A Fascinating look at the History of a once Great Company

Ponca City is a northern Oklahoma community of 25,000 near the Kansas border. Few outside of Oklahoma may have heard of the plains town but Ponca City served as corporate headquarters for one of the world’s largest petroleum companies. The presence of Conoco Oil dominated Ponca City for over 70 years. This was an oil boom town turned company town that is now struggling to survive in today’s difficult economic times.

In 2002, Conoco merged with Phillips Petroleum and resulted in the end of an era for Ponca City. The oil refinery remains in operation but Phillips 66 moved corporate headquarters to Houston thus devastating local employment and economy. Ponca City now tries attracting tourism and Phillips did pony up $5 million to create the Conoco Museum which opened in 2007.

The museum is located across the street from the Conoco complex and the sight is a disconcertingly eerie reflection of America today. There is a feeling of abandonment. The corporate tower stands tall and empty. The parking lot is next to deserted. There are a few cars because some activity is still occurring in the research and development center. Things are not exactly jumping at the museum either.

Guarding the entrance is a Continental Oil Company horse drawn tank wagon from the 1880s. Just inside the lobby (museum admission is free) is a 1917 Packard Continental tank truck and fabulous vintage Conoco clock. The obligatory nine-minute introduction film is short on history and long on rah rah how awesome is company spirit though those spirits must be flagging in Ponca City. The museum does begin with a time-line filling in history.

Ponca City was created in 1893 following a land run of opened up Indian lands. Prior to the discovery of oil, the area’s biggest claim to fame was being home to the Miller Bros. 101 Ranch, headquarters for their highly successful wild west show. A Pennsylvania man named E.W. Marland knew the Millers who arranged for Marland to acquire an oil lease on Indian land. Oil gushed in 1911 and the Marland Oil Company was born. Ponca City exploded in growth with Marland the town’s patron saint.

Conoco was originally established in 1875 as Continental Oil Company in Utah. Marland bought out Continental in 1929 and renamed the company Conoco. The iconic Conoco triangle was introduced in 1930 and existed until 1970 when it morphed into the Conoco capsule. The Marland Oil logo had been a triangle representing the trinity of service. A number of those signs are displayed throughout the museum along with vintage oil cans and gas pump top globes.

The boardroom circa 1928 is recreated with Marland’s chair, desk and silver service. The history of changes in management, takeovers and acquisitions is related. Marland would be ousted in hostile fashion and would eventually become Oklahoma governor in 1934. Other facets of the company are displayed like 1950s research lab equipment. Conoco got into the travel service in the 1950s with Touraide and there is a vintage travel office complete with old road maps.

Emphasis is placed on Ponca City and Conoco employees. There are off-shore drilling and other technologies on hand. Tons of artifacts are lying around such as pins and pens, hats, lighters, credit cards, matchbooks, plates and figurines. There is even an old time card clock where employees punched in. Connoisseurs of petroleum related memorabilia from what are now small collectible items to valuable large pieces.

The Conoco Museum is more than merely the history of a petroleum corporation. This is also the story concerning the fortunes of a small town dependent upon a single major employer and a man named Marland who rose to king and was toppled. The nature of how business has evolved is reflected. Products of America’s heartland, Ponca City and Conoco are symbolic of changing times.