Will Rogers Days began Nov. 4, 1938 as the biggest event in the history of Claremore and has continued to be one that stands out as an historic day. It began on a chilly day when some 50,000 people gathered for dedication of Will Rogers Memorial Museum.
Each year on Nov. 4, the anniversary of Will’s birth in 1879, people gather to mark the anniversary. In 1938, members of the Indian Women’s Pocahontas Club, of which Will was an honorary member, pledged to gather each year at the family gravesite to place a commemorative wreath. It continues to be an integral part of Will Rogers Days celebrations.
This year’s Will Rogers Days begins Friday.
Things have changed some since that first year. Will’s widow, Betty, and all three of her children, and Will’s sister, Sallie McSpadden, and her family, and others of Will’s kith and kin gathered on the hill where Mrs. Rogers donated a 20-acre plot of ground to build the Will Rogers Memorial.
That first year was dotted with the rich and famous, Indian tribes, family members, friends and just plain folks who loved Will Rogers and were happy to celebrate his memory. The famous Jo Davidson statue that greets visitors to the museum was unveiled when the Rogers’ daughter, Mary, pulled the cord to gasps from the audience when the statue was revealed.
President Roosevelt made the dedication speech by nationwide radio network. There was gridlock on roads in and out of Claremore as the masses came to witness the opening.
Sometimes Nov. 4 has been sunny and bright, other times it has been windy and freezing drizzle. But little has kept the people away from marking the anniversary of the famous man born in Indian Territory whose influence is still felt world-wide.
Betty Rogers made her last trip to the museum in a simple wreath-laying ceremony in 1943.
Highlights during the last 75 years have included visits by poet Edgar A Guest, Bob Hope, Jerry Colonna, Vera Vauge, Les Brown and his Band of Renown in 1947, Pearl Carter Scott, taught to fly by Wiley Post when she was 13, and countless others.
It was 1948 when the first commemorative Will Rogers three-cent stamp was released. Papers noted that 300,000 pieces were stamped in advance and total mailing for the day was expected to reach one million, equal to an average year’s mail-outs from Claremore at that time.
In 1950, the famous Electra Waggoner Biggs statue of Will on Soapsuds, was unveiled by Astrea Rogers, wife of Will’s son, Jimmy.
On Will’s 81st birthday in 1960, the birthplace and 200 acres of the 1,500-acre Rogers ranch near Oologah, was deeded to the state of Oklahoma with arrangements for it to be a state park.
The list is long for cowboys, actors, politicians, and just plain folks. It includes movie stars Evelyn Venable Mohr, Fifi Dorsay, Johnny Crawford; Oklahoma icons Patti Page, baseball great Johnny Bench, movie stars and cattlemen Ben Johnson and Barry Corbin; and music performer Michael Martin Murphy.
In 1979 Gen. Jimmie Doolittle came to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Will’s birth in Indian Territory; along with Postmaster General William Bolger who dedicated the 1979 Centennial stamp, Laurence Peter of the Peter Principle, and longtime Rogers family employee and confidant Emil Sandemeier, to name a few.
One year, country crooner Willie Nelson was a surprise visitor for the Will Rogers Days Parade. Willard Scott broadcast the weather from the Museum on Nov 4, 1989. That same year, not long after he was paralyzed by a shot fired at President Ronald Reagan and his entourage, Press Secretary James Brady drew a large crowd in Claremore.
Keith Carradine and Larry Gatlin came after being cast in Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue on Broadway; and Pat Boone when he was doing the Follies in Branson, Mo.
Will’s friend and fellow actor Joel McCrea has been here several times, not only on Nov. 4, but other visits. His grandson, Wyatt, who lives on the McCrea ranch in California, was in Claremore for the 70th anniversary of the Museum opening.
Add to the 75-year list cowboy trick ropers and actors Montie Montana and Rex Allen; and Richard Ketchum, author of Will Rogers: A Man and His Times.
Will’s sons and later his grandsons and granddaughter and great-grandchildren, his great-nieces and nephews, especially the McSpadden sons who grew up on the ranch, have always been a part of Will Rogers Day.
Optimists, Lions, Rotary, Elks, Masons and Shriners have played an important role in celebrations along with political office holders nationwide.
Twice during Will Rogers Days, in 1962 and 2004, descendants of Will Rogers have held a family reunion.
The year 1975 marked the first year of multi-day celebrations and a “Country Fare,” a return to the basics. It was the brainchild of the late Dr. Richard Perryman who worked with a big committee of community planners, including Donna McSpadden, whose husband, Clem, was raised on the Rogers’ ranch, where his father was the ranch manager.
It rained and it snowed and much of the Country Fare was staged in Markham Hall on the Claremore Junior College campus, where remodeling was underway and some of it had been gutted, even down to the dirt.
Will Rogers Days continues to be a multi-day event with new twists. A birthday party at the Will Rogers Birthplace Ranch includes trick roping entertainment by Kowboy Kal, trick roping title holder, an original musical written by Oologah-Talala teacher Kim Grazier and a birthday cake for the hundreds of children who come in the big yellow bus.
Children’s Day at the Museum finds another several hundred children swarming the hills at the Claremore Museum to hear a Cherokee storyteller, sing cowboy songs, play games and try their hand at calf roping and trick roping skills.
Friends and family gather for a Night at the Museum with members of the Museum staff to recap a year of activities and to share memories.
There have been buffalo barbecues, chuck wagon feeds, steer roping, polo games, Indian powwows and flyovers. Some years the parades have been longer than others, Sometimes the crowds have waned.
But some things have never changed. Every year Pocahontas Club, except for the War years, has gathered to place a wreath at the family tomb and host a reception. And there is a parade.
(Editor’s note: Some of the information came from a “Nostalgia” story written by the late Dr. Reba Collins, Museum curator 1975-1989, and author of several Will Rogers’ books and articles including Will Rogers: Courtship and Correspondence-1900-1915. Some is from the great memories of this writer in the years of covering Will Rogers Days, and especially working with Will Rogers Days committees in 1975 and 1979 for Will’s 100th birthday.)