The Mason Hotel and J.M. Davis
The Mason Hotel was built in 1910 by Dr. John Rucker. The hotel had three stories and 116 rooms. It sat on the northwest corner of what is now Will Rogers Boulevard and Lynn Riggs Boulevard (Highway 66).
In 1916, J.M. and Addie Davis traveled from Arkansas in hope of getting in on the prosperity of the oil boom in and around Tulsa. They made it as far as Claremore and stayed in the Mason Hotel. Mr. Davis learned that Dr. Rucker was interested in selling the hotel. In 1917, Mr. Davis offered his Arkansas timber land as a down payment on the hotel.
Around 1919, Mr. and Mrs. Davis built a home in Claremore and took over the management of the hotel. At that time Claremore was in great need of rent houses, so Mr. Davis began building houses for others to rent. Mr. Davis served on the City Council for eight years. He served Claremore as its mayor from 1921 to 1923 and again from 1933 to 1943.
The ground floor of the hotel contained several businesses: Claremore’s first bank, a dress shop, a real estate office, and the hotel’s coffee shop.
Will Rogers and his family ate at the coffee shop many times. Will even brought Wiley Post in once to see Mr. Davis’s collection. The hotel also had a finely decorated ballroom that hosted parties and celebrations of all kinds.
By 1929, after a dozen years of operating the Mason Hotel, Mr. Davis’s collection had grown to 99 guns. In the early 1930s, the count grew exponentially with the acquisition of three large collections. He acquired the U.S. Bessette collection of 500 pieces in 1930. In 1932, he purchased the Smith collection at Vinita, Oklahoma and the John Sallings collection of 500 pieces. These three collections brought Mr. Davis’s total to 2,500 weapons.
As the decade went on and opportunities to buy firearms came around so often, Mr. Davis had to limit himself to buying only $3,000 worth a month. A third of that he would then sell or trade away.
During the Great Depression money and jobs were scarce. Families in Mr. Davis’ rent houses who could not find money for rent were not evicted. He knew they had no other place to go. Folks sometimes swapped an old gun or something else for their rent.
At some point, the collection grew to a critical mass and became so famous there were bragging-rights attached to having put something into Davis’ collection. World War II veterans would bring him war trophies. Machinists and burgeoning gunsmiths would bring in guns they had modified, sporterized, or completely invented. As the sign outside the hotel claimed, the collection was now truly “World Famous”.
In 1948, Mr. Davis bought the Merle Gill collection. Gill kept this collection of Outlaw and Lawman guns, hanging nooses, and hand cuffs in a travel trailer which he took to different fairs and events throughout the country as a traveling museum. Mr. Davis gave this collection a permanent home, and now the Merle Gill collection makes up the backbone of the J.M. Davis Arms & Historical Museum’s Outlaw and Lawman section.
Addie Davis passed away in November, 1959. She and J.M. had been married for 49 years. They had no children. In July 1961, J.M. married Genevieve Breeden. He was 74 years old, and she was 54.
As the years past, Mr. Davis realized his collection would be around longer than he would be. Several individuals and museums attempted to purchase all or parts of the collection at different times: the Smithsonian Institution, Woolaroc museum, certain gambling interests in Las Vegas, and Howard Hughes to name a few. (Hughes supposedly only wanted the collection of 1,200 steins.) Each offer was refused. More than anything he wanted the whole collection to remain in Claremore.
In 1965, Mr. Davis established a nonprofit foundation, the J.M. Davis Memorial Foundation, Inc. to become the actual owner of the collection. It was this foundation that made the famous lease with the State of Oklahoma. The State paid one dollar for a ninety-nine year lease (with option to renew). That same year, Governor Henry Bellmon signed the legislation to establish the J.M. Davis Memorial Commission and appropriate funds to purchase the entire city block where the museum now stands.
In 1968, plans were approved for a 40,000 square foot museum building. Mr. and Mrs. Davis were the center of the ground-breaking ceremony. With the completion of the museum, the collection was moved two blocks to the north. On June 27, 1969, Mr. Davis’ 82nd birthday, the museum was opened to the public.
Oklahoma artist Charles Banks Wilson was commissioned to create a portrait of Mr. Davis. Citizens of Claremore, Rogers County and other friends of Mr. Davis’s contributed $3000 for the painting. Wilson’s greatest challenge in capturing Mr. Davis was that the 82-year-old subject could only sit for no more than 15 minutes at a time. Wilson did much of his work while Mr. Davis sat asleep in a comfortable chair. On March 5, 1970, the portrait was unveiled at a special open house ceremony in the museum.
On June 27, 1972, Mr. Davis’ 85th birthday, the city of Claremore honored him by renaming a street after him: J.M. Davis Boulevard. Less than a year later, January 20th, 1973, Mr. Davis fell on the hotel stairs. He suffered a concussion and developed pneumonia that put him in a semi-conscious state until February 7th when he passed away.
About a year after Mr. Davis passed away, Mrs. Davis had sold the building. In the next dozen years the Mason Hotel fell into state of disrepair, and in 1986 the new owners auctioned off the furnishings and fixtures before tearing down the 76-year-old building.