Before one sees the way the sun hits the southern edge of the Flint Hills, or runs a hand across the wild buttery grass of the plains, a feeling makes itself present, quickly, like the twinge in a bison’s shoulder, and then settles into the hide of the landscape. One might call it ghosts of the past or just plain nostalgia. If nostalgia itself were to take on a tangible shape or form, one could imagine it as tall grass, waving in the wind, just at dusk—flush, soft.
In the 40,000 unplowed acres of Osage County, Okla., nostalgia runs untamed, whirling up like dust blown off a windowsill. Time flutters and stands still in a few rare places in the world. This prairie is one of them and it holds its visitors in a current like a swallow on the wind. Perhaps nowhere else on Earth is there such a deep evocation of the past, as here in Osage County, a place named for (and sharing its borders with) the Osage Nation Reservation, and home to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, the last of its kind.
Seventeen miles northeast of Pawhuska, the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve offers a scenic drive and frequent sightings of large herds of American bison and other wildlife. Hiking trails are sometimes footprinted by coyotes and white-tailed deer, and the promise of pink sunsets spilling through wide open spaces prompts many visitors to pack a picnic basket. Parts of the year, a small gift shop—once a cowboy bunkhouse—opens its doors; but year round, the preserve is open from dawn to dusk, welcoming people from around the world, who—much like James Fenimore Cooper’s trapper in his frontier novel, Leatherstocking Tales—want to “come to a place where he cannot hear the sound of people cutting down the forests.”
For centuries, the plains provided habitat for the bison, unfettered homes for the nomadic Indians, and unfenced open range for the early cowboys, who all lived a brawny way of life that became quintessential to the West. But as industrialism powered Western expansion, the slaughter of bison endangered the ecology, the confinement of tribes increased, the cowboys were fenced in, and the wild sea of grass dwindled into a few remaining reserves, inspiring organizations like The Nature Conservancy to restore these grasslands in more recent years.
“Originally spanning portions of 14 states from Texas to Minnesota, urban sprawl and conversion to cropland have left less than 4 percent of this magnificent American landscape,” states The Nature Conservancy website.
This reserve, recently renamed the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, is the largest protected remnant of tallgrass territory in the world, a rare ecosystem that no longer exists in bounty, save for in Kansas and Oklahoma. Wild herds of bison graze the range, just as they did hundreds of years ago, and ranch hands have been working this land for more than 20 years, reversing civilization’s work as they open up the range by removing old cattle fences and round up the herds every fall for health checks.
At a scenic pullover on the thin, dusty loop road through the Preserve, as a long, dark train of a bison herd migrates across a seam in the rolling hills, the words of the frontier novelist, Willa Cather, become strikingly relevant.
“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”
• • •
A drive through Pawhuska—county seat of Oklahoma’s Osage County and the capital of the federally recognized Osage nation—surprises one with architectural evidence of the oil boom of the early 1900s; a slice of 1910s New York City seemingly rises up in the middle of historic downtown Pawhuska in the form of Art Deco, five-story buildings like the handsome, triangular building resembling the famous Times Square Flatiron building, which sits directly across from an impressive reclamation of the West: The Mercantile—the newly opened trifecta of good food, baked goods, and general store goods, all handpicked by Ree Drummond of The Pioneer Woman fame.
The food is “locally sourced from Oklahoma, as much as possible,” says Kurtess Mortensen, general manager at The Mercantile. Milk comes from a local Amish farm, local beef is plentiful, and the pecans come from the Drummonds’ own dentist. With careful renovation and attention to its past, Ree and Ladd Drummond—partner in the reverent Drummond Land and Cattle Co., and affectionately referred to by his Pioneer Woman wife as “Marlboro Man”—opened the doors of “The Merc” to their hometown and visitors alike, who, on any given week, exceed far more than the population of Pawhuska. While the town boasts 3,500 residents, more than 20,000 people come through The Mercantile doors each week.
Many of these guests are likely to run into the hometown owners on their visit, too. The whole Drummond family frequents this place, whether brewing cups of custom-roasted coffee behind the bar, or greeting visitors by the door. On this particular visit, patrons of The Merc walked through the front doors and right into Ladd, signing cookbooks and shaking hands. After some time, he hooks a thumb in his pocket and smiles.
“This is all part of why we opened this place.”
Biting into one of Ree’s mother’s famous maple-iced cinnamon rolls begs a question of The Pioneer Woman: Which do you prefer, Ree, boots or butter? Though it might be a close call, it has to be butter, definitely butter. The Pioneer Woman could tell her story in pounds of it. From the whole stick of butter that went into the “How to Cook Steak” blog post that first put her on the map to the ton of butter that goes through The Mercantile every week. And that isn’t figurative. It’s literal; a ton of butter is delivered at the Merc every week, and that’s straight from the folks who know.
It’s not uncommon to find yourself parking amongst the horse trailers out front, and Mortensen notes that the cowboy culture is “still daily life here.” He says the idea of the Mercantile was this: “What if this place was locked up in 1912, like a time capsule?” Originally opened in 1910 as the Osage Mercantile, its bones still remain—the original tin ceilings, punctiliously uncovered, removed, polished, and replaced, piece by piece; original wood planks; the original National Biscuit Co sign painted across a brick wall. The biscuit sign required a painstaking three-week vigil for craftsmen to uncover and preserve, a particularly proud artifact of Pawhuska’s history that the Drummonds brought back to life.
“I think a lot of people look to Ree for a certain way of life,” Taylor Potter, the Director of Operations at The Merc, suggests over coffee. “A time and a way of life that still matters to a lot of people.”
There’s the nostalgic twinge. There’s the truth blown off the windowsill, glittering in the sunlight.
• • •
A deep map of the last prairie could not begin or end without the Osage tribes. Pawhuska is a Siouan word for white hair. The town was named after Paw-Hiu-Skah, the 19th-century chief of the Thorny Valley People, who earned his name in an attempt to scalp a British officer wearing a white wig. As one looks across the vast expanse of prairie that laps up to this small town like a wave of the sea, the name also suits poetic imagination, from the hoary appearance of undulating acres of grass in sun or snow.
In the tragic days of the Indian Removal Act, the Osage were removed and settled in Kansas. The Osage Nation Museum website tells the story: “By the time they negotiated the treaty of 1865 to purchase land in Oklahoma, the Osages had reduced in population by a staggering 95 percent. Only 3,000 walked back across the Kansas border into their new land.”
Tribal headquarters were established in Pawhuska in 1872, and then fate would change their fortunes in October of 1897, a harbinger of the oil boom to come. The first oil-producing strike on the Osage Reservation forever changed the nation, ushering in a new, complex age for the tribe. The bison hunters became oil workers. The nomadic dwellers became Cadillac owners.
Before leaving Pawhuska, it’s worth visiting a little-known historical sanctuary, a place particularly special in the history of the Osage. The Immaculate Conception Church is just a few blocks away from The Merc and is often referred to as the “Cathedral of the Osage,” the only one of its kind. Every arch and corner of the curved interior is etched with hand-painted detail, historically mimicking the way Osage tribes once leather-bound and stitched the seams of their homes.
Father Sean Donovan reveals that this church was built by the Osage people in 1925, and at that time, most of its members were tribe members. Luminous stained glass windows are situated throughout the chapel—22, to be exact—and deeply colored with dusky reds and gold dust; but among them all, The Osage Window is the most extraordinary. With native women and children in bright blankets and chiefs in round beaver hats, this window was commissioned to include living members of the Osage. A young Osage girl stares mysteriously out at passersby, unlike the rest, whose faces look elsewhere. That young girl is now an elderly member of the church, the last living member of the window.
• • •
Thirty minutes east, still on the Osage Reservation, in the prairie city of Bartlesville, the 3,700-acre Woolaroc Lodge, Museum, and Preserve stands as testament to oil industrialist Frank Phillips and his love for animals, Western memorabilia, and the Osage people. Complimentary CDs for the two-mile drive from the entrance to the lodge showcase the unusual history between the Osage Indians and Phillips, who was boosted into posterity by a string of gushers and used his amicable business relationship with the Osage to usher in prosperity for the tribes. Though he is largely known as the founder of Phillips Petroleum Company, Phillips was often called “Uncle Frank” by his employees and friends, and was so loved by the Osage that they eventually adopted him into the tribe. As a tribute to his fair and prosperous dealings, they made him a chief and named him Hluah-Ke-He-Kah, or Eagle Chief.
Phillips fell in love with the idea of having a place in the Indian Territory. In the late ’20s, urban America was gripped by a fascination of the West. In 1925, he bought Woolaroc and named it a portmanteau of its woods, lake, and rock; then he built a lodge with the full intention of hosting curious friends, cowboys, socialites, and businessmen. These rowdy invitations gave birth to an Oklahoma tradition, the Cow Thieves and Outlaws Reunion. Started in 1927 and still carried on today, Uncle Frank had two infamous rules: One, everyone had to check their guns at the front gate. Two, outlaws could rest assured that the law would leave them alone at the party.
Dave Baughn, curator of the Woolaroc Museum, explains that Uncle Frank had “a certain foresight that all this wild, Western stuff was something special, something people wanted to get their hands on.” Baughn dispenses Western history out of the corner of his mouth like quickly burnt cigarettes, and later, plays the piano made out of wood and bark. With the shelves of vintage music scrolls stacked in the bookshelf behind it, it’s easy to imagine Baughn playing ragtime and shuffling cards with Phillips’s own regular crowd of rogues.
The Woolaroc Lodge retains all of its original furniture and taxidermy, each room a natural chronicler of the American West. Only husky logs could hold the ostentatious amount of taxidermy and tchotchkes hung on the walls. According to Baughn, Phillips wasn’t an avid hunter, just an enthusiastic collector.
“As far as we know, most of the taxidermy is original to the ranch and most of the animals died of natural causes.”
If the prairie is a sea, Woolaroc Museum is a pearl in an oyster, self-proclaimed as “one of America’s most unique displays of Western art and artifacts.” The bright turquoise Osage-inspired tiled mural framing the entryway is mesmerizing, sparkling in the bright sunlight. Inside is a sweeping collection of the masters and modern artists of Western art, such as Remington, Russell, Steinke, and five of the original artists of the Taos Society. Many exquisite works of art and textiles fill the roomy halls of the museum and seemingly glow with their own kind of lambency, while other rooms display more primitive collections of Colt firearms, saddles, Native American antiquities, and even remote Asian and Egyptian relics. Still there is more; other artifacts personally acquired by Frank Phillips and members of the Phillips family abide in careful storage, just awaiting their turn in the curator’s archive.
“My work is like play,” Baughn muses. “There is so much to discover here that I feel like I’m still just getting started.”
• • •
Here in the Osage, it seems the ghosts of the past still call, whether they are collected in storage rooms, or colored in stained glass, or loping through spacious, windswept prairies. Perhaps the presence of nostalgia is a reminder that some things from the past refuse to vanish, patiently waiting for their return.
Or for ours.