A tour of Northeastern Oklahoma and its Cherokee heritage is not complete without a stop at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore. It’s one of the largest museums in the country dedicated to someone who was not a politician or military hero.
Museum galleries showcase the wit and wisdom, movie and Broadway careers, and international stature of Will Rogers, the leading celebrity of his day until he was killed in a 1935 plane crash in Alaska. One room focuses on his Cherokee roots. (His father, Clem Rogers, was a prominent Cherokee senator and judge.) Rogers once said, “There is nothing of which I am more proud of than my Cherokee blood.”
Many people know the name and face of Will Rogers but have no idea that his accomplishments touched so many areas. He was a champion roper, radio personality, Hollywood actor, newspaper columnist, philosopher, aviation enthusiast, polo player, friend of U.S. presidents and goodwill ambassador. But he was best known as a spokesman for the common man, an “old friend” appreciated for his honesty during the dark days of the Depression. His homespun humor and timeless quotes (many of them jabs at politicians) still are relevant today.
Rogers started his climb to stardom with his rope twirling skills. As a young man, he appeared as the “Cherokee Kid” in Wild West shows around the world. Then he became the toast of Broadway as he bantered with audiences while spinning his lariat. Soon the political humor eclipsed his roping as his jokes on current events and government high jinks struck a chord. At his peak Rogers was the highest paid male movie star and the most widely read syndicated columnist. He also had the most popular Sunday evening radio show.
Exhibits include Will Rogers movie posters, his valuable saddle collection and other personal effects, including the typewriter found in the plane wreckage. Best of all are the video stations and theater presentations showing Will in action. The Story of Will Rogers, a 1950s documentary narrated by Bob Hope, chronicles his life from growing up in Claremore to his death at age 55. Visitors also can view clips from Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue, the hit 1990s Broadway show starring Keith Carradine as Rogers.
One room focuses on the plane crash that took Rogers’ life at age 55. On display are yellowing newspapers from around the world announcing the accident and Western Union condolence telegrams from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, and Laurel and Hardy. Visitors also see the typewriter from the wreckage and clothes Rogers was wearing, plus the contents of his pockets, including a pocket knife, horn-rim glasses and three-cent stamps.
Upon news of his death, both houses of Congress observed a minute of silence, movie houses went dark and flags were flown at half-staff. The nation had not seen such a public display of mourning since the Lincoln assassination.
As a celebrity, Rogers was living on a ranch in Santa Monica, Calif., but had planned to live in retirement at the museum site. A replica of his study in Santa Monica depicts the ocean-and-mountain views he enjoyed. A video shows him playing polo in California, where the sport is still played on a field named for him.
Interpretive guide Andy Hogan, a retired school principal, portrays Will Rogers for tour groups. Spinning a rope and clad in chaps and Western hat, he brings the Oklahoma luminary to life.
In a sunken garden at the hilltop museum is Rogers’ tomb, inscribed with his most famous quote: “I never met a man I didn’t like.” A statue of the Cherokee native on horseback towers above the tomb and graves of family members, including wife Betty and three of his four children. His niece lives in the former Will Rogers Hotel, a senior citizen apartment building in Claremore.
Just down the hill from the museum is the Hammett House Restaurant, famous for its “mile-high” coconut, banana and chocolate cream pies. The sizzling Apple Delight is served warm in a cast-iron skillet and topped with ice cream and brandy-butter sauce.
Also worth checking out in Claremore is the J.M. Davis Arms & Historical Museum, a treasure house of pistols, rifles, military artifacts, and Western and Native American memorabilia. Group tours of any length, from 15 minutes to an hour, are available.
Oklahoma boasts more miles of the original Route 66 than any other state. The section of the “Mother Road” in and around Claremore is Will Rogers Memorial Highway. A fun Route 66 landmark near Catoosa is the Blue Whale, the brightly painted remnant of an old water park.
Will Rogers Birthplace Ranch, also known as Dog Iron Ranch, is a short drive from Claremore, near the town of Oologah. Set on a peaceful hill overlooking Lake Oologah, the white, Greek Revival house is surrounded by a white picket fence. Burros, goats, cattle, chickens, ducks and peacocks roam the grounds. A chuckwagon picnic lunch under the trees can be arranged, and the barn has party space for groups. Inside the house, visitors see the log-walled room where Rogers was born in 1875 and view a black-and-white video narrated by Will Rogers Jr. In the barn they can watch a version of The Ropin’ Fool, a silent movie narrated by the son.
A new tour of Northeastern Oklahoma, “Cowboys, Indians and Oil Barons…the real story,” will be offered Sept. 11-14, 2011. Created in partnership between Claremore, Bartlesville, Ponca City and the Cherokee Nation, the tour will be marketed only to the motorcoach industry.
Besides the Will Rogers museum and birthplace, the tour will include such attractions as the J.M. Davis Arms & Historical Museum; Woolaroc, the country estate of Bartlesville oil baron Frank Phillips, known for its collection of Western art; and Ponca City’s Marland Grand Home, where the group will attend the Oil Barons Ball, complete with music from the 1930s. Other entertainment on the trip includes Ziegfield Follies and “Oklahoma” performances, plus appearances by historical characters.
For more information, contact the Claremore CVB, 877-341-8688, www.visitclaremore.org.