COMMUNITY SPIRIT: Bench honors patriarch who helped build Downing

Brian D. King | Daily Press

The Charley and Milderd Ryals family memorial bench was purchased to honor the work that their family performed to help build Tahlequah. Wayne Ryals, and his sister Kathy frequently visit the bench, which sits overlooking the Town Branch Creek next to the Tahlequah Municipal Armory.

The City of Tahlequah Parks and Recreation Department is giving businesses and local organizations an opportunity to purchase a park bench to recognize members of the community. The money will directly benefit the department.

“You can buy a memorial bench for $1,000 and have it placed along the Tahlequah history trail. There are several that were installed. I bought it in honor of my parents and their business,” said Tahlequah resident Kathy Ryals.

Charley and Mildred Ryals started Ryals Dirt and Gravel sometime in the 1960s. Their work helped to pave Downing Avenue, the Tahlequah Post Office, the site of Northeastern Health System, and what was known then as the Tsa-La-Gi Ancient Village at the Cherokee Heritage.

The two owned an antique furniture store along the old highway that ran beside the Illinois River, but they bought property in town.

“We moved out to the house in the early '60s,” said their son, Wayne Ryals, a long-time educator who has served as Ward 1 Tahlequah city councilor and street commissioner. “Mom and Dad were still making a living at the auctions. Dad started a road down into the river bottom.”

Little by little, Charley added to his infrastructure. He bought a loader and sold topsoil and gravel.

“At the time, there weren’t any permits required. You just mine it. Basically, open pit mining,” said Wayne Ryals.

By the time he was 14 years old, he had learned to use a loader and started working in the family business.

“I didn’t play sports in high school because practice took place after school. Every day after school, I worked,” he said.

According to Ryals, Downing was the first four-lane road in Tahlequah and was paved in the late 1960s. It began at Muskogee Avenue and tapered into the old highways. All of the base material underneath it came from Ryals Dirt and Gravel, and it was built by Amos Construction.

“A lot of local families and businesses bought dirt and gravel from us. They would use it when they were building a house or a garage carport. If they wanted to redo their house, they’d buy our topsoil. There was a lot of business in the '60s, '70s, and '80s,” he said.

Ryals explained that when his father opened the pit, it became a source for dirt and gravel for the community.

“Dad had a really good business. He had earned enough money in a short years to pay the place off,” said Ryals.

In time, the government insisted that the company acquire mining permits.

Charley Ryals died in 1984, and Wayne and his brother Phillip took over the business. By the late 1990s, they had ceased operations.

Ryals' experience with his father gave him experience to serve as Tahlequah’s head of Tahlequah Street Department from 2015-2020.

You can help

Those interested in purchasing a bench to memorialize a loved one may do so by filling out an application at the Tahlequah Parks and Recreation office. Information and a copy of the application can be found at https://www.cityoftahlequah.com/519/Buy-a-Bench-Program.

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