Hotdogs, burgers, ice cream, and love—all found at The Big Dipper

By Don Diehl

Author’s note: This is an expanded version of a story and post that first appeared on The Sapulpa News and Views Facebook Page a half dozen years ago. It was one of their most-viewed posts of all time, especially after Route 66 enthusiasts near and far began to share it on social media. There were more than 10,000 views within a three-month period.

Much love has blossomed beneath the star constellation known as “The Big Dipper.” And likewise, many a relationship at hot dog stands, burger joints and malt shops along the famed Route 66. 

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It seems written in the stars.

So it was with Kay Tharp and Sam Johnston more than 60 years ago. Kay’s mom and dad, Doc and Vernie Tharp, operated The Big Dipper restaurant into the late 1950s before it was sold and then closed a short time later. (Today the lot is occupied by a building vacated by Sonic when it moved to the corner of Dewey and Mission—still in operation on 66). 

The Tharps had moved to Sapulpa from Colorado in 1944 so that Doc could join his brothers Garland and Fred in the Tharp Dairy operation. Kay was four. Doc Tharp would later buy out his two brothers’ interest. In 1948 he sold the dairy to Hawks Dairy and decided to build a drive-in restaurant on that southeast corner of Dewey Ave. [Rt. 66] and Maple Street.

It was at that location one evening as they contemplated what to name the place someone looked up and noted the bright stars making up the constellation known as The Big Dipper. 

“Why not name it that?” another asked. The name stuck and the restaurant became a popular eating spot and a youth hangout in Sapulpa on the famed Route.

The Big Dipper was one of the mainstays along the Sapulpa cruise route of the late 1950s. The drive-in restaurant featured popular Sloppy Joes as well as hotdogs, burgers, fries, fountain drinks, and ice cream. There were brownies and other sweets from Tasty Pastry down on Main Street which also baked the hotdog and burger buns for the drive-in. The ice cream products came from Hawks Dairy. That 1948 Ford parked alongside was probably Doc’s ride.

Kay and her sister Carol Tharp McClure of Owasso basically grew up at The Big Dipper where they worked before and after school each day and on Saturdays. Kay Berryhill Donathan and other area residents also worked there when some were in their teens. The drive-in was open until 10 p.m. most nights and those with homework, of course, had to take care of school.

“Each night as much as two gallons of chopped onions had to be prepared for the next day’s cony dogs and burgers,” Kay said.

The sisters also recall two U-shaped seating arrangements that seated 10 people each. 

“And I remember all those kids from nearby Washington School,” Kay said. 

Those were younger than the hot-rodders and cruisers who also stopped for a burger or malt — and one young man in his 1955 Chevy who came regularly to see Kay.

There was a jukebox loaded with the latest 45 rpm record hits (today’s golden oldie classics, for sure) in which a nickel bought you a single song or six for a quarter.

A rack with loaves of fresh bread and pastries from Sapulpa’s Tasty Pastry could be seen through the glass. The bakery on Main Street (where Down’s Law Office is today) also furnished the buns for the dogs and burgers and sweet pastries.

“Brownies were really popular,” Kay recalls. “And rum cake.”

Washington School’s elementary students were in grades 1-8. Families, locals and travelers also came to the drive-in — one of several along the section of Route 66 through Sapulpa. Some, but not The Dipper featured curb service. 

Tharp got his ice cream mix from Hawk’s and made some of his own favorites.

“Dad would have been the Braum’s if he had stayed with it,” Kay said.

Doc sold the restaurant in 1957 and opened a car agency. He dealt with Nash and Studebaker sales for a time and then opened a radiator shop.

“Seems like it was a 55 Chevy that I had then,” said Sam Johnston. “My first car was a 1949 Ford.”

At any rate, it was to The Big Dipper that Sam came to court and win the heart of his future bride. 

Photos of Sam and Kay Johnston of Farmers Feed in Sapulpa. They met at “The Big Dipper,” her parents’ drive-in restaurant, as teenagers and on June 12 celebrated 63 years of marriage. This fall, the Johnstons also will mark 50 years at Farmers Feed Store. We’re putting that story together and it will soon follow.

Sam graduated from Sapulpa High School in 1958, and Kay in 1959. On June 12 they marked 63 years of marriage. They have 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Sam is a lifetime Creek Countian. He was born in 1939 at the old City Hospital in Sapulpa and was one of the countless babies delivered by Dr. Longmier. After graduation, Sam went to auction school and was a local auctioneer for 25 years. His family owned the Mid-America Horse Sales at Bristow, later known as Mid-American Stockyards. The fourth generation business was run by Sam’s sister, Helen Marie Varner and her husband Jerry (deceased) and family.

Besides the story of romance on Route 66 and now 63 years of wedded bliss, the Johnstons are soon to mark another anniversary—50 years of operating one of Creek County’s most enduring and endearing business ventures—Farmers Feed at 121 North Main in Sapulpa. That story is in the works. Meanwhile, hundreds have responded to the posts on the News and Views Facebook Page with congratulations, well wishes and memories.