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Dust Brawl : Caltrans Won't Let Oklahoman Use 'Okie' on Freeway Sign


It's OK to be an Okie.

But it's not OK to advertise it, state transportation administrators have told the Oklahoma-born owner of a restaurant at the northern edge of Los Angeles County.

Officials have refused to allow directional signs next to the Golden State Freeway at the Frazier Park off-ramp that would point the way to the Okie Girl Restaurant. They are worried that the word Okie in the eatery's name is derogatory.

The term may be particularly sensitive for thousands from the nearby San Joaquin Valley who traveled west as migrant workers after becoming victims of the Oklahoma drought of the 1930s, officials said.

But the rejection has left Mary Lynn Rasmussen roiling like a Dust Bowl windstorm.

"I'm an Okie and I'm proud of it," said Rasmussen, who was born 52 years ago on a dirt farm in Broken Bow, Okla. "If anybody has a right to call themselves an Okie, I do. I'm proud of it and I always have been."

At least one present-day Oklahoman agrees with Rasmussen.

"If the authorities in California can't help the Okie Girl Restaurant, then we offer her an invitation to come home to Oklahoma," said Oklahoma Gov. David Walters from Oklahoma City.

Rasmussen said she named the place for herself last year after she bought a barn-like building next to the freeway in hopes of turning it into the restaurant she had long dreamed of owning.

The building had previously housed a struggling family restaurant and tiny back-room brewery. Rasmussen spent eight months remodeling and decorating it with 1930s-era antiques and opened for business in December.

The $350,000 restaurant features Oklahoma-style barbecue, along with conventional steaks, fish and breakfast entrees. The micro brewery was retained, but its boutique beers were given new names such as "Cherokee Choice."

Because of the isolated location 75 miles north of Los Angeles, Rasmussen says, she knew she would need to vigorously promote her place to keep it from foundering like its predecessor.

From the start, she said, she was pegging her hopes for success on use of "motorist services informational signs" that state highway officials have placed along busy Interstate 5 to direct travelers to motels, gas stations and restaurants.

For her logo, she created a stylized picture of a farm girl reclining atop the restaurant's name, which is spelled out in nailed wooden planks. For her menu, she designed an eight-page newspaper called the "Okie Girl Gazette," filled with stories and photographs.

She produced an eight-page Okie Girl children's coloring book that tells the story of how drought-plagued Oklahoma farmers came to California's San Joaquin Valley in search of a better life. She organized a contest at the area's two rural elementary schools to name the restaurant's brand of root beer; the winner received $100 and free root beer for life for suggesting the name "Old Ridge Route."

Rasmussen rented advertising space on a pair of billboards--one in Castaic and another in Bakersfield--for $3,200 a month. She plastered the restaurant logo on both, figuring motorists would remember it when they reached the Frazier Park cutoff and saw it on the off-ramp's motorist services directional signs.

Finally, she applied for space on three motorist services signs at the Los Angeles-Kern county line.

"My billboards are 30 miles away. By the time motorists have driven that far, they need a reminder where we are," she said. "I knew my business would be in jeopardy if I didn't have those off-ramp signs. I knew the freeway would be major to my business because not that many people live up here."

The signs are popular with travelers and merchants alike along busy Interstate 5, where towns are scarce. Most restaurants, gas stations and motels in the Gorman-Grapevine area have paid fees to have their logos placed on them.

Caltrans began posting the signs 13 years ago to help motorists traveling through isolated areas. Since then, the cost to businessmen has remained minimal: a $100 application fee and a $250 annual rental fee.

But as Rasmussen tells it, she has received one jolt after another since filing her sign application last summer with highway administrators.

Officials waited six months, refusing to consider the Okie Girl logo until the restaurant opened, she said.

Then they objected to the drawing of the reclining girl on the logo. Rasmussen said she removed the figure and resubmitted her application with only the words Okie Girl.

Then they decreed that her business was a beer bar that did not comply with the sign program's food category criteria. That prompted her to turn over financial records to prove that less than 20% of her restaurant's income is derived from beer sales, she said.

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