(Editor’s Note: This is the first of three pieces looking at the changing dynamics of a town in southern Oklahoma.)
TISHOMINGO — Beneath the famed pink and white candy-striped awning of country star Miranda Lambert’s original Pink Pistol boutique, tourists mill about the bustling downtown Main Street of Tishomingo, Okla.
All five blocks of it.
Once a struggling rural community, Tishomingo is now the quintessential vision of small-town life: pristine sidewalks lined with brick paths, curb gardens bursting with color — cannas, zinnias and wild sage.
Historic buildings stand in a row: brick, concrete and rock. The more imposing structures are constructed from pink granite, excavated from the nearby Pennington Creek in the early 1900s.
Inside the independent businesses, tin ceiling tiles dating to statehood can be seen either overhead or salvaged for décor.
And face lifts abound: freshly-painted facades. Tan, wooden shingles along slanted, Western-style roofs. Intricate murals scale corner-building walls with pictures depicting the community’s rich Native American history along with its somewhat glamorous, evolving future.
In a world where the small town is a dying breed, Tishomingo seeks to prove the exception. Home to two of the biggest names in country music — former super couple Blake Shelton and Lambert — a cultural and economic renaissance, small-town style, has fueled Tishomingo’s growth.
Today’s Main Street stands in stark contrast to the one remembered by Lambert when she purchased a local farmhouse outside of town nearly seven years ago.
“When I first moved to Tishomingo, there were a lot of empty buildings on Main Street,” Lambert said. “Storefronts with names still on the doors and business names still painted on the windows, but no one occupying them. Now it’s hard to find a parking spot even on the weekdays.”
Residents recall a Main Street very much in need of repair: Aging structures were collapsing, sidewalks were cracked, and the only streetlights were those perched upon wooden electric poles.
Prior to Lambert considering store frontage on Main Street, the City of Tishomingo had taken steps to improve its curbside appearance in an almost fortuitous move, said Cindy Matheny, Tishomingo Landmark Bank president.
“I believe it was right before Miranda came to town that the city received a sidewalk grant that gave Main Street the brick walks and light poles, almost as if we were preparing for what was to come without even knowing it,” Matheny said.
In November 2012, Lambert opened her first of two Pink Pistol locations, which she quickly followed with two other ventures: MuttNation Foundation’s Redemption Ranch (a safe haven for dogs) and The Ladysmith (a boutique bed and breakfast). Because of her prominence on the national music scene, her business endeavors reached a national audience.
Tishomingo Sales Tax
(Tishomingo City Hall, Sales Tax Comparison Reports)
“One thing Miranda provided our community is publicity,” said Ray Lokey, publisher of the Johnston County Capital-Democrat. “Tishomingo could never buy the amount of positive publicity she has brought to our community of 3,000 people.”
Lambert, along with country music star, The Voice judge and former husband Blake Shelton, encouraged fans to visit their adopted hometown in everything from announcements at concerts to national magazines and television interviews.
The Pink Pistol opened in November 2012. Tishomingo’s sales tax (which stands at a rate of 3 percent) increased at a compound-annual growth rate of 7.4% percent from 2012 to 2015, records provided by Tishomingo City Hall indicate.
Face lifts abound
Perhaps the most telling indicators of Tishomingo’s growth are the storefronts themselves.
Prior to The Pink Pistol’s opening, downtown Main Street had, at one time, 18 empty storefronts, Lokey estimates. Since, 21 businesses have either opened or have been renovated.
In addition, more than $65 million has been invested in a town with a population of 3,000 in the past three years, with the Chickasaw Nation and Murray State College being the primary suppliers of invested capital. (See sidebar below.) (The investments of business owners, such as Lambert, are not public record.)
“There aren’t very many places like Tishomingo,” said Staci Addison, general manager of The Ladysmith and The Pink Pistol. “If you just drive the rural roads of Oklahoma, you go through town after town after town where the stores are boarded up, and there is nothing there. We are so fortunate.”
Lambert pointed out that her hometown of Lindale, Texas, has seen similar changes since the opening of The Pink Pistol Texas in October 2013, crediting her mother (Beverly), father (Rick) and a family friend (April) for the Lindale store’s success.
“Small towns are where the big hearts live,” Lambert said.
Before the Pink Pistol
Some business leaders argue that some of the ingredients for Tishomingo’s comeback were already being set in place prior to the opening of the Pink Pistol.
Several of the local storefront renovations can be attributed to a Johnston County Industrial Authority (JCIA) decision to award grant money to local businesses through Business Frontage Improvement Site grants, Matheny said.
Through the program, businesses can apply for up to a $5,000 loan to improve store frontage. If the business pays half of the loaned amount back within a year, the other half is forgiven and the half paid is interest-free.
“Since the Pink Pistol has come to town, our grant applications have more than doubled,” Matheny said. “I’m proud to say the majority of the Main Street frontage improvements have been aided by the JCIA grant funds.”
Eight years ago, Lisa Rose, a San Francisco native, moved to Tishomingo and recognized a need in the community for accessible fashion for young people. She opened a boutique, the Lucky Rose, in 2007 — a risky investment like any small business venture. She was also an outsider, another hurdle, but her store quickly gained a fervent following.
“Tishomingo was experiencing growth, but the Pink Pistol and the Ladysmith stepped up the process,” Rose said. “Things were starting to change when Miranda moved here, and I think she saw that, and that is why she was willing to invest in our town.”
Tishomingo and the Chickasaw Nation
Perhaps even more important than the contributions of retailers is the community’s history and longstanding relationship with the Chickasaw Nation, which has invested millions of dollars into the town over the years.
Tishomingo, named after a revered Chickasaw chief who died during the Trail of Tears, served as the Chickasaw Nation’s Capitol from 1856 to 1907. It is also the birthplace of the Chickasaw tribal constitution, which was approved in 1855, according to Johnston County Historical Society Treasurer Letha Clark. In fact, the first Chickasaw Capitol building — a log cabin — still resides in town, located inside the Chickasaw Council House Museum just uphill from Main Street.
Around the same time the brick walks and streetlights were installed in downtown Main Street, the Chickasaw Nation paid for a condemned building to be torn down and converted into a pocket garden. Once a popular clothing store, the former Armstrong building, which stood between where the Pink Pistol and Baker’s Mercantile now stand, had a collapsed roof and mold issues.
“It was really a black eye for downtown Tishomingo,” Lokey said.
The Chickasaw Garden Park was installed: a charming pocket park, replete with tile walkways, shade trees, benches, a white gazebo and a small waterfall.
In the heart of downtown Tishomingo, construction is currently underway for the highly anticipated Chickasaw Nation Information Center, a $7.5 million, 10,700 square-foot structure that will house the Chickasaw Nation Tourism Department, Tribal Office of Special Events, Johnston County Chamber of Commerce and Johnston County Historical Society.
2012 to 2015:
Murray State College Capital Campaign Project — $20 million
Chickasaw Nation Health Facility — $10 million
Chickasaw Nation (funds committed and projects to be announced) — $10 million
Chickasaw Nation Visitor’s Information Center — $7.5 million
Chickasaw Nation Infrastructure Improvements — $1 million to $2.5 million
City of Tishomingo Water/Sewer Infrastructure Upgrade Project — $7.5 million
Dollar General Grocery Store — $2 million
Private Investments (Estimated) — $6 million to $7 million
Estimated total — $64 million to $66.5 million
(Johnston County Capital-Democrat and Murray State College)
The destination will also be a part of the Adventure Road Campaign, a Chickasaw Nation-led tourism endeavor that encourages visitors to see the Oklahoma offerings along Interstate 35.
Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby explained the relationship in a July 2 Johnston County Capital-Democrat article.
“Tishomingo is a special place for Chickasaws,” he said. “This area holds many reminders of our history and tribal identity. We are excited to see the Tishomingo area grow, and we look forward to sharing the Chickasaw story with visitors.”
Seigel Heffington, owner of Heffington Realty, said Lambert’s investments were the critical next step.
“Miranda has been an economic boon to the community,” Heffington said. “She didn’t just open a store. She created a business vision for the town and opened people’s eyes to what was possible.”
Helen Wardrip, co-owner of Vagabond Junktiques, an antique/junk store, said Lambert’s investments had an impact on her decision to open a business.
“The time was right with the Pink Pistol bringing in thousands of people from everywhere,” Wardrip said. “Many times, people had jokingly said, ‘Blake and Miranda can never get divorced!’ Well, they did. Things happen. At first, I think we all worried about the impact. The divorce could have gotten ugly, and she could have shut everything down. But it looks like Blake and Miranda have found a way to remain friends, and everything on Main Street is going to be fine.”
In light of Tishomingo’s renaissance, the Pink Pistol’s logo (a pistol with angel wings) seems particularly prescient.
Equal parts tough-as-a-boot and gracious, Lambert is the blond-haired, blue-eyed, pistol-packing angel Tishomingo residents could not have anticipated, a benefactor who elevated the town’s morale with grit and business savvy.
Although Lambert has repeatedly rejected the notion that she has single-handedly saved the small town, she does concede she played a role.
“I’m thrilled that I was able to be part of the growth of an awesome place like Tish,” she said.
For country-music fans, the small town abounds with stories of star sightings.
Just ask Nora Rios, owner of Nacho Mama’s Casa. She was sitting in Boomarang, a 1950s-style burger joint, eating breakfast when she glanced up and realized Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins were sitting in front of her. Although she didn’t disturb the singers while they were eating, several months later, she met Shelton when he walked into her restaurant and ordered nachos. On the wall, she has his signed $20 bill framed with a picture of her standing beside the country star.
Heffington said Tishomingo is set to grow even more in the coming years.
“The Chickasaw Nation has indicated interest in building a hotel-casino, 134 acres are going to be used for development over the next 10 years or so, and there are other projects in the works with our celebrities that I can’t talk about, but it’s more millions,” Heffington said, wiping down a black leather guitar case with a rag while fielding calls at his desk.
People in town say they’ve heard whispers that Shelton intends to open a bar and grill in the shuttered Tishomingo Family Dentist office located beside The Pink Pistol, although business leaders have not provided confirmation.
“As far as all these things happening right now, I don’t know how you explain it except for the stars aligned,” Lokey said. “It just all kind of came together at about the same time.”
Heffington is sure of one thing as he slips his guitar case into his office: “It’s nice to see the growth in Tishomingo finally after all these years.”
(Correction: This article was updated to spell Helen Wardrip’s name correctly.)