Photo of Will Rogers courtesy Will Rogers Museum
“Will was no ordinary person by any means. People who come here leave astonished at the vastness of his career,” said Steven Gragert.
Gragert is executive director of two museums that honor Will Rogers, the 20th-century humorist and entertainer whose timeless observations on politics and human nature still ring true.
“He excelled in many areas,” said Gragert. “You get a full sense of his life and the impact he had on American people and the legacy he continues to have as someone who wrote with wisdom and humor.”
The native Oklahoman is one of a fascinating lineup of people groups encounter on the Famous Faces in Grand Central USA itinerary through Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas, from the childhood of iconic aviatrix Amelia Earhart to the last days of pioneering frontiersman Daniel Boone.
The Will Rogers Memorial Museums encompass the Birthplace of Will Rogers in Oologah, Okla., and the Will Rogers Memorial Museum 12 miles south in Claremore.
The birthplace is part of a 400-acre living-history site with Longhorn cattle and other livestock on the shore of Lake Oologah. Motorcoach groups are met by the farm managers, who show them into the two-story clapboard house where Rogers was born.
“You see the room in which he was born,” said Gragert. “There is a living-history ranch on the grounds. You get a sense of how it was when he was living there as a youngster and a sense of Indian Territory in the late 19th century.”
At the Will Rogers Memorial Museum, a rope-spinning Andy Hogan, dressed like Rogers, greets groups and introduces them to Rogers and the museum. After viewing an introductory documentary video, groups have self-guided time in the museum, which Gragert said has the world’s largest collection of Rogers artifacts, including clothing, saddles, ropes, movies, photographs and books.
“You can see the chaps he wore and see films of him doing rope tricks,” said Gragert. “He excelled in many areas of entertainment. You get a sense of his motion picture career, radio career, life as a writer, and his lifelong fascination with and life as a cowboy.”
Rogers’ quotations are inscribed in varying formats on the walls in several places around the museum.
“He could put it in words people could understand,” Gragert said of Rogers’ continuing appeal. “They were very simply stated but with depth to them.”
Wild West showman
Although not as famous as his contemporary and one-time business partner Buffalo Bill Cody, Gordon Lillie was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the Wild West showman Pawnee Bill.
Lillie operated several Wild West shows, often starring his wife, May, as the “champion horseback shot of the West” with varying success. In 1908, he joined forces with Cody to form “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East” show, also known as the “Two Bills” show, which toured for five years.
Lillie took an active role in achieving Oklahoma statehood; started a motion picture company; had successful ventures in oil, real estate and banking; and was devoted to preserving the buffalo.
In 1910, he built a 14-room Tudor-style Arts and Crafts house on a ranch near Pawnee, Okla. Today, the house is preserved as the Pawnee Bill Museum.
“Most groups tour the mansion, which includes all the original furnishings,” said Anna Davis, historical interpreter at the site. “There’s also a free museum, the original blacksmith shop, an observation tower, a three-story barn and about 50 bison you can view.”
The bison are descendants of a herd Lillie established at his ranch.
The museum has a wide range of artifacts from Lillie’s career, including the fancy outfits, boots, guns, saddles and swords worn by him and performers in his shows, and the costumes, drums and spears used by the shows’ Indian performers.
“We re-create his Wild West show here every June,” said Davis. “That is big for groups.”
Although he is closely identified with Kentucky, Daniel Boone spent the last two decades of his life in Missouri. The legendary frontiersman died in a four-story stone house near Defiance, Mo., in 1820 at the age of 85.
“This is the home he passed away in,” said Amanda Carrow, marketing director for the Daniel Boone Home. “The house was actually owned by his son, Nathan.”
Groups can take guided tours of three levels of the house, including the first-floor bedroom where Boone died. Other rooms include the parlor, tearoom, dining room, kitchen and two large upstairs bedrooms.
Although the house is furnished for the period, Carrow said only a couple of the items are Boone artifacts.
“Before the tour, we show a 15-minute video that gives background on who he was and what he did in Missouri,” she said. “It is an interesting story.”
The house overlooks Boonesfield Village. “It is not original to the site,” said Carrow, “but created to let visitors know what a village was like in the 1800s.”
More than a dozen 19th-century buildings were moved to the site, among them a one-room schoolhouse, a carpenter’s shop, a chapel, a general store and a gristmill. The house of Boone’s brother Squire and the Calloway House, where Daniel’s daughter was married, are also preserved on the site.
Carrow said one-hour guided tours take groups inside many of the buildings, which are not allowed on self-guided tours.
The home and village are owned and operated by Lindenwood University.
“She flew the Atlantic all by herself in that little red Vega plane.”
The model of the Vega aircraft in which Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932 hangs in a former butler’s pantry in the Gothic Revival house in Atchison, Kan., where she was born.
“It was her grandparents’ home. Her mother was born and raised here, and she was born in her mother’s bedroom here,” said Louise Foudray, resident caretaker and adviser for the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum.
Groups can tour 14 of the house’s 20 rooms, which have been restored to the way they looked when Earhart spent much time there as a child in the early 20th century.
Foudray said that although Earhart lived in many places, she considered Atchison her hometown and said she spent more of her life at her grandparents’ house than anywhere else.
The Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots Earhart helped found, painstakingly restored the house and operates it as a museum.
“We took Victorian samples of wallpaper, what was appropriate for each room, and had it made especially for the house,” said Foudray. “We regrained the woodwork. Our goal was to have it like it was when Amelia stayed here, and we have pretty much done that.
“As you progress through the rooms, it tells her life story up to her disappearance. It makes a really nice historical tour.”
Some of the furniture is original, and the family donated some personal items, such as Earhart’s bathing suit, her father’s law books, linens that were in her mother’s bedroom when she was born and “many, many photographs.”
“It has a feeling of her being here,” said Foudray. “It brings out the whole idea of her childhood and the way she grew up to be adventuresome and fearless. People are intrigued by what motivated her to do all that she did; she was so much ahead of her time.”
Faces from the past
Jesse Hinderliter operated a tavern in the 1820s in Little Rock; Robert Brownlee was a stonemason who helped build Arkansas’ Old State House; William Woodruff started Arkansas’ first newspaper when it was still a territory.
These are some of the interesting people that groups meet when they tour the Historic Arkansas Museum in downtown Little Rock, Ark., an unusual collection of five pre-Civil War houses on their original sites, which are all on one block.
They meet actors who portray original residents of the Arkansas capital. Guided one-hour tours of four of the houses are offered daily, and actors portray at least one original resident or composite character on every tour.
The Hinderliter Grog Shop, Little Rock’s oldest building, began as a log structure in 1826-27. Hinderliter ran his business until his death in 1834, and legend has it that the building was the site of the last meeting of the territorial legislature in 1835.
The building includes original red oak logs and cypress flooring and a hand-carved Federal-style mantel in the formal dining room.
Brownlee, who had come to Little Rock in 1837 to help build the new state’s first Capitol, built the Federal-style, brick Brownlee House in the late 1840s for his brother and sister-in-law before leaving for the California gold rush.
The house’s furnishings, including some that belonged to lawyer and writer C.F.M. Noland, who may have lived in the house in the 1850s, demonstrate a mid-19th-century home. The house includes marbleized wood mantels, which were a popular decorative feature of the time.
The two-room brick Woodruff Print Shop is all that remains of the original structure built in 1824 to print the Arkansas Gazette. The shop contains original Woodruff furnishings and a replica of the Ramage press that he brought to Arkansas on a keelboat.
The other house on the tour is the wooden McVicar House from the late 1840s.