The best attraction in the Bartlesville vicinity is Woolaroc, the museum and 3,700 acre wildlife preserve oilman Frank Phillips established in 1925 as his ranch retreat. It originated from a large oil and gas strike on Lease 185, with a gas plant built at “Phillipsburg” and the construction of Clyde Lake, named after Phillips General Manager Clyde Alexander, to supply water for the plant. Frank Phillips loved the lake and surrounding canyon and made it the centerpiece of a cattle ranch.
I’ve visited it many times since childhood, but usually my focus has been on the art and artifacts in the museum. The collection of western paintings and sculpture is remarkable and the Native American collection is a showcase of artifacts removed from the Spiro Mounds 125 miles away. I also visited Woolaroc regularly back when my father participated in its annual Mountain Man Trader Camp. A few years back I drove its long-closed North Road, and I’ve been down around Clyde Lake and walked to the Phillips Mausoleum where Uncle Frank has been entombed since 1950. But I had never taken the time to walk the short nature trails north of the museum until this sunny, chilly, and windy December day.
It had been a hectic work week replete with meetings and tutoring students preparing for a big unit test before we hit finals this next week. Some evenings were spent preparing my home for a potluck dinner for 14 of my friends from work and their spouses. The dinner and the company were great, but I was in no shape for a long road trip on the weekend. So I opted to fill in one gap in my Woolaroc experiences and hike the Outlaw and Warrior Loop trails. The online hand-drawn trail map was hardly accurate, greatly overestimating the walk, but I enjoyed getting out in the crisp weather for a stroll in the sun and was grateful for the warmth of the museum afterward.
I drove the 20 miles to the retreat and paid the $8 entry fee. One of the familiar Indian statues greeted me. These cast zinc-alloy works are 11’ tall and were produced in the 1920s and 1930s by the Palacine Oil Company for their Wirt-Franklin gas stations in the state. I passed Sitka deer and one of the artificial waterfalls, easing through the Haunted Grove with its eerie skulls and bones nailed to the tree trunks. Parking by the museum, I strolled over to the entrance to the Thunderbird Nature Trail.
I first turned eastward for the Outlaw Loop, strolling along its native stone. I was pleased to find I was benefiting from a Boy Scout Eagle Project performed by Alan Davis, a former student of mine. The trail paralleled a stream which had eroded a bluff before feeding into tiny Elk Lake. After crossing Elk Bridge the trail wound through some rock formations and reached a high point where I could see the museum perched on a hilltop in the distance.
Soon I’d finished the loop and began the Warrior Loop to the west, which crossed interesting eroded rock beds where water had carved its own channels. Eventually it paralleled the stream again and at one point ran through a hollow where, protected from the cold wind, some of the grass was still stubbornly green despite winter being only about a week away. A short side trail led to Princess Falls and then I passed the aptly named Mossy Ledge. I’d had the trails all to myself, but I could easily imagine children enjoying this scamper spot.
Concluding the walk, which was only about 1.75 miles, I passed the concession area, making sure to visit the famous taxidermied buffalo which sucks up trash. He was redone a few years back and is a big hit with the kiddies, but I had nothing to offer him.
I strolled about the grounds, enjoying various sculptures. Thanks for the Rain was created by Joe Beeler and dedicated in 1987. A series of other statues once graced Monument Road at the wonderful Marland Mansion in Ponca City. Oilman and spendthrift E.W. Marland asked Frank to buy much of his collection in 1940 over a decade after Marland Oil was consumed by J.P. Morgan and renamed Conoco. Far more than half a century would pass before Conoco merged with Phillips Petroleum. I shot four of Marland’s statues which had been sculpted by Joseph “Jo” Mora. The Cowboy was modeled on George Miller of the famous 101 Ranch. The Outlaw was Belle Star. The Indian Maiden was modeled on Mrs. John Bull. A nearby sculpture of a spear fisherman had a backdrop of enormous petrified wood pieces and was the focus of tossed-coin wishes.
The entrance to the museum was adorned with Christmas lights. Woolaroc says over 600,000 lights are in place for its annual Wonderland of Lights. I should venture out with a friend and see that. The usually stark foyer was invitingly decked out with Christmas trees flanking Uncle Frank’s statue. Bryant Baker’s The Pioneer aka The Plainsman was on one side and modeled on oilman W.H. McFadden. On the other side was Jo Mora’s The Indian.
I briefly looked over the artifacts from the Spiro Mounds, having visited there a few years ago and being surprised at how few artifacts they had left on site. I recalled that Frank’s collection of shrunken heads was somewhere near by, and although they fascinated me when I was young I did not seek them out today. Instead I passed by the striking Dance of the Mountain Gods by Jim Hamilton to ponder the wonderful Pioneer Woman models, the product of the 1926 artist competition staged by Marland for what would become the 12,000 pound 17-foot tall Pioneer Woman statue in Ponca City.
The Trusting version by Jo Davidson was said to be Marland’s personal favorite, but the museum’s lighting made her look like the mother of Star Wars’ Emperor Palpatine. It seems appropriate that she have a power socket nearby should she need to shoot out some force lightning. I love the woman’s face and hair in the Challenging version by H.A. MacNeil. Adventurous by F. Lynn Jenkins has a nice pose but a cloying visage. Affectionate is the bare-breasted version by James E. Fraser that would never do for Oklahoma, although she does manage to hang onto her rifle while exposing herself. But the clinging gown on Faithful by Arthur Lee is downright sexy. The rear of that model, however, is unbecoming. The severe lines of the bonnet clash with the art-deco styling of the flowing gown. The bottom almost looks snakelike to me, and it would be a pity to visit Ponca City and be reminded of Harryhausen’s Medusa. So Bryant Baker earned his win with his Confident version. I like her laced boots, the matching stride of her son, and her expression is simply perfect.
After ogling the ladies I relived my childhood by activating the Crow Indian Dance machine. I then admired a series of great paintings by William Robinson Leigh, a master of composition and action:
- Navajo Fire Dance – marvelous lighting
- The Lookout – great mood via lighting and poses
- Westward Ho – wonderful action and composition, although I dislike the bilious green colors
- Custer’s Last Fight – check out the musculature of the shooter
- Visions of Yesterday – the museum’s iconic work
These paintings also caught my eye:
- The Oasis by Fletcher C. Ransom
- Kachina Painter by Robert Lindneux
- El Capitan by James Featherole
- Ruins of an Old Church: Cuernavaca by Thomas Moran
- Snake River Hunting Game by Del Parsons
- West Wind by Wilson Hurley
As for sculpture, I liked Joe Beeler’s Lord of the Southern Plains. His sculpture Crazy Horse reminded me a bit of my father, although you’d have to draw in the cheekbones quite a bit, narrow the mouth, cut the ponytail, lose the feathers and the earrings…oh, never mind. Maybe it doesn’t resemble him at all.
The museum began as a hangar for Frank’s Woolaroc airplane, and I took shots of it from the front and from the side both above and below the wings. Below the plane was a rope tool drilling rig from over a century ago. I’m not at all sure, but this may be the one donated to the museum by Jay Ramey, the husband of one of my first cousins, once removed.
I left the museum and wandered over to the old Y-Indian Guide Center, now called the Heritage Center. The YMCA decided its Y-Indian Guide program, with its faux Indian rituals and regalia, was racist and renamed them Adventure Guides back in 2003. Out front was another work of Joe Beeler, Night Song. I like the dreamlike images on its base. Thankfully the building still sports the big stained glass window where a Y-Indian Guide tells some youngsters about the high road and the low road. In past years I could never get a decent shot of it, but this time I was able to take upper and lower shots of it from the balcony, correct the visual distortions from the angles in Photoshop, and stitch them back together into a coherent whole.
After clambering about the rocky bluff between the Woolaroc Lodge and Clyde Lake, I got back in my car and drove out through the refuge. A chain of buffalo were ambling down the side of the road, sometimes pausing to check me out. You don’t expect to see this view in your side mirror! The leaders paused to look back at the stragglers as I left the refuge.
It was an easy and enjoyable trip, although I wound up spending far more time editing the photos and writing up this post than I spent out at Woolaroc! But this way my memories are preserved and shared. A two-week winter vacation begins at the end of next week and I am more than ready for it.
Click here for a slideshow from today’s day hike and museum tour