Woolaroc - Adventure in Oklahoma's Best Kept Secret

Distinctly Oklahoma, August 2nd, 2010


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WOOLAROC: Oklahoma’s Best Kept Secret Posted on August 1, 2010 by justin Share This:

By Heide Brandes

(Photos provided)

Hidden away in the rolling Osage Hills of northeastern Oklahoma, the shrunken heads seem exotic, out of place and a little bit disturbing. Nestled among historic artifacts and fine art paintings, the heads attract the fascination of both children and adults who gawk at the trio of unfortunate Native Americans.

With eyes and mouths sewn shut, the heads sit behind glass at the Woolaroc Museum and Wildlife Preserve, part of Woolaroc’s collection of Western art and artifacts, Native American collectables and one of the most extensive Colt firearms collections in the world.

The fact that the heads attract so much attention is a bone in the craw of Woolaroc’s Art Curator Linda Stone and Woolaroc Foundation CEO Bob Frasier.

“Don’t focus on the shrunken heads,” pleads Stone, with images of rare Remington and Bierstadt paintings glowing in her eyes.

But it’s hard not to. Despite the hundreds of stunning Western and Native American art paintings, not to mention the staggering artifacts of Native American history coated in the patina of centuries, visitors to Woolaroc still ask about those creepy little heads.

However, the Woolaroc Museum and Wildlife Preserve is so much more than eerie curiosities — it is the dream of an oilman desperate not to miss the Old West, and who brought both cave-hiding outlaws and western lawmen together for a wild night of drinking before the chase started again.

Established in 1925 as the ranch of oilman Frank Phillips, the Woolaroc Museum andWildlife Preserve is a 3,700-acre wildlife area, home to buffalo, elk, longhorn cattle and even a few camels and kangaroos. It was recently listed in the National Register of Historic Places and offers a bit of adventure, history and culture in what Will Rogers once called the “one last under-discovered treasure left in the United States.”

Director Frasier doesn’t like the title. He groans at the idea of Woolaroc being “Oklahoma’s best kept secret.”

But after a loaned Moran painting from the museum sold for a whopping $17.7 million, Woolaroc is finally getting curious calls from New York City auction houses and art galleries and art centers in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

In not so many words, they all ask the same question: “Who the heck are you guys, and how did you get this art?”

Frasier smiles to himself.

Of Cowboys and Indians

When the 20th century was still young and Indians still roamed the scrubby hills of the West, a young Frank Phillips left his Iowa home at age 14 to explore the west. He was terrified of missing out on the Wild West, gunslingers and wild saloon towns, so he hitched a journey from mining camp to mining camp all the way to California.

“The Wild West was always a fascination for Mr. Phillips,” says Frasier who, as Woolaroc Foundation’s CEO, knows the history of Frank Phillips inside and out. “He started collecting Western art, and by the late 1920s and ‘30s, he was an avid collector and had a world-class collection.”

By that time, Phillips was soaked in oil, too. Having drilled into the belly of Oklahoma, he struck black gold — and Phillips 66 was born. As an oilman, he rubbed shoulders with the East Coast royalty, and decided he needed a place to entertain as the rich and famous did in the Roaring Twenties.

“After looking at places in the East Coast, he decided what he was looking for was right here,” Frasier said.

“Right here” was land near Bartlesville. He built a 10,000-square-foot lodge, and by the time he died in 1950, more than 200,000 visitors had been entertained at the Woolaroc ranch house.

The famous museum was originally started as a one-room building to house an airplane that won a race for Phillips. In time, it became the 50,000-square-foot museum it is now. Inside those walls is a collection of artwork that marvels Christie’s of New York, full of Remingtons, Russells, Lees and Sharps.

“We don’t just have one Frank Tinney Johnson painting, we have 19 of them. We don’t have just one Russell, we have six of them. Our Bierstadt is a $4.5 million piece,” beams Frasier.

Art Curator Linda Stone says avid Western art enthusiasts know about the art collection at Woolaroc. Of the three Moran pieces, two are owned by the museum. The third, which was on loan to the museum, recently sold at auction for a numbing $17.7 million and focused the art world’s picky eye on the Oklahoma museum.

“We have pieces from five of the six original Taos artists here,” she brags. “The Coltfirearm collection is one of the best in the world as far as variety. When Mr. Colt designed his firearms, it took five tries to get that Colt right. In some cases, we have all five versions of one gun.”

Old Frank was also an archeological nut. He participated in many digs, bringing back pieces of Native American history covered in centuries of dust. He collected an astonishing amount of Navajo blankets. A Sioux war shirt shows the delicate balance between detailed beadwork and the slightly unsettling addition of human locks of hair, which note heroic deeds committed by the warrior.

For other visitors to Woolaroc, the preserve itself is the lure. Buffalo lumber down the winding drive and longhorns with their cruel curved horns lounge in the grass. Besides zebras and ostriches, the park has so many deer it’s like trying to count squirrels.

Once the playground of the rich and famous, Woolaroc has become the playground of modern families. During the summer, Kids’ Fest lures thousands to the park. At Christmas, the museum is lit like war fires by Christmas lights. In October, the biggest party of the year (“Don’t call it a fundraiser,” says Frasier) lets the beautiful people cut loose in the tradition of outlaws (see Sidebar).

“This really is an amazing place,” Frasier says. “I don’t want it to be ‘Oklahoma’s best kept secret.’ I want everyone to know about it. There are people right here in the state who have never heard of Woolaroc.”

That’s a shame, Frasier thinks. In a place so magical with the spirit of the Wild West, it seems those who know about Woolaroc almost try to keep it a secret, keeping the whoops of Indian raiding parties and the smell of cowboy camp smoke to themselves.

“Our goal here is to preserve the history of the West, to educate and to entertain,” Frasier says. “As long as we stay true to those three things, we’re good.”