PAWHUSKA — Buck Taylor, who played Newly O’Brien in the television series “Gunsmoke,” said he loves Ben Johnson and could talk about him all day.
Taylor shared this story about Johnson during a recent visit to Oklahoma:
Taylor said he and Johnson were spending time together when making a “Gunsmoke” episode, and they walked past some hippies in an automobile.
A hippie in the passenger seat looked up, saw Johnson and said, “Wow. Cowboy.”
Johnson leaned into the car window and said this: “And a damn good one.”
Now, there’s a museum to prove it.
The Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum in Pawhuska was christened Tuesday, and it opened to the public Wednesday. Taylor and country music artist Pake McEntire (Reba’s brother) took part in a launch event that attracted hundreds of visitors to the Osage County town.
“Ben Johnson was a dear friend of mine, and there ain’t going to be nobody take his place because there is no actor that is going to win a world title roping and an Oscar at the same time,” Taylor said.
A cowboy in real life and on movie screens, Ben “Son” Johnson Jr. earned a best supporting actor Academy Award in 1972 for his work in “The Last Picture Show.” He was born in nearby Foraker and is buried in Pawhuska.
The new museum that bears Johnson’s name exists because Cody Garnett wanted to correct an oversight.
“This started because there was not a sign of Ben Johnson coming into town,” Garnett said. “If you go down to Henryetta, they are darn proud of Jim Shoulders and Troy Aikman and those guys.”
Know what’s better than a sign? A museum. But this isn’t “only” a Ben Johnson museum. It shines a spotlight on favorite sons and daughters — cowboys and cowgirls — from Osage County.
“We don’t deviate from that,” Garnett said. “So you are not going to see cowboys from Henryetta. You are not going to see cowboys from Tulsa. This is all just cowboys from Osage County.”
Are there enough significant cowboys and cowgirls from one of Oklahoma’s 77 counties to merit a museum? Sure, if it’s this county.
Garnett said he hopes people who visit the museum leave with an understanding of how many great contributors to cowboy culture and Western heritage have called Osage County home.
“It rivals Dodge City. It rivals Deadwood,” he said.
“We have more facets. They only had a couple of little shootouts, and they were a boom town for a while. We have withstood time right here. We are still going strong. We’ve got the cowboys to back it up, the ranchers to back it up, the craftsmen to back it up, the artists to back it up. Very few (other towns) have that much in one place. ... But that’s what I want people to take (from here) is the high concentration of the world’s greatest cowboys. In my opinion, they come from Osage County, Oklahoma.”
Regardless of where you rank Osage County in the cowboy universe, the Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum is a cherry on top for Pawhuska, recently named one of the nation’s 15 best small towns to visit by Smithsonian Magazine. A story cited pre-existing Pawhuska attractions, including, of course, the Pioneer Woman Mercantile.
Garnett said work began on the new museum about five years ago. He said the process was slow until construction began about a year and a half ago.
“Starting off, it was going to be 2,000 square feet and then I just kept adding on, and now, we are at about 10,000 square feet of premium museum space, in my opinion,” he said, indicating that the museum was an out-of-pocket venture rather than a grant-funded project.
Passionate about the museum’s mission, Garnett said he has lived here about 10 years. He said his wife was born and raised here and, through rodeo, Pawhuska has felt like a hometown to him ever since he started visiting. (On Father’s Day, the 66th annual Ben Johnson memorial steer roping event will attract visitors to Ben Johnson Arena at the Osage County Fairgrounds.)
The achievements of two Ben Johnsons are showcased at the museum. The actor’s father, Ben Johnson Sr., also was a rodeo champ. The actor won a steer roping world championship in 1953. Hollywood employed him as a wrangler and stunt man before he transitioned to acting. His roping skills came in handy when he starred in “Mighty Joe Young.”
The heart of the museum is a Ben “Son” Johnson Jr. exhibit. It includes not only memorabilia, but also video screens with rotating images. One of the video screens flashes movie posters from his acting career. He was in two films from John Wayne’s cavalry trilogy and was a cast mate of fictional Matt Dillon (in “Gunsmoke” episodes) and real Matt Dillon (in “Tex,” which was filmed in Tulsa).
Johnson and Johnson share a room with Osage County’s rodeo world champs, of which there are many. Native American cowboys are represented.
Know who else has Osage County roots? Here’s a sampling: World-class polo player Tommy Wayman, legendary jockey G.R. Carter and Black Gold, the 1924 Kentucky Derby winner and the inspiration for a movie of the same name. Barton Carter is credited with inventing the modern horse trailer. Who knew?
The contributions of Western artists (including John D. Free) and craftsmen (including bit and spur makers Oscar Crockett and John D. Israel) are acknowledged in the museum. There’s even a display for a chuck wagon cook who is in the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
“You are going to see things here and see exhibits here you are probably not going to see anywhere else because I’m a true cowboy and I put this together,” Garnett said.
“I’m not someone who is just a fan from the outside. My dad was a professional rodeo cowboy ... My granddad was a chuck wagon cook. I’m the only person in my family to hold a full-time job, ever, and I haven’t held one of them very long.”
The new job is curator. So far, so good.
Alan Sholl toured the museum Tuesday with his wife, Jo Ellen, an artist whose handiwork can be seen on signs above exhibits. Sholl, after taking a photograph of his wife in front of the Ben Johnson Jr. display, said Garnett put a lot of work into the museum and it “turned out right.”
“This is awesome,” he said. “This is a great thing for Pawhuska.”
Sholl said he grew up with many people honored inside the museum. Regarding the museum’s namesake, he said this: “(Ben Johnson) was loved around here. Everybody knew him like a brother. When he came to town, it was, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ ”
Taylor, during his remarks to the opening night crowd, said he and his father, actor Dub Taylor, were friends of Johnson. He called Johnson a wonderful guy.
“The times we shared with each other were incredible,” he said.
One more of those times: Taylor and Johnson were drinking at a bar in Arizona. A guy walked over, looked at Johnson and said, “For 5 cents, I can whip you.”
Johnson put a nickel on the bar and gave the guy a look.
Said the formerly bold guy: “I was just kidding.”