Legacy of Pawnee Bill’s trading post lives on in Oklahoma

May and Gordon ‘Pawnee Bill’ Lillie, wild west show performers and founders of the trading post. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


PAWNEE, Okla. (AP) – Pawnee Bill’s Old Town Indian Trading Post was an idea that catered to the modern world of the 1920s and the growing use of automobiles, with a nod to the past – trading with Native Americans.

Pawnee Bill, born Gordon William Lillie, was a performer known for his Wild West shows at the turn of the 20th century. He saw the rise of the automobile and the new roads being built as an opportunity to establish a place for displaying items he had accumulated from around the world and selling goods he bought from local tribes. Offering a gas stop and a few overnight cabins for motorists would make sense, too.

Pawnee Bill’s Trading Post no longer rents cabins, sells gas or has its own museum, but it still deals in items from the Old West 87 years after it opened.

But the market is not what it used to be. “It’s getting tougher,” said Jo Ferguson, owner of the business. “It’s the old supply-and-demand thing. It’s harder to find the items, and they aren’t in as much demand any longer.”

Still, Pawnee Bill’s remains among a dwindling number of Old West trading posts, according to the Tulsa World.

“Back when Pawnee Bill and Ray Lyons from Clinton, Nebraska, got into this, they were selling goods almost exclusively made by Indians,” said Ferguson. “Most of the items were made by the local tribes such as the Pawnee, Otoe and Ponca.

“The Lyonses, when they moved their trading post operation to Oklahoma in the 1930s, brought with them not only some items but also some Native American craftsmen to make some goods. It was quite an operation. They had locally made items, especially the beadwork and featherwork, and then goods they would go find in New Mexico and Arizona.”

Pawnee Bill’s Trading Post can still be found in a familiar spot. The original Old Town and Indian Trading Post was two miles west of Pawnee on U.S. 64. It burned down in 1944 and was moved to a new location near Pawnee’s downtown square. It’s still there.

“We’ve expanded to include a lot of different items,” said Ferguson. “There’s still an interest in the Old West and Native American goods. But those things are tougher to find.

“There are just a lot fewer artists and crafts people making those items, and the ones that do are getting older. So the items are much more rare these days.”

Still, Pawnee Bill’s is finding goods for sale from around the world. It’s now primarily a wholesale business selling to tourist and souvenir shops.

Ferguson is a lifelong Pawnee resident. His father, D. Jo Ferguson, was a legendary newspaperman, establishing and then publishing The Pawnee Chief from 1941 until his death in 2010.

Jo Ferguson started working at the trading post for his grandfather in the 1960s when he was 11 years old. He went to work full time in 1973 and bought the business in 2001. His mother’s family, the Lyonses, were well-known in the trading post business. Lyon’s Indian Store was a longtime downtown Tulsa business that closed last year.

“It is a lot different now in this business, just like it is for a lot of folks,” said Ferguson. “We can still find pottery, rugs and jewelry, but we really have to look for it.”

Among the premium items that helped make Pawnee Bill’s Trading Post world famous were the handmade Indian headdresses. “We have a 94-year-old Pawnee woman here in Pawnee still making headdresses, but you just wonder about the future,” said Ferguson. “Honestly, the younger generation is just not making these items any longer. It’s really sort of becoming a lost art.

“These artisans are aging, and the kids and grandkids aren’t picking it up. They’re doing different things.

“It is really becoming a lost art. It’s a different world.”

Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com

By JOHN KLEIN, Tulsa World

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