CLAREMORE — Oklahoma may have some of the quirkiest sites along Route 66 (a giant blue whale, anyone?), but it’s a museum in Claremore that may get the most attention from travelers all over the world.
With 40,000 square feet of space and more than 10,000 weapons on display, the J.M. Davis Arms and Historical Museum is the largest private gun collection on Earth.
“We see visitors from all over the world,” said Wayne McCombs, the museum’s executive director. “Many times they’re here to do business with Baker Hughes or some other place, and they’ll have a break or something and come down to the gun museum.”
In the summer and fall, McCombs said, the museum will host at least a half-dozen people a day traveling along Route 66. These motor tourists usually fly to Chicago and rent a muscle car to then drive from Chicago to Santa Monica, California. They’ll stop at the J.M. Davis museum along the way.
About 30,000 people visit the museum annually, McCombs said, about half of which are from further than 50 miles away.
“We actually bring in about $4.1 million in tourist dollars each year,” he said. “We are a profit center for our local economy in the state.”
History of the museum
Born in Texarkana, Arkansas, area to parents who owned large areas of timberland, J.M. Davis was a sickly child. It’s not clear what his illness was, McCombs said, but Davis wanted a rifle as a child. His father told him that if he took his medicine to recover, he would buy his son the shotgun he’d been wanting.
“He took his medicine and improved and so his father bought him his first rifle in 1894 when he was 7,” McCombs said. “Apparently, the medicine cured him.”
J.M. Davis started displaying his collection of firearms at the Mason Hotel in Claremore. He created a Foundation in 1967, and the museum has been around since 1969. What started as a small collection of guns has grown to include about 36,000 other artifacts, including swords, knives, saddles, spurs and World War I posters. The museum will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2019.
As for the gun collection, it starts in about the year 1350 (guns were supposedly created in about 1290, McCombs said), and the newest models on display were manufactured in 2015.
There are basically two governing bodies, McCombs said — the Foundation and the State. The J.M. Davis Memorial Foundation is the actual owner of the collection and leases it to the museum, McCombs said.
“The Foundation is the actual entity that owns the guns,” he said. “The guns are leased to the state, so if there is a decision to be made about a weapon — other than cleaning it or something like that — we talk to the Foundation, and they say, ‘Yes, you can do that,’ or, ‘No, you can’t do that.’
“We work together with the Foundation to take care of the weapons.”
There was litigation between the Foundation and the state of Oklahoma a few years ago about how the weapons were being handled, but that has since been settled, McCombs said.
Fun for young and old
With its broad array of firearms, the museum draws young and old. Ryan Carroll, an 11-year-old fifth-grader, was visiting the museum on a recent Saturday. He said he’d wanted to visit for a long time and was surprised by how tiny some of the pistols were.
“My favorite part is some of the guns,” Carroll said. “I could shoot if there was a shooting range.”
The museum held its regular Daisy BB shooting contest recently, in which children shoot at a target after receiving training. McCombs said it’s a delight seeing a 7- or 8-year-old get a big grin on his or her face when they hit the target.
Meanwhile, Patt Cameron has been employed at the museum for 28 years.
“I’m a history buff,” she said. “I love it. This place is so full of history, it’s unbelievable.”