The famous Frank that made Bartlesville a destination before Mr. Wright was the Frank who founded Phillips Petroleum in the town 55 years before construction began on the Price Tower. Frank Phillips got into the Oklahoma oil business in 1905 and called Bartlesville home until his death in 1950. He had a lovely home in town, but as the town grew he wanted a place in the country for a retreat and to have a place that was still like the “old west” he remembered from his younger years.
That country get away was a ranch just outside of Bartlesville where he kept it mostly wild as a preserve other than the fact that in addition to the native species he reintroduced to the area like bison, longhorns and elk, he also had herds of non-native animals like zebras and ostriches roaming the land.
As I made my way out of Bartlesville after my architectural adventure, I decided to make a detour to visit his country retreat that he named Woolaroc (Woods, Lakes, Rocks). I was kind of excited to see his nature preserve with herds of bison and other animals as they once roamed the Oklahoma hills. I wasn’t disappointed as I saw the bison and several deer around the property. Though I was disappointed that rather than it seeming like a wild nature preserve it felt like a ranch or safari park because of the barn, feeding stations and in some cases fences.
I quickly learned though that the animal attractions were just a minor part of Woolaroc. At the heart of the ranch near his lodge is the jewel of the property—a museum with a spectacular collection of western and native art and artifacts. This museum rivals some of the greats as far as its collection of paintings and sculpture depicting western life by some of America’s best artists and portraits of major Native American figureheads. The collection also includes ancient artifacts, an airplane, and a firearm collection.
The plane is what started the museum. The plane, named Woolaroc, was the first plane to make a trans-pacific flight from California to Hawaii. Since Mr. Phillips, an avid aviation enthusiast, was sponsor of the plane he had it brought to his ranch and a pavilion built around it for display. The museum grew from there.
Some of the paintings are absolutely fantastic. They are works of art that would never be created today due to cultural sensitivity, but portray important pieces of culture and history that help make America such a wonderful, diverse place. My favorite pieces of the collection were the set of portraits of Native American leaders and the series of Pioneer Women statues.
Another highlight included the large painting of the Native American dance around the fire. It is a stunning painting and the story behind it just as amazing.
The collection of Pioneer Women statues were models for a monument to the pioneer women who helped settle the American west. Twelve sculptors created models for the competition commissioned by the founder of what would become Conoco. The three-foot bronzes traveled the country for exhibition drawing thousands to cast their ballots for their favorite woman.
I was surprised by some of the depictions that were very un-pioneering in some cases showing cleavage and lots of body shape. Nearly all of them showed the woman with a gun taking on the male characteristics of the pioneer instead of celebrating the special traits that made these women so strong and important in westward expansion.
After perusing all of the sculptures, the winning work of art truly was the best one. It depicts a strong, courageous woman leading her child and highlighting higher virtues than violence and fear by showing her carrying a bible and a small knapsack as she presses forward with faith, which was the driving factor for many women traveling west during the pioneer era.
This sculpture won much of the popular vote and was chosen for the full-size monument, which was dedicated in Ponca City, Oklahoma at a ceremony with Will Rogers and commemorated by a nation-wide broadcast by President Hoover addressing the women who did so much to build the nation as pioneers.
The museum can take a few hours depending on your level of interest and the detail you want to experience, but it is a fascinating collection that rivals many other collections of western art.
Around the museum are other attractions such as a petting zoo, gallery space in a building or two and living history sites. However, the other space I wanted to experience was Mr. Phillips’ lodge. The home is built at the top of a hill overlooking a lake and his famous picnic grounds where he entertained outlaws, lawmen and local Native Americans for traditional yet friendly get-togethers.
Anyway, his lodge is a big log and stone structure decorated throughout with animal trophies. Interestingly, none of the animals were trophies from hunting but died of natural causes. As the docent told me, all but a handful had lived on the property at one point including a lion that retired from the circus. When an animal died at the ranch, if it were a particularly beautiful specimen he had it prepared for the wall.
Among the collection is a narwhal tusk and the record-holding longest pair of longhorn horns in the world. He also has a longhorn that snorts smoke with red eyes, which was a gift from Will Rogers who once said the following about Woolaroc:
“When you are visiting the beauty spots of this country, don’t overlook Frank Phillips’ ranch and game preserve in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. It’s the most unique place in this country.”