Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Most Beloved Cowboy by Sarah J. McNeal

Sarah McNeal is a multi-published author of time travel, paranormal, western, contemporary and historical fiction. Her stories may be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Prairie Rose Publications. 

The Wonderful and Beloved Will Rogers

Of all the western cowboys I admire, Will Rogers is at the top of my list. I remember him as a rope twirling, quiet talking, funny man. He was so much more than the Mark Twain of rope wranglers.

Birthplace of Will Rogers

Known as "Oklahoma's Favorite Son", Rogers was born on the Dog Iron Ranch to a prominent Cherokee Nation family in Indian Territory (now part of Oklahoma) near present day Oologah. The house he was born in had been built in 1875 and was known as the "White House on the Verdigris River". His parents, Clement Vann Rogers (1839–1911) and Mary America Schrimsher (1838–1890), were both of part Cherokee ancestry. Rogers quipped that his ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower, but they "met the boat". His mother was quarter-Cherokee and a hereditary member of the Paint Clan. She died when Will was 11, and his father remarried less than two years after her death. He was the youngest of eight children and named for the Cherokee leader, Col. William Penn Adair. Only three of his siblings survived into adulthood: Sallie Clementine, Maude Ethel, and May (actually, Mary).

His father, Clement, was a leader in Cherokee society. Clement was a Cherokee judge, a Confederate veteran and served as a delegate to the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention. Rogers County, Oklahoma is named in honor of Clement Rogers. He served several terms on the Cherokee Senate. Clement Rogers achieved financial success as a rancher and used his influence to help soften the negative effects of white acculturation on the tribe. Clement had high expectations for his son and wanted him to be more responsible and business-minded. Will, on the other hand, was more easygoing and oriented toward the loving affection offered by his mother rather than the harshness of his father. The personality clash increased after his mother's death, and young Will went from one venture to another with little success. Only after Will won acclaim in vaudeville did the rift begin to heal, but before a full reconciliation, Clement died in 1911.

Will was a good student and an avid reader of The New York Times, but he dropped out after the 10th grade. He later claimed he was a poor student, saying that he "studied the Fourth Reader for ten years". He was much more interested in cowboys and horses, and learned to rope and use a lariat.

Rogers' vaudeville rope act led to success in the Ziegfeld Follies, which in turn led to the first of his many movie contracts. His 1920s syndicated newspaper column and his radio appearances increased his visibility and popularity. Rogers crusaded for aviation expansion, and provided Americans with first-hand accounts of his world travels. His earthy anecdotes and folksy style allowed him to poke fun at gangsters, prohibition, politicians, government programs, and a host of other controversial topics in a way that was appreciated by a national audience, with no one offended. His aphorisms, couched in humorous terms, were widely quoted: "I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat." Another widely quoted Will Rogers comment was "I don't make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts."

Rogers and a friend went to Argentina in 1901 to start a ranch, but it failed. His friend returned to the United States and Will went to South Africa where he joined Texas Jack’s Wild West Show. Texas Jack wasn’t much of a roper, but he proved to Will, showmanship is more about how you perform than actual skill. With gratitude for all that he’d learned, Will quit the circus and went to Australia. Texas Jack gave him a reference letter for the Wirth Brothers Circus there, and Rogers continued to perform as a rider and trick roper, and worked on his pony act. He returned to the United States in 1904, appeared at the St. Louis World's Fair, and then began to try his roping skills on the vaudeville circuits.

A Young Will Rogers before 1900

Sometimes fate intervenes and changes a person’s life. On a trip to New York City, Rogers was at Madison Square Garden when a wild steer broke out of the arena and began to climb into the viewing stands. Rogers roped the steer to the delight of the crowd. The feat got front page attention from the newspapers, giving him valuable publicity and an audience eager to see more. Willie Hammerstein, father of later songwriter Oscar Hammerstein II, came to see his vaudeville act, and signed Rogers to appear on the Victoria Roof (literally on a rooftop) with his pony. For the next decade, Rogers estimated he worked for fifty weeks a year at the Roof and at the city's numerous vaudeville theaters.

Rogers described these early years at the Fifteenth Anniversary of the Columbia Theater in New York City. "I got a job on Hammerstein's Roof at $140 a week for myself, my horse, and the man who looked after it. I remained on the roof for eight weeks, always getting another two week extension when Willie Hammerstein would say to me after the Monday matinee, 'you're good for two weeks more'... Marty Shea, the booking agent for the Columbia, came to me and asked if I wanted to play burlesque. They could use an extra attraction... I told him I would think about it, but 'Burlesque' sounded to me then as something funny." Shea and Sam A. Scribner, the general manager of the Columbia Amusement Company, approached Rogers a few days later. Shea told Scribner Rogers was getting $150 and would take $175. "'What's he carrying?’, Scribner asked Shea. 'Himself, a horse, and a man', answered Shea." Scribner replied, "'Give him eight weeks at $250'".

In 1908, Rogers married Betty Blake (who died in 1944), and the couple had four children: Will Rogers, Jr., Mary Amelia, James Blake, and Fred Stone. Will Jr. became a World War II hero, played his father in two films, and became a member of Congress. Mary became a Broadway actress, and Jim was a newspaperman and rancher; Fred died of diphtheria at age two. The family lived in New York, but they managed to make it home to Oklahoma during the summers. In 1911, Rogers bought a 20-acre ranch for $500 an acre near Claremore, Oklahoma, which he intended to use as his retirement home.

In the fall of 1915, Rogers began to appear in Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic. The variety revue began at midnight in the top-floor night club of Ziegfeld's New Amsterdam Theatre, and drew many influential as well as regular customers. By this time, Rogers had refined his act to a science. His monologues on the news of the day followed a similar routine every night. He appeared on stage wearing his cowboy outfit, casually twirling his lasso, and said, "Well, what shall I talk about? I ain't got anything funny to say. All I know is what I read in the papers." He then made jokes about what he had read in that day's newspapers. The line "All I know is what I read in the papers" is often incorrectly described as Rogers' most famous punch line, when it was, in fact, his opening line.

His run at the New Amsterdam ran on into 1916. Rogers' increasing popularity led to an engagement on the more famous Ziegfeld Follies. By this time, Rogers' act was strictly physical, a display of daring riding and clever tricks with his lariat. He discovered that audiences identified the cowboy as the archetypical American which was probably enhanced by Theodore Roosevelt's image as a cowboy. Audiences loved his frontier style and Oklahoma twang. Once on Broadway, he moved into satire by transforming the "Ropin' Fool" into the "Talkin' Fool". Once when President Woodrow Wilson was in the audience, he improvised a "roast" of presidential policies that had Wilson, and the entire audience, in stitches and proved his remarkable skill at off-the-cuff, witty commentary on current events. The rest of his career he built around that skill.

Rogers branched into silent films for Samuel Goldwyn's company Goldwyn Pictures. He made his first silent movie, Laughing Bill Hyde, filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1918. His early films were mostly made near the major New York performing market, so Rogers could make the film, yet still rehearse and perform in the Follies. He eventually appeared in most of the Follies, from 1916 to 1925.

Once he signed a three year contract with Goldwyn, at triple the Broadway salary,  Rogers moved west. He bought a ranch in Pacific Palisades and set up his own production company. Even though he wrote most of his own cards for his silent films, silence was not his great talent. In 1923, he worked for one year for Hal Roach and made 12 pictures. After that he did not return to movies until the 'talkies' began in 1929. His first sound film, They Had to See Paris, gave him the opportunity to show his real talent—talking. He played many roles depicting small town, rustic characters. Among the great talents he worked with in his 21 movies were Lew Ayres, Billie Burke, Richard Cromwell, Jane Darwell, Andy Devine, Janet Gaynor, Rochelle Hudson, Boris Karloff, Myrna Loy, Joel McCrea, Hattie McDaniel, Ray Milland, Maureen O'Sullivan, ZaSu Pitts, Dick Powell, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Mickey Rooney, and Peggy Wood. His favorite director was John Ford.   He was directed three times by John Ford.

Will Rogers star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

His voice was so familiar, he mostly just played himself without makeup, and threw in ad-libs when he felt the need. The clean moral tone of his films led to various public schools taking their classes, during the school day, to attend special showings of some of them.

Will Rogers, "politician"

Will Rogers even got involved in politics—sort of.  Naturally, Rogers thought all campaigning was hogwash. To prove the point he mounted a mock campaign in 1928 for the presidency. His only vehicle was the pages of Life, a weekly humor magazine. Rogers ran as the "bunkless candidate" of the Anti-Bunk Party. His only campaign promise was that, if elected, he would resign. Every week, from Memorial Day through Election Day, Rogers caricatured the farcical humors of grave campaign politics. On election day, he declared victory and resigned.
Here are a few of his campaign issues:
When asked what issues would motivate voters? Prohibition: "What's on your hip is bound to be on your mind".
Asked if there should be presidential debates? Yes: "Joint debate — in any joint you name".
How about appeals to the common man? Easy: "You can't make any commoner appeal than I can".
What does the farmer need? Obvious: "He needs a punch in the jaw if he believes that either of the parties cares a damn about him after the election".
Can voters be fooled? Darn tootin': "Of all the bunk handed out during a campaign the biggest one of all is to try and compliment the knowledge of the voter".
What about a candidate's image? Ballyhoo: "I hope there is some sane people who will appreciate dignity and not showmanship in their choice for the presidency".
What of ugly campaign rumors? Don't worry: "The things they whisper aren't as bad as what they say out loud".

Will Rogers had many talents. Not only did he read voraciously, but he was also a writer. From 1922 to 1935, he wrote a weekly column for The New York Times titled "Slipping the Lariat Over". He also wrote frequent articles for the famous, Saturday Evening Post. His favorite topics were about being neighborly, avoiding foreign influences, democracy and aviation. Like his good friend, General Billy Mitchell, he felt the United States needed a military air force. He published a book of wisecracks and began writing humor books with regular frequency.  

He continued making personal appearances and made radio broadcasts in which he won the hearts and admiration of the American people as he poked fun with charming wit at the issues of the day, prominent people, and most especially, politicians.

Keeping a neutral point of view, he became friends with politicians of both parties. He became to the hearts of Americans, the new Mark Twain, just as Bob Hope became the new Will Rogers using humor to poke fun at politicians and issues.

Will Rogers standing on the wing of a seaplane with Wiley Post in front of the propeller. August 1935. Last picture ever taken of Will Rogers. 

Will became an advocate for the aviation industry and was friends with the famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh. He wanted America to embrace commercial aviation the way Europeans did and wrote many articles in his newspaper column. He emphasized the safety record, speed, and the convenience of commercial transportation to influence political opinion.

The famous aviator and fellow Oklahoman, Wiley Post, was working on modifications for a plane to fly from the West Coast to Russia with the idea of a mail and passenger air route. He applied special floats on the landing gear to enable the plane to land on lakes in Alaska and Russia. Will visited Wiley while he was making his modifications on his aircraft and asked Wiley to fly him to Alaska to research new material for his newspaper column. The floats Wiley originally ordered didn’t arrive in time, so he used a type for a larger plane which made the heavy nosed plane even heavier in the nose. After making a test flight in July, in early August of 1935, Wiley and Will left Lake Washington in Seattle in the Lockheed Orion-Explorer and made several stops in Alaska. Will typed away on his typewriter while Wiley flew the plane. They left Fairbanks on August 15 after they signed and mailed a special flag belonging to the South Coast Corinthian Yacht Club and headed out for Point Barrow, Alaska. The weather turned bad and they were uncertain about their position so they landed in a lagoon to get directions. On takeoff, the engine failed at low altitude and the plane plunged into the lagoon, sheared off the right wing, and finally, inverted in shallow water. Will and Wiley died instantly.

Will Rogers monument of Rout 66 western terminus 

Many years before his death, Rogers had written his famous epigram: “When I die, my epitaph, or whatever you call those signs on gravestones, is going to read: ‘I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn’t like.’ I am so proud of that, I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved.” No one else could have written a better epitaph.

If you would like to know more about Will Rogers, here are a few links and places where you can find him:

The Official Will Rogers Website

The Will Rogers Memorial Museum and Birthplace Ranch in Claremore, Oklahoma
Will Rogers Memorial Museum
Magnificent museum of native limestone overlooking the city of Claremore and honoring famed humorist and philosopher Will Rogers (1879-1935)
• Learn about life, wisdom and humor of Will Rogers, Cherokee cowboy
• Experience his passion as a family man, trick roper, actor, and philanthropist
• Marvel at his saddles, art, memorabilia
• Hear his voice on radio replays
• Stroll the beautiful sunken garden
• Research in our vast library and archives
• Watch one of his 71 motion pictures
Learn more about
Will Rogers Birthplace Ranch
Rambling scenic drive leads to birthplace house of Will Rogers and historic 400-acre ranch
• Wander the grounds and enjoy the view of beautiful Lake Oologah
• Step into the two-story house built in 1875
• View the log-walled room in which Will Rogers was born
• Pet the goats and burros grazing around the 1879-era barn
• Picnic under the shade trees while watching the longhorn cattle roam the living history ranch
Learn more about
Will Rogers Plays Daily in Claremore
Check out the Movie Schedule for the Will Rogers Mini Theatre. Will’s movies show play continuously from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily (closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day).
See schedule

Helpful Information
  • Hours | 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
    Sunday through Saturday
    (closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day)
  • Main Number | 918.341.0719
    Toll-Free | 800.324.9455
    Tours | 918.343.8113
    Special Events | 918.343.8113
    Research | 918.343.8124
    Birthplace Ranch | 918.275.4201
  • Will Rogers Memorial Museum
    1720 West Will Rogers Blvd.
    Claremore, OK 74017
  • Will Rogers Birthplace Ranch
    9501 East 380 Road
    Oologah, OK 74053

Statue of Will Rogers and his horse, Soapsuds

Will Rogers memorials and statues are present throughout the United States, especially in the west. It would be quite an adventure to seek them all out and visit them. The best memorial of all is in the hearts of Americans. 
(Please note: all photographs are from public domain, Wikipedia)

You may find Sarah J. McNeal and her books at the following places:


  1. Why was he so lovable? I suppose he was born that way. Easy-going, happy, wise, even-tempered--quite a guy. I actually didn't know about his Cherokee ancestry. In fact, I didn't know most of the facts you wrote about. And he was very intelligent, even though he didn't think he was.
    This was worth waiting an extra day for! Haha.
    Thanks, wrote a great post.

    1. Celia, I'm so glad to see you...even though I messed up the date.
      I've always liked Will Rogers. I think we hat drew me to him was the way he spoke, so quiet and unassuming. He was so funny and yet, always humble.
      I didn't know much of this information about him, either. Research is a wonderful thing. I love digging into all these factoids about people I admire.
      Thank you so much for coming. I was beginning to think I confused everyone with the date.

  2. Hello Sarah, a great article. I really enjoyed it. Will was quite the dashing young cowboy wasn't he? Great photos. All the best to you.

  3. Yes, I thought Will was quite the handsome young man. He seemed like one of those guys who aged we'll, too. Thank you for your kind remarks, Joanne.

  4. Wow! You really did your research for this one, Sarah. What a fascinating man he was! I learned a lot about him. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Thanks, Lyn. I took my research to several sites and the official Will Rogers website. There was so much information I couldn't get it all on this blog. The one thing that was consistent throughout was his kindness and humbleness. He was just plain lovable. It was kind of sad that his father just couldn't see his worth.
    Thank you so much for dropping by. I've been gettin' kinda lonesome here.

  6. Sarah, I really enjoyed this post about our Native Son, Will Rogers. Do you know, I have never been to the museum in Claremore? I told my husband, we are doing some day trips this summer -- and that's going to be one of them. Our major airport here in OKC is called Will Rogers World Airport, and the small airport for private planes is Wiley Post Airport--I live right in the flight path for it.

    You know what amazes me is the amount of disposable income it seems like so many of these people had "back in the day". Living in NY, coming back to OK, etc. And wow, for him to make even $140 a week was a tremendous amount of money!

    Very interesting, Sarah. His father was very powerful and influential in the Cherokee government here.


  7. Say it isn't so, Cheryl. I can't believe you haven't gone to see his museum right there in OK. I am afraid of flying, but I am fascinated with aviators. Weird, huh? If money , fear and smarts didn't matter, I think it would be great to be a medical bush pilot on Alaska. Oh yeah. And not loving the cold either, but what adventures there would be.
    The thing I find most remarkable is how everyone moved around from one end of Earth to another--even back when horses were the only transportation.
    Just imagine what we could do if we had the money we make now, but back then when a penny would buy a bag of candy. Nice.
    Thank you for taking the time to come visit me. I hope you're feeling good and happy.

  8. Sara, that photo of the statue looks like the one at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. Loved the post.

  9. Caroline, I can't remember where the statue resides. It could be in Lubbock. Thank you so much for coming. I appreciate it.

  10. Sarah J, I love Will Rogers, and often quote him. I remember watching a movie about him as a kid. It starred his son, Will Rogers, Jr., portraying his dad, and Jane Wyman as his wife. Will Rogers and his wife had a beautiful romance. I also saw The Will Rogers Follies years ago in Fort Worth with Larry Gatlin (The Gatlin Brothers) playing Will. Excellent musical. I recommend it to anyone not familiar with Will Rogers and his life. The show-stopping song Will-a-Mania is one of my favorites and tells the impact and influence he had on the country, and how people from all walks of life just loved him. Great post!!!

  11. Ashley, I always felt Will Rogers had a sort of peace-love way of being and his jokes about politics and humanity made us all feel on the same level no matter our economics or origins. We sure could use a Will Rogers today. I lived my youth in the Bob Hope era, a man so like Will Rogers must have been in his time. Bob Hope gave me a calm equilibrium about life on planet Earth, even when things were in turmoil. These two men were like buffers between the harshness of the world and our personal sanity.
    Thank you so much for coming, Ashley. It makes me happy to know you also thought highly of Will Rogers.

  12. Sarah, I knew a few things about Will but never realized what a marvelous, talented and brilliant man he really was. Thanks so much for sharing his exciting life, dreams and accomplishments. What a character--we should all be so lucky and blessed with such a rich and full life. Great pictures too. Think I'll have my hubby read this one as he volunteers and rebuilds antique airplanes at the Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, NY and I know he'll enjoy this as much as I did. Again thanks.

  13. Bev, it amazes me, too. What really astounds me is the people who came from absolutely nothing and became a huge success. Many of us work hard pursuing our dreams, but never achieve such success. So, what is that magic formula? I have no idea. Greatness must send out some kind of vibe that calls to people. LOL
    I'm terrified of flying, but I am drawn to planes, especially biplanes. I love to look at them and dream about being a medical bush pilot. Crazy. Your husband sounds very talented and interesting to talk to.
    Thank you so much for coming by and commenting. I really appreciate it.


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