Bartlesville, Okalahoma: A Unique American Destination
By Kent E. St. John
Senior Travel Editor
I had only a bit of gas left as I pumped gas into my car on the way to JFK. The price was sky high; I was heading to Bartlesville, Okalahoma, home of past Oil Barons. The thought of Oil Barons and the price per gallon galled me.
Many think of the Texas Tea roughnecks; I was heading into the Okie Black Gold area. The state is still into goo from the ground.
Besides visiting ConocoPhillips.com I was heading into the land of the Sooners, where in a few short years after settlers piled in, millionaires proliferated, some complete with scandalous behavior.
In turn I found an area where Americana prevails and polite rules; a perfect milkshake in an antique center happens. A wizened truck driver spends a fortune rebuilding a prairie town just because.
I had a chance to spend a night in Frank Lloyd Wright’s only skyscraper. Try that in Paris. What I did discover was a spot that all should see if they want to experience a place that maintains its spirit.
Frank Lloyd Just Right
After my 40 mile ride from the Tulsa Airport, I arrived in Bartlesville and the Inn at Price Towers, just as the sun was setting over the city. The Inn happens to be the only skyscraper built by Frank Lloyd Wright and my room is done in a retro style that belies that fact.
The building was originally designed as St Mark’s Tower in NYC, but due to the crash of 1929 ended up being built here in Bartlesville later.
Lloyd usually used nature in his style and the building was done with a tree in mind, perhaps only in Lloyd’s mind. The undertaking was done by the Price family for their oil pipeline company.
Today the Inn has nineteen rooms all on the top seven floors that have been done in a manner that fits yet has modern amenities.
Before heading up to the top floor and the Copper Restaurant, I went into the ground floor and the Price Towers Arts Center. Hosting a fascinating collection of design arts and Wright memorabilia, it is included with your stay.
After a satisfying meal in the Copper, I stopped for a drink in the bar and ended up sitting with Bartlesville’s mayor, very affable fellow; small cities do have that advantage.
I love this part: his job as mayor, as well as the committeemen, are all non-salaried; wish more politicians would follow that lead.
After I headed to the city’s ball park brightly lit and filled with softball fans, I gasped a sigh of relief… American values covered all in one night. After all, it was all about oilmen and American growth that I came to explore.
Uncle Frank and Aunt Jane
If Bartlesville had a patron saint it would be Frank Phillips of Phillips 66, at one time a large gasoline and oil company.
Uncle Frank was quite frank when he said, “I am egotistical. I exercise the privilege and prestige of the office. I’m bombastic, hard to get along with, an easy touch, a farm boy at heart, and conveniently hard of hearing. I am just a sentimental old man. I’m tough and I know it. I’m the boss and don’t let anybody try to question it.”
Frank’s beginnings in Bartlesville perhaps made him what he was, after two dry digs and barely solvent, he and brother L.E. struck black gold on the Anna Anderson Well.
It was WWI, when oil skyrocketed from 40 cents to more than a buck a barrel that Frank gave up his dream of being a banker and realized that oil was king. Sound familiar?
While the ConocoPhillips Museum gives much in the way of information and development of his life, I found his homes in the area to be far more interesting, a private peek into an oilman. Frank believed that if he could sit a man down he could sell him.
Woolarac, Home Away from Home
Phillips’ mansion in Bartlesville is indeed an impressive place to visit with its mahogany woodwork and silk damask wall coverings as well as his personal touches. I was most impressed with the barber chair in the middle of his bathroom. Frank would get a shave from a barber at 5:30 each morning.
It is, however, his nearby ranch Woolarac, derived from three words: the woods, lakes and rocks that stir the soul.
Located in the Osage Hills of northeastern Okalahoma on 3700 acres of drop dead gorgeous land, the main building is log cabin done oil money style.
Arrays of exotic animals roam the property much like Phillips wanted. The collection of Native American art and memorabilia is amazing.
Frank believed that if he could get you to visit him at Woolarac he could convince you of anything. He was right; just being there the price of gas didn’t matter that much anymore.
If ever I could pick a place to be a fly on the wall it might just have been in the poker room at the ranch. It is said that occasionally oil rigs were placed into the chip pile. Once Barnum lost his circus of a Friday but won it back by Sunday.
Will Rogers was a regular at the table. The guest list of visitors is amazing; if you had any cachet in those boom days you visited.
E.W. Marland, Oil Baron Gone Bust
In nearby Ponca City I found my Oil Baron worthy of a movie or at least an off Broadway play… E.W. Marland bet big and traveled high style. He arrived in Ponca City with a small letter of credit and used it to drill his first well on land leased from a Ponca Indian.
In 1911 he hit a gusher and followed it up with two more. By 1922 E.W. controlled one tenth of the world’s oil and was worth $30,000,000 dollars in those days. E.W. employed over a third of the population. He was extremely generous and built libraries and schools for the city.
He also took up polo and moved from his first mansion into a magnificent new mansion modeled after the Davanzati Palace in Florence. Even today the gold leaf-covered ceiling is worth a cool $1.4 million.
E.W. and his wife were childless so they adopted a boy and girl from her sister in Pittsburg. George and Lydie were indeed lucky kids and had a lifestyle that Paris Hilton would envy well before the new mansion was being built.
Before the new mansion was finished, Mrs. E.W. passed away and he married his adopted daughter and niece Lydie soon after. That seemed to change E.W.’s luck.
While on an extended honeymoon trip with Lydie he faced a hostile takeover by J.P. Morgan & Co. Two years after moving in E.W. was forced to move into the artist studio on the grounds. He lived in the mansion for less time than it took to build.
Lydie disappeared in 1953 in her Studebaker filled with tapestries and paintings. She was missing for 22 years till as an old lady she returned and convinced Ponca City to buy the mansion. Good move Lydie.
In the Tom Mix
I am often asked by friends why, as a mostly international traveler, I went to Okalahoma. I can only say it’s because of the fascinating look into a unique part of American history.
From a museum dedicated to pioneer women to a Mozart Festival that brings in world class musicians, the area is loaded with sights and sounds. It is a rush long after the California Gold Rush that still plays a part in America’s wealth and growth.
After a visit to Drew, OK, and the Tom Mix Museum I headed to dinner at Dink’s Pit Barbecue to reinforce myself for my last event, a symphony on the grounds of Woolarac.
As the night darkened and the tunes played I looked around the grounds and realized that my trip to Bartlesville, OK, was as unique to me as Timbuktu.
I still wanted to know much more about the area; stories of Osage Indians abandoning Packer cars after getting a flat, barbers that bet it all and became barons, shopkeepers that imported goods from Europe and all that black gold adds up to.
The show ended with fireworks and that seemed to fit just right in this part of America.
As I recommend with my foreign destinations a good beginning point is a local website and Bartlesville has one VisitBartlesville.com that will keep you up on happenings. There you can get info on Frank Phillips homes as well as the new Bartlesville Area History Museum and the fabulous Phillips Petroleum Company Museum.
Ponca City also has a site that will give you the lowdown on its attractions such as the Martland Mansions, Pioneer Woman’s Statue & Museum, Standing Bear Native American Park and the oil informative Conoco Museum. PoncaCityTourism.com
I split my stay in Bartlesville into two unique lodgings, both special. The first was the Price Towers, the Frank Lloyd Wright skyscraper which can be studied here.
The Hotel Phillips was once the place where Phillips visitors stayed, the tradition continues today. The hotel is 156 rooms all done up in style.
Kenneth Tate a one time trucking man has rebuilt an entire pioneer village that manages to maintain realism. Located on cattle land the site is perfect for traveling back in time. Prairie Song can be looked at here PrairieSong.net
Woolarac was one of my highlights of my visit; the 3,700 acre Phillips property is unique in all aspects, nature, wealth and artifacts. The Native American and Cowboy Collection is tops. The fact that it is a wildlife preserve adds to the mix.
The Oklahoma Mozart Festival in June is a world class celebration of the composer and musicians from around the world nest in Bartlesville.
Tom Mix was the original movie cowboy star and actually was town marshal of Dewey before hitting the silver screen. Dewy has Oklahoma’s small town feelings wrapped in a bow, perfect after Prairie Song. Tom was a pallbearer at Wyatt Earp’s funeral; it is said he wept. GalenfrySinger.com
If you need some reading that seems Hollywood check this site about Oil Baron E.W. Marland, a movie someday is in order. MarlandMansion.com
Pork is king at Dink’s and you should pig out! It is a local favorite and the barbeque fantastic, ribs and pulled pork rule. Okalahoma Magazine has raved about Dink’s and you will too.
Kent St. John was GoNOMAD’s Senior Travel Editor since the website was founded in 2000. During that time he circled the globe many times, visiting more than 80 countries. Sadly, he passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. He had an appreciation of subtleties, always finding a way to capture the nuances and essences of a destination, whether he was whale-watching in Nova Scotia, riding the rails in Australia, bungee jumping in China or worshipping the sun on a beach in Brazil.