During a visit to the Pawnee Bill Ranch in Pawnee, a climb to the top of the rock observation tower provides an expansive view of the present-day ranch as well as the hundreds of acres of Blue Hawk Peak, the former showplace home of Gordon William “Pawnee Bill” Lillie.
Gordon Lillie, who gained the nickname “Pawnee Bill” while living and working with the Pawnee Indians, started his famous Wild West Show in 1888.
Lillie was also a successful businessman, rancher, banker and entertainer. He lived with his wife, May, in a 14-room mansion on the hillside.
“Looking back, we can safely say that Wild West shows created the public’s perception of the American West,” says Erin Brown, historical collections specialist at the Pawnee Bill Ranch. “It’s a stereotype that was perpetuated in movies, literature and television. It started with the Wild West shows.”
Pawnee Bill Ranch, west of Tulsa and south of Ponca City, welcomes guests year round. It is a site of the Oklahoma Historical Society and offers a museum detailing the life of Pawnee Bill, May Lillie and the history of Wild West shows. There is an original turn-of-the-century cabin complete with dirt floors, a blacksmith shop and a large barn housing wagons and farm implements. Visitors can tour each and get a glimpse into the past – what it must have been like more than 100 years ago in Oklahoma. The grounds also include covered picnic areas complete with a children’s fishing pond.
The ranch keeps the spirit of Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show alive through a re-creation every June. “We consider the show to be representative of the best of Pawnee Bill, including acts and original language taken from primary source material,” says Brown.
The show provides “family-friendly entertainment at its wildest.” Crowds are told to expect trick riders, trick shooters and trick ropers. It’s not in the name, but there’s surely a trick to the square dance on horseback as well. And guests shouldn’t be alarmed by a stagecoach robbery or two. It comes with the territory.
The historic mansion has been fully furnished with his personal belongings. Beautiful silk wall tapestries, crystal ware and gold inlaid tile speak of a couple who liked to live well and had the means to do so. The Lillies also enjoyed entertaining company and had many guests – including some recognizable names.
But the humans who lived on the ranch aren’t the only ones represented. Gordon Lillie was an advocate for the American bison and established a herd on his ranch in the early part of the 20th century. A present-day herd of bison calls the ranch home as well. Guests can drive through their pasture for an up-close look and, if they’re lucky, get a look at the new calves born this season.
From the vantage point on the observation tower, it is clear that the Pawnee Bill Ranch is a beautiful example of a time long past. Erin Brown describes why places like this are important to preserve.
“Historic sites have the ability to connect people across time and space,” she says. “They make history accessible to a broader public. They make history come alive.”