The Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum is located in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Ben Johnson – Modern Day Cowboy

If you’ve watched many westerns, you are familiar with Ben Johnson. This Oklahoma native, grew up ranching, before trying his hand as a stuntman in Hollywood. When John Ford gave him his break, he ran with it. Ben would appear in over 300 movies and win an Academy Award. In the middle of his acting career, he returned to his roots and became a rodeo world champion. The only man to have won both of these auspicious awards, Ben Johnson epitomizes cowboy life. Our visit to the Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum would open up a world of details about cowboy life in Osage County, Oklahoma.

Ben Johnson followed in the family tradition when he became a rodeo champion.

Family Traits

Ben isn’t the only Johnson family member to have cowboy skills. His father, Ben Sr., was a rodeo champion in the 1920s. Growing up watching his father rope would inspire the younger Ben to take up the sport. In 1953, he joined his father as a world champion roper. Like his father, who had served in WWI, Ben joined the military and served in WWII. 

There are a lot of rodeo champions who come from Osage County.

Past Champions

The Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum tells the stories associated with rodeo greats from the Osage County region of Oklahoma. After paying our $10/person admission, we began our education in the world of rodeo. The museum showcases a variety of cowboys and cowgirls who shaped the sport. The past champions we saw are all associated with Osage County. Seeing so many exhibits, we began to think that every past champion must have come from this region. 

There are some interesting stories found at the Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum.

Interesting Stories

Many of the past champs were cowboys who followed their passion. Jim Snively (bottom picture) was an Oklahoma native who reigned as a top roper for most of the 1950s. There were also a few stories that were at another level. Henry Grammer was a World Champion Steer Roper who had a darker side. During the 1920s, he was a moonshiner in Osage County. It’s rumored that he had ties to the Kansas City mob. It was during this timeframe that a series of murders occurred around the Osage reservation. Grammer was implicated in some of the murders, but would perish in a car accident before the investigation was completed. 

The Ben Johnson Cowboy museum includes exhibits on some of the artisans who create items used by cowboys.

Supporting Cast

The Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum doesn’t restrict its displays to rodeo champions. We spotted a couple of exhibits dedicated to some of the artisans we associate with cowboy life. It takes a lot of work to create the tools needed to work the ranches in Osage County. Whether it’s saddles, spurs, boots, or any of the other necessary tools, there are people working to create them. Be sure to check out these displays as the workmanship is unbelieveable. 

You'll find a long list of movies in which Ben Johnson had a role.

Second Career

Now that we had learned about his cowboy career, it was time to move on to his time in Hollywood. During filming of Fort Apache, Ben was the riding double for Henry Fonda. An unexpected stampede threw three men into danger. Ben raced off and saved them, which eared John Ford’s gratitude. His repayment for that bravery landed Ben a seven-year acting contract. When Johnson saw that his contract paid $5000 per week, he immediately grabbed a pen and signed. It was quite an increase from the $1 per day he earned as a cowboy in Oklahoma.

Ben Johnson starred in eight movies with John Wayne.

Movie Time

We continued exploring the museum, which is plastered with movie memorabilia from Ben’s career. Over and over we saw titles that were familiar. Ben had no issue with being a supporting actor. A quote that stuck with me is “Everybody in town’s a better actor than I am, but none of them can play Ben Johnson.” It was this nonchalant approach that made him so personable. John Wayne enjoyed working with him so much, that Ben appeared in eight movies with “The Duke”. He also appeared in one of my all-time favorite westerns, Shane. Always a professional, Ben would win an Academy Award for his work in the 1971 movie, The Last Picture Show.

Visitors can try their hand at roping.

Challenge Yourself

We eventually found ourselves in the back of the museum. Here they have assembled an area where visitors can try their hand at roping. While Crystal and I decided to pass, we were fortunate to spot another group who was willing. The young man we watched pointed out that it is harder than it appears. We cheered along with his family when he managed to lasso the steer. He looked like a future rodeo champion in the making. 

The authors enjoy a moment of levity.

Experience the Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum

Before heading to our next stop, we needed to memorialize our visit. Near the entrance they have a taxidermized buffalo that visitors can use for posing. We each took our turn, which allowed us an “aha” moment of just how large these creatures can grow. As we explored more of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, my mind kept returning to the exhibits we found at the museum. I decided that this is probably one of the most unusual “hidden gems” we have discovered in our travels. If you find yourself in this region, it’s well worth setting aside time to see it for yourself.  

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