In 1990, Mary Lynn Chess, a proud Okie, opened Okie Girl's barbecue restaurant and brewery alongside Interstate 5 about 70 miles north of Los Angeles in an area known as the Tejon pass. At the time, my brother lived in the area, and I lived in a suburb of L.A. about a 45 minute drive away. One day, while I visited him, he said, "Let's go to lunch. I'll show you a new restaurant." That's how I first discovered Okie Girl's.
Due to our father's heritage, my brother and I got a big kick out of the place. Beverages were served in Mason jars and the mashed potatoes had lumps in them. The overall theme was depression Oklahoma and the Okie culture. We took our Kentucky born and bred mother to lunch there when she visited. She turned her nose up at the Mason jars. The theme was lost on her, but I'm sure our father would have gotten a kick out of the place like we did.
The humor was also lost on Caltrans. They refused to allow Mary Lynn to advertise on state controlled signs alongside I-5 saying that it insulted native Oklahomans living in the nearby San Joaquin Valley. That insulted Mary Lynn.
"If anybody has a right to call themselves an Okie, I do," protested Mary. "I'm proud of it and I always have been."She enlisted the help of Oklahoma governor, Henry Bellman.
Governor Bellman wrote to Caltrans stating, "Oklahomans wear the name "Okie" as a badge of honor, symbolizing their "strong work ethic, character and resiliency."
Caltrans agreed to allow Mary Lynn Chess to advertise along the freeway. However, Mary sued for lost income, and the court awarded her $32,000 dollars in punitive damages. Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending. On January 17, 1994, at 4:31 a.m., the Northridge earthquake struck sending freeway overpasses plummeting to the ground in clouds of smoke. The disaster closed freeway access to Okie Girl's Restaurant for some time to come. Mary Lynn didn't have enough cash reserves to sustain her business until the freeways were repaired and life returned to normal. She had to close her doors.