Chickasaw Nation Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Tribe’s First Successful Economic Venture

Chickasaw Motor Inn
The original Chickasaw Motor Inn.

SULPHUR, OK – A half-century ago, the Chickasaw Nation entered the hospitality business with a stroke of a pen, signifying the genesis of many successful economic ventures and self-sufficiency for its people. The acquisition of the 72-unit Artesian Motor Hotel on Sept. 1, 1972, marked the first business owned and operated by the Chickasaw Nation. It was an investment that proved to be one of the most successful tribal ventures of that era.

Rising from the ashes of the original Artesian Hotel in 1965, the Artesian Motor Hotel was constructed at West First and Muskogee streets through a Federal Economic Development Administration program. Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby said in 2017 that the tribe sought out business opportunities in an effort to meet the mission to enhance the overall quality of life of Chickasaw people.

“We began developing a diverse business portfolio to employ Chickasaws and generate revenue for tribal programs and services, such as health care, education and housing,” said Governor Anoatubby.

Chicksaw Motor Inn Fountain
The famous fountain at the Chickasaw Motor Inn entrance greeted visitors for decades.

As soon as the Chickasaw Nation took possession of the motel, the first order of business was to change its name to the Chickasaw Motor Inn and the motel’s restaurant was renamed the Artesian Restaurant. A Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) grant funded renovations and a remodel of the facility and tribal officials made strategic plans for business operations.

With appropriate renovations and a new business plan, the motor inn quickly became a profit-making venture for the Chickasaw Nation, earning approximately $100,000 for the tribe in its first year of operation. Governor Anoatubby said in 2012 that, while revenues varied some through the years, the motor inn proved to be a very good long-term investment.

“While the motor inn was a successful business for decades, it eventually made better economic sense to replace the facility rather than continue paying for repairs,” said Governor Anoatubby. “Nevertheless, that business marked the beginning of our successful long-term economic development efforts.”

The motel was built in the same location of its predecessor, the grand Artesian Hotel, which burned down in 1962. Standing as a sentinel in downtown Sulphur since 1906, the original Artesian was named when construction workers struck one of the artesian wells on the property. Throughout its storied history, it was a social epicenter and hosted many dignitaries and celebrities.

In 1972, when the Chickasaw Nation purchased the motor inn, there were a little more than two dozen tribal employees. Today, the Chickasaw Nation has nearly 14,000 employees. The Chickasaw Motor Inn served double duty for many years, both as lodging and a restaurant for tourists, and as Chickasaw Nation headquarters until the Ada headquarters building was opened in 1977.

Through the decades, the Chickasaw Motor Inn attracted a collection of early morning coffee drinkers, served as the meeting site for several local civic clubs, and hosted high school proms. The Sunday roast beef buffet also made it a favorite meeting spot for lunch after church.

The restaurant received high praise in the Oct. 21, 1979 issue of The Sunday Oklahoman. Restaurant critic Mary Goddard wrote, “If you are looking for well-cooked food at reasonable prices, served by pleasant people, the Chickasaw Restaurant folks are, indeed, your friends.” Goddard described the restaurant’s ambience as “unobtrusively pleasant, with subdued light from wrought-iron chandeliers and captain’s chairs placed at the tables and even at the low-slung counter. One wall displays paintings by regional artists, mostly for sale.”

The Chickasaw Motor Inn provided employment for many Chickasaw citizens and community members throughout the decades. Governor Anoatubby named Chickasaw citizen Lona Barrick facility manager in 1987. She recalls coordinating several high profile gatherings at the motor inn, including when the Chickasaw Nation was selected to host an input and planning meeting for a national First American museum in the early 1990’s.

“We hosted W. Richard West Jr. (Southern Cheyenne), founding Director of the National Museum of the American Indian, when he was visiting tribes across the country for their input into the new museum in Washington, D.C.,” said Barrick. “The Chickasaw Nation was chosen to host Dr. West for this region of the U.S.”

Other notable events included several meetings of the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Tribes, and hosting the prince of Thailand who met with the Chickasaw Enterprises team, said Barrick, who now serves as Chickasaw Nation Executive Officer of Cultural Tourism.

Dinner theater was also introduced at the Chickasaw Motor Inn and, working with Chickasaw National Recreation Area officials, “Plays in the Park,” the forerunner of the current “Candlelight Tours,” began at the inn. Several strategic planning sessions for the Chickasaw Cultural Center also took place there.

After more than three decades of serving throngs of guests, the inn, later renamed the Chickasaw Motor Lodge, was demolished in 2006 to make way for construction of the new Artesian Hotel. Ground was broken in 2010 and the hotel opened with great fanfare on Aug. 1, 2013.

The Artesian Hotel
The Artesian Hotel, built on the former site of the Chickasaw Motor Inn, in Sulphur.

“It is fitting for this development to take place on the site where our first tribal business began some 40 years ago,” said Governor Anoatubby at the groundbreaking ceremony. “Construction of the Artesian Hotel in this historic location demonstrates a significant investment in the tourism industry as well as our continued commitment to economic development and job creation.”

Celebrating nine years of service, the Artesian Hotel is designed in homage of the original hotel and features 81 rooms, a restaurant, banquet room, swimming pools and a full-service spa.

The hotel complements other tourist destinations in the Sulphur area, including the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, the Chickasaw Cultural Center, ARTesian Gallery & Studios, the Chickasaw Visitor Center and the annual Artesian Arts Festival, and in Davis, Bedré Fine Chocolates, Turner Falls and the Chickasaw Welcome Center.

In the half-century since acquiring the Chickasaw Motor Inn, Chickasaw Nation businesses have blossomed throughout tribal boundaries and beyond. The Chickasaw Nation owns and operates more than 100 businesses in a number of diverse industries including: manufacturing, hospitality and entertainment, tourism, energy, health care, banking, broadcast media and fine chocolates.

The Chickasaw Nation contributes billions to the Oklahoma economy annually and utilizes business revenue to expand and enhance programs and services for Chickasaw citizens, including education, health care, cultural enhancement, youth programs, elder care and housing.

The Chickasaw Nation also strives to partner with local communities for the benefit of all Oklahomans. Throughout the years, the Chickasaw Nation has contributed to universities, hospitals, community infrastructure, public safety operations, the arts, Oklahoma public schools and other projects.

“We are proud to be a part of Oklahoma,” said Governor Anoatubby. “We care about the local communities and the State of Oklahoma. We believe that what is good for the Chickasaw Nation is good for the state of Oklahoma and what is good for Oklahoma is good for the Chickasaw Nation.”