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Historic Big Hill Trading Co. torn down and removed from downtown Fairfax

Photo caption: A vacant lot now sits where the historic Big Hill Trading Co. once stood. SHANNON SHAW DUTY/Osage News

The historic Big Hill Trading Co., named after the Big Hill people of the Osage Nation, was torn down and removed in May and July after many attempts to save it.

Thanks to COVID-19, efforts to save the building were sidelined during the shutdown in March and April. Compounded by a deadline due to safety issues of the crumbling building, the Osage County Commissioners voted for its demolition and removal after repeatedly tabling the issue.

The building stood vacant for decades, as do many other buildings in Osage County, but a devastating 2018 tornado nearly wiped it out. Torrential rains and rough Oklahoma weather eventually caused the roof to fall in. A temporary metal south wall was constructed to keep the building from falling on the health clinic next door, but it was only a temporary fix.

Drs. Joe and Carol Conner, Fairfax residents and founders of the Fairfax Community Foundation, repeatedly made a case to save the building. They appealed to the Commissioners at their monthly meetings, they appealed to the Osage Nation Principal Chief, the Osage Nation Congress, but time ran out.

Now, the building that was a visual reminder of the town’s heyday and the Osage Reign of Terror, is a vacant lot.

“The Big Hill, an opportunity squandered. Economic development for Osage County has, for the most part, focused on the eastern half of the county while the western half has languished. There were several chances for leaders to step forward and save this historic treasure, but complacency ruled the day,” said the Conners in a statement.

“Named after the Big Hill Osage people, it went on to play a central role in the nefarious ‘Reign of Terror.’ Now known worldwide after the release of David Grann’s bestselling book, ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’ and the soon to be made movie by the famous filmmaker Martin Scorsese.”

In “Killers of the Flower Moon” and Dennis McAuliffe Jr.’s book “The Deaths of Sybil Bolton,” the Big Hill Trading Co. was once the mortuary for the town of Fairfax. The mortician during the period of time the books take place regularly took advantage of the Osage people and their wealth. He regularly overcharged Osages for caskets and burials, and he also falsified autopsy reports, covering up Osage murders for affluent white community members hoping to cash in on their victims’ estates.

The Conners hoped the Nation would fund a memorial for the victims of the Reign of Terror by constructing an informational site where the building stood. Something for visitors and tourists to see and take into account the history of the Osage in the area.

They went before the Osage Congressional Commerce, Gaming and Land Committee in January. They were given five minutes to make their proposal. A meeting date was not set to discuss the proposal any further by the committee.

According to the proposal, the memorial would include history and exhibits on the story of Alex Tall Chief who built the Tall Chief Theatre; history about his daughter, Maria Tallchief, America’s first Prima Ballerina; the courage of the first FBI undercover agents who exposed the Reign of Terror murder conspiracy; the chronicles of the murders including work by Osage authors McAuliffe Jr. and the late Charles Red Corn. The book “Killers of the Flower Moon” and the upcoming film of the same name. Joe Conner, Osage, envisioned a welcome and visitors center with amenities like a restaurant, gift shop and bookstore. The price tag for the Nation would be around $300,000, with a private donor pledging $200,000 toward the project.

“Fairfax will become a destination for thousands who want to know more about what happened here in the 1920s,” said the Conners in the statement. “That cultural and historic tourism has the potential to give this area, and the county in general, an unheard of boost to the quality of life for residents here.”


Shannon Shaw Duty

Original Publish Date: 2020-08-11 00:00:00


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Shannon Shaw Duty
Shannon Shaw Duty is the editor of the Osage News. She is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor's degree in Journalism and a master's degree in Legal Studies, Indigenous Peoples Law from the OU College of Law. She served on the Board of Directors for the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) from 2013-2016 and served as a board member and Chairwoman for the Pawhuska Johnson O’Malley Parent Committee from 2017-2020. She is a Chips Quinn Scholar, a former instructor for the Freedom Forum’s Native American Journalism Career Conference and the Freedom Forum’s American Indian Journalism Institute. She is a former reporter for The Santa Fe New Mexican. She is a 2012 recipient of the Native American 40 Under 40 from the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED). In 2014 she helped lead the Osage News to receive the Elias Boudinot Free Press Award, NAJA’s highest honor. An Osage tribal member, she and her family are from the Grayhorse District. She currently resides in Pawhuska, Okla., with her husband and six children.

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