Oklahoma may be America’s most prominent place to study the truth behind the legends of the Wild, Wild West. Although the fascination with the American West and its cowboys has spawned museums all over the vast lands west of the Mississippi, one of the best is found in Oklahoma City. Formerly known as the Cowboy Hall of Fame, it has evolved into one of the world’s most prominent collections.
Exploring the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (405/478-2250), founded in 1955, offers a wide range of exhibits showcasing Western art. The collection includes works by some of the major names, including Charles Russell, Frederic Remington, Albert Bierstadt and others. The museum’s theme galleries — The American Cowboy Gallery, The American Rodeo Gallery and the Western Performers Gallery — offer an authentic look into the history of the “Wild Wild West.”
Firearms get their own gallery, and it’s a very impressive display of armor that kids will be fascinated by. The cultural artifacts and arts from different Native American Indian tribes are featured in the Native American Art gallery. There is the Monumental Sculpture Gallery, where the most monumental sculpture of all is The End of the Trail; the 18-foot tall, four-ton sculpture by James Earle Fraser.
One of the most popular exhibits is Prosperity Junction, a replica of a turn-of-the-century cattle town. The large hall encompasses a railroad depot, blacksmith shop, school , church, and homes. The museum also strives to sponsor numerous educational programs and conducts ground-breaking scholarly research to stimulate interest in the enduring legacy of the American West. The children’s building offers programs and exhibits to delight and educate the young’uns. Admission is $12.50 for adults, $9.75 for seniors and students, $5.75 for children ages 4-12, and free for children under 3.
Meet the Kindest Cowboy: Gene Autry
If you have more time and are still in the cowboy mood, head south about 60 miles toward Dallas to the Gene Autry Museum (580/294-3047) in, where else, Gene Autry, Oklahoma.
For those not familiar with him, Gene Autry was a movie cowboy of the 1940-50s, famous for his singing, as well as for his kind demeanor. The museum, open Monday-Saturday 10am to 4pm, is dedicated to the history and legacy of the singing cowboys in the old western “B” movies. As the first and only museum of its kind in the country, it’s small, but not without interest.
Oklahoma City’s Other Historic Sights
Another small museum in the Western vein is the Chisolm Trail Museum (361/277-2866), in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, about 40 miles northwest of Oklahoma City. Though the museum is currently undergoing restoration, it will soon present the history of a famous cattle drive trail that ran between Texas and the railheads of Kansas. Additionally, this museum aims to acquire, preserve and showcase memorabilia and treasured artifacts that will help bring the stories of cowboys on the Chisholm Trail vividly to life.
There is a small historical village, as well as the historic Governor Seay Mansion, home of that governor in the early 1890s, on this property. Check the website for information on the reopening dates.
A more somber visit can be made to the National Memorial to the Lost, dedicated to those who lost their lives in the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City and to the survivors and their rescuers. The Memorial includes a reflecting pool, a dual bronze gate, a field of empty chairs representing those killed in the blast, and a wall with the names of survivors. Admission is free to the Outdoor Memorial, which is open to the public at all times, but a small fee is required for the Memorial Museum.
At the end of your day, head toward Bricktown, the happening area of Oklahoma City for nightlife and dining. When you’re ready to roll out your sack, there are many hotels and motels downtown waiting to make you feel welcome.
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