- ABOUT US
Stairway to History
Though the walls can’t talk, this small Oklahoma museum has plenty of stories to tell.
By Abigail Singrey
Published July/August 2018
From gunfights on the third floor to Sunday school in the parlor, the Dewey Hotel in Washington County served as the center of many aspects of community life. In 1900, the three-story white Victorian towered above the prairie, housing rail travelers, rodeo performers, cowboys, and oil field roustabouts in its thirty-one rooms. Today, visitors to the recently restored Dewey Hotel Museum can see what life would have been like for those people in a turn-of-the-century hotel.
History seekers may be lucky enough to get eighty-eight-year-old Don Thorpe as a tour guide. He is the only person still living in Dewey known to have actually stayed at the hotel. Two years ago, Thorpe became a docent, bringing the stories of the hotel to life for another generation.
“Buildings don’t make history,” Thorpe says. “People do.”
He enjoys telling of the hotel’s founder, Jacob Bartles, who got so mad when the railroad set up on the wrong side of the river that he put his general store on logs and moved it to Dewey—staying open six days a week during the 145-day relocation—leaving behind the town named after him: Bartlesville. His wife, Nannie Journeycake Bartles, the daughter of a Delaware chief who also was a Baptist minister, held Sunday school in the front parlor.
Historical photos of the town, which line the walls of the museum foyer, recall the early oil field days. The front parlor, where the wealthier guests socialized, features a Steinway Square Grand piano. Visitors take the creaking stairs to the second floor, where rooms are staged as if they were ready for hotel guests, and the Bartles family living quarters have been recreated. Although Jacob’s financial troubles in the 1930s led to much of the original furniture being sold, the rooms feature artifacts of the era as well, including a Civil War bugle and a display of historic dresses from the Osage, Delaware, and Cherokee tribes from the Bartlesville Indian Women’s Club.
Museum docents also love to tell about the legendary poker room. The third floor housed the cowboys and oil field workers and had its own private staircase so Nannie would not run into the third-floor bordello staff and company. The guests would play poker and drink—even though alcohol was illegal at the time—late into the night. The panoramic windows in the turret allowed criminals to see if the sheriff was about to raid, and two hidey-holes provided a place to stash anything or anyone they might want to hide from the law. According to local lore, one night a gunfight broke out when one cowboy accused another of cheating at cards. The man was shot and dragged out to the front lawn, where he died. The museum staff members keep poker chips, playing cards, and empty liquor bottles on the poker table, as if the participants in the legendary game have just stepped out for a minute.
“If you want to see what life was like in 1900, come to the Dewey Hotel,” says Jack Fleharty, head of the Washington County Historical Society. “It’ll last another hundred years.”
The Dewey Hotel Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 801 Delaware Street in Dewey. (918) 534-0215 or wchs-ok.org.