Worms. Onion burgers. An old trolley. Artificial insemination of livestock. These may not seem to add up to anything, but they do in El Reno.
These entities help to make the Canadian County seat an esoteric town, whether it’s on the one-mile rail circuit, at a trifecta of diners pounding grilled “ingerns” into their hamburger patties or in research facilities at Redlands Community College.
The Heritage Express Trolley began in 2001 to revitalize downtown and remedy a chronic issue, says Vicki Proctor, longtime president of the Canadian County Historical Society and Museum.
“The money to fix a drainage problem came through a state transportation grant, but attached to it was the condition that we build a trolley,” she says. “The city asked the museum if it would run the trolley and we agreed.”
Oklahoma’s only rail-based trolley – Oklahoma City has rail-based streetcars and Tulsa’s trolleys drive like buses – runs partly on the old Interurban system going from El Reno to OKC and other central Oklahoma towns. The car, which El Reno converted to propane power, is a 1924 J.G. Brill model originally used by the Philadelphia and Western Railway
“It’s a huge draw – about 8,000 to 9,000 ride it annually,” Proctor says. “It’s right off Route 66, so we have people come from all over the world.”
The trolley crosses Wade Street, along which, in a two-block stretch, are Sid’s Diner, Robert’s Grill and Johnnie’s Hamburgers and Coneys. These joints maintain El Reno’s moniker as the Onion Burger Capital. They participate in a festival where a 750-pound onion burger is grilled each May.
North of town is Redlands’ innovative Darlington Agriculture Education and Applied Research Center.
“Our artificial insemination program draws from all over the country because we let students run the equipment,” says Sam Nusz, manager of the Darlington center. “We have a $70,000 machine called the Cosa, which measures the volume of semen and its movement, that most students wouldn’t touch until they’re in graduate school. Our students use it as part of their associate’s degree in animal science.”
Vermiculture produces about 100,000 worms annually in a 100-square-foot raised bed, says Julie Flegal-Smallwood, who administers a U.S. Department of Education grant at the school.
“Worms are used to enrich our own properties,” she says. “We give them to K-12 schools for gardening programs. We sell them to the agricultural community and no-till farmers. We sell the compost to organic gardeners and people growing medical marijuana.”
Student Casie Hamill of Verden didn’t know she would become smitten by red wrigglers and night crawlers.
“I never imagined I would work as a worm-wrangler, but they are fascinating and a vital part of the ecosystem,” Hamill says. “Their presence is an indicator of soil health, and their byproduct, worm castings, is black gold. Regular compost sells for about $35 per cubic yard, but vermi-compost sells for about $200 per cubic yard.
“It doesn’t hurt that they are cute and slimy and can devour a pumpkin in about a month.”