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SMALL TOWN MATTERS: Pawhuska, a look at art, history

Kristi Brooks / Red Dirt Report
Osage Mural on Main Street in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.
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PAWHUSKA, Okla. – It was the Saturday before Easter, and the weather was beautiful. However, as is common around small towns during holidays there was not a lot of activity. As I pulled into the Osage County Historical Society Museum’s parking lot I could see a few families leaving, their children’s Easter baskets full of brightly colored eggs from the recent hunt.

Osage County Historical Society Museum

The museum was in a long, yellow building, and although there were several people outside, almost none of them were inside the building. It was there I met Mary K. Warren and Joyce Lyons. You couldn’t ask for two nicer women to tell you about the town of Pawhuska. In fact, the museum had an informative slide show about Pawhuska that Mary K set up for me, and as it was running she told me all about the town and it’s unique history.

Joyce Lyons and Mary K. Warren at the Osage County Historical Society Museum. (Kristi Brooks / Red Dirt Report)

There was a room just off to the side of the slideshow where they were working to restore pictures and paintings that had been damaged by soot during a recent fire. She also told me that they had several containers of stuff to go through and catalogue. So much that they were never sure what they were going to find. One of the more interesting items I saw was a large display about Troop 1 of the Boy Scouts of America Troop that had been founded in 1909 in Pawhuska. Another was about the Native American ballerinas Maria and Marjorie Tallchief, both of them members of the Osage Nation. In fact, Maria was not only the first Native American Prima Ballerina, but also the first one from the United States.

By far, one of the most interesting exhibits they had was a small silver spoon. The spoon itself was silver, and it had an etching in it that depicted a native man on one side and a native woman and child on the other. While it was both rare and beautiful, it was the story behind it that was very interesting. It belonged to a man named Ho-tah-moie (Rolling Thunder), and he was born in 1863. Another name that he was given because of a skin condition was John Stink. He was mostly a solitary man, and he didn’t do much in his life that would be of note. It was his multiple deaths that caused the most attention.

By all accounts he died three times. The first two times he was buried in a traditional Native American cairn. After a few days he apparently woke up, dug himself out, and returned to town. The first time it happened it might have been seen as a mishap, but after the second time he was seen as a ghost. His people shunned him, and he chose to live out the rest of his life in solitude away from the tribe with his pack of dogs. The last time he was pronounced dead on September 16, 1938, he was buried in the Pawhuska Mausoleum so that they could be sure he would not return to town again.

Just off to the side of the entrance to the museum is a small little nook where there were a bunch of books. It turns out that the museum also serves as the town’s only bookstore.  There was a wide range of books available; including one by Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman. I didn’t realize it when I headed into town, but she was working on renovating a few historic buildings downtown. They told me that the deli wouldn’t be ready until later in the year, but advised me if I wanted to get a good burger that I should go to 125 Grill. She also told me about the movement to get an artist collective in town.

Conception Catholic Parish, also known as “The Cathedral of the Osages.” (Kristi Brooks / Red Dirt Report)

The Conception Catholic Parish with the beautiful window scenes

After I left Mary K. and Joyce, I next went to visit the Immaculate Conception Catholic Parish, also known as the “Cathedral of the Osage.” I was hopeful that someone would be there, but I didn’t find anyone to talk to. However, I had heard the story about the church’s windows and how rare they were. The church had been required to get special permission from the Pope to have the windows built. One of them featured a young girl, Clara Mae, who was present while the church was being built alone with her devoted mother, Rose Neal Hill. The bell in the tower was also named after this little girl.

Once the windows were finished; however, there were other problems getting them to the United States. The First World War had broken out, and the continent of Europe was in trouble. The windowpanes that were still there were kept safe, and according to Joni Little at the Chamber of Commerce this included burying them while the fighting was going on. After the war they were then brought over and installed under special supervision from the Vatican.

The church was just one of many stories that I heard from locals in town. The history of the town was almost poetic, like a timeless combination of myth and legend. So many stories that it was hard to know where to start. The town itself wove around the main street in odd patterns. Roads twisted up and around hills, and the county courthouse itself was perched above the town, a twisting staircase leading up to it from an area on the street near the Tallgrass Art Gallery. There was an old wooden door just to the side of the stairs and I wondered where it went. It was probably nothing but a storage space, but in my mind I saw it leading to a series of tunnels that one could go through and explore.

Carla Brown on the couch from “August: Osage County” / The inside of Mudpies

Shopping and Movies. (Kristi Brooks / Red Dirt Report)

On my way into town I had noticed a small little shop in a converted house with the interesting name Mudpies. There was a sign saying it was open, so I decided to stop in. The owner of the store, Carla Brown, was working on changing over displays, and was very nice when I arrived. She showed me all of the different items that they carried, and we talked about the town. One of the things that she mentioned was that when they came and filmed the movie “August: Osage County” they had rented the couch on her front porch to put it in the movie.

In the store she had soap that was milled in France, and a wide array of items that were perfect for decoration and gifts. In the kitchen area of the store she was setting up some of the new products they were going to offer and arranging others. The colors were bright and fun, highlighting the items in the store nicely. It was a fun and whimsical assortment and I could have spent a few more hours looking around, but I wanted to look around town a little bit more.

Pawhuska Chamber of Commerce. (Kristi Brooks / Red Dirt Report)

The way the past and the present have merged is centric to Pawhuska’s appeal

Even though the Chamber of Commerce was closed, I had heard about the historic building and was interested in looking at it. It was the first one to be built in town in 1871 for a blacksmith. A lot of the buildings downtown were historic in nature, and that gives the town a nice atmosphere, a place where the past sits and talks with the present. I walked past the old Duncan Hotel that was partially burned in a fire and has seen been condemned and waiting renovation. In its bones I could see the days when people would gather around outside of it. The slideshow presentation I’d witnessed at the museum had shown the multitudes of people in their buggies and their cars, milling about the main street. There was a shadow of that now, even near the burned out bones of the hotel.

Pawhuska is a place that lives and breathes its history. It is a town full of beautiful artwork and wonderful people, the perfect place to visit; even on a lazy Saturday afternoon. 

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About the Author

Kristi Brooks is an Oklahoma native, born and raised. Even though she’s traveled around the...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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