Photo caption: The historic Big Hill Trading Co. in Fairfax, Oklahoma, is scheduled for demolition and removal – unless the filmmakers of “Killers of the Flower Moon” wish to save it. CODY HAMMER/Osage News
It is ironic that the building that served as the mortuary where many Osage murders were covered up in the early 1900s is now depending on the story of those murders to keep it alive.
After a year of tornadoes and torrential rain have all but demolished the historic Big Hill Trading Co. in downtown Fairfax, Osage County Commissioners considered its fate on Monday. On the OCC’s meeting agenda was the consideration of bids for tear down and removal, but Osage tribal member Joe Conner and Osage Nation Congresswoman Brandy Lemon said the demolition may be premature.
“That building had a central role in the story of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’” Conner said. “We will know more Wednesday evening.”
Lemon said on Wednesday evening a scheduled meeting and dinner is planned between the Grayhorse community and famed film director Martin Scorsese to discuss the concerns they have about the upcoming film. “We don’t want to be depicted as a bunch of drunk, rich Osages,” Lemon said. Conner plans to ask Scorsese’s team if Fairfax will be considered as a location for filming, and if the filmmakers would either restore the Big Hill Trading Co. or build a façade of the front of the building, so that in the future it might be made into a memorial for the victims of the Osage Reign of Terror.
“We believe there is an opportunity Wednesday evening, we don’t know where the conversation will lead,” Lemon said. “The history of the Big Hill, not many know what happened there. The basement was where the undertaker was, that’s where everybody went when they died, even Natives.”
The commissioners expressed interest in saving the building, but money, time restraints and legalities could stand in the way. The commissioners agreed to wait one week to consider the three bids on the teardown and removal until they hear from Lemon on Wednesday evening.
Terry Loftis, of Pawhuska-based JL & Associates, has been overseeing the efforts of stabilizing the crumbling structure of the Big Hill and reported to the commissioners that he wouldn’t wait more than 60 to 90 days to make a decision.
He said the roof of the building is gone, the rock and brick over time have become very porous, contributing to the water damage and the crumbling brick. A stabilizing wall was erected earlier this year, but that wall won’t hold for long, endangering the neighboring health clinic.
“There is no fixing the roof because there is no roof material left,” he said.
He told the commissioners it would take $1.2 million to $1.5 million to “structurally secure and make the building watertight.” To completely restore the building, he estimated it would take $2.5 million to $3 million. He said to tear down and remove the building it would take approximately $219,000 and he had three bids ready for the commission to consider.
He said if the commissioners want to wait, he could have his structural engineer from Tulsa inspect the building again. He said the north wall “seems to be fine” but if they wait too long, it could fall on the Barnard Insurance Agency.
“You get snow load on that roof and it ain’t gonna be pretty,” he said.
A dark history
In David Grann’s best-selling book “Killers of the Flower Moon” and Dennis McAuliffe Jr.’s book “The Deaths of Sybil Bolton,” which was made into an award-winning play of the same name and recently shown in Tulsa, detail the Big Hill Trading Co.’s practice of scamming Osages. It is also well documented the consistent cover-up of Osage murders by the mortician that worked there and how he altered autopsy reports.
In 1925, in the court case Wright v. Big Hill Trading Co., the parents of Osage full blood allottee Fred Wheeler were charged $2,700 for his casket when the same casket was selling at other mortuaries for less than $500. After lower courts ruled against the Wheelers they appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court and won.
The locations for where filming will take place for the upcoming “Killers of the Flower Moon” are unknown at this time. However, film crews have been taking measurements of downtown buildings in Pawhuska for the past two weeks. They have also looked at buildings in Fairfax and Ralston in the past months.
Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro have already signed on to be in the film. More than a thousand people attended three Oklahoma casting calls for a chance to be extras or have speaking roles in the film this month.