The 101 Ranch Empire

A self-contained city for nearly three decades, Oklahoma’s 101 Ranch came to an abrupt halt in the 1930s. Legendary cowboys and American Indians called the ranch home and performed as part of the 101 Real Wild West Show.

A few abandoned buildings stand along the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River near Ponca City, Oklahoma. Their deteriorating exteriors and dilapidated interiors lack the grandeur one might expect – considering the 101 Ranch was known worldwide for the 20th century’s first three decades.

Looking back, it’s easy to see how things turned bad so quickly. The Miller Brothers – George, Zach and Joe – lived life on a grand scale. In less than 30 years, the three turned their father’s dugout cabin into a ranching empire, a city unto itself that derived much of its fame from the ranch-sponsored, traveling wild-west show. But the Depression, and George and Joe’s deaths, crippled the once mighty ranch in just a few short years.

Today, little remains of the once-great empire. The 101 Ranch Old-Timers Association is working to save what it can. They’d like to salvage the few remaining buildings, and hope to establish a tourist site at White Eagle Monument – where legendary cowboy Bill Picket and seven other 101 hands are buried.

It’s difficult to separate fact from fiction where the 101 is concerned. The Miller brothers were apt to take on any project – no matter how absurd. From cross-breeding wild animals to death-defying, wild-west show stunts, few topics weren’t considered by the brothers. At the same time, they were fiercely loyal to those around them. Likewise, the Ponca Indians, who turned over much of their reservation land to the Millers’ control, and the cowboys, who worked the cattle and appeared on wild-west show stops from Oklahoma to Europe, were all loyal to the end.

Even Pickett, who’d attained a certain measure of fame from his show appearances, refused to leave Zach as the ranch’s final days were closing in. Just weeks before many of the ranch’s belongings were sold in a 1932 auction, Pickett was kicked in the head while sorting horses for an upcoming sale. He never recovered from those injuries, and was buried on the ranch.

The 101’s history has been chronicled in countless books and articles. Among the best is the 1999 book, The Real Wild West: The 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West, by Michael Wallis. Other books include Fabulous Empire and The 101 Ranch. If it’s a history lesson you’re looking for, these are the best resources. Instead, let’s spend some time contemplating the people and the stories that made the 101 so interesting.

For the rest of this article, see the October issue of Western Horseman.

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