Roots Run Deep in Gilcrease 101 Ranch Collection

Contributing Editor

SORTING HISTORY: Gilcrease Museum Interim Senior Curator, Collections Manager and Curator of Anthropology Randy Ramer sorts through some of the thousands of items that are part of the 101 Ranch Collection that will be on display at the museum through Jan. 25, 2009. The famous collection is now owned by the Gilcrease Museum.


Jerry and Ruth Murphey are going to be at Gilcrease Museum July 1 to visit old friends.

Jerry’s grandmother was Minnie Alemedea Burguess Murphey, a Cherokee, who for years played in the famed 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show. The show may have died during the Depression, but when he was only 12, her grandson, Jerry, got a genuine 101 Ranch pocket knife. It was the beginning of a life-long love affair with 101 memorabilia.

“Being as my grandma was in it,” Murphey said recently, “collecting ranch things seemed the thing to do.”
For over six decades, Murphey and his wife Ruth haunted gun shows, flea markets, and in recent years even eBay to find objects from the 101 Ranch. They found more than they bargained for.

Randy Ramer, the Gilcrease Interim Senior Curator, Collections Manager and Curator of Anthropology says, “When we first started negotiating with the Murpheys for their collection, they said they had 370 items. They were beautifully preserved with notes on all of them. However, when we got into them, we discovered they had undercounted. An album of pictures, for example, would be presented as one box but might contain 100 pictures. Instead of 370 items they had 3,700 items.”

Gilcrease was delighted to purchase the collection. For years the 101 Ranch was the picture of the American West for people living outside the area.

The story of the 101 Ranch began in 1879 when George Washington Miller brought cattle from Texas into Indian Territory. Using land largely leased from the Ponca tribe, he began a huge spread. For years it was a gritty, hardscrabble working ranch.
But in 1905 Miller’s sons prevailed on the nation’s newspaper editors to have their annual meeting at the ranch, and the move into entertainment began. The famed Apache Chief Geronimo was imported to thrill the newsmen and the publicity was astounding. Pawnee Bill, who had a Wild West show of his own rivaling that of Buffalo Bill Cody, suggested to the Millers that they put together their own show.

They did, debuting it at the site of the first successful English colony in America, Jamestown, Va. In no time it was a smash, partially because they were using real cowboys and real Native-Americans and could give the show a terrific look of authenticity.

Then the movies came calling years before Hollywood was discovered. Westerns had proved the backbone of the early flickers but they were being decried as fake by critics of the day. An agreement was entered into with legendary producer Thomas Ince to provide honest-to-gosh cowboys who looked comfortable on a horse (the first westerns were filmed using New York actors and were shot in New Jersey) and plenty of real Indians. Ranch hands with names like Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson and Buck Jones, which became known to a generation of movie lovers, began to fill the screens.

There was even one lady who worked on the ranch awhile and then went to England where she married. When she came back, she dropped by the ranch with her daughter. Elizabeth Taylor got her first look at ranching.

The ranch flourished both as a commercial enterprise and an entertainment juggernaut, but then came World War I. While on a trip to England the Wild West show was stripped of its horses for the war effort and the Native-Americans were hounded as possible spies.

The show started up again in the 1920s, but it was never the same. Neither was the ranch. The last of George Miller’s sons, Zack, wasn’t much of a businessman and both the show and the ranch died.

But it was just beginning for Jerry Murphey. For years he and his wife Ruth collected posters, pictures, rifles, handguns, tools, clothing, anything with the 101 brand on it, and most of them were branded. “If it was used in the work of the ranch,” Murphey says, “it was marked.”

By 2007 they had had enough. With the help of author Michael Wallis, who has written a book on the 101 Ranch, they came to an agreement to turn the collection over to Gilcrease Museum.

How did Murphey feel when he knew the collection was no longer his?

“I felt horrible, but I figured we had been looking at all this stuff for 60 years and it was time to give somebody else a chance to see it.”

The Gilcrease exhibit of the 101 Ranch items will run through Jan. 25, 2009.

Updated 05-22-2008

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