The Will Rogers Memorial Museum has loomed over Claremore as long as I can remember. It has loomed over Claremore as long as most people in Claremore can remember, I suppose. But, the striking architectural fixture atop “Will’s hill” could have been something else very easily.
Time is a funny thing. We worry about it constantly. And yet, in the present, we are almost completely ignorant of its passage. There are also those special moments where time seems to slow down and stop altogether as we savor significant moments in our life. But, I am never more acutely aware of its passage than when thinking about the past. As time passes, moments that were once vivid and detailed fade into haunting memories that are more similar to a feeling than an accurate, reliable recounting of things that actually happened.
I have worked at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum for more than a decade now. When I was a kid, I sled down the hill with my dad. I came to the museum on field trips. I had my senior pictures taken here. My sister was married in the gardens. I have had countless memories fade into warm feelings that permeate my entire life. And, in every one of those memories, this building, the “Memorial,” still looms large. This is true for many people, too.
This building, built as a memorial to Will Rogers, was first opened to the public eighty years ago. It was a built as a memorial, because after Will Rogers died, people wanted to memorialize Will Rogers in some way, but they didn’t necessarily know how. What evolved was the museum that is now an iconic part of Claremore’s landscape.
The state of Oklahoma formed a commission in 1937 tasked with creating a memorial to Will Rogers. One of the first acts of that commission was a call to the public to submit designs for a memorial, though they gave no real description of what the intended use of that memorial was to be. Many of those submittals have survived and are in the archives of the museum.
There were scores of ideas submitted. What I love most about this particular archival file was that so many of the submittals were just suggestions on handwritten notes, with statements like, “I am a poor draftsman, a poor penman, and no architect at all, but I will try to give you a word picture of my idea.” They asked for a home for paralysis patients, a hospital, a museum for Native American art, and one that said in its entirety, “I suggest a Dove for the Will Rogers, Mem.” These submissions are little glimpses into what Will Rogers meant to people. Will Rogers loomed large in their memories, and they wanted those memories to fade into warm feelings that would be felt for generations beyond them.
There were several drafts from architects that were submitted, too. Some of them weren’t museums at all, but more reminiscent of memorials you might see on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
I think of my own memories of the Will Rogers Memorial, and how they would be different with some other structure atop this hill. I think about the memory of Will Rogers, too, and how each of these submittals, if they had been built, would have differently told the story of Will Rogers for the future generations. I’m glad the commission chose what they did. John Duncan Forsythe was an accomplished architect, with an impressive catalogue of work within the state of Oklahoma. And, a museum is certainly a better storytelling tool than an open-air memorial. Or even a dove, dare I say.
But, no matter the design, in all of these, I saw the same message. Will Rogers matters. He is important. And, we can’t forget him.
Did you know?
In the history of the United States, specifically the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the yeoman farmer was considered the model of American values. They were the independent, non-slaveholding, sustenance farmers, who often followed the first wave of pioneers to the settle the frontier. With them came the work ethic, and the independent nature which fostered democratic values. They toiled in obscurity creating a new life for themselves, and laying the foundations of society for those who would come after them.
I used to have a regular campfire where my friends and I would sit around it and tell stories. In some ways, we were all yeomen. In some ways, we were all pioneers. We all toiled in obscurity and sought to create a better world. It was our time to come together to celebrate or lament the daily labors and struggles. It was the Yeoman's Lament.