Bartlesville: Oklahoma Roots

Bartlesville is one of the most important towns in the history of the oil industry. But there is so much more to this town than just tales of roughnecks and petroleum fortunes built.

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Adorable lambs lounge in the petting zoo at Woolaroc in Bartlesville. Woolaroc, which was once the country retreat of oil man Frank Phillips, is part museum, part family attraction and part wildlife refuge.
Photo Credit: Dave Morrison

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The last time that I was in Bartlesville, it was 1973 and I was a nervous 11-year-old gymnast competing for a medal. Afterwards, I really didn’t remember much about the town, in fact I’m not sure I saw much more than the inside of a gym that weekend. When I heard that my coworkers and I would be spending a few days in Bartlesville, I wasn’t sure what to expect because sometimes when you visit a community, the ‘thing’ that they’re famous for is the only ‘thing’ in town. 

Day 1 - Skyscrapers and Oil

Our first stop was the Price Tower in the downtown area. This “tree that escaped the crowded forest” is the only completed skyscraper designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright. Definitely ahead of its time and definitely designed for much smaller people than myself! Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable about the history of the building and the finesse of the architecture. We visited the executive office of Mr. Price that is located on the top floor of the building. The interior of his office and that of the apartment located nearby have been renovated to Frank Lloyd Wright’s original design and décor with no right angles. Very modern and chic even by today’s standards. We were also invited to a self-guided tour of the tower’s Art Center and it was fascinating. The history of this landmark is palpable and Bartlesville has done a superb job in preserving this architectural wonder.

It was lunchtime already on our first day in Bartlesville and we headed over to Dink’s Pit Bar-B-Que. Dink’s has been a staple in Bartlesville for over 20 years and I can see why. It was packed at lunchtime - that’s always a good sign - and I enjoyed a delicious meal of pork ribs, chicken, garlic toast, fried okra and cole slaw. How much more Okie can a girl get? I wished I had saved room for the homemade desert, but that’ll just have to wait for my next trip to Bartlesville. 

We continued our tour that day with a visit to the Phillips Petroleum Company Museum. Everyone in my group knows about my aversion to "implements" and I have to be honest, I anticipated a bunch of them here. Boy was I wrong. The museum was filled with high-tech, modern exhibits. I loved reading the story of Frank Phillips and how his entrepreneurial spirit lead him and his brothers to Oklahoma. From the time that he struck oil, Mr. Phillips was a man in motion and that is true of this company still. The corporate campus of Conoco Phillips was spotless with friendly workers bustling to meetings and to lunch. Beautiful sculptures filled the gardens surrounding the buildings.  Who knew that Phillips Petroleum had men’s basketball teams that competed in the Olympics in the first half of the 20th century? I learned a lot and I promise never to judge a place by its "thing" again.

A quick unplanned side trip to the Bartlesville Area History Museum was another treat. This little gem sits on top of the City Center and personally I would start every tour of Bartlesville with a stop here. The museum has a top notch collection of all things Bartlesville. Whether it is the Native Americans, the white settlers or the outlaws, their stories are told so well. There are artifacts, interactive displays and some amazing photographs.                  

Our next tour was of the Frank Phillips Home, which was directed by a passionate tour guide dressed in an authentic period housekeeper’s outfit…think long sleeve black gown with white apron overlay and a white puffy maid’s cap. It was a warm day and I have to admit I felt sorry for her. But her love of the job shone through and she was full of rich stories of days gone by. I was glad that family forethought preserved the original furnishings of the house and I was a little surprised at the simple and tasteful grandeur of the Phillips family.

At the end of the day, we headed to dinner at Luigi’s where we enjoyed lasagna almost as good as my Italian mom’s.  

Day 2 - Pioneers, Cowboys and Animals, Oh My!

If I had to live in the "olden days" I would like Prairie Song in Dewey to be my hometown. This modern day frontier village is a lovely testament to hard work and a love of everything authentic. Our tour guide and master craftsman Kenneth, along with his trusty pup Sophie, took us back in time to the 1800s. We saw the serene prairie dotted with a one-room school house, trading post, smokehouse, a two-story cabin and so much more. The antique furnishings were amazing but what’s more amazing is Kenneth’s dedication to the land and a time long forgotten. Plain and simple, I wanted to move to Prairie Song that day and help Kenneth keep up this tradition. This was such an Oklahoma paradise.

In the town of Dewey, we stopped at the Tom Mix Museum. Before I went there I knew nothing about Tom Mix except that he tended bar in Guthrie for a time. This little museum really packed a punch with all of its memorabilia about the famous Western movie actor, it even had a silent movie theater. How fun to learn about such an interesting personality during such a fascinating time in American history.

Our tour of Bartlesville was coming to an end and you always save the best for last, right? A picnic lunch at Woolaroc Ranch, Museum and Wildlife Preserve is a pretty awesome way to finish. Once lunch was over we headed into the park. Driving down the narrow path we marveled at how hard the trip must have been by Model T back in the day. Woolaroc was Frank Phillips’ country home and hunting lodge. The grounds now serve as a wildlife refuge and include a museum, educational center and petting zoo. The museum houses a fabulous collection of Western art and artifacts that focus mainly on Native Americans. Everything was beautifully displayed - a real tribute to the land and people that Mr. Phillips obviously respected. My last highlight of the day was meeting Tatanka, the buffalo calf that was only a few days old, in the petting zoo. He was such a scruffy little thing that will grow into an amazing creature ... sounds a little bit like the story of Bartlesville.


Schedule enough time to not only take the Price Tower tour but also to see the Price Tower Arts Center with its collections and exhibitions.

If you can, save room for homemade desert when you have lunch or dinner at Dink’s Pit Bar-B-Que.

The Woolaroc Ranch, Museum and Wildlife Preserve can be an all day activity. Pack a lunch for peaceful picnic in the park before you enter. Listen to the audio tour CD that they give you at the gate for some insight to the history of the park.   And keep an eye out for the peacocks that roam the grounds.

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