OKEMAH — When Brenda Duke looked at the giant pile of wood inside a musty storage room at the Okemah Historical Society, she couldn't help but think about her dad.
The splintered planks filled with nails and splashes of worn paint are all that's left of an old house and his unfulfilled dream. Her father, Earl Walker, knew one day there would be someone who understood the significance of these boards, but more importantly, the significance of the man who once lived within them.
That man was American folk music legend Woody Guthrie. Walker's dream was to rebuild Guthrie's childhood home to bring people into the town he loved. Walker died in 1994 of lung cancer, but these days, Duke figures her dad is looking down at the town where he spent most of his adult life with an I-told-you-so grin.
If the right pieces fall in place, Walker's dream will become a reality. Duke choked up thinking about what it will be like to stand in front of Guthrie's restored home on its original lot.
“Dad would be very proud,” she said. “I can't put that in words.”
Earl Walker didn't stand for Woody Guthrie's political leanings or music. He stood for Okemah, Guthrie's birthplace.
Walker, who passed out business cards calling himself a sharecropper, was a rancher, but maintained a large presence in Okemah as the owner of Liberty Oil Co. He used that position to help his community.
“Every kid that ever came around to try and sell something for his school, my grandfather, he was there to help,” said Kurtis Walker, Earl Walker's grandson and Duke's nephew. “He was persistent about being there for the community, especially the schools.”
During the 1960s and '70s, Walker pushed Okemah to honor its most famous son, Woody Guthrie. Because of Walker, the town painted “Home of Woody Guthrie” on the water tower.
In 1962, Walker bought Guthrie's childhood home, the “London House” named after its previous owner and built in the early 1800s. It came with controversy because of Guthrie's perceived communist views, and Duke said some town leaders believed Walker was just trying to make a profit off the house.
“A lot of times, people thought my dad was trying to make money or something, but he was probably one of the most generous people in town,” Duke said. “He saw Woody Guthrie's fame as something Okemah could use to help it. He was ahead of his time.
“He wanted the house to be an attraction for Okemah and be self-sufficient. He didn't ever want it to get to a point where nobody would support it.”
But Walker's efforts to use the house to promote the town fell short because few shared his vision. In the late 1970s, the Okemah City Council made Walker tear the dilapidated building down because they said trespassers were drinking and smoking in the unsafe house on private property.
Walker disagreed, but he eventually gave in. In the late 1970s he had it torn down, plank by plank. Walker didn't have the house destroyed. He knew if it were stored correctly, the house would stand one day.
“He still always said, ‘Someday Okemah will be glad that we can say that Woody Guthrie is from here,'” Duke said. “Someday.”
Passing the baton
It's a bit of a mystery how the wood ended up in a storage shed west of town.
The people who bought and sold it over the past half-century are gone. Their children do their best to recall what happened, but the storylines don't always match up. What's known for sure is that Waylon Bishop, a volunteer at the Okemah Historical Society, purchased the wood last spring from the Bradberry family in Okemah for $1,000.
Meanwhile, Dan Riedemann was traveling more than 280 miles from Lawrence, Kan., in search of the wood. Riedemann, founder of 19th Century Restorations, found out about the house and did his research.
He contacted the Duke family and the historical society with a vision — rebuild Guthrie's home using as much of the old wood as possible for what would be Guthrie's 100th birth year.
“When Dan came in, I thought, ‘Am I dreaming this?'” Duke said. “Does he really think he has some ideas he think can work?”
There are still some legal issues to sort out to complete the project, but the vision between Okemah and the Walker family seems to finally be in line — honor the man that keeps visitors rolling in year round by restoring his childhood home.
In many ways, Walker's vision already has come full circle.
The Woody Guthrie Festival brings thousands of tourists and dollars into the community each summer, and Guthrie is honored throughout town with a statue, a tree carving, a porch and small room made with wood from his home in the museum, and a mural.
But Duke said there is still unfinished business.
“This might be our one chance to get the house back up for dad,” she said.
If Riedemann can raise $300,000 for lumber, materials and labor, the project can begin.
He said he's hoping some big-time country music stars with Oklahoma roots will open their wallets to help restore one of folk music's most important figures.
To donate and to learn more about the project, go online to http://19thcenturyrestorations.com.
Riedemann said he will have the project finished six weeks after the funding is received. It's a quick turnaround, but Riedemann is ready for the challenge.
“Somehow, Earl Walker passed me the baton, and now it's in my hand,” he said.
at a glance
Born in Okemah on July 14, 1912, Guthrie played music and set roots in Texas, California, New York and Oregon before he served in the merchant marines and Army during World War II. He recorded thousands of songs during his lifetime, to both acclaim and ridicule, because of his socialist views. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Guthrie died Oct. 3, 1967, of Huntington's disease, a hereditary brain disorder.
Guthrie Home Restoration Project
The project is led by Dan Riedemann of 19th Century Restorations, a construction company that specializes in restoring historic buildings. It will use private funding to rebuild Woody Guthrie's childhood home in Okemah using some of the same wood from the original 1800s structure. The home then will be open to the public for tours and rented out for music venues.
The goal to get the project funded is $300,000, which will go toward the lumber, labor and materials for rebuilding the home.
Any money left over, and any money made from the project, will be donated to Huntington's disease research. You can donate and find more information about the