More than a century ago, Gordon W. Lillie, better known as “Pawnee Bill,” formed his own Wild West Show. The entertainer became an icon in the early 1900s with his famous Wild West Show. One part rodeo and one part circus, Pawnee Bill’s show traveled across the country thrilling audiences with trick riding, historical reenactments and performers from around the globe. Although Pawnee Bill and his traveling show are long gone, his legacy lives on in Pawnee and visitors to his hometown this month will be treated to a reenactment of his famous Wild West Show.
Presented each June at Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum (1141 Pawnee Bill Rd., Pawnee), this historic show will delight guests of all ages. To truly experience the history of this famous performer, make a weekend of it and see what else Pawnee has to offer.
Located on Blue Hawk Peak just west of the town of Pawnee, the Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum provides visitors with a glimpse into Pawnee Bill’s amazing and adventurous life with his wife May and the other members of the Wild West Show. When you arrive, your first stop will be at the Visitors’ Center and Museum, which houses artifacts and photographs from the show’s 25-year history. This building is also home to a newly-remodeled children’s area which includes plenty of hands-on opportunities for the ranch’s youngest guests, such as a teepee to rest in, saddles to ride on and a “calf” to rope. Information on the ranch’s different buildings is available here and this is also where you’ll pay admission if you want to tour the mansion ($3 for adults, $2.50 for seniors, $1.50 for ages 6-18 and free for children 5 and younger).
Today, visitors to the Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum can see memorabilia from the show, tour multiple buildings and even take a drive through an exhibit pasture to see bison and longhorn cattle. Upon Pawnee Bill’s death in 1942, his sister took charge of his estate and preserved the home and all of its contents, so when you visit the home, you’re getting an authentic picture of what life was like for the Lillies when it was built in 1910.
The mansion was one of the first homes in Oklahoma to feature such amenities as electricity, steam heat and hot and cold running water. The Lillies hosted many events and visitors like famous Okie, Will Rogers.
Also on the property are several other buildings from Pawnee Bill’s time on the ranch. Before the mansion was completed, Pawnee Bill and May lived in a log cabin nearby. To tend to the animals and equipment on the ranch, the blacksmith shop was constructed, as well as a large barn. Today, the barn houses a 65-by-10-foot original billboard (possibly painted by the famous Frederic Remington) advertising an Oct. 27, 1900 Pawnee Bill show. All these buildings are open for the public to tour, along with an observation tower Pawnee Bill had built to survey his ranch.
In addition to being a showman, Pawnee Bill was a bison conservationist. In the early 1900s, he led the effort to establish herds at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and on his own ranch. More than 100 years later, visitors to the ranch can drive through the exhibit pasture for a close-up view of bison, longhorn cattle and draft horses.
The grounds also have several picnic areas, so if you want to bring a lunch and take your time exploring the property, there are plenty of places for your family to eat and play a bit before resuming your tour. The Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday and Monday.
Off the museum grounds, you’ll find plenty of other activities in the area. A top summer destination is the Pawnee Bathhouse and Waterpark at Pawnee Lake (1 mile north of Pawnee on Highway 18). This historic sandstone rock bathhouse was built in 1939. It overlooks a two-acre freshwater pool with a sandy beach, water slide, high dive, water trampoline, diving board and paddle boats. The facility is open daily between Memorial Day and Labor Day from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. with special late swim hours from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Admission is $2 per person (children under 3 are free).
Because the natural pool is filled with fresh water from the lake, it’s only open depending on water levels. Even if it’s not open for swimming, seeing the gorgeous bathhouse is worth a trip to this historic site. It’s also conveniently located on Pawnee Lake, a 350-acre lake that offers boating, fishing, camping and picnic areas.
While you’re in Pawnee, you may want to check out some other sites of interest. In downtown Pawnee, you can visit the Pawnee County Historical Society Museum (513 6th St.), which houses several different displays depicting life in Pawnee County over the last century. The museum is also home to the Dick Tracy Headquarters. Chester Gould, the creator of the Dick Tracy comic strip, was born in Pawnee in 1900. The museum has preserved a great deal of memorabilia associated with the comic and the 1990 movie.
Once you’ve explored everything Pawnee has to offer, have a seat at the Wild West Show to experience another bit of Oklahoma history. Tickets cannot be purchased online, instead call 918-762-2513 for tickets. Adults, $12; seniors, $10; children under 10, $8; children under 3 are free. A deluxe family package is offered for $175 and includes meals, water bottles and seats at the show for eight people. Deluxe packages can be purchased individually for $25 to include one meal, one water bottle and one seat at the show.
Pawnee is just an hour and a half from the Oklahoma City metro. Take I-35 north and then take Exit 186 for Highway 64. Highway 64 will take you right up to the Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum and from there it’s just another mile or so into downtown Pawnee. There are no tricky turns to take, no tolls to pay and no reason not to head to Pawnee this summer!