Hennessey’s Ranch Room:  Been Here, Been That

By Sara Jane Richter

If anything has survived 130 years, it obviously has a rich history.  The two-story Ranch Room at 110 North Main Street indeed possesses a rich history.  The repository of that history is one fellow—Scotty Hajek, Hennessey’s unofficial town historian.  If it happened or lived in Hennessey, Hajek knows all about it.

The Ranch Room is unassuming-looking on the outside, but the interior of the long, narrow building tucked between the space that used to house the Ortman Theater and is Terry’s Pump and Supply oozes with mementos of its past—movie posters and lobby cards, yellowed newspaper clippings and dented metal signs, Hennessey High School memorabilia and the painting of the Pat Hennessey Massacre, letters and canceled checks, record albums and faded photographs.  With 130 years under its belt, lots of memories should decorate the interior.

Hajek currently owns the Ranch Room and serves as the fount of information about this Hennessey icon.  He held court behind the cattle brand-encrusted bar while I sat on the other side, pen in one hand and a beer in the other.  He commenced talking and offered detailed information about the building since its initial construction.  

Built in June 1893, the building pre-dates the 1893 Cherokee Strip Run and certainly pre-dates statehood, so it’s seen everything that the community and the State of Oklahoma has done since.  Fred Fromholz had the vision to build the building which served initially as the Clipper Drug Emporium.  It shared the name of “Clipper” as the town newspaper was headquartered in a building across the street and was owned by the same person, a Mr. Campbell.

Two years later, William Parks purchased the building and moved the drug store portion south of where Annie’s Flowers is today.  After the drug store left, Mrs. C.H. Kemper established a millinery shop (a ladies’ hat store) there.  Her husband, C.H. Kemper, became Hennessey’s first mayor.  Their son, Charles, was born—probably in the millinery store that doubled as their home too—in 1900 and became a rather well-known Hollywood character actor in the 1930’s and 1940’s until his death in 1948.  

Not long after, City Drug Store moved in to share the space with the hat store.  E.P. Clark set up a short order café on the second floor.  In addition to the café, Clark rented rooms—about 20—to long-term or short-term guests.  In the back of the second floor, Dr. Champion had his professional office and saw many patients.

Notoriety moved in too at the turn of the century, for a painter named David George rented a room in the upstairs hotel.  He eventually moved to Enid and committed suicide in a rented room above what is now Garfield Furniture Store.  On George’s deathbed in 1903, Dr. Champion heard the man confess that he was actually John Wilkes Booth, President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin in 1865.  The veracity of this story has never been proven absolutely, but the tale has garnered a following of many folks who believe that indeed Booth lived as George for many decades.

In 1903, Frank Ratliff put a grocery store in the front of the building and a cigar factory in the back of the building.  Ratliff’s cigar advertising bragged that all of his cigar rollers had “clean hands.”  Ratliff was taken with the newfangled horseless carriage and purchased the first automobile in Hennessey.  He liked the vehicle so much that he established the Hennessey Motor Company and gave up on the grocery and cigar businesses.  

In the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the Ranch Room became Hennessey’s first theater, the Novelty Theater, which featured silent movies; however, it closed by 1910.  After the theater’s closure, another grocery store occupied the space, first owned by J.E. Gilbert and then by the Fry Brothers.  The brothers sold the enterprise to E.C. Moore in 1921, but he soon sold out to Noble Young who ran a mercantile store from 1921 until 1935.  

An early oil supply company operated by the Knox Oil Company had the store from 1935 until 1945 when the space became an automobile parts store.  During this decade, P.C. Clark had a real estate company on the second floor.  Dr. Woolwine, a dentist, shared some of the upstairs space with Clark.

The Ortmans, Hutoka and Garwood, purchased the building in 1945; they owned the theater directly to the south.  Mrs. Ortman wanted to remodel the building to resemble saloons seen in popular Old West movies of the day.  She dubbed the space The Ranch Room.  Therefore, she had wood paneling installed over the interior walls.  Mrs. Ortman herself burned the brands in the front of the bar.  The Ortmans’ son attended college in California, so the whole family moved to the West Coast, but returned once Gaylord had graduated. 

During the family’s absence, Ranch Room Drug Store occupied the space; it was owned by Cecil and Kathryn Enix; Kathryn happened to be Mrs. Ortman’s sister.  (Mrs. Enix’s piano on which she taught many Hennessey young people to play stands on the south side of the Ranch Room today.)  The drug store sported a soda fountain and a dance floor until it became another oil field supply store in 1960.  Four years later, Jean Walter, who with her husband Art operated the Hennessey Clipper newspaper, purchased the building and opened the Tot Shop, a children’s clothing store.  Beginning in 1982, Penny Turner ran the Tot Shop.  The second-floor hotel/rooming house closed in the early 1970’s.  The last resident to vacate the premises was Helen Vculek who worked at 4-T’s Grocery for many years.  

By 2008, the clothing store had closed, and the future looked bleak for the Ranch Room.  An auction was held to dispose of the furnishings and the building.  Scott Hajek purhcased the building at that time.  He opened the Ranch Room as a teen recreation center until 2014 when Wes and Meagan Hardin moved in to build their winery business—Vernost Wine.  (“Vernost” translates to “trust” in Czech.)  

The Ranch Room remains a vibrant part of Hennessey with its wine bar which doubles as a venue for weddings, reunions, dances, community or family events, or live music on weekends. After 130 years, the Ranch Room stands as a testament to the history of a community even before the community existed.  It has worn many hats, served many purposes, housed many ventures, and seen many people open that front door.  In a dark, old-fashioned building, the history of Hennessey is kept alive by the local historian who cared enough about his community and this building to learn about it, who memorized the stories, and who shares his knowledge with those willing to sit and listen, reflect and revel in the history of a small town in central Oklahoma.  The Ranch Room really is the heart of Hennessey, and thankfully, Scotty won’t let us forget that.