The museum at Woolaroc has been referred to as “the Smithsonian of the West.” It’s full of art and artifacts pertaining to western history and the southwestern region of the United States. So why is there an elephant’s head on one wall?
To understand about the elephant, you have to know a bit about Frank Phillips, one of the founders of Phillips Petroleum. The company was incorporated in 1917 by Frank and his brother L.E.
Early on, even before they opened their first automobile filling station, the Phillips brothers were involved in producing aviation fuels. Looking for a way to publicize his product, Frank found a stunt pilot who was planning on entering a race across the Pacific from Oakland, Calif., to Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii. The pilot, Arthur Goebel, had lost his original sponsor until Frank Phillips stepped in. Piloting the plane, named the Woolaroc, Arthur Goebel and his navigator won the race bringing attention to him, the plane and the fuel. The plane was brought to the Phillips’ country property, Woolaroc, named for Oklahoma’s woods, lakes and rocks, and a pavilion was built to protect it.
Eventually, the pavilion was enclosed and Frank used the space not only to house the plane but gifts from friends and a growing collection of Indian blankets and art. From those disorganized beginnings, a museum was started. A theme began to develop — the history of the southwest from its earliest inhabitants through contemporary times.
But there were still occasional gifts that didn’t seem to fit the theme. The massive bull elephant head is one of those items.
Frank Phillips had friends from every walk of life and every corner of the country. Two of those friends were Osa and Martin Johnson, Kansas natives who pioneered nature photography and film documentaries. They made many safaris to Africa filming the natives and the wildlife. They shot only what they needed for food, preferring to hunt with cameras rather than guns. Martin was the main photographer but Osa could operate the cameras, too. They had a pact that no matter what happened, the cameras needed to continue rolling.
This day they had spotted a group of elephants and were photographing them. Martin, with a small camera, wanted to get closer so Osa was doing the filming with the large movie camera. A massive bull elephant spotted Martin and took exception to his presence. Usually the animals could be scared off by making noise or wild motions. Not this one. The bull was in full charge. Martin fired a couple of shots to no avail and had to turn tail and run. Osa kept the camera going. The elephant got closer and closer. Finally, pact or no pact, Osa picked up her gun and with one shot, felled the beast.
Today the elephant’s head is mounted on a wall in the Woolaroc Museum, a present to Frank from the couple. In spite of the elephantine anomaly and an odd little display of shrunken heads from Ecuador, the museum is beautifully organized with thousands of artifacts and paintings on display.
The first room contains not only early southwestern Indian pottery but a number of items from the Spiro mounds. Particularly significant are the beautiful shell gorgets (neck ornaments) found there. These have been replicated in onyx on the doors to the museum.
With so many treasures to see, it’s easy to miss some. Exquisite Navajo blankets hang near the ceiling above rows of Western art from artists like Russell, Remington, Leigh and Frank Tenney Johnson. Taos artists Sharp, Couse, Berninghaus and Phillips are here, too. Beneath the paintings are cases of pottery from many of the New Mexico pueblos including San Ildefonso, Santa Clara and Acoma.
One of the most popular paintings — and one of the most poignant — is William Leigh’s ‘Visions of Yesterday.’ An old Indian, dressed in blue jeans and moccasins, guides a plow behind a team of horses. Nearby is the skull of a buffalo and if you look into the clouds, you can see the shapes of buffalo and mounted hunters racing across the sky.
Moving through the museum, you’ll see the Woolaroc suspended from the ceiling above displays about the oil industry. Another room contains the Philip R. Phillips Collection of Colt guns from Paterson revolvers to more contemporary models and the Waldo Wilson Collection of semi-automatic pistols.
A nearby area features a collection of delicate ceramic pieces by Dorothea Doughty. Take time to notice the meticulous detail work on the flowers and foliage in addition to the avian subjects.
While you could spend hours in the museum, save some time to visit the lodge. Used by Frank Phillips to entertain guests from “back East,” it is built in rugged western style from Arkansas pine. Even the piano is covered with tree bark. Wall décor looks like the result of mass animal carnage, but guests are assured that most of the animals died of old age!
You’ll enjoy more live animals on the 2-mile drive in and out of the property. More than 700 animals roam the ranch with bison, elk and longhorn cattle being the most numerous. You also may spot more exotic species like Sardinian donkeys, llama and water buffalo.
Woolaroc is about a two-hour drive from Edmond. It is on Oklahoma State Highway 123 about 12 miles south of Bartlesville. Current hours are from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the facility is also open on Tuesdays. Adult admission is $10; seniors, $8 and children 11 and younger are admitted free.
ELAINE WARNER is an Edmond-based travel writer.