To me, Oklahoma has only 4 claims to fame: oil wells, cowboys, the Rodgers and Hammerstein film of the same name and the horrific 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building by now executed Timothy McVeigh. I didn’t want to relive the bombing by visiting the memorial to its victims, there was nothing that I could locate that focused on the oil industry, no Oklahoma the Movie tours were on offer (not surprising since Oklahoma was filmed mostly in Arizona), so cowboys it would be at the National Cowboy & Heritage Museum. As I had just spent the last two months driving around the west, watching shoot-out reenactments at Tombstone, learning all about Buffalo Bill and passing through hundreds of “western” towns selling Stetson hats, cowboy boots and real and fake guns, I was feeling slightly jaded about yet, another homage to the cowboy, and even more so to another museum which boasted an extensive art collection. I hesitated.
But I have a self-imposed, arbitrary rule that I cannot consider myself as having been to a US state unless I have done something more than spend the night there. I do have as one of my 300 things to do in retirement to visit all 50 US states, so I needed something to do to justify saying I had visited Oklahoma. There’s also the problem of not having any photographs to put in my USA scrapbook, (organized by state) if I don’t actually do something in the state. Since I don’t consider a picture of me standing outside a Comfort Inn or pumping gas at the Chevron station as scrapbook worthy, I reluctantly drove to the museum and easily found a spot in the nearly empty parking lot.
I paid the relatively cheap ($12.50) admission fee and was greeted by a volunteer who told me how to skip most of the art, but he did take my photo at one of the most powerful pieces in the museum The End of The Trail, a giant plaster statue of a forlorn looking Indian that greeted me in the mammoth lobby.
I planned to rush through the art exhibits I couldn’t avoid, but after a few minutes, I became engrossed in the art and the commentary accompanying each piece. The first gallery showcases photographs from the 19th century, of cowboys and pioneers, prospectors and Indians, their faces universally lined by the hardships of living in the West. Next came one of many art galleries featuring Western landscapes with short biographies of the artists and their love for the West. Paintings of people followed, including an exhibit showing the Indians first as subjects of art, then as creators.
As I left the art galleries for the remainder of the museum, the first board greeted me with ”What is the West?” a good question with an interesting answer: just about anything west of the Mississippi. Different galleries followed, focusing on the discrete waves of inhabitants, beginning with the Indians, then the Spanish Conquistadors in the south and the fur hunters in the north. Shortly after the War of Independence, the new US country sent its army to the west, mostly to ensure the land was clear of buffalo and Indians so the white people could settle without interference. Model forts and artifacts from the period illustrated the difficulties of life in the West in the 1800’s.
Once the army had cleared the Indians and the buffalo from the land, railroads and ranches predominated, with the cowboy culture a mainstay of the West. The museum is something of an Everything you every wanted to know about cowboys but were afraid to ask (okay, there is nothing about how they went to the bathroom with those chaps on, but that’s a minor point). A full scale reproduction of a bunkhouse adorns one wall, another very large room is dedicated to saddles, a different room to the art of braiding reins and a history of cowboy boots (they must be heeled to keep the boot in the stirrup) is presented. Different cowboy hats are on display, along with explanations of the differences (some are more Spanish influenced than others), but all attain to shield the cowboy from the elements. Chaps, stirrups, sleeping arrangements are all discussed, everything but… here I go again, bathroom issues. Mention is made of cowgirls and black cowboys, just to make everything politically correct, although the museum is silent on LGBT issues and cowboys (cowits?).
If real life cowboys weren’t enough, a wonderful gallery explains and explores Hollywood’s love affair with the cowboys, showing an excellent video with clips from favourite Westerns. Not to give it all away, but the hypothesis is that Westerns made great silent films because the costumes left no doubt as to who were the good and bad guys and it was easy to film a train robbery, gun fight or lady being rescued without words.
For the true cowboy fan, the Rodeo Hall of Fame occupies a corner of the museum, but I skipped this except for the picture.
I finished my tour in Prosperity Junction, a life size replica of a fairly well-to-do Western town at the turn of the 1900’s. Electric lights were installed, along with the Livery Stable, the Blacksmith, the Western Union telegraph in the railroad station, the Post Office, the General Store, the Feed & Seed vendor, a school, a church, a doctor’s office and house, a saloon, hotel, newspaper and a few stagecoaches. The only things missing were the women with floor length skirts covering multiple layers of petticoats and their cowboys sporting Stetsons, boots and chaps.
I don’t like admitting I am wrong, but I was wrong about this museum. It is a gem and, dare I say it, almost worth a visit to Oklahoma City in, and of, itself. After 3 hours, I tore myself away and hit the road.