Will Rogers, Citizen of the World

Tribute to a citizen of the world. (Library of Congress)

Tribute to a citizen of the world. (Library of Congress)

If you have seen the stage or film version of Oklahoma!, then you have brushed up against Claremore, Oklahoma.  The 1943 musical was based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Claremore writer Lynn Riggs, and it retained passing references to Claremore as a town where rural folk might catch the train to up-to-date Kansas City, where ranch hands might get drunk, or where a traveling salesman might lure an unsuspecting maiden upstairs in a hotel. At the time when the United Nations was searching for a headquarters location, the town also had a place on the map, literally, as the first Oklahoma town reached by westbound Route 66, the popular highway that swept diagonally across the nation from Chicago to southern California.

These were not, however, the motivations for local residents to declare that Claremore would be the perfect location for the Capital of the World.  Their inspiration was native son Will Rogers.

The beloved humorist, killed in an airplane crash in 1935, had been born on a ranch near Claremore, and the townspeople proudly regarded their community as his “home town.”  From 1938 to the present day, the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore has stood as a lasting tribute and tourist attraction.

In 1945, Claremore civic groups appealed to the United Nations to select Claremore as a tribute to Rogers:  “It would be a fitting and proper recognition and tribute to that great exponent of peace and good will among men, that homely philosopher, world citizen and ambassador of peace, Will Rogers,” they concluded.

Rogers himself might have had some reservations about the idea, given the skepticism he had expressed about international conferences in earlier times.  But he also was a master of publicity, and there was no arguing that he had emerged from Oklahoma to become a man of the world.   He was an Oklahoman of Indian heritage – in Rogers’ case, both his parents were part-Cherokee, and his father had lost an enormous ranch when Cherokee tribal lands were allotted as individual private property in the transition to statehood.  For Rogers, born in 1879, prospects for cattle-ranching seemed to lie elsewhere, leading him as a young man to oddly circuitous journeys to South America, Australia, and even South Africa. Along the way, he found greater fortune as a performer in Wild West shows, beginning a career that led to celebrity on stage, on the radio, in syndicated newspaper columns, books, and in the movies.

The life and career of Will Rogers showed how a single individual (and the town that loved him) could become tied to the wider world in an era of expanding transportation and communication networks. As you will discover in Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations, the people of Claremore did not give up their dreams easily. In 1946, long after their invitation to the United Nations had been excluded from consideration, they learned that a flight carrying UN site inspectors would be touching down for refueling in Tulsa on its way to San Francisco.  They showed up there – at 2:30 in the morning – with promotional brochures and a renewed appeal to make Claremore the Capital of the World.