Friendship With Chief Baconrind
America's natives have often had rocky relations with their European conquerors. But shining from the gloom, like a ray of sunlight across a post-massacre Western prairie, is the warm-and-fuzzy -- and slightly lumpy -- monument of Colonel Ellsworth Walters and Chief Baconrind, friends forever. The lesson imparted here is that white and red can be harmonious -- if you just add a little green.
Baconrind was chief of the Osage Nation. Luckily for him, he was in charge in the early 20th century, when billions of barrels of oil were discovered beneath the Osage reservation. The Osage couldn't be kicked out -- as they had been from Missouri in the 1800s. The Whites had to pay to drill for the underground bonanza and, since this was the 1920s and not the 1620s, they had to pay in real money, not beads and trinkets. That's where Ellsworth Walters came in.
"Colonel" Walters was an auctioneer who made it his mission to get the best deal possible for the Osage. The boom town of Skedee was where he got it -- reportedly over a million dollars' worth of oil leases in a single day, auctioned to oil company founders and presidents who came here to bid in person. It was the apex of a 15 year run that saw the Osage reap $157 million from their good fortune, making them -- briefly -- the richest people per capita in the world. Just before the Depression hit, Osage County had the largest number of Pierce Arrow luxury cars in America; elegant vases were used to store vegetables, or as corn bins; and grand pianos were reportedly left on lawns year 'round.
In 1926, Ellsworth Walters had a monument, "Bond of Friendship," erected in the middle of a sprawling Skedee intersection -- with plenty of room for circling Pierce Arrows. Atop a blocky concrete pillar stands the Chief and the Colonel, facing each other, shaking hands. The work is primitive for such well-oiled honorees: the pillar is plastered cinder block around old oil pipes, while the Chief and the Colonel appear to be made of Play-Doh spray-painted silver. The distended lower half of the Chief, in particular, looks as if he's carrying a space alien seed pod that is about to burst. Oklahoma newspapers at the time mocked the design.
A lengthy poem, penned by Walters, engraved into a marble slab cracked with age, tells the story of the monument and praises interracial harmony:
"...I will build for them a landmark
That the coming race may see
All the beauties of the friendship
That exists 'tween them and me...."
Unfortunately, the future audience that Walters imagined for his monument never materialized. Chief Baconrind, who owned a modern home but who spent most of his time in a teepee in the yard, died in 1932. His luck held even in death: the oil boom went bust in 1935. The railroad line into Skedee was washed out by a flood in 1957, and never rebuilt. According to the 2000 census, Skedee has dwindled to a population of 102. The flag pole behind the Chief and the Colonel looks as if it has been without a flag for many years.
The Bond of Friendship monument now towers over a virtual ghost town; its neighbors are a vacant lot, a collapsing food market building, auto garage, and long-abandoned service station, which still advertises gas at 49.9 a gallon. The lone stop sign in town is almost unrecognizable under many layers of spray paint graffiti.
We drove to the Pawnee Bill Museum out on US 64, and asked a lady volunteer what had happened to Skedee. She blamed Wal-Mart.