The Final Journey
In August of 1935 Will and famed aviator, Wiley Post left to survey a mail-and-passenger air route between the U.S. and Russia, by way of Alaska Territory. On August 15, 1935, Will and Wiley took off from Fairbanks, bound for Barrow, the northern-most settlement in the U.S.
After refueling at Harding Lake, Post landed at a lagoon 15 miles southwest of Barrow to get directions. Just after takeoff the engine failed, causing the plane to crash, killing both men instantly. Ever the pioneer, Will Rogers was born in Indian Territory and died in Alaska Territory in 1935.
A Nation Mourns
With Will Rogers’ untimely death, debate began quickly on how to honor America’s Cowboy Philosopher. Betty Rogers decided on Claremore, Oklahoma because of the 20 acres they had bought in 1911 where the couple planned on having a home after retirement.
An informal Commission of people from around the country was created, including such notables at Herbert Hoover, Charles Schwab, Nelson Rockefeller, Elliot Roosevelt and Henry Ford.
People from across the nation gave nickels, dimes and quarters to the effort and the Oklahoma legislature stepped up with a $200,000 appropriation to help make the Memorial a reality. A ranch house design by John Duncan Forsythe was chosen. The centerpiece would be a Jo Davidson statue of Will Rogers.
Ground was broken on April 21st, 1938 and in just a few shorts months the facility was complete and was dedicated on November 4th, 1938, the 59th birthday of Will Rogers. The dedication ceremony was heard around the country on the radio with President Franklin Roosevelt giving a touching tribute to Will and the new Memorial.
Will Rogers was originally buried in California, but in 1942 a new sunken garden was built in front of the Memorial and Will Rogers was interred there in 1944. Betty passed just a few months later and was also buried in the tomb.