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The Legend of the White Dog

By Heide Brandes

Photographs by David J. Schwartz – Pics On Route 66

Nelson King may never have opened his wildly popular restaurant White Dog Hill in Clinton, Oklahoma, if he had ignored the ghostly messages coming from the glove box of his sister’s car. He might have named the Route 66 establishment something boring if he didn’t adopt that white dog that he didn’t really want. He may have hired less talented chefs if Jacqueline Davies-Thunderbull didn’t have a wild vision one night that led her from Bond Street in London to Cheyenne, Oklahoma, (although, looking back, the vision might have intended her to go to Cheyenne, Wyoming). His business may have continued to fall apart if the ghost of a murdered woman wasn’t smudged away by a Native American shaman and if the locals didn’t tell him he needed to focus on steaks.

In a lot of ways, White Dog Hill restaurant was created by messages from the universe. Sure, the steaks and the daily specials have fans booking reservations weeks in advance, but the magic of Route 66 and the little white dog that inspired it is the true reason the restaurant and bar are among the most popular places to visit along Oklahoma’s enviable stretch of Mother Road.

The Mystery of the White Dog

Nelson’s journey to White Dog Hill is as winding as the dirt road that leads to the restaurant. He was born on December 9, 1950, in Stillwater, Oklahoma, to Iris and Lee King. His mother and father were both from Buffalo, a tiny town in Oklahoma’s panhandle. Nelson and his two older sisters, Coleen and Kathryn, spent summers with aunts and uncles in Buffalo, which gave them the freedom to happily explore the wide- open spaces.

“We used to spend a lot of summers there from the time we were yay-high, which was great for us. The freedom of it was great,” Nelson said. “We got shipped off to this small town where grandpa and grandma were a block away from an aunt and uncle. And then there’s a great-grandma and there’s another uncle and then there’s another. And then there were the ones that you call aunt and uncle that aren’t actually, but you’ve grown up calling them that. What a safe environment to be in!”

Nelson was born the week his dad graduated from Oklahoma State University, earning his architectural engineering degree, after serving in World War II. He got a job at the oil company Conoco and the family moved every three or four years, finally landing in Houston.

Nelson graduated high school in 1969 in Houston and attended Texas A&M University to learn architecture. After graduating college in 1973, he moved around a bit. The restless spirit that he developed growing up had never left him. He stayed with friends in Nebraska to help remodel a house and later returned to Texas A&M, where he lived in his professor’s house.

“I was sculpting and drawing a lot. I was just kind of a jack of all trades and vagabonding for a lot of years. Through some friends, I ended up in Vail, Colorado, and worked on interior design and things,” Nelson said. “But it just seemed like it was time for a change, and I had a friend in Fort Lauderdale.”

After moving to Florida, Nelson was approached by a jewelry and fragrance company about designing displays for the Western hemisphere.

“So, I just relocated from Fort Lauderdale to Miami in the 1980s. That fringe company was Cartier. Our office pretty much handled international locations like the Caribbean, North and South America, and Central America, so most of my travel was out of the country.”

In the late 90s, change was in the wind, however. Cartier did a global restructuring and a new boss came in.

“I left Cartier in 1999. The whole atmosphere of the company changed. So, I moved back to Oklahoma in 2000,” Nelson said. “I had been working odd jobs since I quit Cartier. My mother had died, and my sisters and I needed to go visit Daddy in Denver, where he was living, to go through all the boxes and stuff.”

While visiting his father, Nelson decided to use his travel points to visit his sister Coleen and her husband Reid Buckmaster in Weatherford, located just east of Clinton.

“I thought I’d come to visit for a few days,” he said.

Nelson didn’t plan to stay... until the glove box started talking to him.

Messages from the Glove Box

On the first day he was in Weatherford, Nelson borrowed his sister’s car to visit an aunt in Enid, located in the northwestern part of Oklahoma.

“Before I got even that far - and I know this sounds really loopy - I started having a conversation with the glove compartment, which told me that I needed to move to Oklahoma,” Nelson said.

Talking out his ideas out loud in the car helped Nelson focus, and the glove compartment seemed like as good a sympathetic ear as any. Nelson knows exactly how quirky that sounds, but it worked.

“I asked the glove compartment when I needed to move. It said, ‘When you finish the house you’re working on in Miami.’ So that would be April or May of next year. And I said, ‘Okay, so where am I moving in Oklahoma?’ It said, ‘Well, your brother-in-law’s grandma’s old house was outside Weatherford.’ The glove compartment is telling me I need to move to Grandma Buck’s old house out in the country.”

College students lived in the house, so Nelson asked his brother-in-law if he could evict them.

“He said ‘I guess I could. Why?’ and I said, ‘Because Coleen’s car’s glove compartment told me I need to move here next spring.’ So, he evicted them. I went home and finished the house in Miami, sold it and moved up here.”

Coleen had no idea that her car had such an influence on Nelson.

“He never told me that story,” she said. “I just remember that when he did move up, he redid my husband’s grandmother’s house. It’s still really nice.”

By fall, Nelson found another place to live.

“My sister and I were out on a Sunday drive and we were behind the Clinton Indian hospital and through the bare trees, I could see this beautiful little stone house. The little farm was for sale, so I took down the number and called. I ended up buying it,” said Nelson.

He also had his eye on a strange old building that sat high up on a nearby hill.

“One of my few friends at the time was Ima Jean Herndon, a local Cheyenne who had a native craft shop over in Cheyenne, close to the Texas line. I would go over there once a week and we’d go to lunch,” Nelson said. “I always saw this big old two-story building.”

Nelson, with the help of his sister, learned that the property owner was selling, and just like that, he ended up with a farm and the old building on the hill.

“We went to see it after dinner one night, and there was this bright orange sunset. I said, ‘Oh, Nelson, this could be gorgeous,’” Coleen said. “Nelson always had a vision. Most people would have just bulldozed it down, but he wanted to bring it back to its original glory.”

The structure was built in 1925 as the original Clinton Country Club and Golf Course and was the local place to be. Parties and proms were held there and only the most prominent people of society were members. By the late 1950s, however, a bigger golf course was built, and the Clinton Country Club closed down.

“Then it was a nightclub, gambling den, whorehouse - a little bit of everything - until the 1970s. Then I think one or two families lived here,” Nelson said. “The last man that I can trace back was somebody’s eccentric uncle who was kind of a hermit. He died in the early 1980s, and then it was abandoned.” The once impressive building lay silent for some time.

Nelson had never owned or operated a restaurant before, but he wanted to bring the old building back to its glory.

“That place stayed empty, but it was such a prominent and popular place on Route 66 in its heyday,” said Pat Smith, director of Clinton’s Route 66 Museum. “It was pretty exclusive. All the fancy people went there.”

Nelson had originally thought to turn the property into a private home, but everyone in town urged him to open a steakhouse.

“People got really excited,” Smith continued. “It’s even more popular now that he opened White Dog. And his success really is word of mouth.”

But before he could open the restaurant, Nelson needed a dog, a chef, and someone to get rid of the ghost. Oh, yeah, unfortunately the building was haunted.

A Dog, a Chef and a Ghost

When Nelson bought his cute little farm, he wanted a dog. He called around to try to find an animal shelter, but one of the veterinarians he reached out to had different ideas.

“They told me that they had this great little white dog that needed a home,” Nelson said. “I wanted a bigger dog. I didn’t want a white dog with red earth Oklahoma. But I took him home and we just immediately bonded. I looked in all these baby books to find a name, but nothing sounded right. I just named him White Dog and named the farm White Dog Farm after him because it seemed to fit.”

White Dog was Nelson’s lucky charm. It made sense to call the new restaurant White Dog too.

But first, Nelson needed to find a chef. He found Jackie Davies-Thunderbull.

Jackie was born “in the late 60s” just outside London. “I don’t want to say the year because I spar with my staff all the time about how old I am,” she said.

She grew up just outside London with her parents Jessie and Reginald, who instilled a love of travel into their daughter.

“Traveling is how I was brought up,” she said. “I was very lucky to have visited many different countries. My parents embraced all cultures and all people, and that had a great effect on me.”

She attended a girls’ boarding school, which also exposed her to girls from many different cultures and backgrounds. After graduating from boarding school, Jackie attended Oxford University to study business management. She graduated in 1983 but took some time to travel the world before focusing on her career.

“I actually went into venture capitalism when I returned. I didn’t know much about it, but ended up as a research tech for Thompson Clive and Partners Ltd.”

While the job was fascinating, it was also high-pressure and stressful. To help balance out the stress, Jackie learned to cook from her best friend who was a Cordon Bleu-trained chef. But the stress of venture capitalism took its toll. After 17 years in London, Jackie was ready for a change. She decided to travel to the United States to visit an old school chum in North Carolina before “backpacking” around the rest of America. Before she left, she had a dream - a vision, if you will.

“There was a place called Cheyne Walk in London that I would visit with my girlfriends. In this dream, we were at Cheyne Walk and leaving a restaurant. I looked up and the road sign was spelled ‘Cheyenne.’ It was so vivid,” Jackie said.

In 2000, she took her trip to America.

“I had planned to go through the south to Texas, up through Oklahoma to Wyoming and Montana and over to Oregon,” she said. “I looked up western Oklahoma, and I read about Washita Battlefield National Historic Site where the Cheyenne village of Chief Black Kettle and the Battle of Washita occurred. It was in Cheyenne, Oklahoma. I thought that was a peculiar coincidence, so I decided to visit.”

When she arrived in Cheyenne, she met a Native American crafter named Ima Jean Herndon. They became friends, and Herndon felt that she would get along famously with her friend Nelson.

“So, my friend Ima Jean calls me and says, ‘There’s this fascinating lady from London. You have to come meet her.’ We just hit it off,” Nelson said. “She was a superb chef, so I knew I could rope Jackie into at least helping me get set up.” Jackie always wanted to return to college, and Herndon convinced her to attend college in Weatherford.

“I ended up going to college at Southwestern Oklahoma State University. In 2006, I graduated with two degrees - one in American History and one in Psychology,” Jackie said.

One day, while Jackie was visiting Herndon, the woman pulled out a picture of her cousin, Marvin Thunderbull, who was a policeman.

“He was in a movie called ‘Last of the Dogmen’ that had Tom Berenger and Barbara Hershey in it,” said Jackie. “I went to a Labor Day Powwow in 2001. I had never been to a powwow before, and he was there. Ima Jean introduced us.”

The sparks flew, and soon the two were dating. But the terrorist attacks on 9/11 changed everything, and Marvin was called up to serve as part of the National Reserves. In 2000, he was sent to Iraq where the war had just begun.

At that point, Nelson was also badgering her to lend a hand with the new restaurant. She helped develop financial projections and the business plan while attending school. When Marvin returned, he and Jackie married in a traditional Cheyenne wedding in May 2004. Two weeks later, the civil ceremony was held at White Dog Farm.

“Nelson started talking to me about becoming the chef,” Jackie said. “Finally, I said, ‘Fine, but only for a short time.’”

Nelson and Jackie asked around to see what kind of fare the community wanted. The consensus was that White Dog Hill should be a steakhouse.

But opening a restaurant wasn’t as easy or smooth as Nelson hoped it would be. Financing was hard to come by and even a Small Business Administration-backed loan didn’t help convince bankers. Once financing was secured, bureaucratic red tape and construction delays caused even more problems.

And then there was the ghost to take care of.

“There was a fine upstanding family in Clinton, but their son was apparently a little off track. In the early 1980s, he brought his wife up here and stabbed her with an ice pick 27 times,” said Nelson. “We called the ghost Dottie, but actually, that was her mother-in-law. I don’t know the woman’s real name.”

As soon as Nelson fixed something in the restaurant-to- be, it would break again. Over and over, Dottie would ruin whatever Nelson was working on. So of course, Nelson did the most logical thing: he found a shaman named Moses Starr to help.

“Moses came up and we went through a whole ceremony,” Nelson said. “He went around doing his chanting with his abalone shells and his sweet grass and he said, ‘What do you want me to bless?’ And I said, ‘Oh, Moses, pick something - me, the dog, the building, the property, we’re all cursed here.’”

The blessing worked, but the restaurant has still other ghostly sightings. Jackie has heard sounds of a party when no one was in the restaurant. She and her staff have seen “someone” peering around the wait station into the kitchen.

“I don’t really feel scared about it. I think it might just be residual energy,” Jackie said. “This place has so much history.”

Steak and a Burger

Nearly eight months after getting financing and battling red tape, White Dog Hill restaurant opened on August 1, 2007, offering only core items like steak, shrimp, burgers, salmon and baked potatoes at first.

“We gradually added to the menu and more art showed up, too,” said Nelson.

White Dog Hill is covered in paintings, and though some depict bucolic landscapes, most feature a white dog. White Dog himself became a favorite sight for customers and was Nelson’s constant companion. One customer brought in an old Victorian painting of a white dog. Someone else painted a portrait of White Dog and gave it to Nelson.

“Everyone loved White Dog,” said Nelson. “I think they liked him better than they liked me.”

Jackie wanted to keep local fans happy, but she had a mission to offer dishes that they may not have a chance to taste anywhere else. Her specials ranged from Cuban stew and Brazilian vegetable dishes to African fare, Indian curry and even Japanese offerings.

“I wanted to bring in unusual dishes to encourage people to try something new,” Jackie said. “Steak is prominent, of course, since we are in cattle country. We wanted to give people what they expected, but more.”

Three years after opening the restaurant, Nelson added Beany Bar, named after his little brown dog Beans. “White Dog got the restaurant and Beans got the bar,” Nelson said.

Sadly, White Dog was run over in the restaurant parking lot late one night and died on April 13, 2016. He is buried under a sprawling tree in the center of the White Dog Hill parking circle. His loss had a huge impact on Nelson, but he has positively pushed forward.

Visions, a white dog, talking glove compartments and ghosts may have all led to the legend of White Dog Hill, but the spirit of Route 66 is what keeps the restaurant so popular.

“We want to stay true to Route 66 and what made it so special, which was coming into a town, feeling welcome and celebrating local community,” said Nelson.

Up on its wind-swept hill, overlooking miles and miles of open golden plains and historic land, with the old highway meandering right on past out front, White Dog is a special place that continues to delight those who grace its door.


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