A Story of Surpassing Truthfulness - 405 Magazine

A Story of Surpassing Truthfulness

In her ongoing travels through the state, author and photographer M.J. Alexander gallops into Grant County, where a stroke of good luck uncovered a century-old – and astonishingly vivid – slice of Wild West wonder.

 It heralded a touring show that would play in nearby Blackwell for one day only: October 27, 1900. Bold letters proclaimed “The Only Real Wild West Show in Existence: Pawnee Bill’s Historic Wild West” and vowed it would be …

Surpassing in Truthfulness … Intensity and Instructive Features … Any Exhibition of This Century.

Images swirled in vivid reds, bright yellows and electric blues, a garish fever dream of horse-ridin’, gun-totin’, sharp-shootin’, lasso-twirlin’, buffalo-huntin’ cowboys and vaqueros, galloping by Indians raiding a covered wagon, and a thundering U.S. Cavalry charge, and a regiment of the renowned Imperial Cossacks – Cossacks, I say! – from Russia, where Czar Nicholas II still sat on the throne, and skilled English horsemen, subjects of the long-reigning Queen Victoria, galloping past Pueblo tribes and near a mariachi band. Anchoring the frenzy of excitement are serene portrait vignettes of the show’s Wild West royalty: the Oklahoma showman Pawnee Bill himself, with his wife, Quaker-born sharpshooter May Lillie, entertainers as colorful as the poster itself.

This marvel of a show – “with 1,000 people and horses employed” – thrived in an era when real-life legends of the Old West, from Geronimo to Annie Oakley, were featured stars. The troupes toured here and abroad, entertaining throngs before the craze for movies and modernization took hold and the shadow of World War I crept closer.

Pawnee Bill and his crew came and went from Blackwell, doing the Oct. 27 show with covered seating for 10,000 people. Life in Lamont resumed. Soon, smaller handbills advertising coming attractions dotted the giant Pawnee Bill barnside.

Months later, the barn was converted into a storefront more suited for a territory on the verge of statehood. The roof was extended and an addition built. The old wall was boarded over as the building became Lamont’s first drug store, purchased by pharmacist Andrew Trimper Beegle in 1903. By 1911, he would move to Alva to operate Beegle Brothers’ Owl Drug with his brother, Bert. He sold the Lamont business to Harry Courtney, who ran it as Courtney Drug for 46 years.

The poster inside the walls was long forgotten as the place at the corner of Main and Jefferson became a favorite Lamont hangout, beloved for its owner’s gentle ways and for its soda fountain, where ice cream cones were sold for a nickel each. Its annual quarter-page ad in the Lamont High School Red Devil Yearbook touted its slogan: “A Good Store in a Good Town.”

Tony Almond bought the business in 1957, but the place eventually closed as downtown contracted and Lamont residents drove southwest to Enid or northeast to Blackwell or Ponca City to shop.

With little use for the old building, the town decided to have its firefighters knock it down in 1982 to make way for the new firehouse. Midway through the destruction, as they peeled back an unexpected lattice and a layer of plaster, they uncovered the astoundingly vivid and larger-than-life Pawnee Bill poster.

The demolition team halted its work, fascinated. Someone said an expert should be called in. Glen McIntyre, curator of the Chisholm Trail Museum in Kingfisher, was sent up to take a look.

The historical world was agog. The Smithsonian is said to have called it “the find of the century.” The state earmarked $15,000 for its careful restoration at St. Gregory’s in Shawnee.

The Lamont workers carefully dismantled the wall and numbered its 154 boards, each averaging 10 feet long. Martin Wiesendanger, former head of Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum, headed a small crew working with hot water and sponges to remove the more recent posters that had been glued on top and to save the delicate paper artwork beneath.

He told an interviewer at the time of the poster’s unveiling: “The faces are so good, they’re not done by any hack. I’ve never seen such life and action put into a lousy circus poster. That’s a Remington Indian or God didn’t make little green apples.”

  Although 14 feet of the original was lost to rotting lumber, 66 feet of the mural was salvaged and restored. The luminescent result was displayed in the East Gallery of the Oklahoma Capitol from late 1983 until early 1984, when it was installed in a custom-made glass case in a carriage barn on the Pawnee Bill Ranch, where it remains on permanent exhibit.

Thirty years later, an appraiser from the season-opening episode of Antiques Roadshow made the trek to the Pawnee to look at the poster.

His assessment: priceless. 

Editor’s Note: This is the 15th installment in a continuing series as author and photographer M.J. Alexander chronicles her travels across the state of Oklahoma.