Friday, May 27, 2011

Singing Cowboys and Road Trips

I've mentioned on several occasions that my dad loves old Westerns. Another thing my dad loves are road trips. When we were growing up on the West coast we would take long trips across the United States every summer. Even though our trips included large landmarks, National parks, and monuments, my dad loved going to the little out of the way museums and odd tourist spots regardless of what they displayed even more.  On one of our trips we even drove over 200 miles out of the way after my dad saw a sign for a zoo out in the middle of nowhere.  This zoo turned out to be a tiny cul-de-sac that we drove around while viewing a fox, a couple of fawns, some groundhogs and skunks kept in cages.  It took my dad a few days to cool off after that adventure but looking back we can laugh at some of his less successful detours.

Over the last few months while discussing my blog with my dad he always asks if I have autographs of any western stars. Then he brought up that theres a Gene Autry museum off of I-35 between Oklahoma City (where I live) and Dallas.  He also let me know that theres also a very large Tom Mix museum as well as a Will Rogers museum both up in Northern Oklahoma.  After a little thought I decided that this would be a lot of fun, hopping back in the RV with my parents as we travel to these museums.  Over Mother's Day weekend we managed to get ourselves to the first one at Gene Autry Oklahoma.  I have to admit that I didn't quite know what to expect but I was pleasantly surprised and I would love to share the visit with you via photos.  (I apologize in advance for the photo quality. I couldn't find my digital camera charger so everything was taken with my smartphone camera.)

Gene Autry, the actor, singer, cowboy was actually born in Tioga Texas but his family relocated to Ravia Oklahoma in 1920.  Later on, in 1942, at the height of his popularity on screen he bought a large parcel of land in southern Oklahoma where he raised livestock for his traveling rodeo.  The very small town which was located very close to his ranch was renamed Gene Autry and where the museum  is now located.  The town of Gene Autry itself is very small without a gas station or even a store.  It no longer has a school and it's population is give or take 80 residents.

The museum sits back off the main street where it's located in the old schoolhouse. The curators Elvin and Flo Sweeten are also the owners of everything in the museum, which they started collecting in the 1990's through donations and really just getting out there and looking for museum worthy pieces.  Flo was present on the day we attended the museum where she acted as gracious host, tour guide and a willing interviewee for all of my questions.  The museum is free as it runs on donations only.  Flo told me that they get visitors from all over the world and up until 2006 they had an annual Gene Autry musical festival on the museum grounds.

When you first walk in theres a guest book to sign and a donation jar. You can also buy a nice little newspaper thats full of old Gene Autry articles that appeared in newspapers during his time in Oklahoma. (I had to have one of those since it was only $1) As you veer left theres a room with a mini cafe which houses a fridge, which is full of ice cold refreshments then theres even snacks you can purchase to munch on while you walk around. (Who doesn't love that? I certainly could have used a cold beverage as I toured the vast Smithsonian and then the Natural History Museum, sadly thats a no no for obvious reasons!)  Theres a cute little retro table and chairs set up so you can relax and enjoy some of Gene Autry's music thats piped in throughout the museum. (My parents loved that as they walked around singing along.)

Before our arrival I expected to see only Gene Autry memorabilia so boy was I surprised. There are several rooms dedicated to several western stars and even a wall dedicated to John Ford's stars of the day.  The movie posters are top notch and in pristine condition, displayed throughout.  Theres also a room where an old projector runs Gene Autry films for those interested in catching a movie while there.  And in case you are wondering, yes they have a very nice gift shop. (My mom had to run back inside while my dad and I waited in the car.  She finally came out with gifts for everyone. We were thrilled with our new Gene Autry coffee mugs, 8x10 photos of Gene and our fridge magnets. My mom has never met a tchotchke she didn't like or have to share.)  Okay, you get the general idea so without further ado lets get on with the museum tour.

Click on photos for a closer view.
The entrance borrowed from the museum's website (Unfortunately this was the one photo I forgot to take.)

Heres the little area where you can buy refreshments then relax while looking at a wall of photos of many of our great western stars.

A closeup of the wall and another visitor who seemed to walk into a lot of my photos. 

There are a lot of movie posters honoring B-Western stars throughout the museum. This one displays Bob Baker.

There was a really nice display of Tom Mix memorabilia and posters.

Even Annie Oakley gets a nice display.

Their shout out to the Lone Ranger.

Hopalong Cassidy items.

John Wayne has his own area in the museum.

More John Wayne in life size.

Every corridor you turn down there are fantastic movie posters everywhere you look.

Gene Autry's clothes on display.

I haven't seen this film but my dad swears it's a great one. With that title I bet it is a good time.

This was my favorite display. The Gene Autry bicycles and trykes are just too cute.

Were any of you fortunate enough to own one of these Gene Autry vehicles as a kid?

Tim McCoy gets some love.

There are a huge amount of old western star comic books on display.

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans have a nice exhibit with a lot of memorabilia like lunch boxes and wallets, children's toys.

Rex Allen has his place right next to Roy and Dale.

Even Gene Autry's funeral wreaths are on display.

This very large poster is new to the museum and stirred up a curfuffle. You see the website says that they have a new display on the 101 Ranch Wild West Show.  It just so happens that my dads aunt Clara was an original member of that very show when she was 20.  She even gave my dad her riding costume which included a fringed vest with matching gloves.  Unfortunately they've been lost over the years so my dad couldn't wait to see the photos etc from the Wild West show and possibly pictures of his aunt performing.  Sadly this giant poster is all they had.  Perhaps the exhibit will grow over time.

Back to the bikes! I really want one.

Theres even a bedroom set up with photos and Gene Autry's cowboy hats and boots lying about.

This tricycle has a leather saddle as a seat! I love it .

More Gene Autry movie posters and old projectors then Gene Autry toy guns in cases.

Another pristine bike with the little horse head still attached to the handlebars.

Western star Jimmy Wakely gets his own display.

A Gene Autry toy gun and holster. I bet these sold like hot cakes in the day.

Lots of Gene Autry big, little books.

Gene Autry lunch boxes and kids spurs.

More lunch boxes.

A little pair of Gene Autry kids jeans. (He was a marketing genius)

This is in the museum gift shop where they have a lot of Gene Autry's films on DVD for sale and where my dad could have spent all day. 

More movie posters.

That other visitor is back to walk in front of the camera.

Gene Autry's suit, boots and a handgun.

Charles Starrett has a nice display. (I do have his autograph and I will be doing a post on him in the future.)

Rex Allen movie posters.

Part of the towns old post office is set up in one of the old school rooms.

In that same room theres a large display of old cameras.

Rex Maynard has his own wall.

A display with Tex Ritter items.

More Tom Mix items.

William Bond items.

A Hopalong Cassidy doll in mint condition.

Theres a large display of beautifully painted horse statues.

All the pretty horses.

Gene Autry books 

Gene Autry cap guns.

Cowboy dolls and statues

A Gene Autry record player and puppets.

More Gene Autry clothes and his chaps. (His saddle is on display in another room)

John Ford is remembered with photo's of the "Cowboy Kings".

Gene Autry watches and belts.

An Eddie Dean display.

More posters and movie stills

I just had to show another photo of those darn trykes. I really need one.

Well thats all of the photos I took in the museum. And after seeing all of the old western memorabilia my dad told me that he had a Hopalong Cassidy bank card that he got as a little boy.  It was a bank promotion to inspire kids to open up a savings account.  My mom has it framed with a photo of my dad when he was about 3 years old.  

Heres my dads Hopalong bank card

And heres my dad.  (I guess he's been a fan of westerns for a very long time.)

This really is a fun museum for anyone who loves old westerns or even old Hollywood memorabilia. The museum's official website which can be found HERE even states that it is the only museum of it's kind dedicated to singing cowboys.  So the next time you find yourself going south on I-35 through Oklahoma please stop off and take the tour.  

If you enjoyed this post I hope you will come back after I've visited the Tom Mix and Will Roger's museums. 

A special thanks  to Flo Sweeten, the museums curator who made us feel very welcome. The collection that she and Elvin have put together is very impressive.

Have a safe and wonderful holiday weekend everyone,