Bartlesville, OK: The town built by oil and the Phillips brothers

Read more about Bartlesville, OK: The town built by oil and the Phillips brothers

There are towns that have been so influenced by a major figure that one can’t be imagined without the other. Bartlesville OK and Phillips Petroleum, started by oil well digging brothers John and L E Phillips is another.

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Today it's Conoco Phillips but in 1904 it was just Frank and L E Phillips, two brothers attracted to Bartlesville by the oil boom and working on their last chance to drill a gusher. But the Anna Anderson came through, and so did the next 80 wells. The two brothers founded Phillips Petroleum Company in 1917.

While L E, much less flashy, preferred the banking side of their partnership (yes, they were oilmen and bankers). Frank took to the oil life with gusto.

One other figure turns out to have had a permanent effect on Bartlesville. Harold Price specialized in electric welding techniques. His development of a shield arc or coated electrode was adopted by the petroleum industry, insuring his fortune. Yet today, it is his Price Tower, designed by the irascible Frank Lloyd Wright that stands as his contribution to Bartlesville.

But first, start with the oil rig that made the town. Bartlesville became an oil town on April 15, 1897 when the Nellie Johnstone No. 1, the first commercial well in what is now the state of Oklahoma (but was then officially Indian Territory) gushed black gold. Discovery 1 Park. recreates that oil well on the spot oil was found. Make arrangements in advance and a docent will describe the history and even recreate that gusher (only this time with water).

Phillips Side of Bartlesville

Start exploring with the Frank Phillips side at Woolaroc. The name is a kind of acronym for woods, lakes, and rocks that Phillips created for his rustic luxury home in the Osage Hills. He built his dream lodge to entertain business associates and conduct all night poker games (which might also have been one in the same).

Although visitors entering the lodge are greeted by rows of animal heads, Phillips was not a hunter. These weren't his trophies rather in an early form of re-use and re-cycle. They were the heads of animals he imported to populate the acres of land after they died. Other trophy heads were given to him by friends and acquaintances.

The roster of men (and almost all were men) who played poker, sat under the animal heads and trod the hall on the almost priceless Navajo rugs) ran the gamut of American business.

But Phillips also had another group of men he called friends – outlaws. He and his brother were quite canny about their relationship with these men. The Phillips brothers were bankers and thieves, it was shown, don’t rob the bank with which they did business. Ince a year Frank threw a huge party and everyone was invited. But there were two rules: no guns, and no arresting anyone.

There are stories and photos about outlaws and lawmen at the party, sharing food and drink. For one night only. This tradition continues in the yearly fund-raiser as the Cow Thieves and Outlaws Reunion.

After touring the lodge, go up to the museum. Phillips amassed a staggering collection of stuff. Everything from a shrunken head and arrow heads to one of the world’s largest collection of Western art. And the collection of Colt guns will bring a smile to every gun collector. It’s a treasure trove of western artifacts enhanced with all kinds of other goodies.

Frank and Jane Phillips: In town mansion When Frank Phillips and his wife Jane were in Bartlesville, they split their time between Woolaroc and their mansion in town. There are docent lead tours, but opt for the special Director’s tour that is particularly fascinating and goes into more detail about life upstairs and downstairs, and family good and bad. You’ll be charmed by their daughters’ bedroom. These two sisters were adopted by John and Jane, bringing the family to three children with their son John, Jr. The girls thrived, but John, perhaps with the weight of too much expectations, wilted.

Read more about Bartlesville, OK: The town built by oil and the Phillips brothers
One final Phillips stop in Bartlesville – the Phillips Company Petroleum Museum. There’s no shortage of corporate hype in this corporate owned museum, but don’t miss the continuously looping story of dare-devil pilot Art Goebel and his transpacific flight using Phillips aviation fuel. Eight planes took off from Oakland airport on a nonstop race to Honolulu. After 26 hours flying, only 2 landed. Art Goebel was the first. Then, there’s Wiley Post in 1934 who at an altitude of over 55,000, wearing a special suit and using Phillips aviation fuel.

Bartlesville Beyond the Phillips

Frank Lloyd Wright and the tree that escaped the forest Now, it's time to head to Price Tower. Despite all his patents, what makes Price famous today comes about because Frank Lloyd Wright was available to design his office building. Price wanted something rather modest but Wright had another vision, a 19-story skyscraper city, inspired by the design of a tree.

It has become the only true skyscraper city designed by Wright that was actually built. He had anticipated that it would be part of a group of buildings to be constructed in New York City, but the project was never realized when the economy crashed in the late 1920s. The result is an iconic and unique Wright structure in Bartlesville.

Tours are available, and visitors can even spend the night in the Inn at Price Tower. It is the only public Wright building which takes in overnight guests. There’s also the Copper bar for breakfast, and evening drinks and snacks.

Fascinated by the history of Bartlesville? Stop by the Bartlesville Area History Museum. It's a great place to learn more about the history, including the native American history of Bartlesville.

Outside of town: When you’re ready to head out

Prairie Song
Quirky, fascinating, fun only begin to describe a visit and tour of Prairie Song. A recreated 1800s Old West Town that features a saloon, post office, general store, jail, chapel, doctors office, stables and more. Kenneth Tate has been constructing the town, building by building, since 1982. Each year Prairie Song hosts a Wild West Show on the second or third Weekend in September. Let Kenneth show you around and enjoy his stories of how he built the town. The kids will love it, too.

Prairie National Wild Horse Refuge
Located on twelve-thousand-acre Hughes Ranch southwest of Bartlesville and the six-thousand-acre Brent Ranch east of that town this is home to wild horses. Although tours are not offered, you can drive along the roads and try spotting the horses. Find it on Hwy 123 South. East on Durham Rd, south on Bison Rd. Dewey, OK 74029

If You Go


Bartlesville offers a chance to stay the night with Frank Lloyd Wright. Inn at Price Tower occupies seven of the upper floors of the Wright skyscraper.


Absolutely have breakfast at the Rolling Pin for fresh made breads, pastries, quiches, and scones that will leave you licking the crumbs. They even grind their own whole wheat flour. Enjoy a slice of their hearty breakfast quiche. Open for lunch and known for their soups. Note: Open Monday through Friday only, breakfast and lunch.

For dinner head to Frank and Lola’s . We started with intensely flavored salsa with the just right bite. calamari appetizer was crispy and crunchy good. The green chile fries are thick with cheese and chile over perfectly cooked fries. The entrees are certainly excellent, but I’d live on appetizers and dessert so readers should know that the bread pudding is a standout for those who like it soft and soaked in bourbon and topped with ice cream.

For a huge filling lunch, or casual dinner head to Murphy's Steakhouse. Ignore the name, this is really a diner and you'll want to order the meat of your choice under a pile of perfect fries, covered in hearty delicious gravy. Hamburgers are popular but the ham was excellent. Yes, there are other choices on the menu, but this is their signature item and you really do want to try it.

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

January 29, 2016

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