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.