Traffic moves along Muskogee Avenue in downtown Tahlequah, which is the site of the annual Red Fern Festival. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World


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“Where the Red Fern Grows” was shot in and around Tahlequah. Among locations was Jincy’s Kitchen, a small diner in Qualls. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World


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This advertisement appeared in the Tulsa World in 1974 for the May 21 Tulsa premiere of “Where the Red Fern Grows,” a movie that was filmed in and around Tahlequah.

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“Where the Red Fern Grows” author Wilson Rawls and his wife, Sophie Rawls, came to Tulsa for an autograph session on April 14, 1976. Tulsa World file


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The old Cherokee Nation Capitol Building is among historic sites in downtown Tahlequah. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World


Students walk past a sculpture of Sequoyah on the campus of Northeastern State University in Tahlequah. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World


Twin spires rise over a building on the Northeastern State University campus in Tahlequah. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World


Morgan’s Bakery is among businesses in Tahlequah, which holds the Red Fern Festival every April. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World


Madison Carey (foreground) prepares an order with Kasey Kelly at Morgan’s Bakery in Tahlequah. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World


Dina Lippert (right), owner of Cook’s Companion and More in Tahlequah, assists customer Jennifer Wright. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World


A horse sculpture overlooks Muskogee Avenue from a Western-wear store in downtown Tahlequah. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World


A sculpture of Sequoyah overlooks the Northeastern State University campus in Tahlequah. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World


Cookie jars and photos of customers cover a section of wall in Morgan’s Bakery in Tahlequah. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World


A clock tower overlooks the Northeastern State University campus in Tahlequah. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World


The Northeastern State University football stadium and indoor practice facility are among sports facilities in Tahlequah. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World


A pavilion is part of the scenery in downtown Tahlequah, site of the annual Red Fern Festival. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World


Wilson Rawls had a hankering to be an author, but, unsatisfied with his works, he destroyed his first five book manuscripts.


“I burned ’em all the week before I was married,” Rawls said in 1974. “My spelling was terrible, and my punctuation was practically zero. I didn’t want my wife to know I was that bad.”


Rawls later ’fessed up to his wife, Sophie, that he had torched his author dream. She urged him to rewrite the manuscripts he had burned.


Rawls resurrected “Where the Red Fern Grows.” The story, first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, became a book in 1961, when Rawls was 48.


The book inspired a motion picture in 1974 (and a 1992 sequel and a 2003 remake). The original movie was filmed in and around Tahlequah, which remains proud of its “Where the Red Fern Grows” roots.


Tahlequah is the site of the annual Red Fern Festival. The 2017 festival (redfernfestival.com) is scheduled for Friday and Saturday and will include an outdoor screening of the movie on opening night.


This story is the third installment in the Tulsa World’s “17 towns in 2017” series. The series introduces readers to Oklahoma towns by focusing on an attraction or person there.


Rawls was born a few miles from Tahlequah in the Cherokee County community of Scraper. In a 1974 interview coinciding with the movie’s release, he said “Where the Red Fern Grows” was the first book he rewrote “because it was the story of my boyhood life.”


The book is about a boy who buys and trains two hunting dogs. Rawls wrote it (and another decorated novel, “Summer of the Monkeys”), despite minimal formal education.


Rawls did not attend school the first 10 years of his life because there wasn’t one near his home, according to a 1976 Tulsa World story. He and his sisters learned to read because his mother read books to them and asked them to read back to her.


Rawls disliked many of the books because he considered them to be “girl books.” But “Call of the Wild” was a different animal. He cherished the book and vowed that he would someday write “the” boy and dog story.


A one-room schoolhouse, operated by area mothers, was eventually built near Rawls’ home. He said during a 1974 interview that it was across the Illinois River, and the only way to get there was to wade the river.


“Mother would pack our lunch in a bucket and give my oldest sister, Gladys, a rope. She tied the rope around me and my four sisters so that we were sure to get across the river safely.”


According to the 1976 story, Rawls was introduced to formal schooling for the first time when he was 15 and his family moved to Tahlequah.


“At first, they put me in third grade,” he said. “But as fast as I would work through, then they would move me up. I wound up in the seventh grade by the end of the year.”


Rawls said his family moved to Muskogee the next year, and he attended school there for half a year. That was the extent of his education.


Rawls followed in his father’s footsteps as a carpenter (“made good money, too”) before graduating to author. His wife helped him with grammar, punctuation and spelling.


The public was slow to embrace “Where the Red Fern Grows.” Rawls said that was because the book company presented it as adult fiction. He intended it for young boys.


“For a long time, it just laid there,” he said. “To tell the truth, I’d given up on it. Then, like a bolt out of the blue, the book caught not only the public’s interest but that of a movie producer.”


A “spectactularly picturesque” bend in the Illinois River was chosen for a primary filming site, according to a newspaper account.


Animal trainer Gerry Warshauer was responsible for several dogs and 10 raccoons. Bill Greenway of Tahlequah provided livestock for the film.


Rex Corley had no acting experience, but he and his brother took part in an open tryout at Tulsa Little Theater.


“I’m sure there were probably 2,000 or 3,000 kids that showed up that weekend,” Corley said during a recent phone interview. “There was no place to park. My mom had to just dump us off.”


Corley was among 10 kids invited back for a second reading. He landed a role as Rubin Pritchard, a rascally character who meets a grim fate.


“I was already familiar with the book because I had read it a couple of times before then,” Corley said, suggesting that might have helped during his tryout.


This helped, too: Corley was from a town (Locust Grove) north of Tahlequah, “and I kind of lived that (“Where the Red Fern Grows”) lifestyle growing up. I lived close to Grand River there with the slough and all the creeks and stuff around. I hunted and fished the whole time I was a kid.”


Being in a movie at 14 did wonders for Corley’s popularity (“It was kind of like living the dream”), but he said the best thing that happened to him as a result of the gig was an opportunity for a second movie.


Corley said Norman Tokar, the director of “Where the Red Fern Grows,” recommended him for “The Secret of the Pond,” a made-for-TV movie that aired on NBC’s “The Wonderful World of Disney” in 1975.


“We grew up poor, man,” he said. “We didn’t have the money to do auditions and stuff, which is what you need to do. Had I lived in Los Angeles, it would have been a lot more convenient for that purpose.”


Corley said life happened the way it was supposed to happen, and he’s thrilled at how things turned out. He said he owns three companies — Masterpiece Roofing and Painting, Masterpiece Windows & Siding and Decks of Denver — in Colorado.


“Where the Red Fern Grows” premiered in Salt Lake City, but a special premiere also was scheduled at Southroads Cinema on May 21, 1974. It is surely the only movie premiere in Tulsa history to feature both champagne and coon dogs.


The two hounds who starred in the movie were present along with Beverly Garland and other actors. The dogs were a big hit. Their handler, George Kerr, told a reporter the dogs “almost had the hair petted off them” during visits to Oklahoma schools before the premiere.


Oklahomans with roles in the flick were invited, too, including Corley, Jeanna Wilson, Jill Clark, John Lindsey, Robert Telford and his wife, Jodie Telford.


Corley, who also attended the Salt Lake premiere, recalled wearing white platform shoes, a blue jacket and bell bottom pants. It was the ’70s, after all. “I looked killer,” he said.


Rawls, who was living in Idaho, returned to Oklahoma for the big event. He once said all he ever wanted was the satisfaction of writing “Where the Red Fern Grows” and having it accepted by readers. A movie was a pleasant side effect.


“I was never interested in fame or in more than enough money to buy a fishing pole now and then,” he said.


At a press conference held in conjunction with the Tulsa premiere, producer Lyman Dayton called the G-rated movie an “unabashedly sentimental” film. But he also said there is a need for that kind of movie.


“We would like to give people an alternative — a choice — to the sex and violence in many movies today. In doing that, we don’t mind being saccharine and maudlin,” Dayton said.


“Also, we believe there are still a lot of people in America who identify with these values and who find the sophistication of modern life discomforting. Those people are coming to see the film where it has opened. In some small towns where it has played, more people have seen the film than the total population of the town. We’re getting the audience that has been left out all these years.”


Corley, who loves the movie, said he watches it about once a year. It’s a reminder of a time of his life when he had a blast, and it’s a reminder of a different era, period. It’s a period piece that Tahlequah celebrates still.


Red Fern Festival

Now in its eleventh year, the Red Fern Festival is held in downtown Tahlequah on the last weekend in April. The 2017 Red Fern Festival will take place April 28-29.

The festival spans over seven blocks with activities taking place at Norris Park, Cherokee Capitol Square and Sequoyah City Park.

The event features live music, arts & crafts, hound dog field trials, a car show, a barbeque/chili cook-off, a Miss Red Fern pageant, old fashioned children’s games, fern sales, and a screening of the movie “Where the Red Fern Grows."

SCHEDULE

Friday, April 29

Noon: Festival opens.

3-8 p.m.: Inflatables at Norris Park.

Noon-8 p.m.: Music at the pavilion.

5:30 p.m.: Cake walk at Norris Park.

6 p.m.: Coon hunt.

8 p.m.: Movie screening of "Where the Red Fern Grows."

Saturday, April 29

9 a.m.: Festival opens.

9 a.m.-8 p.m.: Inflatables at Norris Park,

9 a.m.-5 p.m.: 5 C"s car show on Water Street.

10 a.m.: Old-fashioned games.

10 a.m.: Hound Dog Field Trials at Sequoyah Park.

11 a.m.: Kiwanis BBQ and chili cook-off at Downing & Muskogee.

1 p.m.: Music begins at the pavilion.

4:30 p.m.: Duck race presented by Leadership Class 20.

Information: redfernfestival.com.


More about Tahlequah

• The annual Cherokee National Holiday will take place Sept. 1-3 in Tahlequah. It has grown into one of the largest festivals in Oklahoma, attracting more than 100,000 visitors from across the world. Information: cherokee.org.

• The Illinois River near Tahlequah is a destination for those who love rafting. Many rental options are available. Lake Tenkiller also attracts visitors to the area.

• The Cherokee Heritage Center (21192 S. Keeler Dr. in Park Hill) was established in 1967 to preserve, promote and teach Cherokee Culture. Information: cherokeeheritage.org.

• Tahlequah, the home of Northeastern State University, also was once the "home office" for David Letterman"s top 10 lists.

• TahleCon, a comic and pop culture convention, will take place from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. July 8 at the NSU Ballroom. Admission is $5. For information go to the TahleCon Facebook page.

• Actor Wes Studi was born in Tahlequah. Country Music Hall of Famer Merle Travis lived there until his death in 1983.

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• Information about the city and major events can be found at the Tahlequah Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at 123 E. Delaware St. or by visiting tourtahlequah.com.