Palace on the Prairie

It feels like it’s been a lot longer than three weeks since I’ve taken a road trip.  The end of August was pretty busy:  my article in Tulsa People came out, I prepped a selection of my photography for display at a local coffee shop, and I spent Labor Day weekend at DragonCon in Atlanta.  I woke up today with a blank calendar and a strong desire to spend some time in the driver’s seat.  It didn’t take long for Samantha and me to decide on a destination, and before 9:00 AM we were heading northwest to Ponca City.

I’ve been to Ponca several times before; however, it’s always been a quick stop without much exploration.  Several friends had recently spoken very highly of the Marland Mansion and we were both game for a historic home tour.  Not far from our destination, a sign on the highway grabbed my attention and diverted our path.


Michael Wallis had told me several fascinating stories about the ranch when we spent time on the road together earlier this year.  Similar to the Marland Mansion, it was a place I’d heard about for ages but had never actually seen myself.  We took the rough county road through the countryside to the remains of the Miller Bros’ 101 Ranch.


The ranch had been an enormous operation consisting of a refinery, cafe, dairy operation, & general store.  When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, the ranch was most known for their Wild West Show that included the likes of Bill Pickett, Tom Mix, even Buffalo Bill Cody himself.  Oil was discovered (with the help of E.W. Marland, who we’ll talk about in a minute) and the ranch flourished. Around the time Route 66 was established in 1926, it was the largest diversified farm and ranch in America at 110,000 acres.  Michael calls it, “the epicenter of where the West of imagination collided with the West of reality.”


By the Great Depression, though, things had changed.  Two of the three Miller brothers had died, the Wild West Show was no longer a big attraction, and eventually bankruptcy was declared.  All that’s left today is a collection of historic markers, the foundation of the magnificent White House, and a few scattered outbuildings.  Several colonies of fire ants are the only modern occupants at the 101.


Ponca City wasn’t far away.  We had some time before the daily Mansion tour, so we stopped in at the Pioneer Woman Museum.  Boy, am I glad we did!  The museum is small but packed with some really cool stuff.  The main exhibit is a showcase of prairie life from back in the Land Run days; the lady at the front desk even showed how the old turn-of-the-century looms worked!  The temporary exhibits were tailor-made for Samantha: one on quilting and one on notable Oklahoma women in the news!  We could’ve spent hours poring over the artifacts and detailed profiles, but we had to get to the tour.

Now, I’ll admit something here.  I had always thought the “Marland Grand Home” was the mansion everyone was talking about.  The Grand Home was built in 1916 and sits close to Ponca City Hall.  It’s nice and all, but, it’s not the Marland Mansion.  The Mansion was built a decade later in a more secluded part of town and is a LOT MORE IMPRESSIVE.


The Mansion looks more like an Italian castle.  It consists of 43,000 square feet spread out over 55 rooms on three floors.  12 of those rooms are bedrooms and 3 are kitchens.  In addition to the main house, the grounds contained a game sanctuary, a T-shaped swimming pool (each section being Olympic-size in length), a chain of five lakes, a boathouse, stables, a garage, a golf course, and polo grounds.  The Mansion took three years to build; it’s massive.


E.W. Marland himself had an interesting life.  He grew up in Pennsylvania and became a self-made millionaire by the age of 33 thanks to his work in the oil industry.  However, E.W. lost his fortune in the financial panic of 1907.  He moved to the new state of Oklahoma and he struck it rich again; by 1920, he was worth $85 million and controlled 1/10th of the world’s known oil reserves.  He parlayed his riches and industry into the founding of the Marland Oil Company; unfortunately, less then a decade later, he lost his fortune a second time. Banker J.P. Morgan Jr. bribed the board of Marland Oil while E.W. was away and forced him out; Morgan turned the empire into CONOCO and Marland was once again without cash flow.


Though he never regained massive wealth, E.W. took what he had left and went into politics.  He became a representative to the US Congress and the state’s 10th Governor. Because of his loss of income, he only lived in his extravagant Mansion for two years. He moved into the chauffer’s cottage and eventually sold the grounds to Carmelite Monks.  Sisters of the order turned the place into a girl’s school, which it remained until the Mansion was sold to the city in 1975.


The most interesting part of Marland’s story, though, is his personal life.  He’d married in Pennsylvania but didn’t have any children.  After moving to the Sooner State, he and his wife Mary Virginia adopted her sister’s two children (George and Lydie).  Virginia suffered from a chronic illness and died in 1926; two years later, E.W. had Lydie’s adoption annulled and he took her as his second wife.  She was 28, he was 54…and they were together until he died in 1941.  Needless to say, their relationship was a topic of much discussion.


There’s a LOT more to these stories; I need to sit down and read The Real Wild West and watch the new documentary based on Marland’s life.  As it was, though, walking through the grand mansion was quite a treat.  I highly recommend going on the guided tour; we learned a lot and were given access to rooms that are normally off-limits.

Full photos from the Marland Mansion here:

We wrapped our day in Ponca with a terrific meal at the local-owned Garrett Wrangler Restaurant.  I had breakfast, Sam had turkey and dressing, and we both shared a slice of pie.  A day trip from Tulsa doesn’t get much better than that.

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