Locals share memories of 'cruising' the Sonic

Grant D. Crawford | Daily Press

Construction workers have been busy tearing down and rebuilding the old Sonic Drive-In located on Downing Street in Tahlequah.

A landmark establishment in Tahlequah is being reborn from the ashes of its demolition, and construction activity has spurred memories among long-time citizens who can recall evenings of cruising along Downing Street.

Many area residents looking for grub or a beverage have been surprised recently by the sight of the "old" Sonic Drive-In when the structure was torn down. But fans will be happy to know it is being rebuilt, though it may not have the same atmosphere it once did when Charles and Judy Vanlandingham opened it in 1968.

According to Barrett Vanlandingham, Charles' and Judy's son, the original Sonic was two lots west of where it is now for the first 19 years. The Vanlandinghams then purchased the lot where it stood for another 30-plus years, although they sold it back to Sonic Industries in 2004. Barrett said that in its early years, Sonic Industries didn't understand what a cruising spot the restaurant had become.

"They didn't realize cars would actually be lined up all the way around the building and down the highway past Pizza Hut, just waiting to get in to the Sonic," he said. "It was crazy. The weekends were great entertainment for a 9-year-old boy like me, who sat out back on a milk crate watching all those great '70s muscle cars circle the Sonic while his parents were inside, trying to keep up with the countless orders of hamburgers, cheese coneys, cheese french fries and homemade onion rings."

A city the size of Tahlequah doesn't always have many places for young people to congregate. While more venues and activities have become available in recent years, the same cannot be said for 30 to 40 years ago. For youth at that time, Sonic was one of the venues for socializing. And the scene was what some might expect to see in the movies or on TV.

"I saw and heard a lot of cool rumbling cars, wide tires - saw a lot of great hair and lamb chop sideburns," said Vanlandingham. "I listened to a lot of great '70s music and news reports while watching cars circle that old building."

Former Tahlequah Mayor Jerry Cook said he and his wife, Barbra, would try to do weekend dates in Tahlequah, "and of course, a cruise through Sonic was always high on the list."

"It became just a part of the Tahlequah culture and gave 'fast food' a whole new meaning for us," he said. "In those days, with no cell, text or email, you just knew to meet at the Sonic. That was a time when gasoline went from about 29 cents a gallon to about 55 cents, and we probably didn't 'cruise' as much, but a burger and onion rings were sure worth the fuel."

The fast-food joint was popular for so long that it was rated first, second or third in sales for all Sonics for about 20 years in a row, according to Vanlandingham. It was a place for social gatherings and for some locals to cement their status. In fact, the east side of the drive-thru was held in higher esteem, as many referred to it as "the cool side."

The cost of food wouldn't burn a hole in the pocket of a Northeastern State University student. But no matter how much they spent, Cook said just being at the "cool place" was priceless."

"It seemed there was something about a 'cool side' to park and order from," he said. "I do not remember the source of coolness or the potential benefit, as I was hoping Barbra thought I was already cool."

The Daily Press asked its readers what they remembered from their days of cruising around town. Jennifer Wheeler and said she frequented the Sonic, even if she had to look after her sibling.

"Barbara Carlile and I did plenty of that," she said. "Sometimes my younger brother would have to tag along. We would make him duck down every now and then."

Although the times were different, young people were just as mischievous as they are today. Marty Poyner remembers people who were caught speeding on the strip would use the community hub as a cover.

"They would pull into a stall and pretend to be ordering, and the officer would pull up behind them," said Poyner. "Some of their friends would pull in and honk and laugh at them."

Cindy Ruff remembers a time her brother "set a whole string of black cats off on the Fourth of July and tossed it on top of the tin awning."

Driving along Downing Street quickly became a tradition. It's since been passed down to younger generations and on Friday nights, and drivers can be seen coasting down the street or parked off to the side in the lot of a business that's closed for the evening.

The activity has also remained a social magnet.

Justin Hall used to park at the old gas station where Casey's is now, blasting heavy metal while others listened to 106.9.

"I watched people get pulled over," he said. "The cruising part was just OK - it was always about the friends being around for me."

Cook was mayor when the Vanlandinghams sold Sonic back to the company, and he remembers attending the "handing of the spatula" event when it was turned over to the new owners. He said provided some nostalgia and reflection on how the family left a lasting icon in Tahlequah for several generations to have cruised, eaten, and grown up in Tahlequah."

"Think about the number of young people whose work generated their paycheck for purchasing cars, living expenses, college tuition and helped improve whatever their circumstances might have been in those years working at Sonic," Cook said. "That is part of Tahlequah's legacy that a new building will never replace."

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