What do you get when you mix cowboys, jail doors, guns, a Hollywood icon, and horse saddles together? If you’re thinking blockbuster western, you would be wrong…well at least for this article you would be. For this compilation, you need to be thinking museums. And not some big city gathering place for such a collection, but Oklahoma’s own little corner of cowboy history nestled in a place where many of the greatest of the greats hail, Pawhuska.
It’s true, many of us think Hollywood when we think cowboy. After all, it’s the birthplace of John Wayne’s Roosters Cogburn, James Arness’ Matt Dillon, Clint Eastwood’s Josey Wales, and Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp. But most real cowboys were born out of ranches in places like Pawhuska and did tricks with horses and ropes not guns. They ranched and they rode and they rodeo’d. It was their way of life from dusk till dawn and it was the well Hollywood dipped into when it needed a lesson about the real cowboy way.
A couple living in the small town of Pawhuska in Osage County decided a few years back that it was time to provide a lesson to the rest of the world about one of the places that truly is home to the cowboy way. Husband and wife Cody and Lauren Garnett grew up that way. She, a native from Pawhuska and Cody a former professional top 20 steer roper on the rodeo circuit and businessman who sold steers to rodeos across the US in places like Pawhuska. Being that Pawhuska is the steer roping capital of the world, he found himself there quite a lot and always considered it his hometown. The fact that he met Lauren while at a rodeo there probably made it seem even more like home.
To them, Pawhuska has as much or more cowboy history than places like Dodge City, Kansas, and Deadwood, South Dakota that people often associate with the West when it comes to cowboy history…and they’re probably right considering their Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum has been ranked the number one new western attraction in the US and has been featured in True West Magazine. This accolade already and the couple only opened the doors last June.
“We wanted to celebrate our area’s western heritage and remind people of the great cowboys and cowgirls who have come from here. We have needed something like this in this area for a long time and it should have been done 50 years ago,” Cody said. The name of the museum, Ben Johnson alone is enough to give it credence as a bona fide part of western heritage. Osage County is, of course, the birthplace of the 1953 World Champion Team Roper and Academy Award winner. This is not to mention
Johnson had a career in movies spanning over 50 years working with other screen legends to leave a legacy of the West most actors can only dream of. An accomplishment such as this and so many more from those who trekked across Osage County on horses compelled Cody and Lauren to “build it and they will come” type of attraction. Turns out they have come, from all over the world Cody explained. But it’s not just Ben Johnson exhibits and artifacts from his career that people come to see. There is more…so much more.
Osage County has produced a world champion in every area of equine sports from rodeo to polo, according to Cody. Think about that for a moment… a small piece of ground in rural Oklahoma has produced a world champion in every area of equine sports! That’s quite extraordinary. But as mentioned, there is more. Just a few exhibits include figures such as Tommy Wayman who won six US Open Polo Championships, his uncle George Wayman who served nine terms as Osage County Sheriff and is the longest-serving sheriff in the county, various western artists and their works of art including cowboy craftsmen, the 10-time world champion quarter horse jockey G.R. Carter who became the all-time leading earner in American Quarter Horse Racing history in 2008, iconic ranches over 100 years in existence and their histories, events such as Cavalcade, Rodeo, (the world’s largest amateur rodeo which is celebrating 75 years this year) and the 67th anniversary for the Ben Johnson Memorial Steer Roping competition in honor of Ben Sr., a Grand Champion Roper in 1922 and actor Ben Johnson’s father. It also houses the world’s largest collection of cowboy memorabilia including over 30 saddles from greats Like Barton Carter who won the Steer Roper championship of the world at Madison Square Garden in 1925. And not to forget, the world’s largest collection of bronze sculpture art from famed bronze artist John D. Free among many other exhibits from cowboys and artisans from all over Osage County.
Interesting side notes about Barton Carter: He and Will Rogers were friends and Carter once sold him his favorite horse named “Soap Suds”. Jockey, G.R., Carter’s grandfather, Alva (Red ) Carter sold his horse, “Bootlegger”, to Rogers as well.
“My wife and I have a great passion for the cowboy way of life. And we felt that we needed to do something to show the world all these grand champions, artists and ranchers in Osage County. This is something that we want to live on forever,” Cody said. Their passion and belief that people would come if they built are beginning to pay off. They have garnered much attention worldwide with articles, visitors and great reviews. As such, they are continuing to build. In the works now is a media room complete with seating to watch a Ben Johnson documentary as well as other films highlighting cowboys from the area. In addition, there will be a co-star/director exhibit focusing on those who Johnson worked with during his acting career. “When you’re in over 300 movies and television shows, the list of people you work with is pretty damn impressive, Cody said. A quick Google search will provide some of the biggest names in Hollywood.
Also in the works, is a 2,000 square foot gift shop which will contain a western art gallery where patrons can purchase art and relics. The art will come from western artists all across America as well as local artisans. This will be the “go-to” spot for anything you want that has to do with the western way of life, Cody said.
Cody and Lauren spent over five years working with the families of those who are memorialized in the museum obtaining pieces for the exhibits. In addition, the couple has spent countless hours researching, compiling and organizing to bring this collection of artifacts and information to the public. They have had great support from the Johnson family and many friends and fans of their endeavor who have graciously donated and/or loaned many of the artifacts in the exhibits. Cody is also a collector and has spent years acquiring many of the pieces on display. One of his favorite pieces is the jail doors from the Indian Territory Jail that was torn down several years ago.
“In many ways, this museum felt like a calling. We had so many things that just came together.” Cody said. He explained that the way certain artifacts just made their way to the museum almost effortlessly and the support of so many people in so many ways lets him know it was meant to be.
The museum is a walk into the past of western America and Indian territory. From the moment one walks through the doors, it is a journey into a living history that continues growing every day. And what sets it apart I think is the true desire from Cody and Lauren to not just preserve a historical moment in time, but the importance placed on the individual who lived in that moment…to remember their names. There are famous people within the museum walls certainly. But more than this, there are cowboys, normal everyday people recognized who cared not for fame but for the love of just being a cowboy, a lover of horses and proud to hail from the prairies of Osage County.
Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum is located at 201 E. 6th Street. Pawhuska is also home to the Pioneer Lady Mercantile, Drummond Ranch and the Tall Grass Prairie where bison can be seen roaming freely among the prairie.