OKLAHOMA HILLS HOLD
PIECE OF ISLE HISTORY
Wandering to Woolaroc
A unique museum is built around the airplane that won a disastrous race from the mainland to Hawaii in 1927
Northeast Oklahoma is as rumpled as an old bedsheet; as you travel south or west, things begin to straighten out and dry up, becoming the Oklahoma most folk are familiar with. But the northeastern corner features a heavily wooded hill-and-dale landscape, interspersed with stretches of prairie grass and open farmland.
If you go ...
What: Woolaroc Ranch Museum and Wildlife Refuge
Where: Ranch and game preserve in Bartlesville, Okla.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily Wednesdays to Sundays; closed Thanksgiving and Christmas days
Admission: $8 general; $6 for 65 and older; free for children under 12
Call: 888-WOOLAROC (966-5276)
On the Net: www.woolaroc.org
This is cowboy country, although Oklahoma still largely belongs to the Indians. It's beautiful country, wide open and lonely, with just enough variety around the curves of the well-tended interstate roads to keep drivers interested. But it's a place you drive through while going from one visitor destination to another. The surprise is that an important piece of Hawaiian history resides there.
It's an airplane. In 1927, Hawaiian pineapple tycoon James Dole sponsored an aerial "derby" race from the mainland to Hawaii. The race itself was a disaster, with nearly a dozen people dying or missing and only two planes surviving the flight. The winner, Woolaroc, named after the ranch of its sponsor, Oklahoma oilman Frank Phillips, was retired back to Oklahoma after the flight.
Phillips built a shed to shelter his prize, began adding to it to hold his collections of Western art and Indian artifacts, and before long had created a large museum and park complex, housing some of the finest collections of its type, all in the rumpled back-lands of rural Oklahoma.
If you're driving through, it's well worth a visit, which will take all day; it's that big. Take several dollars in change, as Oklahoma has a toll-road system, and be prepared to ignore the carping of your in-laws, who are convinced you're driving them into some rustic hellhole.
IT'S NOT actually that rural. The nearest city is Bartlesville, which is a sprawling municipality of about 35,000 souls -- the 2000 census notes that two of these are native Hawaiians -- and features up-to-date architecture and a modern town center. The economy is driven by oil, as you might expect (it's the site of the first commercial oil well in the state), and residents told me that house prices haven't changed much in the last decade. They like living there very much.
Bartlesville is big enough to feature towering office buildings, one of which is the only "skyscraper" designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. There's also a gigantic candle factory that smells nice from the road and a Tom Mix Memorial Museum. The primary attraction, though, is the Woolaroc Ranch Museum and Wildlife Refuge.
Drive U.S. 60 through town, going west, and then hang a left on Highway 123 and go south for 12 miles. By now you're well out of Bartlesville's suburbs. Admission to the grounds is $8 for adults, payable at the front gate.
The ranch complex accessed by visitors is 3,700 acres, and you drive down a twisty little road bordered by reddish rock coughed up by the nearby Osage Hills. Be careful, as it's easy to be distracted by the wandering buffalo, deer, longhorn steer, llamas, ostriches, elk and hundreds of other animals running free over the landscape. The drive is a few miles to the museum complex, and it's a gorgeously primitive landscape.
Phillips named the ranch Woolaroc in 1925, after the woods, lakes and rocks of the area.
"This isn't all a dream about something, but a place where I can get back to nature," Phillips said at the time. "The great difficulty with the American people today is that they are getting too far away from the fundamental things in life. Too much time and money are spent on things which leave no record and which add nothing basically to the present nor to the future. To build permanently and wisely is to benefit all mankind. The conservation of wildlife now will mean much to future generations."
Woolaroc embodies that vision. The buildings of the museum complex rise organically from the rustic hills, faced with more Osage rock and Indian art. Much of the interior of the museum is underground, making less of a footprint on the land and keeping the interior climate cool in summer and warm in winter.
Inside is an apparently endless display, gallery after gallery, of Western art and artifacts. We're talking pottery, baskets, beads, blankets, beaded baskets and beaded blankets, and cultural art of the sort made familiar by Frederick Remington: noble red men and scruffy white men in a dusty landscape. It all feels very American, particularly the gallery that features hundreds of Colt firearms, supposedly one of the most complete collections in the world.
The Woolaroc plane was restored in the last decade and hangs pristinely in its own gallery, surrounded by other artifacts of Phillips Petroleum's early days. The displays include the winning check written out by James Dole and a short film about the race.
Other features of the ranch complex include a nature trail and two immersive "living history" areas, an 1840s mountain-man camp and an early-day oil-lease site. But if you want to make Tulsa by sunset, 45 miles due south, they'll have to wait for another day.
As Will Rogers noted, "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."
BURL BURLINGAME / BBURLINGAME@STARBULLETIN.COM
In addition to the buffalo imagery that fills the Buffalo room at Woolaroc Ranch, live creatures wander 3,700 acres.
BURL BURLINGAME / BBURLINGAME@STARBULLETIN.COM
Founder Frank Phillips was a strong believer in preservation. Also housed at the property are Indian sculptures and art.