Purple, gold, and orange sunsets. Dust clouding under weather beaten boots and silver spurs. The rustle of wind through the feathers of a warrior’s headdress. The crackle of an open fire, shushed by a howl of a distant coyote.
The days of the “wild west” are now nothing more than black and white memories captured on the silver screen, inspired by the works of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. But this era of American history continues to captivate the imaginations of people from Abilene to Zaire, and everyone has a different reason for their interest.
Nowhere is this more evident than The National Cowboy and Western Museum, home to a wide collection of artifacts, oral histories, and sculptures honoring states west of the Mississippi.
Located only a few miles from the historic Stockyards in Oklahoma City, the museum sits atop Persimmon Hill along I-44. Visitors are greeted by the larger than life bronze statue of Wild Bill Hickock, waving his Stetson, his stallion rearing up on it’s back legs. The lobby, overlooking a clear Koi pond, is also home to three impressive and memorable sculptures: Abraham Lincoln, deep in thought, Canyon Princess, a scowling mountain lion defending her home, and the iconic End of The Trail, a weary Native American warrior, his emotions mirrored by his steed as they return home.
There are twelve galleries encased in the museum, each focusing on different aspects of western history and heritage. Two galleries showcase art work; from oil paints on canvas, so vivid and detailed they look like photographs, to smaller sculptures and pen and pencil drawings on loan from other museums. There are also works of Frederick Remington, perhaps the most recognized figure in western art, prominently displayed on the walls
The museum also showcases Native Americans, the cornerstones of western and American history. This collection houses relics of the different tribal cultures and artistic traditions which include clothing, jewelry, baskets, saddles, and toys from tribes such as Lakota, Blackfoot, Kiowa, Arapaho, and Apache, to name a few. This is an opportunity for visitors to learn more about many different tribes of the west and to gain an appreciation for their ways of life.
Other galleries highlight Victorian firearms, (with models from Smith and Wesson, Colt, and Winchester), cattle branding and barbed wire, and life on the range, an interactive display that lets visitors in on the lifestyle of cowboys living in bunkers under the isolated, open sky. A little known fact about ranchers is that they used to host “stag” dances. Since women were in very short supply on the ranches, men used to dance with each other, keeping their skills sharp for when they would once again waltz with a lady.
There is a display dedicated to hunting on the western front which showcases buffalo, ram, mountain goat, antelope, and bear trophies, as well as a book written by former president Teddy Roosevelt. The U.S. Calvary is also highlighted, with histories of the forts they established.
The American Rodeo is also a large part of western history and is highlighted in the museum with a large display of Stetsons, saddles, and belt buckles. Visitors are encouraged to walk through a simulated rodeo arena and to experience the roar of the crowd as the rider tries to hold on for eight seconds.
A truly unique portion of the museum is Prosperity Junction, a life-sized simulated pioneer town located within the museum. Buildings are designed in the way a frontier town would have looked at the turn on the century and include a bank, church, doctor’s office, livery stable, train station, saloon, and hotel. The town is shrouded in twilight dusk, and gas lamps light the dusty walkways. This is also interactive, and many businesses allow for visitors to enter and experience life from over 100 years ago.
There is also a display devoted entirely to kids of all ages. The hands-on Children’s Cowboy Corral allows kids to explore campfire cooking, log cabin living, and riding tall in the saddle, along with games, puzzles, and books. This is an engaging and fun way for kids to learn of western history without having to worry about the “hands off” rule.
Another impressive display is Western Performers, a gallery dedicated to actors, actresses, and authors who have created unforgettable characters in the much loved genre of Western motion pictures and television programs. From Clint Eastwood to Slim Pickens, from Will Rogers to Roy Rogers, movie memorabilia including props, costumes, and personal affects line the walls and glass cases. John Wayne also plays a prominent role in this room and visitors can see some of his souvenirs and gifts, including a custom made Gucci Bowie knife.
Though the museum has been around since 1955, an major addition occurred in 1997 when the Donald C. and Elizabeth M. Dickinson Research Center began preserving archives and housing the extensive research library.With close to 700,000 images in the collection itself, nearly 130,000 are available for viewing on line. It is also home to one of the world’s largest collection of rodeo photography.
As with any retelling of historical events, it can often times be difficult to portray every angle and perspective of all people involved. While many of us today are captivated by the romantic images conjured by thoughts of nature in it’s purest form and the sojourn to capture “manifest destiny”, there are others who recount family histories of loss, heartbreak, and denial.
By virtue of visiting museums and historical sites, we honor the struggles, triumphs, and humanity that walked before us. If we can glean even a small bit of insight and appreciation into another time, then there is a chance we can learn from it and form a stronger sense of compassion and understanding.
The National Cowboy and Western Museum is well worth a visit if you find yourself near the Oklahoma City area. For more information, go to www.nationalcowboymuseum.org. If you are interested in the archives, visit www.drc.nationalcowboymuseum.org. * Travel Tip* If you visit on the first weekend of the month and are a Bank of America customer, admission is waved.