh began to envision building a whale to include at the pond. After the sketches kept getting larger and larger, he settled on the blue whale, the largest animal in the world. What followed was a gruelling two years of construction, from 1970-72. But for Hugh who was in his early 60s, nothing would stop him once he had an idea. He asked his friend Harold Thomas, a welder, to help fashion the iron framework of the whale, 20-feet-tall and 80-feet-long. Thomas devoted over 100 hours to the project and charged nothing; helping a friend and neighbor was payment enough (the true Oklahoma spirit). Hugh then had to apply cement to the structure, and Dee Dee writes, "He worked 2,920 hours applying the cement which he hand mixed and applied one five-gallon bucket at a time." Hugh kept notes of the materials he used to build the whale, including 126 sacks of dry concrete, 19,400 pounds of rock, and 15 tons of sand. It was an enormous project, Hugh was not a young man, and the pond was full of water while he worked. But it was incredibly well-built, notes Blaine, and "is so strong and well anchored that there is not a fatigue crack or failure anywhere in a 45-year-old structure." This is a testament to Hugh's tenacity and fortitude. Linda enjoys educating current visitors of the Whale about the family legacy: "I love telling the story of Hugh Davis saying that he was going to build a cement whale, his friends said 'how are you going to do that?' He replied 'how hard can it be' and two years later it was done, with water slides no less. It is the history of one man who knew without a doubt that he could do it."

The Golden Years

It's a bit difficult to hide a massive concrete whale outside the family pond, but what began as a surprise anniversary gift turned into a two-year long testament to Hugh's love for his wife. Every pail of cement showed his devotion; every pound of sand his fortitude. It couldn't be kept a secret from the community either. Every summer, the swimming hole was still open for business, and locals and visitors alike began enjoying the Blue Whale attraction before he was even blue. "In July 1972, the unpainted blue whale began attracting people who wanted to fling themselves off his tail, slide down his water-coated fins and poke their heads out of the holes in the whale's head. So began what became one of the best loved icons on Route 66," writes Dee Dee. The Blue Whale captured the hearts and imaginations of everyone who came across his wide grin and playful spirit, offering a persuasive invitation to play like a kid again. What followed was 16 years of delighting and teaching children about nature and animals, providing a fun and safe place for family outings, contributing to the community, and becoming a Route 66 icon - who wouldn't pull to the side of the road at the sight of a massive blue whale with the charm of nostalgia that defines the Mother Road. What began as a thoughtful and loving anniversary gift expanded to become a gift to the community of Catoosa and beyond. However, there were rocky times ahead.

Closure and Disrepair

By 1988, Hugh was 78 with crippling arthritis, Zelta was 68, and many swimmers had stopped coming to the Whale. As Blaine notes, "the support base, which was mostly local, got swimming pools in their backyards and attendance fell from 150 per day to 5 or 10." This, coupled with Hugh's poor health, caused the family to close the Whale. Hugh died two years later. (Zelta passed away in 2001).

Without the constant maintenance needed to keep such a vast structure alive, Old Blue's paint slowly faded and chipped away, the grounds became overgrown and the pond murky, and vandals marred the exterior with graffiti. The facilities were also completely ruined, with the plumbing and bathrooms destroyed. Anything that wasn't nailed to the ground and could be stolen was. The aura of childhood innocence and nostalgia was gone, replaced with such modern ailments as disrespect and apathy.

This period of closure and disrepair is echoed in many towns and attractions along Route 66, when the interstate highways bypassed much of the route and travelers went elsewhere. As Blaine recalls, "The motoring public had taken up the turnpikes and Interstate highways, my father had passed away, there was no more interest or income to be made, no one lived on that side of the road [anymore], my sister and my families had careers to follow and nature took over the landscape, then the vandals came. From the closing in the fall of 1988 until 1995 it stayed that way." The once bright light in Catoosa and along Route 66 had gone out, and past innocence and wholesomeness was substituted with abandonment and vandalism. This even led to discussions about potential demolition. But, thankfully, in true Oklahoman spirit, the kind and caring people of Catoosa rallied to help return an icon to its former grandeur.

A Tide of Resurgence

When Blaine returned to the Whale in 1995, he had time to commit to the attraction again, and he noticed that many of the kids who had swam at the Whale had grown up, started businesses, and had an interest in saving their childhood playground. In addition, Michael Wallis had published his seminal Route 66: The Mother Road book, which helped start a revival of Route 66 appreciation and preservation.

When the community learned that reopening the Whale was a possibility, they came together to donate time, money, and energy to reviving the faded roadside attraction. In 1997, the Catoosa Chamber of Commerce refurbished the landmark with help from volunteers, private companies, family members, and the Hampton Inn hotel chain (the Blue Whale is now used in Hampton Inn's marketing campaigns nationwide). Oklahoma Governor at the time, Frank Keeting, even painted the pupil of the Whale's eye. And the adorable little white hat atop the Whale's head was added to show support for the Catoosa Public School system, where three (and soon to be four) generations of Davises have graduated from and where Dee Dee taught for over 30 years. There could not be a better example of Oklahomans' kindness and desire to help and support one another.

The work on such a large and well-visited attraction is never done, and Blaine, along with his sons and a dedicated group of volunteers, continues to keep the place up and make regular improvements. In addition, a local volunteer group, the FINS of the Blue Whale (a sub-committee of the Catoosa Arts and Tourism Society), formed in 2009, to help support the ongoing maintenance of the attraction by organizing fundraising events. Every year, among other events, they hold the Blue Tie Affair, a fun and glamorous evening at the Whale with dinner, a silent auction, and entertainment.

One of the key elements to keeping the Whale alive is the long-time volunteer, and only full-time person on site, Linda Ross-Hobbs. Blaine believes that the Whale is such a hit among travelers because of the story behind it, and says Ross-Hobbs is the best storyteller there is. “Linda Ross-Hobbs is a dedicated, consumed volunteer who has experienced its rise, fall, and resurrection as much as my family members, and is primarily responsible for every improvement in the place and every sale in the gift shop that provides all the financial support."

Ross-Hobbs first began volunteering at the Whale after suffering the painful loss of her husband in 2011 to cancer. One day, when she brought her 3-year-old twin granddaughters to the Whale, their joy at Old Blue reminded Ross-Hobbs of the happy memories she herself had from the Whale. She had intended to only volunteer for a year, but the happiness the Whale brings to herself and others has kept her hooked. The most memorable moments for her while working at the Whale are "the everyday people who touch you with their stories. We share lives from here and abroad. Blue is the essence of Route 66 and represents the innocence of that time. It signifies the strength and determination of our people and country."

Present and Future

The resurgence of the Blue Whale of Catoosa is part of a larger trend along Route 66, with dedicated people working hard to preserve an important part of American history and offer something nostalgic for future generations. Ross-Hobbs notes that all over Oklahoma, "Buildings are being saved, [people are] fighting to save graceful old bridges, old sections of highway and neon signs, and I cannot say enough about this and the people who help and donate time and money. Saving a great history."

Old Blue continues to draw in people every day, and over the years has had some special visitors. One of the most memorable visitors to the Whale for Blaine was Sir Paul McCartney: "It was very brief as I was pulling into the driveway, he and his soon-to-be wife were pulling out. Our driver side windows were down and not over three feet apart. We both stopped ever so briefly and I said 'You look just like Paul McCartney,' he replied, 'I should - I am' and drove off."

Special moments like that happen all the time at the Whale, between locals, international tourists, and everyone in between. Huckleby drives by on her way to work and visits often: "A visit to the Blue Whale provides a bit of whimsy in an otherwise regular day." Crews from the Food Network, American Pickers, and the Cartoon Network have also been drawn to the site, among others. And in 2010, Time Magazine named the Blue Whale of Catoosa as one of America's Top 50 Roadside Attractions. Nearby Catoosa is also well worth a visit, notes Catoosa Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Glenna Scott, with its friendly, welcoming atmosphere and small hometown feel. Route 66 runs directly through the heart of Catoosa, and "folks from all over the world travel Route 66 and end up in Catoosa, OK."

Along with the dedicated volunteers, corporate partners, the FINS of the Blue Whale, and the Oklahoma Route 66 Association, the Whale should keep on swimming for many years to come. So stop by, bring a picnic, fish in the pond (catch and release), explore the grounds, or just "sit on the tail of the whale and dream a dream," in the words of Ross-Hobbs. Her personal motto is one shared all along the Mother Road, and echoes Hugh Davis's incredible spirit: "Work in the present, look to the future, and save the past."

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