At the Will Rogers Memorial Museum, you’ll find plenty of unexpected things to do and ways to enrich your mind while expanding your knowledge of one of the best-loved celebrities of his era.
Will Rogers once said, “You must judge a man’s greatness by how much he will be missed.” By his standard, then, Rogers was a very great man indeed.
Oklahoma’s favorite son drew his first breath Nov. 4, 1879, before Oklahoma was even a state. Born on his family’s ranch in Cherokee Territory near what is today Oolagah, William Penn Adair (better known as Will Rogers) would go on to become friends with seven U.S. presidents, be the highest-paid movie actor of his time, a beloved humorist, and a tremendous booster of the fledgling aviation industry. His daily and weekly columns were published by more than 500 newspapers across the country.
Not quite 56 years old, Rogers died Aug. 15, 1935, in another U.S. territory that was not yet a state: Alaska. Rogers and his good friend, aviator Wiley Post, were killed when an engine failed on Post’s hybrid Lockheed seaplane. Rogers’ death left behind not just a grieving widow and children, but a grieving nation as well.
In 1911, Rogers bought a 20-acre ranch overlooking Claremore, Oklahoma. He intended it to be his retirement home. “Will had a reputation for buying land with a view,” says Pat Reeder, who manages public relations for the Will Rogers Memorial Museum. “He always believed land was a good investment.” Rogers’ wife, Betty Rogers, donated the property to the State of Oklahoma in 1937, and in 1938, Rogers’ sister, Sallie Rogers McSpadden, turned the ceremonial first spade of earth on the site that would become the Will Rogers Memorial Museum.
Everything about the museum is beautiful, even before you see the building itself. Sweeping green hills surrounded by an elegant fence of brick and wrought iron and thickly dotted with lush trees frame the evocative “Riding into the Sunset” sculpture of Rogers on his favorite horse, Soapsuds.
The native limestone building is lovely and peaceful enough to be a cathedral. The exterior is quiet, and the tributes to Rogers start before you enter. A likeness of his smiling face grins through an arched window. A stone likeness of him lounges in front of the stairs, so casual and comfortable you can almost see him nod a welcome to you. A series of stained-glass windows memorialize the roles Rogers was known for: stage, Indian, cowboy, movies, thinker, husband, father, aviator, and writer. A plaque from the Cherokee Nation pays homage to Rogers, acknowledging him as a quarter Cherokee and listing his roll number.
Once inside, take Reeder’s advice and use your phone to access the virtual tour. Author and actor Michael Wallis is your guide on this tour through the museum, offering insights, additional images, and information about Rogers, his life, his family, and his work.
The first room, the west gallery, is a stunning collection of paintings, sculpture, and several displays from Rogers’ extensive collection of saddles. “He loved the South American countries,” says Reeder while studying a particularly lovely Nicaraguan saddle. The room is dominated by a near-life-size painting by Wayne Cooper of Rogers at his birthplace ranch in Oolagah, mounted on a golden palomino. The image is so vivid you can easily imagine Rogers is moments away from joining you.
The rotunda is home to the most famous statue of Rogers, “I Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like,” by Jo Davidson. This iconic piece of Rogers, wearing a suit, hands in pockets, and glancing down to his left was placed in the rotunda in 1938. There were only two castings of this statue. The other casting stands in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, overlooking Congress. “It’s right outside the Speaker’s office,” says Reeder. “It may have more TV time than anything else in Washington. People often stop there to be interviewed, and you can see his boots and his hands in his pockets.” The statue was commissioned before his death and legend has it that Rogers agreed on the condition that it be placed facing the House Chamber so that he could keep an eye on it.
There are 11 galleries in the museum. Artwork in the form of paintings and sculpture is displayed on every wall and in every corner.
There are two theaters. The smaller theater plays his 21 feature-length movies while the larger allows you to choose from a selection of documentaries. A replica of his office in California occupies one gallery, while another is devoted to Rogers’ family, including his Cherokee heritage, his parents, his siblings, his wife, and his children.
One gallery not-to-be-missed is “The View Through.” Beautiful dioramas take you on a trip through Rogers’ life, from his birth, through his career, and finishing with a stark view of the downed Lockheed. The dioramas are not just beautiful works of art, but an intriguing look into life a century ago.
Down a flight of stairs is a delightful surprise: the children’s museum. The walls are hand-painted to resemble Claremore in the 1900s. Children can build, climb, and play. There’s a stage with hats, boots, and costumes. There’s a replica of Rogers’ radio studio and another of the stage of the Ziegfeld Follies.
Another hidden treasure is the library and archive with more than 2,000 books written by or about Rogers as well as information on Native Americans, genealogy, vaudeville, early motion pictures, and the history of Rogers’ time. The library and archives are available for researchers.
One of the last stops on your museum tour is “The Final Journey,” which counts down the last days in Rogers’ life as he and Post traveled to Alaska in search of new topics for Rogers to write about. The gallery includes paintings, newspapers, and a few items recovered from the crash. One of the most impactful things on display is Rogers’ typewriter, which he took with him everywhere. The sturdy metal is bent, the keys locked together as if to show that Will Rogers will type no more insight or humor to entertain America.
Even 80-plus years after he died, many of Rogers’ observations and theories still hold true.
- “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”
- “The quickest way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it in your back pocket.”
- “Ten men in our country could buy the whole world and 10 million can’t buy enough to eat.”
- “Everything is funny, as long as it’s happening to somebody else.”
- “When I first started to write and misspelled a few words, people said I was plain ignorant. But when I got all the words wrong, they declared I was a humorist.”
- “It’s great to be great, but it’s greater to be human.”
- “You know horses are smarter than people. You never heard of a horse going broke betting on people.”
- “The difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets.”
- “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”
- “Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people that they don’t like.”
- “Rumor travels faster, but it don’t stay put as long as truth.”
- “When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.”
- “Eventually you reach a point when you stop lying about your age and start bragging about it.”
- “This would be a great world to dance in if we didn’t have to pay the fiddler.”
- “Everybody is ignorant only on different subjects.”
Will Rogers Memorial Museum
1720 W. Will Rogers Blvd. | Claremore
March 1-Nov. 10 (10 a.m.-5 p.m.)
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