Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Revelation on the Plains

You have to hunt to find it, but it's worth the trip. Woolaroc--which is, I'm told something called a portmanteau of the words woods, lakes, rocks--is a museum of sorts, tucked away in the rolling Osage Hills of northeastern Oklahoma. It may well bill itself as a tribute to America's historic West, the festive cowboy and the Native people the white settlers rapaciously displaced, but it's also a testimony to American excess.

Frank Phillips--think Phillips 66--is the American Dream made flesh. His parents left Nebraska in 1874, when he was just a year old, chased by clouds of grasshoppers back east to Creston, in southwest Iowa, where at age 14, Phillips apprenticed out to a barber and, in ten years, owned all three barber shops in town. He was on his way.

A missionary brought him to southeast Oklahoma at a time when oil was just being discovered, and, within a year, he had a gusher himself. Phillips knew how to invest and where to, and, soon enough, Phillips Petroleum was begun in Bartlesville, where you can still visit the Phillips mansion.

Woolaroc was his home-away-from home, a rangy log house/vacation lodge where, in the roaring Twenties, Phillips regularly entertained other millionaires and billionaires from throughout America. Sometimes he'd line up crooks to hold up his guests on the long ride in, create a drama where there was none, just to entertain.

Woolaroc is really unbelievable. Phillips both bought Western art and was given countless pieces, thousands of them, portraits and sculptures, vast canvases and stunning portraits. I have never seen so much Native American art--most of it done by white folks--in one space in my life. One enters the place almost as if it were a prison, then walks into one spacious room after another and another and another. What began as a building created to house an airplane (a Phillips-sponsored single-engine craft that won a race to Hawaii) has become a monument to the American west--but also a monument to Frank Phillips. You leave slack-jawed. It is absolutely amazing what this man collected in his life.

There is a long and studied pan at the end of Orson Welles's classic film Citizen Kane, a kind of visual obituary to the sad emptiness of the life of Charles Foster Kane, a man who died with everything a man could want and yet nothing at all, an American Ozymandias. That incredible shot is what I thought of in the endless displays of art pieces--many worth thousands of dollars, I'm sure--that are the heart of Woolaroc.

I have no reason to believe that Frank Phillips and his wife of more than 50 years died anything but happy (their ashes are in a family mausoleum on the estate), but I couldn't help think of Charles Foster Kane because it's impossible for me to understand how a man could really appreciate any of the individual pieces of art when he owns tens of thousands. There's another ambition at work in a collection of that magnitude, and it seems to me, a Calvinist, that that ambition is a kissing cousin to hoarding.

But my prejudices are showing, and the people of northeastern Oklahoma, I'm sure, are proud of their most famous oilman/entrepreneur. They have reason to be. Woolaroc is a can't miss, if you're in the region.

But so is economic decline and even ruin. We looked for Immaculate Conception, a Roman Catholic church in the town of Pawhuska, right there in Osage Hills, because the church has, we were told, marvelous stained glass windows that incorporate Native themes and characters. I wanted to see them, but the church was locked.

But the town itself was a revelation. Oil, it seems, largely created it and has now just about destroyed it. The eerie downtown, on a Sunday afternoon, looks itself like a museum, an empty canvas on which one can only imagine what once was. Downtown businesses are boarded up and long gone, creating a Twilight Zone. Boom is still written all over the place in huge buildings for a town that size, but what's left is little more than skeletal. What's left is the death of what was.

The entire region is haunted. Yates Center, Woodson County, Kansas, is another dying oil town, struggling to survive, a place whose storied past is achingly visible in the cadaver-like buildings all around. I'm sure it's different for its natives, but when you're traveling through, those towns seem eerily akin to mausoleums.

Woolaroc is a tribute to the billions that oil created in the region, but towns like Yates Center and Pawhuska testify just as clearly to deadly American excesses.

Years ago, I read a book by Daniel Bell, a study of American society titled The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, which argued, among other things, that capitalism was a dynamic force that continued to attract immigrants to America because, quite frankly, its promise is real and true--people like Frank Phillips and many hundreds of others made and continue to make money, big money. But when it does work, Bell argues, it consumes itself by destroying the very ethic of hard work that created it.

Cotton Mather's indictment of the third generation of Puritan America wasn't far off, in a way--piety created prosperity, and child devoured the mother, he said.

Two images stick with me after a visit to a small corner of the vast Kansas and Oklahoma Plains--an incredible, unending museum of Western art and lore, and the devastation left behind when boom goes bust.

All part of the same story.

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