Tulsan’s ‘Cowboys in Tall Grass’ Wins Award
By DAVID JONES
DVD DOCUMENTARIES: Telling the little known stories of cowboys, ranches and ranchers in old pictures, films and “old timers??? interviews, the “Cowboys in Tall Grass??? documentaries can be purchased in Tulsa at Steve’s Sundries, Gilcrease Museum and Lyons Indian Store. In Bartlesville it can be found at the Historical Museum, Woolaroc Museum and the Frank Phillips home.
Courtesy DIANNA BURRUP
After four years, Ken Greenwood’s labor of love has paid off nicely. “Cowboys in Tall Grass” has been named best documentary of 2008 by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum (formerly Cowboy Hall of Fame) and the Distinguished Service Award from the Oklahoma Heritage Association.
For those years Greenwood, widely known for his work on radio station KRMG (AM740), has been compiling recollections of the days when cowboys pushed cattle across the Oklahoma prairie to Kansas towns with railroads, Oklahoma produced some of the world’s greatest Wild West shows, and a fellow named Frank Phillips would get some of his less than law abiding pals together for a one-day annual shindig in which no arrests would be made.
The result is “Cowboys in Tall Grass,” a collection of six DVDs, each one devoted to a specific topic but because the subject matter is so intertwined they often spill into each other.
Take the DVD on Tom Mix; he got started on the famed 101 Ranch, so it is understandable that he would spill over to the disk that tells the history of that legendary enterprise. In addition to DVDs on Mix and the 101 Ranch, there are episodes detailing Phillips (who built Woolaroc Ranch, taking the name from woods, land and rocks), the fabled Dewey Roundup which for half a century was one of the biggest rodeo get-togethers in the states, the Drummonds who built another legendary ranch and the father and son going by the name of Ben Johnson, the elder becoming a champion rodeo performer and the younger not only being a great roper but an Academy Award winning actor (The Last Picture Show).
It is a fascinating and usually leisurely journey through Oklahoma history.
Greenwood had access to 90 videotapes of material a few years ago when Harvey Payne, director of the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve, urged him to do something for the Oklahoma Centennial.
Working with photographer Tim Spurek, Greenwood spent every Saturday for two years getting enough footage to bring out the film on the 101 Ranch. When they finished the 101 Ranch production, they were able to take the final product to investors to receive funding for the rest of the series.
Help came from Conoco Phillips, the Bank of Oklahoma, Devon Energy, Danny Beck Chevrolet and Gilcrease Museum. The series was produced by, and has been shown on, Cox Communications. Scott Blaker of Cox served as editor.
“There are actually three stages of cowboy history in Oklahoma,” says Greenwood. “Between 1885 and 1907 there was a lot of open range. The term is cowboy and not cowmen because so many of the workforce were teenagers taking jobs like teenagers work at McDonalds now. The pay was $25-30 a month and they all had to be loyal to the brand, the ranch they worked for. They were very close knit.
“Around statehood the land became fenced in and the cowboys managed the cattle within the fence. Then the Selig Company made a movie about life in the Southwest and Tom Mix went with them to Hollywood. The third stage, the age of the Hollywood cowboy, was begun.”
The tales contained in the tapes are fascinating; for example, the 101 Ranch was begun by, of all animals, pigs. G. W. Miller started it by trading pig meat for live cattle in Texas. He brought his small herd to Oklahoma and started his ranch.
Frank Phillips started a bank. One of the first loans made turned out to be Henry Starr, an outlaw who claimed to have pulled off more bank robberies than anyone in the West. “Don’t worry,” was Phillips’ reaction, “he’ll pay it.” The loan was paid off in time and Phillips’ bank was never robbed.
Tom Mix had a hugely popular radio show, though he never appeared in it. The “Tom Mix” wide-eyed kids of the era heard was actually a radio actor.
Ben Johnson was offered his role in “The Last Picture Show” and turned it down after he’d read the script; too much cussing. He kept turning it down until the legendary John Ford, for whom Johnson had worked on several films, personally called and asked him to do it. Johnson was then offered 10 percent of the gross to make the film, but he turned it down in exchange for the right to write his own lines. His lines didn’t have a dirty word in them and he won an Oscar.
The DVDs abound in tales like these. Most of the recollections are told in a relaxed setting with people just sitting there remembering the past. In a more hard-hitting documentary this might appear lazy, but here it works. There is an amiability among the taletellers that is an essential part of the whole.
“Cowboys in Tall Grass” can be purchased in Tulsa at Steve’s Sundries, Gilcrease Museum and Lyons Indian Store. In Bartlesville it can be found at the Historical Museum, Woolaroc Museum and the Frank Phillips home.
Other locations it can be purchased include: 101 Ranch Old Timers Association, Ponca City; Tom Mix Hotel and Museum, Dewey; Pawhuska Chamber of Commerce; Drummond Home, Hominy and the Cowboy Hall of Fame, Oklahoma City.