This story was written by Steve Robinson for the Claremore Museum of History with assistance from Norma Cullison’s daughters, Pat Kilpatrick and Debbie Gilkeson, as part of the focus on Women’s History Month on February 10, 2023.
The likes of Norma “Normie” Cullison don’t come along very often in small towns like Claremore and her larger than life personality certainly isn’t easily forgotten. Norma (Coppedge) Cullison was a strong independent woman with fiery red hair! She broke all the rules of that time, and did not follow the path laid out for women. She was a true pioneer for women’s rights and believed that you could achieve anything if you work hard and are kind to others by standing up for those who could not stand up for themselves.
I’ll never forget my first experience with “Normie”. I was on the hunt for a turquoise ring. I was a child of the 70’s and at the time, turquoise rings, necklaces and bracelets were the rage along with puka shell necklaces to go along with our unbuttoned shirts, bell bottoms, platform shoes and long hair!
I had just made my way inside her store, past the well-known wooden Native American statue that stood guard outside the store on the sidewalk, but she was busy waiting on another customer. I heard her give a price on a beautiful lotus blossom necklace to the customer and they countered with a lower offer. It seemed like an hour of them bartering back and forth and I was amazed at her finesse. She brought other pieces out, compared the products and ended up selling the necklace to the customer at the original price she had quoted them but they somehow now seemed happy with the original price. She was a great saleslady and negotiator!!
Norma was born in 1915, in Salem, Missouri to a large farming family. She had ten siblings, including a twin brother. The family moved to Oklahoma in the 30’s settling around the Vinita/White Oak area. She moved to Claremore in the 40’s and married David Cullison in 1950. They raised 4 children and owned several businesses along historic Route 66.
The Cullisons owned Streeter’s Café on Route 66 that was located south of town which had an attached gift shop. During the summers, the family would travel out west and buy and sell turquoise and silver jewelry, rugs, kachina dolls, paintings and artifacts. They were always welcomed on the reservations and would buy directly from the tribes. They would then stop on the trip home and sell items wholesale to other shops, but always kept enough inventory to fill their own store. The Cullisons drove a yellow Cadillac with a matching 8’ trailer and were well known across many states.
In 1960, the Cullisons closed the restaurant and moved the gift shop, Dave’s Indian Store, to downtown Claremore next door to the Mason Hotel and Gun Museum. They remained in that location until 1969 when Dave passed away. It was then that Norma moved to the corner of the same block in the old bus station on Will Rogers Blvd and 66.
The Cullisons were known to buy from anybody who had something to sell, and it was usually things that didn’t relate to the Indian culture of their store. One time they bought a circus that had been in town. That purchase included a monkey, a lion, and a bear the family had to care for until they could find a buyer. Another time they bought a truckload of toothpaste, which the family used for years before they finished out the supply!
Norma and her family loved to travel to New York to sell items to an investor on Long Island, that she found out years later was a big-time mobster. She always was dressed to the nines with big hats and high heels. People would stop by her table and ask for an autograph, certain she was a movie star!
Because “Normie” never could turn anyone away, she was always surrounded by a unique cast of characters. There was Redbird the judge’s wife, Otis the town drunk, Turk the shoeshine guy, Junior the FBI agent, Lee Prince the silversmith, Dave Tussinger who sold artifacts, Louis Shipshee a very famous painter, Wolf Robe Hunt owner of the Trading Post in Catoosa and Zelda and Hugh Davis creators of the Blue Whale and snake and alligator ranch in Catoosa.
Those who knew Norma always knew where they could find her each morning. She loved to drink coffee at the Will Rogers hotel where she would sit and listen to the local businessmen tell tall tales and flip coins to see who paid for the morning coffee. Jim Smith, Monk Hall, Max Milner, AG Murray, Gary Sibley, Jim Wilson, and Foster Twist were part of the frequent crowd.
The 70s were the glory days for turquoise jewelry. Ralph Lauren used it for all of his ads and women would come from all over the world to trade Norma their diamonds for her turquoise jewelry. Because of this boom, she kept a large inventory worth over $100,000 in jewelry and artifacts. She also had valuable old pawn pieces of jewelry in her Private Collection, that she shared with her customers but that were not for sale – they were her treasures. One night, someone cut through the walls of the furniture store to the north of her shop and stole all her inventory of jewelry, artifacts and her beloved pawn pieces.
Not only was Norma heartbroken over the loss, but she was also worried as to how she would ever recover and continue to support her family as she didn’t have insurance because of the rapid turn-over. But true to “Normie” form, she didn’t give up. Norma had made great friends over the years and one of her wholesalers brought her enough inventory to get her back on her feet and she came back even stronger. From that day until she retired, Norma boxed up everything at 5 PM and took it home and would bring it back every morning and set up again.
Norma developed quite a name for herself in handling original Native American goods. She shipped jewelry, artifacts, and paintings all over the country and her clientele were quite famous. Leon Russell and his entourage were frequent guests. Norma remained in business until she retired in 2000 at the age of 85.
Norma has been mentioned in several publications and was featured in “Route 66: The Highway and it’s People”, one of the first books published on the history of Highway 66. The book showcased the diverse people and distinct architecture found along the famous road that runs across the country and through downtown Claremore.
For those of us locally however, the absence of “Normie”, Dave’s Indian Store, and of course her famous wooden Indian Brave represents the memory of a by-gone era that is sorely missed.