"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Monday, October 12, 2015

Oil heritage in Bartlesville, Oklahoma

Like we did, most readers probably think of Oklahoma as flat, dry, dusty and brown. But take a look at the satellite view of Oklahoma. About halfway through, from west to east, it starts to change from the omnipresent brown of the American West, to shades of green. At first it's just subtle, but by the time you reach the border of Arkansas, the green is deep and dark, like the Land of OZ compared to Kansas.  Oklahoma is definitely not just a big dust bowl.

We're spending a few weeks in the midst of all that verdant landscape in eastern OK. Of course, where you find green, you also find water; there are hundreds of lakes here, many of them very large reservoirs.  Right now we're parked on the shores of Grand Lake-o'-the Cherokees, one of the largest, at Cedar Oaks RV Park for a week.  Last week we were in Bartlesville, at the only RV park in town, Riverside RV Park. This post will be about our visit to Bartlesville where we first started seeing signs of the south: heavy vines hanging from the trees, armadillos on the side of the road and aisles of ham in the grocery store.

Bartlesville is the home of the first commercial oil well in Oklahoma and the Conoco Phillips Company (think Phillips 66). Scattered through the town there are small oil pumps and tanks, (in people's backyards, vacant lots, along the bike path) where a subtle, but not unpleasant aroma of crude oil lingers. 

There are several other attractions that Bartlesville is known for: Frank Lloyd Wright's Price Tower, Frank Phillip's home, and Frank Phillip's ranch and museum, Woolaroc. Our first stop was the Price Tower, behind the big 66 sculpture below.

One of only two built "skyscrapers" designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Tower was commissioned by Bartlesville oil pipeline businessman, Harold C. Price for his business.  Wright created it as a mixed purpose building with residences, retail and corporate offices throughout the building.

It is now used as an Arts Center, small hotel and restaurant, and is preserved for future appreciation.   We certainly appreciated it, especially after seeing so many of his other buildings in our travels. 

We took a tour through the building, but no photos were allowed. (I took the following two photos in the reception area before I was informed.) 

As with other FLW buildings, every little detail, like the vents, lights and all the furniture is designed to compliment the integrity of the whole. Another typical FLW feature is the built-in furniture, like the (uncomfortable) orange sofa bench below in the reception area. Before leaving we also had a good and reasonably priced lunch in the Copper Restaurant/Bar.

Right next door is the Bartlesville Community Center, designed by the Frank Lloyd Wright architectural firm, which we just appreciated from the outside.

Our next local adventure was Woolaroc, the ranch home of oilman Frank Phillips, founder of Phillips 66 Petroleum. It's about 12 miles outside of town, and is a combination wildlife refuge, historical home and museum, all created by Phillips in his lifetime.

Recreation of an old Phillips 66 gas station.

Uncle Frank was a funny guy.

Although Frank was an advocate of Native American culture and peoples, some of the representations on the ranch are a little dated.

Though he started out as a barber, after striking oil in Oklahoma Frank Phillips eventually became a very wealthy man. At his ranch home he entertained many people, some rich and famous, and some potential investors in his company. The log ranch house was built to entertain his guests.

Frank decorated his rustic cabin with the heads of domestic and exotic animals on his ranch that "died of natural causes." (The docent went out of his way to tell us that. Perhaps they've gotten some flak from animal protection folks.) There were A LOT of animal heads in that room. He also had a beautiful and extensive collection of Native American rugs and blankets both in the cabin and in the museum.

All the logs in the cabin are bark covered, but the bark was first completely stripped, soaked, finished, reapplied and sealed in a chemical process invented by Phillips' company.  They made picture frames for all the artwork in the museum with bark treated in the same manner. They even covered the Steinway piano in bark. (Can you imagine Mr. Steinway rolling over in his grave?

The bark covered Steinway

The dining room.

Our main reason for visiting Woolerac was the extensive museum that houses a vast collection of highest quality Native American artifacts and art, western American art and other historical collections.

Front door of the museum

We've seen lots of Native American museums in our travels, but something we really appreciated about this one was that it covered many different areas of the USA and many different tribes. This offered an opportunity to compare and contrast their cultures and aesthetics. There were also formal oil portraits of prominent tribal chiefs by a single artist, again offering a chance to appreciate the unique tribal regalia and characteristics.

Huge pottery collection

Rooms and rooms of art by and about Native Americans

My favorite item in the museum was this mechanical diorama of a Native American dance, complete with a recording of actual drumming and singing.  The dancing and drumming figures in the diorama all moved in rhythm with the recorded music that pulsed up from the base of the diorama through the floor. Whether jumping, turning, swaying, drumming or singing, the figures moved in a synchronous and surprisingly natural way.

Amongst the western art collection there was a fascinating display of twelve statues of "The Pioneer Woman" with huge variety in their style and imagery, ranging from a Venus-like near nude (third from the front below), to a harried working woman, to the older woman at the front of this photo. 

Most impressive was the huge exhibit entitled "The Best of the Best: Contemporary Wildlife Art" featuring seven painters and sculptures. We both could have spent hours in this room alone.

This is the airplane that started it all. The museum grew out of the need to find a place to keep the plane.

Phew! That was a full day.  The next day we visited the Phillips family home in town, which was much more traditional and seemed to reflect his wife Jane's personality while the ranch was all Frank.

Bartlesville is right on the edge between the dry ranch land of western Oklahoma and the "Green Country" of northeast Oklahoma and the Ozarks.  On our way home from Wooleroc we passed the Hughes Ranch, home to up to 4,000 wild mustangs, depending on the year. We have only recently come to understand just how many wild horses there are the in USA.  In many places the herds are annually rounded up and thinned out by the hundreds so that they don't overwhelm the environments where they live. These horses are then sold or given away to places that will care for them, like the Hughes ranch.

These will probably be our last wild horses for awhile, as I think we are truly leaving the ranch lands of the west behind now, as we work our way south through the green hills of eastern Oklahoma and into Arkansas.


  1. Looks like some fascinating architecture and fancy homes. Amazing that they worked so hard to preserve and use the bark!

  2. It doesn't matter which state one visits, there are so many fascinating things to see and do. We made our first trip to Oklahoma last summer. We wanted to visit Oklahoma City to see the Memorial. Thanks fro sharing this new area.


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