Ponca City may be the epitome of the frontier booster city. When we saw the list of museums and exhibits and attractions, we knew we had to make the trek from Enid, about an hour away, to spend the day.
We left immediately after breakfast. Our first stop was at a Grand Street coffee shop. Bob asked for directions to the Visitors Center and was overheard by a customer who shortly came up and introduced himself. Seems he is the mayor, Homer Nicholson, who is very proud of his town. He told us that they have instituted automated meter reading for utilities, and that they now have free wireless throughout the city. Middle school students are beginning to use computers instead of books. Our heads were spinning with thoughts of futurism as we left the coffee shop.
On the other hand, the Visitors Center map of the city, while including a list of stores and restaurants, did not include any of the museums or sculptures or parks we had found in other guidebooks. So we used our own references in conjunction with the Chamber of Commer map.
We stopped first at the statue of the Pioneer Woman, commissioned by Ponca City's most illustrious Pioneer Woman citizen E. W. Marland. She is 17 feet tall, this day festooned with a giant pink ribbon because it is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and she is a woman, and facing more or less away from the Pioneer Woman Museum. Inside, we found several exhibits, including Women of Rock and Roll. The most intriguing exhibit for us was one supplied by the Oklahoma Historical Societty which featured women who have changed Oklahoma. They include several civil rights activists, a pilot who tried to become an astronaut but was barred by NASA gender bias, a writer and a self-taught artist. We were surprised that several were opposed to women's suffrage, and would have liked more information on that subject.
On the other hand, we noticed that the writer had published a book titled Prairie City, which has been reprinted by the University of Oklahoma Press, and termed "splendid social history" by Publishers Weekly. But the museum had no knowledge of the book. They did say that there was a bookstore at the north end of town; we had no luck there, but we did find the book the next day at a museum in Enid.
The Conoco Museum was not what we hoped for. Years ago in Bartlesville we visited the Phillips museum and were impressed with its exhibits about the growth of the oil industry and the early days of flight and about Western history generally. This museum was an extended ad for the Conoco corporation, arranged in an overly busy assemblage of exhibits. While research accomplishments were well-covered, it seemed as if the museum designers felt that Conoco was the only outfit making advances in petroleum geology and technology.
The formation of Conoco was the result of the stock manipulations of the 1920s. J. P. Morgan took control of the board and ousted local hero E. W. Marland, a colorful figure who was forbidden to live in Ponca City by the terms of the buyout, and who later became a U.S. Congressman and then governor of Oklahoma.
The big splash of corporate money spent on the museum came just before the merger of Conoco with Phillips Petroleum, so the museum is awkwardly silent on the new merged company. Instead of talking about the oil and gas industry, we left the museum thinking about how rapidly the mergers-and-acquisitions people can turn a corporate identity topsy-turvy. What sense does it make to build a competitive team if you are suddenly merged with your competitor?
Judging by the size of the refinery complex, Conoco Phillips is still the big gorilla in the town of Ponca City.
The final museum of our Ponca City trip was most impressive: the Standing Bear Park and Museum. Chief Standing Bear
The Ponca tribe had lived peacefully on near the Niobrara River in Nebraska until the Federal Government forced them to move to Indian Territory in what is now Northwestern Oklahoma, in what was their own Trail of Tears. Forced to make this 500-mile walk, about a quarter of them, mostly the oldest and the youngest, died. In 1879, as Standing Bear's son was dying, the boy asked to be buried in his own land, so his father and 29 others took his body home, onto land which they had been forbidden to enter. They were arrested.
A newsman, Thomas H. Tibbles, of the Omaha Daily Herald, took up the case. He concluded that a case should be brought to trial in District Court asking for protection of Chief Standing Bear under the 14th Amendment, "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Standing Bear had not committed a crime and should not have been held under arrest. There was, however, the question of whether or not an Indian was a 'person'. The judge angrily ruled in Standing Bear's favor, establishing the rule that Native Americans are considered persons.
In addition to the statue of Standing Bear, the museum has several galleries of exceptional art, jewely and pottery by Native Americans. They also hold an annual pow-wow for members of the six nations in the region: the Osage, Pawnee, Otoe-Missouria, Kaw, Tonkawa, and Ponca.
We should not have been surprised that Oklahoma, which was long known as Indian territory, should be the strongest state in terms of support for, and understanding of, Native American culture and traditions. It is important to understand the spiritual implications of a belief that man can not own property, although a tribe may inhabit it. The opposing European value of private ownership of land was perhaps the deepest injury inflicted by the settlers, deeper even than disease and war. The relocation of tribes ripped apart the very core of their religion.
There were more attractions in Ponca City than we had time or energy to see. For example, E. W. Marland built not one but two stately houses in Ponca, one of which has been featured on television as part of the American Castles series. We admit to a certain bias here. Huge homes always get us thinking about how little stuff is really needed to be happy.
Leaving Ponca City we headed south for the 101 Ranch, named for its cattle brand, and famous for its Site of the 101 Ranch hugely successful wild west show, which it took on the road in America and Europe. At more than 100,000 acres, this was the biggest ranch in the U.S. in the early 20th century.
Bill Pickett, a famous performing cowboy in the show, is buried in an unmarked grave on the ranch - unmarked because part of his ancestry was African, and the 101 Ranch, like all of Oklahoma, was of the southern tradition - the ranch was founded by a Confederate war hero, Colonel George Washington Miller. The Miller family ran the ranch throughout its life.
E. W. Marland's company was named the 101 Ranch Oil Company, and his first big gushers were on the ranch property. But again, too much wealth seemed to lead to downfall, and the 101 Ranch went bankrupt in 1932.
All of the stories and events of Ponca City reinforced one of our fundamental beliefs: it is never companies or governments who do things - - it is people. History is not a story of countries or regiments or political parties or even great universities - - it is a story of people.