PAWNEE – Anna Davis beamed as she looked around the old homestead, seeing the glass shimmer and the floors shine as they did 109 years ago.
It really put into perspective what almost could have happened to the Pawnee Bill Mansion. Friday morning, just in time for this weekend’s annual Wild West Show, the mansion reopened after nearly a year of renovation.
When the 5.8 earthquake hit the area in September 2016, a lot of places were affected, including the manor atop Blue Hawk Peak overlooking the town of Pawnee and the Black Bear River.
Earthquake damage severely jeopardized the foundation for the mansion, built in 1910 for the cost of about $100,000 (almost $3 million today), and forced the Oklahoma Historical Society to close it down last August for numerous repairs.
Davis, who has worked at the Ranch and Museum for 13 years, said every building at the site was damaged, with the Blacksmith Shop still undergoing repairs, but it is a breath of fresh air to see people touring the mansion again.
“There was major cracking that had occurred because of that,” said Davis, the site’s historical interpreter. “You can still see that in the bathroom tiles, which will be repaired later. They have completely redone the plaster work, we took our time to clean all of the tapestries and the rugs, the windows. The house was completely empty and it has been put back together.”
The state put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the revitalization of the historical site that served as the home of Maj. Gordon Lillie, aka Pawnee Bill, his wife, May, and their son Billy.
Initially, the date for the opening was April 15, but because of unforeseen circumstances, it got pushed back. Davis said it all worked out, though, as the Wild West Show also was postponed because of the early summer rains. It is no coincidence that both are here in time for Saturday, which is the national day of the cowboy.
“We had a lot of people say this is the reason why they come to this site is because of the house,” Davis said. “This has been a major undertaking and it has brought people back to us, so it’s great.”
The house was completely gutted while it was being fixed, and that meant taking every single piece of furniture out. Unlike a lot of historical homes, the Pawnee Bill Mansion is one of the few that many of the items actually were the family’s possessions, as well, including one of the first ever electric train sets, which was Billy’s.
So, it was no understatement to say it was a major undertaking for the staff – only three of which are full-time including Davis, along with three part-timers and numerous volunteers.
“A lot of people just assume it is like packing up your own house,” Davis said. “In ways it is, you pack the dishes the same way, but there is an added level of difficulty because there is a big difference in dealing with a 109-year-old item as opposed to an item you just bought at Ikea or Walmart. There was a lot of logistics that had to go into that. Once our furniture was removed from this environment that it was used to, we had to put it back in and get it used to it again. There was a lot of condition checking to make sure that nothing was beyond repair. There is a lot of scientific things you have to do.”
The two-story home with 14 rooms – including one that Will Rogers himself stayed in – looks immaculate now, with every single piece of furniture in place and even some portraits that got some new life in them during the interval.
Visitors were astounded to see the house in such great shape, as it was ahead of its time when it was built as it had electricity in an age where one of the biggest debates around the country was AC vs. DC.
“I think the one thing that strikes me the most is that it is still very livable,” Davis said. “People walk in all the time and tell us that they could move in here today. It had all the modern conveniences like running water and electricity, not the electronics, but you could still move in here.“
Davis is happy that the major work is almost done at the site. Along with the blacksmith shop, there is also some work still being done at the log cabin, carriage house and barn, but they are close to wrapping up. Just in time for the Ranch’s biggest event of the year – the Wild West Show that started Friday and also runs Saturday.
“This weekend is something we absolutely love,” Davis said. “There is not any other wild west shows around. It is a dying thing. We love the fact we can present this thing you don’t get to see anymore. You can still see a circus, you can see rodeos all over the place, but you don’t get to see a Wild West show and that was Pawnee Bill’s pride and joy. For us, this living history event is what we love to show to the public.”
Now that one of the main attractions in the area has its doors back open, Davis anticipates seeing large crowds back out at the mansion to see the wonderful history inside the walls of the natural stone home. It might have taken more time, but the best things in life take time and that’s exactly how Davis felt Friday.
“Pawnee Bill and his wife, May, did amazing things in their lifetime, not just in the Wild West shows, but also in the state of Oklahoma and the entire United States,” Davis said. “Because they have no family around any longer, we consider ourselves to be that family and carry on that legacy. When you work here, this becomes a labor of love.”