Established in 1883, the town of Gene Autry, named after the famous singer and motion picture star, is a small community bustling with a lot of charm. Step into the Gene Autry Oklahoma museum and be transported into the good ‘ole days of singing cowboys and trained horses where you can see the largest private B-Western displayed collection in the United States.
A small town that will take you back in time
Sitting just north of Ardmore to the east of I-35, is a quiet town that boasts unique attractions and a colorful history. Gene Autry, Oklahoma has one of the most recognizable names in the state, but many people don’t know the history that has brought it to the small-town, historical oasis that it is.
The town began inauspiciously, with just a store in the middle of the Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory in the 1870s. In 1883, we have record of the first post office being established, designating the town as Lou, after the founder’s wife. However, 6 months later at the insistence of Lou, the town was renamed Dresden. When the Santa Fe railroad went close to but not quite through the town, residents relocated slightly and called the new location Berwyn.
Berwyn grew as a farming community through the early 20th century, peaking during World War I with a population of over 400.
A course-altering event happened in 1940, when famous singing cowboy Gene Autry bought his 1200-acre Flying A Ranch adjacent to Berwyn. At this time in American history, Gene Autry embodied what America wanted to be. He appeared in dozens of movies, as well as his famous TV show. His songs, including “Back in the Saddle Again” and “Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer,” are still part of our pop culture fabric.
The town of Berwyn wanted to honor Gene Autry, and voted to rename the town for the final time in 1941. A huge celebration followed, with reportedly 30,000 people in town for the event, including Autry himself. His radio show, Melody Ranch, recorded from the Oklahoma town that day.
Jim Brock, an 85 year old life-long resident of Gene Autry, was front and center at the events that day. Jim’s family has been an integral part of the history of the area. Jim has fond memories of going to Berwyn and then Gene Autry schools. He also has fond memories of hanging around the Flying A ranch with his cousins, waiting to see the show bulls and horses that Autry raised there.
If you head to the Gene Autry Museum and you are lucky, you might be able have Jim lead you through a personal tour of the “Berwyn Room”, which chronicles the history of the town pre-name change and other prominent residents of Gene Autry and its history outside of the famous singing cowboy.
For example, it is not well known that the Official Balladeer of the State of Oklahoma, Les Gilliam, is from Gene Autry. He is the cousin of Jim Brock. He has performed at a gubernatorial inauguration and he and his band even sang with Reba McIntyre.
Another proud son of Gene Autry is George Telford. You may not recognize his name, but his legacy is felt throughout much of the country, especially the region of south-central Oklahoma. Telford is considered by many to be the grandfather of Professional Bull Riding. He saw a need in rodeos to fairly treat and compensate those brave souls who rode on bucking bulls, and paved the way to what became the PBR (Professional Bull Riders).
The gem of the town is the Gene Autry Museum. The former schoolhouse turned museum features over 10,000 photos and pieces of memorabilia from, of course, the town’s namesake, but also the town’s history, and the entire scope of Hollywood cowboys and girls.
The Gene Autry Museum caters to a wide variety of interests. The hundreds of high quality, antique movie posters will entice any movie buff or art connoisseur. The branded toys will take you back to your childhood if you grew up during the time of Gene Autry or any of these cowboys. You will remember playing with them or asking for them on your Christmas wish list.
Room after room of the museum will take you back to a simpler time, when the good guys had a code of honor and values to believe in. Remember TV and movie heroes like Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Annie Oakley, Tex Ritter, and dozens more with their clothing, comics, books, costumes and guns. Lose yourself for hours as you imagine yourself in the years of your childhood, or that golden time in TV and American history.
The museum also features a large auditorium for group gatherings and monthly movie nights, always featuring, of course, a Gene Autry movie. When you visit, be sure to allow yourself a few hours to take in all the art, nostalgia, and history. Take full advantage of Leslei Fisher, the Executive Director of the Museum, and her great knowledge of and affection for the history. She has many great stories and background information that will add to the depth of appreciation you have for the amazing collection of artifacts.
After spending a few hours at the Gene Autry Museum, your appetite will be worked up to visit Sonny’s Grill and Country Store, on Highway 53 near the entrance of the Ardmore Municipal Airport. Enjoy a burger and cold drink while you talk over the heroes and TV shows that influenced you as a child.
Today, Gene Autry is a quiet town of a little more than 100 residents, but with a strong sense of history and pride. You can still find Jim Brock setting lines for catfish on the Washita River, and if you ask, you might be able to see a picture of his latest big catch. But be sure to give Gene Autry and the Gene Autry Museum more than a drive by. You will be transported back in time to remember the way things were, and maybe the way things still should be, with good guys, heroes, and a clear sense of right and wrong.
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