By Paula McSpadden Love
When the citizens of Oklahoma wished to honor their most distinguished son, Will Rogers and erect a suitable memorial to perpetuate his memory, the state legislature in 1937 appropriated $200,000 for this purpose and empowered a Memorial Commission appointed by Governor E. W. Marland, to carry the idea into execution. In November, John Duncan Forsyth of Tulsa, was employed as architect, and actual construction began April 21, 1938, when Mrs. Sallie McSpadden of Chelsea, sister of Will Rogers, turned the first spade of dirt.
The Memorial is ideally located on a high hill at the edge of the Verdigris valley, overlooking the little city of Claremore which
Will always called 'home.' From the terrace is an excellent view of Highway 66, better known as "The Will Rogers Highway" and each morning the Frisco special known as "The Will Rogers" plumes its way into the county named in honor of Clem Rogers, Will's father.
The site once belonged to Will Rogers himself. He purchased the land in 1911 and told his friends he was going to return to Claremore some day and build a home out on the hill and spend his remaining days with his beloved Oklahomans. It is in easy view of the Oklahoma Military Academy, which is known throughout the nation as "The West Point of the Southwest." When the state decided to build the Memorial to her esteemed husband, Mrs. Rogers donated the 20 acres in the tract for that purpose.
Adjacent to the Memorial and across the road is Memorial Park, fully equipped with barbecue pits, benches, playground and recreational facilities.
The spacious building which consists of four large galleries and office space follows the rambling lines of a southwestern ranch home and throughout a note of rugged simplicity prevails. In considering the design the building committee asked that it be simple, dignified and universal in appeal. There is an element of hospitality from the entrance gates of massive iron, to the galleries and beautifully landscaped grounds.
The building is constructed of native limestone which underlies so plentifully the country where Will Rogers grew up. It is roofed with hand-cast tile in a moss green color. Bronze has been used for the windows. There is no wood on the exterior which might later decay and fall into disrepair; every detail has been designed and constructed with the thought of permanence.
The entrance is a tower or transept, 46 feet high and of tremendous dignity, in which stands the over size bronze statue of Will Rogers by the distinguished portrait-sculptor, Jo Davidson, who was a friend of Will Rogers and was chosen by Mrs. Rogers for this task. Much study was given to lighting the bronze to keep the features life-like and to save the entire figure from shadows. Windows of delicately stained glass high up in the transept reflect the light where one may read at the base of the statue "I never met a man I didn't like." So natural is the artist's work, one may almost hear the words. The state legislature voted $35,000 for the statue which included a cast for the nation's Hall of Statuary in Washington, D. C. which was unveiled with proper ceremonies on June 6, 1939, in the rotunda of the capital.
To inspire the proper feeling the beamed ceiling is painted in brilliant red, orange and yellow. The multi-colored split-slate which forms the floor in the foyer is from Maine and Vermont and the entire effect is one of cordial hospitality.
All of the exhibits were sent from California by Mrs. Rogers. They are the things that were in the Rogers' California ranch home
and treasures that the inimitable Will enjoyed using and telling his friends about.
The East Gallery contains Will Roger's saddle collection. These saddles are unique and decorative. He brought them home with him after visits to foreign lands and had a great deal of pleasure showing them to his friends. The trappings and blankets on the wall are part of the effects characteristic of each country and one gets a fair knowledge of cowboys of other lands when viewing this outstanding collection.
All visitors must pass through the entrance hall in which the statue stands. Directly ahead is the North Gallery, in the character of the Rogers' ranch home in Santa Monica, California. No attempt has been made to reproduce the room, but rather its informality and intimate association with Will Rogers, makes an appropriate background for the personal relics found there.
The walls of the North Gallery are boarded in familiar pine, the floor of hewn planks and a large home-like fireplace stands at the end. The mantel carries the squash blossom, carved as a symbol of fertility and creativeness, while overhead the trusses and beams are painted in soft rose color and decorated with Indian symbolism. Many of the symbols on the decorated ceiling were taken from historic Indian blankets. Only the simplest and those most universally used have been included, such as the earth, air, fire and water symbols.
Passing into the West Gallery one finds the personal effects of Will Rogers; the much used cowboy chaps, boots, spurs and ropes; here are also his polo togs; a costume he wore when filming "The Connecticut Yankee"; the clothing he had on at the time of the fatal crash in Alaska and the personal belongings he had in his pockets at the time. Here too, is Will's saddle, a plain leather tooled, serviceable one bearing the evidence of happy days spent in roping and riding. The books he wrote are on display along with cups, medals and trophies that were given him for his humanitarian deeds to afflicted parts of the country. All these show the man and his life which was characterized by love, simplicity, unselfishness, and human kindness.
The Diorama Room contains nine scenes of Will Roger's life beginning with the birthplace and running through the varying episodes to the Alaskan tragedy. This work is by Jo Mora, of Pebble Beach, California. The little figures are cast in hydro-stone and built to the scale of one inch to the foot. They were all made from photographs and are authentic in every detail.
The Will Rogers Memorial is maintained by the State of Oklahoma. There is no charge. It is open every day to the public and has not been closed, even for repairs or installation of exhibits, for a single day since the dedication, November 4th, 1938—the 59th birthday of America's Will Rogers.