Woolaroc - Frank Phillips' vision of the Old West

The oil baron's beloved ranch is a crown jewel of Oklahoma

by Leigh Elmore

In Northwestern Oklahoma the name of Frank Phillips remains legendary. For it was Phillips and one of his brothers, L.E., who created the Phillips Petroleum Co. The rest, as they say, is history. And what a history it is.

The Woolaroc Lodge, where oilman Frank Phillips entertained potentates and politicians. (photos by Leigh Elmore, except where noted)

Frank Phillips was always determined to do big things. He began to display ability as a businessman and financier at the early age of 24 while working as a barber in Creston, IA. Before many months passed he owned every barbershop in town. His interest, however, soon turned to financial matters.

In 1903, while working as a bond salesman, he heard about the new oil field, which had just been discovered at Bartlesville, Indian Territory. Moving to the new oil town Phillips went into business for himself using his savings to organize the Citizens Bank and Trust Company. He soon found that the banking business extended into oil operations and began to acquire a few oil leases.

The Phillips brothers got a tentative toehold in the oil business in the early years of the 20th century. But with the onset of World War I and a dramatic spike in oil prices, their fortunes were secured. The brothers consolidated their various holdings and formed the Phillips Petroleum Co. in 1917. The new company had assets of $3 million, 27 employees and leases throughout Oklahoma and Kansas. From those beginnings Phillips Petroleum, with Frank Phillips as CEO, became one of the major forces in American industry in the 20th century.

The self-made man

Frank Phillips outside the Woolaroc Lodge sporting a Western look. (photo courtesy Woolaroc)

And Frank Phillips cultivated an image of the self-made man, cut from the American West. He chose Bartlesville as his headquarters, which has remained a Phillips "company town" until the present day. While the headquarters has moved to Houston with the formation of Conoco/Phillips, you can't travel very far in this part of Oklahoma without seeing the influence of Frank Phillips and his company. He became known generally as "Uncle Frank", said Bob Fraser, CEO of the Frank Phillips Foundation, which administers Woolaroc, whose 3,700 acres sprawl over the rolling Osage Hills between Bartlesville and Tulsa. The name reflects the landscape: woods, lakes, rocks.

In the early days of his career he drilled many wells on Osage Indian lands. As a tribute to his fair dealings and interest in their welfare, according to Fraser, the Osage adopted Frank Phillips into the tribe and made him a chief. He was given the Indian name, "Wah-Shah-She (Osage) Hluah-Ke-He-Kah (Eagle Chief)" — "Uncle Frank" was the first white man ever to attain this high honor.

Fraser said that Phillips took his role as CEO very seriously and extended it to a paternal relationship toward the city of Bartlesville. "He was the patriarch of Bartlesville," Fraser said. For example, during the Depression he made sure that the mortgages of every church in Bartlesville were paid off 'anonymously'.

"He was a complex guy, he loved a good party, but could be completely focused on work. He'd fire everybody one day and hire them back the next," Fraser said.
His legacy is preserved at Phillips' beloved Woolaroc.

Woolaroc today is a museum to the West as well as a wildlife sanctuary with herds of buffalo, elk, various kinds of deer, and exotic cattle. Woolaroc houses hundreds of thousands of artifacts relating to Native Americans and the settlement of the west and boasts one of the most impressive collections of Western art in the world.

A den of thieves

"This was formerly Indian Territory," said Bob Fraser from his office, which looks out on the Woolaroc landscape. Up into the early 20th century not many respectable people traveled in this area. It was one of the final pockets of lawlessness in the Old West. A den of thieves really. Marshals would come in from time to time and try to clean the place up.

Bob Fraser, CEO of the Frank Phillips
Foundation, operator of Woolaroc.

"Frank Phillips loved this country. He loved the Osage Indians. And he loved having exotic animals," Fraser said. "From 1918 onward Phillips was spending half of his time in New York. He was being wined and dined by powerful businessmen and politicians. So, he and his wife, Jane, decided to build a guest home here in their beloved Osage Hills so they could return the favors. "If it wasn't for oil Woolaroc would not exist," Fraser said.

The result was a large log lodge built in 1925 with an interior heavily influenced by the style of El Tovar Lodge at the Grand Canyon. "It's a real slice of history," said Fraser. The den of thieves evolved into one of Oklahoma's crown jewels of culture – purely American.
Fraser said one of Phillips' favorite tricks was to invite guests to Woolaroc and have them "held up" by his ranch hands as they reached the gate, using the recent lawless history of the area to back up his ploy. When guests would reach the lodge after a two-mile ride, Phillips would grandly return their belongings to them. "This was still the wild, wild West to visitors from the East and Europe," Fraser said.

There are seven ranch hands that today maintain the animal herds and fences and generally keep the place operational. The terrain is marked by oak covered hills interspersed with grasslands – a true savannah. The hillsides drop steeply to rocky streambeds exposing the characteristic bronze colored sandstone that distinguishes the local geology and shows up on many buildings, including the mausoleum for Frank and Jane Phillips on the Woolaroc grounds.


The Lodge

Interior of the rustic Woolaroc Lodge.

Construction of the rustic structure began in 1925 as one of the first ranch structures with a simple cabin that became the Lodge dining room. The house was completed in early 1927 with eight bedrooms – six guest rooms and two separate, connecting rooms for Uncle Frank and Aunt Jane.

The furnishings were of the classic "lodge style" that is popular even today. The house is filled with gifts and artwork. The walls of the great room are covered with mounted heads from the ranch animal collection. They were not hunting trophies. As the animals died from natural causes, the mounted heads and horns were used as decorations.

The ranch and the Woolaroc Lodge were the place where every element of the local culture could gather and feel welcome. "As a result, Frank Phillips' cattle were never rustled and his bank was never robbed. He got all of the oil leases he needed and he obtained almost all of the financing he needed for the business," Fraser said.

A museum evolves

The Woolaroc Museum.

The Woolaroc Museum had a humble beginning in 1929. Today the museum has grown to 50,000 square feet Woolaroc Museum commands the hilltop about 100 yards from the Phillipses' beloved lodge. It's an impressive complex that draws thousands of visitors from around the world and serves as a backdrop for many social and charitable events.

Interior panorama of the Woolaroc Museum. (photo by Jerry Poppenhouse)


American Indian collection

Collection of Navaho pottery.

Woolaroc Museum relates the story of man's cultural development in the New World. Artifacts of early man trace the prehistoric civilizations in Oklahoma. Baskets, pottery and Navajo blankets show the Native American civilization of the Navajo, Apache, Hopi and Pueblos located in Arizona and New Mexico.

Beaded buckskins and feather bonnets from the Plains tribes are prominent. Material from approximately 40 different tribes is displayed in the collection.

Western Art

The painting "Navajo Evening" by William R. Leigh.

The Woolaroc collection includes a broad representation of paintings by many of the "Old Masters" of Western Art such as: Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, William R. Leigh, Frank Tenney Johnson, Thomas Moran and others.

Also represented are more contemporary artists such as Wilson Hurley, John Clymer, Clark Hulings and Bettina Steinke.

Much of the collection was personally acquired by Frank Phillips during his lifetime and has since been greatly enhanced by donations from other members of the Phillips family. The more recent additions include works by many leading contemporary western artists and various landscape artists, including a notable work by Albert Bierstadt.


The Woolaroc sculpture collection also includes pieces by many of the greats of western

A "head pot" of the Mississippian culture,
c. A.D. 1300.

artists, including Remington and Russell. In addition, the 12 bronzes that were entered in the 1927 Pioneer Woman contest, created by the best sculptors of the day, are prominently displayed in the collection.

Heroic-sized sculptures by Bryant Baker and Jo Mora are located both inside and outside the Woolaroc Museum, where they illustrate the history of Oklahoma and the American West.
Works by contemporary sculptors including Harry Jackson, Joe Beeler and John D. Free are included in the Woolaroc collection. Woolaroc also displays a complete collection of the sculptures of Joe Beeler, including two heroic-sized pieces on the Woolaroc grounds.

Colt firearms

The museum displays one of the best collections of Colt firearms, from the rare and exotic Paterson revolvers, through the "Walker Forty-Four" and the Army and Navy pistols used by both sides in the Civil War, as well as guns carried by pioneers on the Western frontier. Prototype pieces used by the Colt factory in the development of new models of weapons are an important part of the exhibit.

Aviation history

The Woolaroc airplane, first to fly from the mainland to Hawaii.

Frank Phillips was a great aviation enthusiast. "If Lindbergh had not flown the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, there might never have been a Woolaroc Museum," said Fraser. Just three months after the historic Charles Lindbergh flight to Paris, Frank Phillips sponsored a small, single-engine monoplane named "Woolaroc" in a race sponsored by the Dole Pineapple Co. from Oakland, CA to Honolulu, HI on Aug. 24-25, 1927.

Twenty-six hours, 17 minutes and 33 seconds after taking off, the Woolaroc piloted by Arthur Goebel Jr. landed at Wheeler Field in Honolulu, winning the race and the $25,000 prize. (Six men and one woman died in other aircraft that crashed.) Two years after this historic trans-Pacific flight, the plane was retired to the Woolaroc ranch for which it was named.

"The Woolaroc Museum started simply as a place to preserve the airplane," Fraser said. In 1929, a stone pavilion was built for the Woolaroc airplane on the hill above the Lodge. The pavilion was an open structure with no doors or windows. Before long, glass showcases were placed around the plane to display some of the overflow of guns, Indian relics, and other gifts not needed for decorating the Lodge.

In 1985, the Airplane Room was added to the building as the new "home" for the newly restored Woolaroc airplane. The plane is now displayed suspended in a two-level facility that lets guests get a complete view of this historic aircraft.

Wildlife preserve

Some of the bison at Woolaroc, resting in the snow. (photo by Bland Bridenstine)

The 3,700 acres of Woolaroc are home to more than 30 species of native and exotic animals and birds. After entering the Woolaroc grounds, there is a two-mile drive through the animal preserve to the main complex. The prominent species at the Woolaroc Ranch are the American Bison elk and longhorn cattle.

The Woolaroc buffalo herd dates back to Jan. 16, 1926, when 90 of the animals were acquired from South Dakota. The elk herd was started in the early 1930s when 40 of the animals were purchased from a ranch in Montana.

Getting there

Woolaroc is located on Oklahoma State Hwy. 123, about 12 miles southwest of Bartlesville, OK and 45 miles north of Tulsa. It is open year-round, with a varying schedule of closed days. Go to www.woolaroc.org for complete information.

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com

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