Pawhuska, Osage County prepare for telling of horror story

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Pawhuska and Osage County are likely to almost buzz this spring and summer with gossip about the latest movie star sightings and colorful stories related to the making of the film based on David Grann’s book “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

This isn’t Pawhuska’s first encounter with a movie industry production. Filming for “August: Osage County” began in the area in the early fall of 2012. The movie, starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, was released in 2013.

The community of about 3,350 people also has a hometown movie star hero in Ben “Son” Johnson Jr. (1918-1996), a champion rodeo cowboy who became an actor and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in “The Last Picture Show.”

The “Killers of the Flower Moon” adaptation promises to be different, though, because all the buzz and the economic opportunities associated with the making of a movie in an economically challenged small town are linked to the telling of an American horror story – the story of the murder and exploitation of Osage Indians to separate them from wealth generated by the discovery of oil in Osage County.

It is the story of an Indian tribe that bought its own reservation with its own money and became rich because of petroleum. It also is the story of some white residents ruthlessly seeking to separate the Osage people from their money. This is not a happy story, and not all Osages are thrilled with the attempt to tell it.

Joe Tillman, a member of the Osage Nation Congress, offered the Journal-Capital some perspective.

“For me it’s a tough spot,” Tillman said. “There are some of our elders that wish they would pack up their cameras and go home.”

Tillman, the son of an Osage chief, lived in Fairfax as a youth and was reared by his grandmother. He recalls that memories of the stories his grandmother had heard about the “Osage Reign of Terror” made her cry.

Tillman said he understands the movie production is good for businesses in Pawhuska.

“I’m glad for them,” he said; however, he also expressed disappointment that the production doesn’t appear to include Osage people in leading roles so far.

“We have a certain look. We have a certain body type. We have our own look and they’ve got other tribes portraying us,” Tillman said. He added that he hopes the film treats the Osage with respect, as a people who were exploited. He has his doubts, though.

“I tend to agree with some of those elders. I just wish they would pack up and go home,” Tillman said.

He acknowledged that numerous Osages support the making of the film, but he has resisted being star struck.

“I didn’t read the book and I’m not going to watch the movie,” Tillman said, describing the “Osage Reign of Terror” as a dark spot on the history of his people, and a series of events with sacred meaning.

Osage News reported in late February that Martin Scorsese, the film's director, and Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the leading actors, had met with Osage cultural leaders at nearby Woolaroc to discuss the movie.

The process of making a realistic movie depends on establishing facts, and the production process for the film has drawn on the resources of the Osage County Historical Society Museum. Director Garrett Hartness said the museum had provided a copy of a 1920 Sanborn map that showed details regarding the Midland Valley Railroad depot complex in Pawhuska.

The depot complex, which included several structures, was located just south of 5th Street. A remaining building shell on the site is the ruin of the freight building, Hartness said. The Midland Valley Railroad ran between Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Wichita, Kansas.

The Midland Valley depot complex was one of two depots in Pawhuska when railroads were the economic lifelines of Osage County. The other, located along Lynn Avenue, was the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway depot. That depot, which has been preserved, is the home of the Historical Society Museum.

Sanborn maps were created by the Sanborn Map Co., headquartered in New York City, to help fire insurance companies assess their liability in urban areas.

Hartness said the museum also had a request from a man in California for information about what train conductor uniforms would have looked like in the 1920s. The museum did not have that information, but provided leads regarding places with train memorabilia to the person who inquired.

“We didn’t have anything like that,” Hartness said. ”We kind of sent him on a trail. Hopefully he found what he was looking for.”

The museum also receives queries on a regular basis from lots of people who have no connection to the making of the movie.

“We get all kinds – people from all over,” Hartness said.

“People all want to know what we know about the movie,” he said. “Some people want to know what buildings are going to be used.”

Kelly Bland, director of Osage County Tourism, said she has had inquiries lately about the film and has had to politely let folks know they won’t be able to watch the actual filming.

“I’ve had to tell them nobody is going to be allowed in the place they’re filming except the cast and crew,” Bland said. She explained that she had asked whether she could be granted permission to stand behind a movie camera area and make pictures of some of the filming for posterity. Her request was denied.

Bland also said she had received a call from a casting director who was looking for Native American horseback riders.

“It’s definitely going to be an interesting time to be in Pawhuska and Osage County,” she said.

Bland predicted that the filming of the movie is likely to lead to a considerable increase in tourist interest in Osage County.

Cody Garnett, owner of the Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum in Pawhuska, indicated that he has all kinds of visitors who are interested in the movie.

“We get people from all over the nation,” Garnett said, noting that it is not uncommon for visitors to think they have something in mind that needs to be added to the movie.

Garnett, whose museum features the history of champion cowboys and cowgirls from Osage County, said last week that he had not seen any “famous faces” personally, but was gratified to have had visits from members of movie crews. He described the movie as a “no-lose” economic opportunity for Pawhuska.