Claremore Daily Progress

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February 25, 2011

What would Will say? Osborn bill threatens Claremore museums

CLAREMORE — Will Rogers would have had a heyday with the current political climate.

Ironically, the Will Rogers Memorial Museums is one of two world class, Oklahoma museums the state could lose if House Bill 1667 becomes law.

HB 1667 is sponsored by state Rep. Leslie Osborn (R-Tuttle) who touts a proposed funding cut to the Will Rogers Memorial Museums and the J.M. Davis Arms and Historical Museum as a way to save money needed for roads and schools.

Osborn proposes to phase out state appropriations which help maintain the museums.

“If managed appropriately, both these museums are capable of drawing enough tourism and associated revenue to eliminate the need for state appropriations,” said Osborn in a press release issued Thursday. “In a time of budget shortfall, we have to make every dollar count, and it does not make sense to subsidize facilities that are capable of paying their bills independently without tax resources. This bill will free up money for our schools, roads, and public safety, which should be our highest priority.”

But the Will Rogers Memorial and the J.M. Davis Museum are special in that both were founded by generous donations by benefactors — the Rogers family and J.M. Davis —with agreements that the state would maintain them.

“These museums started as gifts from the Rogers family and from Mr. Davis, and the state of Oklahoma has the duty to carry out the commitment to these museums,” said Sen. Sean Burrage (D-Claremore). “I want the people in Oklahoma City to understand these are not Claremore’s museums, these are the state’s museums, and they are vitally important to the economy in Oklahoma.”

The extensive collections in the museums do cost money for upkeep. As state institutions, both are free to the public with donation boxes available.

Volunteer docents are drawn from a wide area extending beyond Rogers County due to Oklahomans who believe in supporting these gems.

Money is made from the gift shops, but the museums are free for all to enjoy and as an educational opportunity. They are public institutions and the benefactors wanted everyone, regardless of ability to pay, to have access to the rich Oklahoma and world history they contain. Even without an entry fee, the museums make money for the state.

The draw of both museums and their location along Historic Route 66 make the pair an important part of the state’s tourism portfolio.

“The J.M. Davis and the Will Rogers museums are the only two public museums not under the Oklahoma History Center and the reason is, both of the museums were created by the state legislature and signed into law by the governor because both of these museums are so unique in what they do,” said Wayne McCombs, Director of the J.M. Davis. “The land for both museums was given to the state.”

Both museums draw people from across the region.

“Last year we had 18,000 visitors from over 100 miles away, so they’re not local. According to the state tourism department, every tourism dollar turns over 28 times. So if you take 18,000 people and multiply that by a mere $3 dollars spent, you have generated over $1.5 million,” said McCombs. “To me, a $300,000 investment that earns you back $1.5 million is a good investment.”

Of course, tourists spend more than $3 on a tank of gas or a single meal.

“We give directions all the time to restaurants and antique stores,” said McCombs.

In addition, tourists from Europe and Asia are common, said McCombs.

“Last year, we had visitors from 31 countries and every state in the Union,” said McCombs.

People fly into Chicago, rent muscle cars not available in Europe, and drive Route 66 with Oklahoma as a designated stop.

“We have numerous people that come in from out of state and out of country, visit both museums, gas their cars here, eat in the restaurants and stay in the hotels,” said McCombs.

On almost any given day, out-of-state tourists can be found visiting one or both of these museums, drawn to Oklahoma by these two gems that were gifts of prominent Oklahoma citizens.

“I first saw the latest version of that bill (HB 1667) on Wednesday evening,” said Burrage. “I’m very concerned about the bill as it is written. I’ve already had discussions with Sen. Ron Justice who has agreed to be the senate author of the bill. In the event that the house passes the bill, Sen. Justice has pledged to work with me, and I feel very good about his commitment to do so.”

Should funding be lost, it is likely the J.M. Davis Gun and Historical Museum could close. If the state reneges on its commitment, the heirs would be free to sell the guns, which are worth a fortune.

McCombs said one of the draws for European visitors to Oklahoma is the vast gun collection. The right to keep and bear arms is fairly unique to the U.S. and that right is particularly treasured by Oklahomans.

The Davis collection includes arms and other historical artifacts from around the world. It is an internationally unique collection.

“I believe it to be the largest collection in the world,” said Bill Higgins, Chairman of the J.M. Davis Commission. “Internationally, it has no peer.”

Consider some of the testimonials by visitors to the J.M. Davis Museum in November 2010:

From Missouri: “This collection is truly a ‘walk through history.’”

From Kansas: “I am just dumbfounded.  I can’t believe I stumbled up on such a treasure.  I will be back and I will tell all my friends.”

From Texas: “We will be back.”

From Tennessee: “My buddy said he would love to see a ‘Henry’ so I brought him here.  He said if he died right now, he’d die a happy man because he had just seen heaven.”

From Iowa: “My buddy and I are policemen and we think your ‘Outlaw/Lawmen Section’ is great, just like the rest of this collection.”

The comments go on and on coming from visitors from Maine, Ohio, Florida, Montana, Indiana, Arkansas, California, New York, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Nevada and New Mexico.

And that’s just for the month of November.

Perhaps one of the most telling comments is from a Texan visiting in October:

“This collection should be in Texas where we could brag about it being the BIGGEST.  Oklahoma is lucky to have the museum.”

The Will Rogers Memorial Museums includes the site on the hill across from the Rogers State University campus in Claremore and the birthplace ranch in Oologah.

Both are historical treasures for Oklahoma and for the nation as Rogers was an important historical figure during his lifetime. His writings live on, and his words still have the ring of truth.

“Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for,” he once said.

With a state legislature eager to make cuts that won’t offend the people in their respective districts, his words may be only too true.

HB 1667 passed out of the House Government Modernization Committee Thursday.

It now proceeds to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. 

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