(This article was originally published on 12/17/08)
No Houston family with connections to the oil and gas industry should overlook a family trip to Bartlesville, Okla. Here, a rich vacation adventure can be found, filled with stories of American business pioneers. The huge oil corporation now called ConocoPhillips has its start in this oil-rich land. Struggling against great odds and human frailties, Oklahoma's early oil seekers carved fortunes beyond imagination which served as the basis for the international corporation which thrives today.
The Inn at Price Tower is a showpiece of Bartlesville (www.innatpricetower.com). This is, by far, the most unusual hotel I've every stayed in. Built in 1956, it is the only skyscraper ever built by Frank Lloyd Wright. The building was originally designed as the Price Pipeline Company headquarters coupled with an art deco apartment component. This newly-renovated property with 19 beautiful, art deco rooms overlooks the green vista of Bartlesville. The top three floors, which can be toured, are just as the corporate Price Company used them. Wright described the intricate copper building as, “The tree that escaped the crowded forest.” It features the famous compression and release style found in so many of Wright's designs. The on site restaurant, “Copper,” is wonderful.
We also spent a few nights at the Phillips Hotel (www.hotelphillips66.com) It opened as an apartment hotel in 1950 to house the escalating number of Phillips employees. In 1980, it was converted to a 156-room hotel which is comfortable and friendly.
The Bartlesville Area History Museum (www.bartlesvillehistory.com) begins with the story of Jake Bartles who founded several communities in the Indian Territory of the 1870s. He was a storekeeper and entrepreneur; the area eventually was named for him. The museum has interactive exhibits that gives a great overview of the interwoven history between Oklahoma's 39 Indian tribes and the American men who came to make a fortune on their land. In 1897, the community became the site of the first commercial oil well in Oklahoma. Soon, entrepreneurs swarmed over the land, searching for oil. Fortunes were made and lost within days but in 1907, what once had been neglected Indian lands, became a state and the leading producer of oil in America.
Oil baron E.W. Marland, founder of Marland Oil Company, has an unbelievable story that surpasses that of fictional wildcatter J.R. Ewing. A lawyer by training, Marland had already made and lost a fortune by the time he got to Bartlesville in 1907. Marland, an amateur geologist, struck oil on his eighth well. By 1921, Marland controlled 20 percent of all the known oil reserves in the world with a net worth of $50-60 million. His Grand Home, (www.marlandgrandhome.com) took three years to build; Oklahoma's first indoor swimming pool was in Marland's home. But it is his estate home that is simply breathtaking (www.marlandmansion.com). It was the highlight of our trip. I don't want to spoil his story; but the former governor of Oklahoma went from riches to rags in tragic proportions. Wealth beyond measure, scandalous romance and the depths of despair are all contained within these walls. Do not miss it!
Frank Phillips, legendary founder of the Phillips 66 Oil Company, was a former barber from Iowa when he arrived in Bartlesville in 1903. After three very expensive 'dusters,' which nearly led him to destitution, Phillips had a string of 81 gushers come in. His city home is impressive and worth seeing, but his country estate, Woolaroc Ranch, (www.woolaroc.org), is truly memorable. A short drive from Bartlesville, today the site is a museum and wildlife preserve. Phillips named the ranch for the woods, lakes and rocks of this Osage Indian territory. Phillips and his wife, Jane, hosted more than 1 million guests over 20 years including presidents, dignitaries, industrialists and movie stars such as Will Rogers, Rudy Vallee, Harry Truman, Rubinoff and John Ringling. In the game room sits the poker table where Phillips and Ringling played a weekend-long game. At one point, Ringling bet his entire circus to Phillips' oil company. Ringling lost but the next day Phillips gave his circus back. A few days later a shipment arrived from Ringling; it was the stuffed head of an elephant and a note: this is a reminder that for one day, you owned my circus. Woolaroc hosts seasonal events, educational programs and one of the most impressive Western art collections in the country.
His town residence, the Frank Phillips Home (www.frankphillipshome.org), reflects the wealth and gracious days gone by. The tour lasts little more than an hour and is a great complement to Woolaroc.
The Conoco Museum (www.conocomuseum.com) in Ponca City is a definitive trip through the history of the oil company. Conoco had its beginnings in 1875 as Continental Oil Company which distributed kerosene. Eventually Conoco bought Marland Oil in 1929. The museum tells the company history - one of teamwork, vision and achievement.
Also in Bartlesville is the Phillips Petroleum Company Museum (www.phillips66museum.com). This brand new, interactive museum is a testament to Phillips' ambition, vision and endless drive. “There are 66 minutes in a Phillips 66 hour,” he was often quoted. Exhibits trace the company's history from its beginnings in 1917. Why Phillips 66? Engineers had been struggling to develop a new fuel. One day, while testing one on Route 66, an engineer remarked that they were “doing 66mph on Route 66” and they chose that name for the fuel.
The end for these proud but separate histories came in 2002 when Conoco and Phillips merged.
It isn't all oil in Bartlesville. Surrounding towns offer a multitude of things to do. Kids of all ages will enjoy Prairie Song Pioneer Village (www.prairiesong.net, an 1800s recreated village with more than 20 buildings. Owner Kenneth Tate has spent 25 years collecting hundreds of thousands of antiques and building a town to keep them in.
We particularly enjoyed the Tom Mix Museum (www.tommixmuseum.com) in Dewey. Mix was the original Hollywood 'King of the Cowboys.' He made more than 300 films before a tragic car accident ended his life. While in Dewey, be sure to allow time to look through the many antique shops such as Mimi's Antique Market, J&W Antiques, Kay's Antiquesand Linger Longer Antiques which is filled with wonderful bargains and memorabilia. We sipped on an old-fashioned malt and admired the jewelry, china, furniture, paintings, glassware, books and Indian artifacts. Dewey hosts several trade days and an annual antique show. I envied a great antique lamp that had a $10 tag in the arms of a fellow shopper but happily brought home a $15 pair of fabulous antique dangling rhinestone earrings.
The Red Dirt Soap Company (www.reddirtsoap.com) is not made of red dirt but named for the local clay soil. Fabulous and affordable soaps of all scents are made by one of Oklahoma's most eligible bachelors. The shop features a small tearoom too.
The Lew Wentz Camp and Pool (www.poncacity.com) was founded by another of Oklahoma's amazing oil barons. Wentz, a lifelong bachelor, made $1 million a month in his heyday during the late 1920s. He was a generous philanthropist who left an amazing swimming pool and camp property to the citizens of Ponca City that still provides recreational facilities and beautiful environs for people throughout the state. He went on to become the owner of the largest one-man oil company .
There are plenty of truly great restaurants. You have to ring the bell to enter the Rusty Barrell Supper Club (www.rustybarrell.com). Once a Prohibition safe house, today the drinks flow and the locally purchased and never frozen steaks are perfect.
Aroma's Italian Restaurant (www.aromasrestaurants.com) is a great place to stop while shopping in downtown Bartlesville. Dink's (www.dinksbbq.com) features barbecue in a casual setting where diners are there to enjoy the hickory smoked sausage, brisket and ribs. You can't travel to Bartlesville without a trip to the legendary Dink's. Kaffe Bona in Dewey was the perfect place to have lunch before our afternoon of shopping the numerous antique stores. Great food and service.
For anyone with significant ties to the oil industry, or with an interest in the early days of the oil business, a trip to Bartlesville is an excellent experience. The monumental efforts it took to find oil, survive economic and natural challenges and to nurture this vital piece of the American economy is not to be missed.
For complete visitor information, visit www.visitbartlesville.com.
Photos by Larry Shiflet (Marland estate photo courtesy of VisitBartlesville.com).