ROUTE 66 SERIES: The Blue Whale of Catoosa
What’s the coolest present that you’ve ever received for an anniversary? My husband and I do anniversaries a little bit different. We don’t really buy each other gifts. Instead, we pick out something nice for the two of us to enjoy, usually a trip of some kind. Of course, he always sends the obligatory (and gorgeous) flowers. He has also slipped in some very unique trinkets along the way, because he spoils me way more than he should (shhhh – don’t tell him).
Anniversaries can certainly see spouses outdoing each other for gifts, and here is a whale of an anniversary tale (Yow! Pun alert) that I discovered last summer on the Historic Route 66. It was a road trip packed to the gills (zing!) with so many quirky stops. One of the most unique was the Catoosa Blue Whale. It’s exactly like it sounds. In a tiny lake by the side of the road in Catoosa, Oklahoma, there resides a gigantic blue whale. You don’t have to go out of your way to find it either. It’s right off the 66, and that neon blue gentle giant is pretty hard to miss.
But where did it come from? Who decided to plop this big old whale on the side of a lake in the isolated countryside of Oklahoma? And why? I wasn’t about to let those questions go unanswered. Because even though my specialty on this blog is military history, sometimes it’s fun to escape the battlefield and dig up a smile instead of a trench. We must remember the personal stories that have a whale-sized impact on their communities. Stories that remind us how wonderfully human we all are.
This particular story starts in Catoosa in the mid-1900s, where there was a charming resident named Hugh S. Davis. He worked at the Tulsa zoo, and he was a central figure in the town. He was known for being friends with everybody and always keeping busy. His many hobbies included photography, zoology, writing, lecturing, and being a devoted husband and father of two. He was also a second father to many kids in the neighborhood, who loved to come and play in the lake on his property. All day in the summer, Hugh’s lake hosted fishing, canoeing, rafting, swimming, and the very healing laughter of children. Even when Hugh’s children grew up, the lake remained busy with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
After Hugh retired from the Tulsa Zoo, he devoted his time to his many crafts and hobbies. He built extravagant and artful displays to educate the local children about nature. One of his projects was a wooden ark, complete with carved animals that smiled down on the children who played there. Another was a home-built alligator ranch that included live alligators, a snake pit, and yapping prairie dogs. Yes, Hugh loved his nature projects, but his mind was soon occupied with something even bigger.
The 1960s had dawned when Hugh began doodling sketches of a giant fish he wanted to build on the lake. Napkins and scrap paper showed rough blue prints of a whale. Metal lathe, pipes, rods, concrete, and sand, among many other things, were amassed on the property. Hugh’s family wasn’t exactly sure what would come of all that stuff, but they knew from all his other projects that it was sure to be impressive.
First Hugh fashioned the framework – an iron whale skeleton that was twenty feet tall and eighty feet long. It needed a lot of welding, so Hugh brought on his friend and neighbor Harold, a professional welder, to assist him. Although Harold worked over 100 hours on the project, he didn’t charge Hugh a single cent. After the iron work came the concrete mix that would comprise the whale’s skin. The most meticulous part of the process, Hugh applied every bit of it by hand. He wanted it done right rather than fast, so he only put on one five-gallon bucket at a time. It took two years (or 2,920 hours – according to Hugh’s notes) to complete the concrete and outer layers of the whale. A project germinated in the late 1960s wasn’t complete until 1972. That summer, Hugh brought his wife to the lake and gave her the whale as an anniversary gift. She had collected whale figurines for years, and now she had her very own giant whale. It was arguably one of the most labor-intensive gifts ever given to a spouse.
Since it was plainly visible off the busy Route 66, the whale attracted adults and children from all over the place. It was extra-enticing on hot summer days. People used the whale’s tail as a diving board into the water. The whale’s slick fins made excellent water slides. Children could enter the belly of the whale through its mouth. They delighted climbing around inside and poking their heads through the holes at the top. It wasn’t long before Hugh’s giant whale was an iconic stop on Route 66. From sunup until sundown, it was crowded with people.
The 1980s saw the slow decline of Hugh’s amazing anniversary gift. He developed terrible arthritis and wasn’t able to maintain it any longer. Out of concern for the safety of the travelers, the whale exhibit was officially closed in 1988. Hugh S. Davis passed away in 1990, and although his wife was still around, her anniversary whale fell into terrible disrepair. Like much of the old Route 66, the blue whale slipped from people’s memories, and it began to fade away.
Until 1997. The Catoosa Chamber of Commerce decided they missed the charms of the amazing hand-built whale, and restoration efforts began. Dick and Dee Dee Belt (Hugh’s daughter and her husband) took over the whale and the lake. Repair groups comprised of volunteers, private business owners, and family members donated time and money to rebuild the whale. It also got a dashing new paint job, in which the Governor of Oklahoma actually helped with. His own hand painted the sparkling blue pupil of the whale’s eye. With a little bit of elbow grease and lots and lots of love, the exhibit was re-commissioned as the Catoosa Blue Whale, and it was re-opened to the public.
Hugh’s wife passed away in 2001, but the Catoosa Blue Whale lives on. Today, the entire community pitches in to keep it happy and healthy. Even the local Hampton Inn has donated money to the ongoing restoration efforts. Thanks to them and many others, the whale has rediscovered his place on the Route 66 map. Arguably one of the most iconic stops on the mother road, summer days find the whale loaded with children and travelers. He pops up in the background of countless selfies. Even my husband and I were quite taken with the whale’s charms. We spent a great deal of time there taking pictures and climbing around inside.
The Catoosa Blue Whale probably hasn’t made much of a difference to the world at large. Most people haven’t even heard of it. But to that little community in Oklahoma, and to a wife who got one hell of an anniversary gift, the whale is much more than concrete and iron. It’s a reminder and memorial to one of their most well-loved citizens. It has provided playtime and smiles for countless children. Most importantly, the whale has cemented a place for little Catoosa on the national maps (again with the puns). It’s a tremendous example of the happiness and power that can come from art and creativity. It doesn’t matter if it starts small or if it grows into a whale. If art can touch one community, someday, it will move the whole world.
Blue Whale of Catoosa Visit
“The History of the Blue Whale” – Dee Dee (Davis) Belt
The Illustrated Route 66 Historical Atlas – J. Hinckley
Route 66 Road Trip – Moon & C. Taylor