Some of Oklahoma’s most iconic figures have legacies that continue to resonate with the public.
Group travelers in Oklahoma will want to learn more about Gene Autry, Jim Thorpe and Will Rogers (who would have been Instagram famous if they were alive today) at museums dedicated to their lives and careers. The Philbrook Museum of Art was made possible through the generous donation of an Oklahoma oil baron, and “The Pioneer Woman,” Ree Drummond, brought a small town back to life through her books, blogs and television appearances.
Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman
Ree Drummond, also known as The Pioneer Woman, has put her small town of Pawhuska on the map. A city girl turned rancher, Drummond got her start as a blogger, writing about her life as a wife and mother living on a large Oklahoma ranch with her husband, Ladd. She has also written several cookbooks and children’s books.
Her blog proved so popular that she was asked to do a cooking show on the Food Network in 2011. Drummond films her show from The Lodge, a four-bedroom guest house on the Drummond family ranch. Visitors flock to Pawhuska to not only tour the lodge but also to visit The Pioneer Woman Mercantile, a restaurant retail store opened by the Drummonds in 2016 in a 100-year-old building downtown. Groups wanting to tour the lodge must first stop at the mercantile to grab tickets on days tours are available. A calendar is listed on the store’s website.
The lodge pulls in between 500 and 2,000 visitors a day when it is open for tours. When groups are done touring, many like to check out the Drummonds’ other businesses in town, including a pizza parlor called P-Town Pizza, Charlie’s Sweet Shop (an ice cream and candy shop named after their late dog Charlie) and The Pioneer Woman Collection store, which opened in 2020.
Ree and her sister will open a pool, spa and restaurant within the next year. Work is also underway to add 14 new rooms to the Drummonds’ eight-room bed and breakfast, The Boarding House.
Philbrook Museum of Art
Tulsa’s Philbrook Museum of Art got its start as a 72-room villa built by oilman Waite Phillips and his wife, Genevieve, in 1927. The villa was designed in the Italian Renaissance style by Kansas City architect Edward Buehler Delk. Phillips gifted the mansion and its 23 acres to the city of Tulsa as an art center in 1938.
Visitors can tour the original mansion as well as additions to the property. A 70,000-square-foot wing was added in 1990. Twenty-five acres of gardens surround the building. A sensory garden features wrought-iron arches to mimic the arches found in Villa Philbrook. A formal garden descends to the tempietto, which were both part of the original design and construction of the home. The gardens extending to the summerhouse at the south end of the property were conceived later and completed in 2004 as part of a major garden renovation.
The art museum features more than 16,000 objects that focus on American, Native American and European art and attracts world-class exhibitions, including “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism,” which runs from July 6–September 11, and “Martine Gutierrez: Indigenous Woman,” which runs through November 27.
The museum attracts 160,000 visitors annually. Groups of 10 or more people receive a discount on admission. Reservations are required. Kitchen 27 is a restaurant at the museum that was conceived by chef James Shrader and incorporates produce from the Philbrook Edible Teaching Garden. The restaurant also caters private events.
Will Rogers Memorial, Museum and Birthplace Ranch
Will Rogers was at the peak of his popularity when he died in a tragic plane crash in Alaska in 1935. People across the country read his column in the newspaper every day, listened to him on the radio and watched his movies. To honor his memory, the Oklahoma Legislature built a memorial to him on a piece of property Will and Betty Rogers bought in Claremore in 1910. They had planned to build a retirement home there. The memorial was built in 1938.
Because of the memorial’s popularity, Rogers’ family kept donating personal items to the site, turning it into more of a museum.
“What’s great about him is he brought everybody together: Republicans, Democrats, kings and the common man,” said Tad Jones, executive director of the museum. “He looked at the good of people. He never met a man he didn’t like, and it endeared him as a friend to people all over the world.”
The museum is currently being renovated to introduce Rogers to a new generation. The museum has 12 galleries that feature artwork and family memorabilia, and tell the story of Rogers’ career.
An interpreter is available to speak with groups about Rogers’ legacy, and guided museum tours are available. The newly renovated theater plays Will Rogers documentaries and movies.
Visitors also can take a self-guided tour of his Birthplace Ranch in Oologah.
Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum
Nicknamed the singing cowboy, Gene Autry was a legendary recording artist, television and movie star who became the king of Hollywood’s B-Western movie scene from 1934 to 1953. He appeared in 93 films and hosted “The Gene Autry Show” on television. As a country artist, he was considered one of the most influential figures of his time with hits such as “Back in the Saddle Again” and “At Mail Call Today.” He is the only artist on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to be awarded stars for film, television, music, radio and live performance.
Autry made such a splash in his home state of Oklahoma that locals renamed the town of Berwyn after him in 1941. The Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum, which is housed in a former schoolhouse, has the world’s largest collection of memorabilia commemorating vintage cowboys in entertainment from the 1920s to the present day. It was founded in 1985 by local citizens who wanted to preserve the old buildings. Autry and other singing cowboys play a prominent role in the museum.
Visitors to the museum will learn about the cowboy way of life and about the small town founded in the middle of Chickasaw Country in the 1870s with just one store.
Jim Thorpe Museum and Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame
The Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame pays tribute to famous athletes, coaches and contributors who were either natives of Oklahoma or who played an integral part in running various sports leagues in the state. The hall of fame covers the gamut of Oklahoma sports history, from heavy hitters such as Mickey Mantle and Johnny Bench, to coaches such as Barry Switzer, Henry Iba, Sherri Coale and Patty Gasso. Two to six individuals are inducted into the hall of fame every year, and the museum tells their stories, as well as displays sports memorabilia.
The facility’s top draw is Jim Thorpe, a world-famous athlete and member of the Sac and Fox Nation who was the first Native American to win a gold medal for the U.S. in the Olympics. He won gold medals in decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Summer Olympics. He also played collegiate and professional football, baseball and basketball.
“Here in Oklahoma, he is like a folk hero, like Will Rogers or John Wayne,” said Justin Lenhart, museum curator for The Jim Thorpe Museum and Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame. “But he was a real person, and he did real things.”
Currently, there is an entire gallery in the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame dedicated to Thorpe’s sports legacy and his activism. In October, he will have dedicated to his memory an entire museum that will house the many artifacts and memorabilia associated with his life, culture and career.