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Tishomingo women
Tishomingo is home to many influential women. (Tiara Blue)

(Editor’s Note: This is the third of three pieces looking at the changing dynamics of a town in southern Oklahoma. Part one can be found here, and part two can be found here.)

Honky-tonk music lilts in the air from outdoor speakers along downtown Main Street of Tishomingo.

Gaggles of women — with the occasional odd man out — weave in and out of Miranda Lambert’s first Pink Pistol boutique, doors dinging in their wake.

Inside, five-year-old Evan Alexander sits at a black-and-white checkered countertop, swiveling on a 1950s leather barstool. Beneath an antique chandelier, his blond hair glows cotton white. A woman — equally blond — leans over the counter and hands him a sundae, laden with ice cream, fudge, whipped cream and the protruding head of a gummy worm.

The blue eyes narrow, and a golden brow raises. The woman, Pink Pistol store manager and Evan’s mom, Kelly McMillen, retrieves the cup and adds a spoonful of cherries. Evan’s smile returns.

It is a common scene that now takes place in the once struggling rural community. In a three-year period, the town has experienced what amounts to a cultural, economic, and community renaissance.

But perhaps even more intriguing than the story of a country star saving a small town are the stories hidden behind the cash registers — stories like McMillen’s.

Nestled in the southeastern corner of, arguably, the most conservative state in the country, Tishomingo is a town run primarily by women.

‘An unusual phenomenon’

“Women are at the forefront [in Tishomingo],” said Ray Lokey, Johnston County Capital-Democrat publisher and editor. “It’s an unusual phenomenon, and of course, Miranda is the grand diva of them all.”

In November 2012, Lambert took a chance on her adopted hometown. She opened her first Pink Pistol store, an explosion of pink, shimmer, and platinum, from the glitter-bedecked ram and deer heads mounted above the 1950s soda fountain to the life-sized pink horse that greets tourists outside.

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The store is hard to label. Products range from country glamour wardrobe (boots, jewelry, clothing) to quirky souvenirs, some with the Pink Pistol logo, others that challenge categorization (guitar-shaped pizza cutters; bullet-shaped ice trays; and inflatable unicorn heads).

The Pink Pistol’s success inspired Lambert to create two other tourists’ destinations in town: MuttNation Foundation’s Redemption Ranch (a safe haven for dogs) and the Ladysmith, a bed and breakfast she renovated from an aging 1901 inn.

Lambert’s creative vision paid off in 2015 when The Ladysmith received the distinction as Best New Hotel in the South by Southern Living Magazine.

“I wanted to bring a little bit of the vagabond, rock’n’roll lifestyle into the quiet setting of Tishomingo, simply because I love both sides of life: the fast pace of the road and the settled-down, slow pace feeling of small-town America,” Lambert said. “The best part is that the whole town embraced this sort of feeling and began getting inspired as well. Businesses started opening all along Main Street, and now I’m not sure you can even find a building to rent or buy.”

But the most intriguing aspect of downtown Main Street’s revitalization is a trend Lambert couldn’t have anticipated.

“Most of [the businesses] are owned and/or operated by women,” she said.

A casual stroll through the retail sector of Main Street reveals that Lambert’s observation is on the mark.

With the exception of two male-owned businesses (Tishomingo Trading Post and the auto-parts store Motor Sales), all the independent retail stores along downtown Main Street are owned by women, or women with their husbands.

Even the barbershop is owned by a woman, hairdresser Tracy Martin, who likes to hunt and fish and claims to hate her vacuum cleaner.

Town barber, Tracy Martin, gives a customer a trim. (Tanya Lowrance)
Town barber, Tracy Martin, gives a customer a trim. (Tanya Lowrence)

“Our Main Street is definitely female-driven, with some husbands attached,” said Lisa Rose, Tishomingo Merchant’s Association founder. “If you go to our meetings and look around the table, probably 90 percent of the people there are women.”

Tishomingo Trading Post Store Manager Scott Casteel, the lone male merchant on his side of the street, jokes about it.

“We like to say we added some much-needed testosterone to help balance out the greatly saturated estrogen on Main Street,” he chuckled. “They’re all great gals. If it wasn’t for them, there’d still be tumbleweeds rolling up and down Main Street.”

It seems Lambert’s greatest contribution to the community, may not be just her businesses, but the idea she represents, often with her music: a strong female who can get things done.

It’s a trend that has caught on.

‘We need to stand on our own’

Retired teacher Jackie Baker said she woke up one day and realized she wasn’t as independent as she thought she was.

“I didn’t have any credit on my own,” Baker said. “I rode my husband’s shirttails, and I just realized that Jaime (my daughter-in-law) was in the same boat. You do that when you’re married. You do everything jointly. And I said, ‘You know what, we need to stand on our own.’ Jaime and I decided to do this, and we would do it on our own credit.”

Baker said she couldn’t afford to buy a building on Main Street, so she did the next best thing. She called Lambert and told her about her idea to open a store that sold only Oklahoma-made goods. Lambert embraced the idea, agreeing to rent her a building.

Jackie and Jaime Baker opened Baker’s Mercantile, a 1930s style store next door to The Pink Pistol. Purveyor of homemade fudge, pecan candies, pickled goods, pumpkins from the Baker family farm and Made-in-Oklahoma products, Baker’s Mercantile also houses several local vendors, who rent space to sell their products.

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Baker, however, stressed that her store would not have made it without the support of her husband, Roger, and son, John.

Jessi Northcutt, single mother of four-year-old son, SJ, already owned the children’s boutique SJ’s Cruff, in Durant, a town with 20,000 people located about 35 miles southeast of Tishomingo.

Northcutt said she decided to open a second store in Tishomingo because she liked the small-town feel of the community. In an effort to embrace that sense of community, she partnered with Leather & Lace Photography. They created an ad campaign featuring local girls as models, a campaign that was later picked up nationally by clothing brand Ann Loren.

“I wanted to show my son no matter what, he can do anything he puts his mind to, even when it seems impossible,” Northcutt said. “That’s why I have both stores, and I’m slowly working on college classes when I can. He is my anchor when I feel like it’s too much.”

Female leaders before the Pink Pistol

But women have been spearheading the girl-power movement in Tishomingo even prior to the Pink Pistol’s opening.

Such visionaries included Peggy Shaffer, owner of Houser’s Furniture Store. She took over her father’s store 38 years ago and transformed it from a small business to one that now occupies seven buildings along Main Street.

Brenda Rowe, like Shaffer, has shown an ability to wear many hats. She has served as one of the town’s two female bail bondsmen for 28 years, worked in real estate for 30 years, first as a realtor then as a broker when she opened Brenda Rowe Realty in 2000, and owned travel agency, Ray’s Travel Service, alongside husband, Ray, for 38 years.

Boomarang
The Boomarang Diner in Tishomingo. (Tiara Blue)

Heather West opened the computer and electronics store Courtesy PC with her husband Gary in 2001.

Lisa Rose, a San Francisco native, opened a popular fashion boutique, the Lucky Rose, in 2007, and opened Spa211 in 2015.

Kristie Cannon, owner of daycare Kristie’s Kid Kare, bought and revamped an aging Dairy Queen and created Latte’ Da, a popular coffee and sandwich shop in the adjacent building, in 2010.

Ashley Wood, along with husband Scott, built the Texoma Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Clinic in 2010, a beautiful, two-story rock and brick structure that enhanced the storefront appearance of Main Street.

Janene Shipp, opened a barbecue joint, the Rockin’ Rib, in 2009, with husband Darren. Residents of Kingston about 30 miles southwest of Tishomingo, the couple could not find an available building in their area.

“Coming to Tishomingo was a complete … I call it a God thing,” Shipp said. “Darren came down to Tishomingo one day and sat on a bench on Main Street and watched the traffic and thought, ‘I bet we could do something here.’”

The decision would prove a lucky one. Their restaurant had the fortune of selling ribs that Blake Shelton lauded in national interviews, and it also had a location just two doors down from future the Pink Pistol. In 2014, they built a larger location on the east end of Main Street to accommodate their growing customer base.

Cheryl Shackleford, owner of the the Lost Spur Cafe, located inside local tourist attraction Sipokni West, expounded on the trend she has seen in her community.

“Women have stepped up to the plate,” Shackleford said. “Women are more sure of themselves, and they’re not afraid to take on challenges. And now that we live in a world where families have to have two incomes just to get by, women have learned that they have to take chances in order to make it.”

Tishomingo women are taking these chances, not only in the retail sector, but also on the professional scene.

At the local Murray State College, the president (Joy McDaniel) and two of its three vice presidents (Michaelle Gray and Becky Henthorn) are female. The local Landmark Bank has a female president: Cindy Matheny. The Chamber of Commerce president — you guessed it, female: Oma Dell Walker. The director of Family Health Center of Southern Oklahoma, a multi-million dollar federally qualified health facility, female: Tina Davis. And the list goes on.

“Where the rubber meets the road, there is usually a woman,” said Staci Addison, general manager of the Ladysmith and the Pink Pistol. “That’s the reality. And I think it’s very organic. I don’t think it’s purposeful. There was no secret meeting among the women where they sat around and said, ‘We shall conquer Tishomingo.’ It just happened that way.”

As it turns out, with women in charge, the town of Tishomingo is doing well.

Murray State College

At Murray State College, President McDaniel took the helm in April 2011, becoming the first female community college president in Oklahoma. During her tenure, she has overseen a $20 million campaign devoted to capital and facility improvements.

“She’s transformed the campus of Murray,” said Seigel Heffington, a local realtor. “She’s transformed the business community’s perception of what a college town can be. And she brought sports back into an elevated position in the community. I truly believe she is the best president MSC has ever had.”

Under McDaniel’s leadership, 1) the MSC baseball team celebrated a National Championship in 2013; 2) employee satisfaction increased, now rated above the national average in all areas, according to a Noel Levitz survey administered to all MSC staff; 3) the college navigated budget cuts with no lay-offs; and, 4) Murray on Main, the first college-run boutique in the state, established a college presence on Main Street.

“I hope when people look back on my time at Murray State College, they see positive change and growth in what has been a trying economic time [for educational institutions],” McDaniel said. “Would it be nice if I am remembered or if my name is on a building? Sure, but the legacy of the college as a quality institution of higher learning, as well as many other things that make it a special place, are more important to me.”

Fearless females

In addition to retail and leadership positions, women can also be found in positions typically associated with men.

Rowe and Vicki Harbert are the town’s two fearless female bail bondsmen. Harbert, a retired school counselor and concealed-carry permit owner, credits her success in the bonding business to years spent as a counselor and an ability to spot a “player.”

“I’ve turned down some big bonds just because it didn’t pass the smell test,” she said. “Most of my clients are former students. I know their families. Even when I’ve had to return someone to custody, I’ve rarely felt uneasy.”

(Tanya )
Kelly McMillen and her son Evan Alexander share a moment at the soda counter. (Tanya Lowrance)

Martin, the hairdresser, bought Tish Barber Shop in 2013. From its weathered white-tin ceiling to the antique red-and-blue barber pole standing beside the storefront window, little had changed in the barbershop for over a century, where it had been male-owned since 1907.

Martin admitted to some initial resistance.

“I had one gentleman come in and explain that he only came to the barbershop once a year for a haircut,” Martin said. “He took one look at me and said, ‘I guess I won’t be getting another haircut.’ And I said, ‘Why? You planning on dying before next year.’ He said, ‘Nope, but if my wife finds out there’s a woman in the barbershop, I won’t be able to come back.’ I said, ‘How old are you?’ He said, ‘Eighty-nine.’” Martin laughed. “I told him, ‘Sir, I feel sorry for you.’”

One less-polite gentleman stepped through the door, glanced up at Martin boggle-eyed, then spun on his heels and walked straight back out.

“I told him, ‘When you see the back of your head, I’m sure you’re gonna come back and want me to fix that!’” Martin recalled.

Martin credits the old men drinking coffee at the local Donut Palace to building acceptance for her business. Those who used her services spread the word that “good haircuts could be had at Tracy’s barbershop.”

A crucial component: Miranda Lambert fans

Business owners can agree upon the most crucial component to the town’s economic revitalization: Miranda Lambert’s female fans.

“You’ll see little clusters of people shopping and walking down Main Street, and it will be 4 or 5 women, and they’ll tell you that their trip is a ‘girls’ day or girls’ night out,'” Lokey said.

Miranda Lambert founded MuttNations Redemption Ranch to promote pet adoption in southern Oklahoma. (Courtesy Johnston County Capital-Democrat)
Miranda Lambert founded MuttNations Redemption Ranch to promote pet adoption in southern Oklahoma. (Courtesy Johnston County Capital-Democrat)

It’s an observation echoed by female Chamber of Commerce President Oma Dell Walker, owner of Heartfelt Flowers and Gifts.

“We’ve seen that the men go to the Wildlife Refuge or Blue River (located in Tishomingo) for a day of fishing, while the women go shopping,” she said.

And those fans are spending money, raising the town’s monthly average sales tax substantially.

Among those fans is Dawn Graham of North Carolina, a realtor by day, cover singer by night. She looks the performer: pink, knee-length sundress and tan wedge heels, her thick wavy black hair billowing around her shoulders.

“I was on a radio show (in North Carolina), and the Ladysmith came up,” Graham explained. “I had some Southwest (Airlines) points that needed to be used before the end of September, so instead of going to Nashville, I decided to come to Tishomingo.”

Graham, who planned on writing music during her stay, said her first impression of the town was positive.

“It’s a lot smaller than I’m used to, but it’s refreshing,” she said.

She said witnessing the town’s accomplishments, mostly through the efforts of its women, made her appreciate the visit all the more.

“It makes me feel inspired. As I was flying here, I thought to myself, ‘If Miranda Lambert can do it, then I can do it,’” Graham said. “And then you see these other women, and they’re doing amazing things. It makes me feel like I’m not just a dream-chaser.”

Addison credits the success of Lambert’s businesses to an ability to recognize the good in others, particularly in women.

“You hear about how pretty Miranda is, and she is pretty,” Addison said. “And you hear about how talented she is, and she is talented. But not nearly enough people are crediting her for how smart she is. You could not do as much as she does if you weren’t smart. It doesn’t mean she thinks she’s an expert in every area, but it does mean that she is intuitive enough to surround herself with people who are innately kind and generous and who know their craft. She nurtures that brilliance, and in turn, she shines.”