In Oklahoma, Efforts to Save House of Last Comanche Chief


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Star House, as it is known, sits in tiny Cache, Okla., and its private owner has neither the time nor money to maintain it, but so far he has refused to sell it to the Comanche Nation.

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Stuart Miller

A torrential storm lashed tiny Cache, Okla. (population 2,906), in late May, flooding homes and forcing residents onto their roofs to await rescue. But the most devastating damage may have been to a house that has stood empty for nearly 60 years.

Star House, built on Fort Sill around 1890 by Quanah Parker, the renowned last chief of the Comanche Nation, already felt like the loneliest tourist attraction in America. Open only briefly each day, the crumbling house sits on the back lot of a long-shuttered amusement park. It has been deteriorating for years, especially because large sections of the roof are missing, allowing the elements to damage the upper floors.

The owner and tour guide Wayne Gipson, 53, is deeply attached to Star House, and protective of it, yet acknowledges that he lacks the time and money to properly maintain or market it.

Despite numerous offers, he has also refused to rent or sell the home, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, to anyone, including the Comanche Nation.

But tribal leaders and Parker’s descendants now see that spring deluge, which damaged or ruined original rugs, wallpaper and furniture, as the potential wellspring of the house’s salvation.

“I think the best thing that could have happened is the flood,” said Chenoa Barhydt, director of marketing and economic development for the Comanche Nation, which again hopes to persuade Mr. Gipson to relinquish control. “This will start a conversation about saving it.”

“There’s an open door now,” said Ardith Parker Leming, great-granddaughter of Quanah Parker.

S. C. Gwynne’s best-selling 2010 book, “Empire of the Summer Moon,” brought Parker and the Comanche history to a popular audience, and although he is less known by most Americans than Sitting Bull, Geronimo and Crazy Horse, he is a significant presence in Native American history. The son of a Comanche chief, Peta Nocona, and a captured white woman, Cynthia Ann Parker, he was a feared warrior during the Comanches’ final years on the Southwest plains. Parker then adapted his experience and leadership skills on the reservation, earning wealth and success for himself and his people.

Parker’s two-story, eight-bedroom home features large stars on the roof to remind visitors that he was equal in stature and power to American generals. He hosted military officers and politicians, as well as Geronimo and the Kiowa chief Lone Wolf.

“He made the transition from the tepees to live in a very modern house because he knew it had to happen not just for him but for the rest of the tribal members as well,” said Wallace Coffey, who is in his sixth term as the Comanche Nation tribal chairman.

After Parker died in 1911, one of his daughters, Linda Parker Birdsong, lived in Star House until 1957. The Army was demolishing buildings to expand Fort Sill but agreed to move Star House to an empty lot in Cache. However, as Mr. Gipson explained on his tour, the Parkers had relied on a well and an outhouse; without those on the small lot, Ms. Birdsong had to move in with relatives.

Mr. Gipson’s uncle Herbert Woesner bought Star House and moved it to his 250-acre property; he added other historic buildings — including the home of the outlaw Frank James — and, in 1960, opened Eagle Park, an amusement park, there. Soaring insurance costs closed Eagle Park in 1985, Mr. Gipson said, yet Mr. Woesner regaled tourists with Parker’s story until he died in 2008. He left the property to Mr. Gipson and Mr. Gipson’s sister, Ginger. But maintaining old wooden buildings is costly, and the house has been on Oklahoma’s list of Most Endangered Historic Places since 2007.

Mr. Gipson is willing to give tours only if visitors show up around 2 p.m. and wait for him to close up his roadside diner, gas station and trading post. It would be easy to drive past the rusted trading post and Eagle Park signs thinking this is an abandoned site. The trading post was closed when I first arrived because Mr. Gipson was next door, toiling in the diner’s kitchen as he has since his mother died a few years ago.

After I bought a few postcards (I was his only customer of the day) and waited and waited, we finally drove past the ruins of Eagle Park to reach the Star House, and Mr. Gipson, who had been taciturn, became a genial and chatty guide.

Before the flooding, the major concern was the roof, or what was left of it. In the spring the Comanche Nation brought in a contractor to evaluate the cost of repairs, which the tribe would have paid for, according to Will Owens, tribal administrator. “We just really want to preserve it,” he said.

Meanwhile, a frustrated Mr. Coffey was contemplating building a replica Star House on Comanche property nearby to serve as a bed-and-breakfast and to educate people about Parker. “That was the only alternative I had,” he said, adding that he has always consulted with Parker’s descendants about each potential decision.

Mr. Gipson sees his heritage as caretaker of Star House — his family has owned it nearly as long as the Parkers did — and it pains him to know he can’t do right by it. He asked that I not take close-up photos of the house because dressers, rugs and mattresses were dragged onto the porch to dry or be disposed of.

Many callers since the flood don’t even visit after Mr. Gipson tells them the inside is off-limits, but he gave a tour that allows peeks through windows from the unstable porch: glimpses of the original wallpaper, the dining room with the original table, and the kitchen with its cast-iron stove.

Mr. Gipson has no solutions: “I do not have thousands of dollars to pour into this,” he said.

Yet he has always found reasons to say no to the Comanche Nation. They hope the flood might lead to change. In June, Mr. Coffey asked the Parker family to hold a prayer vigil at Star House (usually the site of their reunions). Two hundred people, many of them Parker descendants, attended. The state of the house raised alarms.

“He might be willing to negotiate now,” Mr. Owens said of Mr. Gipson.

On July 1, the day after I visited Star House, Mr. Coffey announced a $15,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to assess the house and create a stabilization plan. The tribe would like to buy the house and either elevate it on the site or move it to higher ground on Comanche property. Mr. Owens said that the total repair costs may top $1 million so the tribe is forming a nonprofit group for fund-raising. If they cannot persuade Mr. Gipson to sell, they hope he and his sister would join them in running the nonprofit. “We are willing to work with him in any form or fashion,” Mr. Coffey said.

Several days later, Mr. Gipson sounded surprised to have been visited by the trust’s team of architects and structural engineers. He was wary of the attention. “I don’t know if I’m any more interested in selling now,” he said, adding that he’s reluctant to agree to a nonprofit until he understands how the control would be divided.

He said someone from the trust explained that with proper development and marketing Star House could attract 30,000 visitors annually, more than 10 times the current total, at $5 per person, eventually providing money to cover maintenance, marketing and insurance.

But he remained skeptical. “It’s too soon to say,” he said.



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