courtesy Will Rogers Memorial Museum
Published May 02, 2017
Cowboys, actors, artists, showmen and rodeo stars all played a role in making the cultural story of the American West.
Throughout the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of travelers, settlers, ranch hands and lawmen helped open the West and make it part of America. But a lot of our knowledge of that place and time comes from the larger-than-life personalities who brought the West to popular art and culture.
Some of the country’s most fascinating Western characters are honored today with museums that tell their stories and, along with them, the stories of the West and America itself. Here’s a look at some of the great museums around the country that are based on famous figures.
Will Rogers Memorial Museum
Perhaps no other man stands as tall in the American West as Will Rogers, the actor, columnist and radio personality who soared in popularity in the early 20th century.
“At his time, he was the biggest star in the world,” said Tad Jones, executive director of the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Rogers’ hometown of Claremore, Oklahoma. “Our museum talks about his life and how he touched people all over the world.”
The museum features 12 galleries that tell Rogers’ story, from his birth in nearby Oologah to his Cherokee heritage and his career in newspaper, radio and movies. Visitors can see galleries of portraits made by professional artists and dedicated fans, and a theater plays a documentary on Rogers’ life and clips from films in which he appeared.
“We have some movies that you can’t see anywhere on TV,” Jones said. “We’re the only place in the country where you can see these movies that were done in the ’20s and ’30s.”
The newest exhibit at the museum covers the last few days of Rogers’ life, before he died tragically in a plane crash while traveling in Alaska. Artifacts include the typewriter he used to write his newspaper columns as well as numerous other items from the plane’s wreckage. Rogers and his family are buried in a sunken garden at the museum site.
Groups can also visit the ranch where Rogers was born, which is also part of the museum and about 12 miles from the main campus. The ranch comprises some 400 acres and features Rogers’ birthplace home, as well as some longhorn cattle and other ranch animals.
C.M. Russell Museum
Great Falls, Montana
Art museums and Western heritage museums around the country feature exhibits of Western art that highlight the work of many well-known painters. But none were as well known in their own time as Charles Russell, better known as C.M. Russell, who lived in Great Falls, Montana, and was one of the country’s most celebrated artists around the start of the 20th century.
“He was truly a celebrity at his time,” said Mark Robinson, director of marketing at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls. “His wife was his business manager, and she was one of the reasons that he became the highest-paid artist of the time.”
But Russell’s fame and fortune didn’t take away from his true Western bona fides. He spent a decade as a working cowboy on the range in Montana before he ever sold a piece of artwork, and the things he experienced deeply shaped his artistic perspective.
“He is known as America’s cowboy artist,” Robinson said. “He really respected the American Indian cultures out here, which was quite unusual at the turn of the century.”
The Russell Museum offers the country’s definitive Russell experience. Visitors can see his home as well as the log cabin studio where he did much of his painting. Galleries at the museum showcase numerous famous Russell paintings, including “The Exalted Ruler,” “Cowboys of the Circle Diamond” and “Crossing the Northern Plains,” as well as a famous work called “Mothers Under the Skin,” which pictured Native American and white women and children.
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