By Richard Stephens, Jr., contributor
e’s engaging. Big smile. Bottled energy bursting to tell stories. Cut a slim, trim, classic Western figure as a storyteller of the historic Arcadia Round Barn, telling true stories and some yarns on the first floor and danced the Texas Two-Step on the second floor. His Rock of Ages Farm, also on Route 66, hosted hundreds of people from the community each week. That’s Mr. Sam Gillaspy of Luther – everybody calls him “Mr. Sam” – who hardly lets his 95 years slow him down.
Introducing Mr. Sam
He embodied the role of docent at Arcadia’s big, red Round Barn for over twenty years. Mr. Sam projected a folksy, friendly style that encouraged people to tour the facility and pose with him for photographs and even dance with him upstairs on the dance floor.
When Route 66 visitors came to the barn, they saw a man who looked like he just dismounted a horse: cowboy boots, blue jeans with a metal belt buckle, and a western-style oyster buttoned shirt with a bolo tie topped off with a large brown cowboy hat. Mr. Sam started storytelling and giving tours soon after the barn’s renovation in 1992. He was one of ten volunteer storytellers who came on different days.
“When people would come in, it might be a couple, or it might be ten people, or up to 40 people. I would greet them and start telling them the history of the barn and then I’d tell them everything else that I know. I know a world of everything about this area. The people, they loved it.”
Mr. Sam explained the posters, pictures, and donated home and farm implements on the wall and floor of the first floor to visitors. One showcase holds items and photographs Mr. Sam donated.
Linda Simonton, President of the Arcadia Historical & Preservation Society, said, “These are all Mr. Sam’s creations. He’s just an incredible character.” She pointed at a photo of Mr. Sam with a woman [Jeannie]. “There’s his new sweetheart.” On the shelves sit photographs, a horseshoe, fork and spoon, and lots of hand-carved toys made for his two daughters, Rita and Cynthia: a wooden saloon, train, airplane, and tractor pulling a wagon. Cynthia, the younger sibling, explained, “He built a little log cabin that is the replica of the one he grew up in. He even put a little light in it and it’s really cute.”
Dancing is part of the Tour
Many visitors want to see the former hayloft with its magnificent wooden dance floor and roof. “I would take them up the stairs and I’d tell them how they started having dances up there,” said Mr. Sam. “And then I’d ask…if one of you ladies would like to dance a little with me? And if I had thirty people in there…little hands [of women] go up all the time because they’d been with me thirty minutes and knew what kind of person I was, and so, I would dance with two or three of them.”
Today, Mr. Sam continues to dance with Jeannie at music festivals.
Bringing History to Life
In many ways, Mr. Sam has been the face of the Round Barn – he brought the barn’s history alive. He’s even on the front of a postcard the barn sells. Simonton appreciates his impact. “He was incredibly inspiring in his enthusiasm and his stories. The stories have a lot of facts but there was also a lot of imagination. And it was really entertaining.”
Rhys Martin, President of the Oklahoma Route 66 Association, wrote, “The Round Barn is perhaps the best example we have along ALL of Route 66 to showcase the progress that the road brought to each community it went through … when you walk inside and learn about the barn’s history – especially when it’s told with such passion and enthusiasm as it is by Mr. Sam – you really begin to appreciate the evolution that long-distance transportation brought to town.” Storytelling was Mr. Sam’s way to serve Arcadia. He displayed the same eagerness to help his community at his farm, three miles away, in Luther.
Rock of Ages
The Rock of Ages Farm, nestled amongst other fertile farms on a mostly flat plain between Arcadia and Luther, sits alongside Route 66. Ranchers raise Hereford and longhorn cattle and farmers plant wheat, cotton, and alfalfa. How did Mr. Sam’s farm get such an unusual name?
Two sources. First, is a physical meaning. Mr. Sam proudly tells everybody his property contains the “biggest free-standing boulder in this whole country out here for miles and miles.” The other purpose is religious. “An inexhaustible source of strength or support,” according to The Free Dictionary, comes from the Bible as meaning God, religious faith, or salvation. Both epitomize Mr. Sam and his faith.
A Calling to Farm
Between the ages of five and eleven, Mr. Sam lived on his family’s farm in the Arcadia area. But the depression and dust bowl days forced them to move to Oklahoma City. As an adult, he continued to live there, married Betty (his first wife), had Rita and Cynthia, and drove a cement truck for Dolese Brothers Company. But in 1960, he felt a nudging that wouldn’t stop – a desire to return to his roots – to farm. The Gillaspys started looking for property to buy.
Mr. Sam’s reason? “I really enjoyed it when I was a kid. I had a good job at Dolese but I felt that I would like to go back to the farm.” In 1961, he found the right property in Luther: 160-acres of land given away by the Territory of Oklahoma in the Land Run of 1889. The house on the homestead? Built in 1889. Mr. Sam continued to drive concrete trucks full time and farmed part-time. Once he added rooms and electricity to the original (12 x 20 feet) 1889 house, Betty, Rita, and Cynthia moved to the Farm in 1968. Unfortunately, Betty died of a heart attack soon after. They grew wheat and alfalfa, fed 80 Hereford cows; and raised chickens and rabbits. It was then that the Rock of Ages tours started.
Rock of Ages Tours
While he was a Sunday School teacher at Kelham Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, Mr. Sam hired teenage boys from the church to help him on the Farm.
“We worked most of the time, but we played some [in the Farm pond]. They had so much fun that they told the other people when they got back. And then, pretty soon, they came out, and then … those people told the rest of the church and the whole church … came out for two or three years. And by then though, they had told other churches. Then, after a few years, my gosh, I could not take care of the thousands of people that have come out here.”
How many churches? More than sixteen in the Oklahoma City area. How often? During the workweek, “…every night that it was good weather… and then we had two on Saturday and one on a Sunday afternoon. So, anywhere from, like I said, 25 to 100 people, for 40 some odd years. Thousands of people have visited the Rock of Ages.”
What was the big attraction?
At the beginning, tours consisted of casually walking on a dirt trail for half a mile through several hillocks with ridges, bluffs and slopes. Along the trail, Mr. Sam would stop and say, “Now we’re looking for the dolphin rock. Where’s the dolphin?” And, “Now, we’re looking for the chicken rock with a hole for an eye.” Guests would look and usually find a figure or silhouette from a rock outcropping with that shape. My tour with Mr. Sam on March 7, 2021, attests to various creatures in rock – an eagle, a squirrel, a gorilla, Popeye (with a corn cob pipe added), two alligators, and more. It is a naturally created rock formation zoo.
During hikes, Mr. Sam intertwined stories about the early days of Arcadia and Luther, the 1926 Conoco filling station on his property, his 1889 homestead, the hundreds of items he collected, and of course, the Farm. Cynthia said her father is a natural storyteller. “I don’t know where they come from, but they’re all interesting anyway. He’s just a natural.” Following the hike, dinner was served outdoors on picnic tables. Meals consisted of grilled hot dogs, hamburgers, and side dishes.
Then he would drive them around the Farm on a hay wagon. Mr. Sam remembers driving his tractor and “…a hundred people behind me in five wagons.” Afterward, Cynthia said, “. . . they’d go in the barn, and he had a hay cave that he had made. The hay was stacked all the way to the top of that 80-foot barn. The kids loved it because it was like a little maze.”
As the tours continued, Mr. Sam used his natural ingenuity to make them more enjoyable. He used extra wood and metal pieces from around the Farm and created a “rural playground” consisting of a 200-foot chute, zip line, bronco barrel, teeter-totter, and merry-go-round. Cynthia explained the bronco barrel. “He fixed this barrel up in the trees with springs and cables so that when you bounce on it, it would go back and forth like one of those broncing cow rides. It was fun.”
After two or three hours, everyone was tired and ready to head home. “I think my stepmother [Martha, Mr. Sam’s second wife] would probably sing a couple of songs and if anyone wanted to say a few words, they could, and it’d be over,” Cynthia summarized.
Tours occurred from about 1970 to 2010, until Mr. Sam was 83 – easily 10 years more than many people would – or could – host daily or weekly outdoor events. The lasting effect? Mr. Sam smiled and said, “Everywhere I go, people see me and they remember.” Justine, 89 years old and a volunteer at Kelham Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, hasn’t forgotten. Although her last tour was 30 years ago, she said her three teens went every year and really enjoyed the visits.
What motivated Mr. Sam to invite hundreds of people a week two-thirds of the year for, not 10, not 20, but 40 years while continuing to raise a family, crops, and cattle? “Because I loved it. People just loved to come here. And it made me happy. It was really nice.” After reminding him he was in his 70s giving tours, he said, “It was a lot of work, but I enjoyed it. I was capable.”
Volunteering at the Round Barn and opening up the Farm to churches supported and strengthened the communities Mr. Sam belonged to. It was his way of serving his community.
That’s his melody, his song, his calling card. It’s served him well, his whole, full, 95-year life. Long live Mr. Sam of Route 66.
Mr. Sam visited the Round Barn on May 5, 2021, dressed up better than Sam Elliot or Dale Evans. Vaccinated against COVID-19, there was no need to wear a face mask. He met Steve and Aileen Fridley, traveling the entire Route 66 because they were 66 years old. The light shone in Mr. Sam’s eyes as he told them a wonderful story of the barn and Arcadia area. He escorted a volunteer, Sheri Thompson, upstairs and they danced the waltz and two-step, just like the old days. Mr. Sam was happy in his element. Although Mr. Sam stopped story-telling at the Round Barn in 2020, lucky visitors can still catch him there when he stops in to say hello.
About the author: Richard Stephens, Jr., is a member of the Oklahoma Route 66 Association and has a passion to tell the stories of the Mother Road.
Photos courtesy of arcadiaroundbarn.com, Ryan Lipke, Stephens and Dawn Shelton. This story was published at lutherregister.news on April 10, 2022.