Shining the spotlight on small-town museums in Oklahoma
A slow drive through Oklahoma’s small towns can yield unexpected treasures. Among them are local museums, offering a variety of collections within the walls of those familiar turn-of-the-last-century buildings still standing along Main Street. Take the time to stop and explore, starting with these five:
100th Meridian Museum, Erick
Celebrating a line of longitude seems odd, but the 100th meridian has many distinctions and its namesake museum in Erick delves into both the dispute about its location and the community that grew up just seven miles east of the famed boundary. Housed in the 1907 First National Bank Building, the 100th Meridian Museum attracts visitors from around the world, thanks to its location on Historic Route 66.
The 100th meridian has long demarcated where the arid Great Plains begin and in 1819 this longitude was set, along with the Red River, as part of the border between the U.S. and Spain (later Mexico, then Texas). In succeeding years, a survey error and disagreement about which was the main branch of the Red River led to a decades-long debate over the location of the border. Texas claimed a large tract of disputed territory before an 1896 Supreme Court decision resolved the controversy, granting the 1.5 million acres to Oklahoma Territory. It would ultimately be broken up into three Oklahoma counties, including Beckham, where Erick is located and a region now served by Northfork Electric Cooperative.
An eclectic collection of relics and photographs preserves the community’s heritage, with displays honoring Erick favorite sons, entertainers Roger Miller and Sheb Wooley. The building itself, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is fascinating to explore. Open Thursday- Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., admission is free. 101 S. Sheb Wooley Avenue, Erick, 580-799-5054. facebook.com/100thMeridianMuseum.
Hinton Historical Museum, Hinton
Walk into the Hinton Historical Museum and prepare to be dazzled. Though unimposing on the outside, the brightly lit interior seems to go on forever, with rich collections on two levels. The lower gallery showcases Oklahoma’s largest collection of horse-drawn carriages, along with several antique cars and a well preserved chuckwagon. The nation’s second largest barbed wire collection (and Oklahoma’s largest) is also on display below. On the upper level, one of the state’s largest collections of antique telephones occupies most of the gallery’s south wall.
While these things are special, what really sets the Hinton museum apart are the artifacts unearthed by museum curator Art Peters along the 1849 wagon trail which traversed Indian Territory and served as a southern highway to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for goldseekers headed to California. Over the past 14 years, Peters has retraced the historic road, which passes right through Hinton, excavating camp sites and recovering relics. Just down the highway at Red Rock Canyon Adventure Park, visitors can explore ruts worn into the stone by wagons descending the trail into the canyon.
Peters is also an expert on local lore surrounding the natural features of Caddo County, an area served by CKEnergy Electric Cooperative. He has authored two books, Legends of the Mounds and Legends of the Canyons, both available at the museum. Also located on the grounds is the Parker House, providing a glimpse of an 1800s household. Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., admission is free. 801 S. Broadway, Hinton, 405-542-3181, travelok.com/listings/view.profile/id.3511. Email: hhmuseum@ hintonnet.net.
Indian Territory Museum, Caddo
Just east of the bustling traffic on Highway 69/75 between Atoka and Durant sits Caddo, the oldest town in Bryan County. Along the main thoroughfare sit rows of historic buildings, some still in use, others not. It’s a quiet place. But 42 years ago, Caddo was the site of a bloody shoot-out that ended one of the worst killing sprees in Oklahoma history. Two escapees from the state penitentiary had gone on a rampage, murdering eight people across three states, including three Oklahoma state troopers. The pair were tracked down after 33 days and killed by lawmen near Caddo. The lost highway patrolmen are memorialized with a monument at the Caddo Indian Territory Museum, and visitors can learn more about the incident from newspapers of the day. The museum also houses quirky collections illuminating the history of Caddo, through photo-lined walls, a jail, and replica blacksmith shop, photographer’s darkroom, dentist’s office, lawyer’s office, post office, and other fascinating odds and ends. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., admission is free. 110 Buffalo (State Highway 22), 580-367-2787, caddo-ok-today.org. Bryan County is served by Southeastern Electric Cooperative.
Lincoln County Museum of Pioneer History, Chandler
Housed in an ornate red sandstone building along Route 66, the Lincoln County Museum of Pioneer History brims with memorabilia. Murals representing Lincoln County’s past greet visitors to the main gallery along with an exhibit on Chandler’s 1891 land run (it is one of only two towns in Oklahoma to have had its own land run). The first floor also features an exhibit of historic Route 66 photographs, an early linotype typesetting machine and an antique printing press.
Climb the stairs to the second story to find a unique treasure tucked away in a small room. Bennie Kent was a native of England who settled in Chandler and worked as a jeweler before becoming Oklahoma’s first motion picture cameraman, making early silent movies and eventually heading the film department at the 101 Ranch. The museum’s Bennie Kent exhibit displays Kent’s movie camera and other artifacts, including his signature black bowler hat. The second floor also houses a gallery honoring local military veterans, an apartment depicting family life in early Chandler, a medical office exhibit and a quilt room.
And don’t forget to visit the historic privy out back. It’s the last remaining of the many outhouses once lining the alleys of Chandler’s main street. The museum also boasts a genealogy and historical research department and an event center. Pick up a map of the Silk Stocking neighborhood and walk around the corner to get a glimpse of historic homes, including those of Kent and Marshal Bill Tilghman, another Chandler resident. The 1898 Mascho Building housing the museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Open Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (hours may vary by season), admission is free. 719 Manvel Ave, Chandler, 405-258-2425, okpioneermuseum.org. Lincoln County is served by Canadian Valley Electric Cooperative.
Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum, Pawhuska
Located just around the corner from The Mercantile, the Pioneer Woman’s popular restaurant and store, the Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum in Pawhuska is the newest on our list. Opened in June 2019, it honors local boy Ben “Son” Johnson, Jr., the only person to have been both a world rodeo champion (1953) and an Academy Award winner (1971). But the man pictured on the front of the building is actually the actor’s father, a champion steer roper and prominent cattleman of Osage County. And while the museum showcases the younger Johnson and his movie career, it also provides an immersive look into the cowboy way of life and Osage County’s western heritage. A rodeo room honors Osage County rodeo champions and the main gallery features displays on Osage County ranches and bronze sculptures by local artist John Free. Visitors can test their calf roping skills in a mock rodeo arena and pose for photos behind original jail doors. On a really cold day, owner Cody Garnett may even show up in an authentic buffalo robe, complete with tail. Open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., $12 general admission, $8 seniors and veterans. 201 E. 6th, Pawhuska, 918-287-9922. facebook.com/pg/benjohnsoncowboymuseum. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The Pawhuska area is served by Indian Electric Cooperative.