An AP Member Exchange shared by The Oklahoman
CACHE, Okla. (AP) — The weeds are tall in the former Eagle Park, an amusement park shuttered in 1985, where about a dozen historic buildings sit together like an old town square. The skeleton of a wooden roller coaster — The Wild Mouse — barely stands taller than the trees that have grown up beneath it, and the remnants of a small stage and viewing stands aren’t much more than a pile of rusty metal and broken wood.
Still, every month dozens of tourists drive down the forgotten road behind a trading post and diner to see one of the fading structures in the park. Star House, the once great home of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanche Nation, brings in curious visitors and students writing about the renowned chief, said its owner and caretaker, Wayne Gipson.
Gipson gives tours of the home in return for donations, according to The Oklahoman (http://bit.ly/2faC6CQ ).
“I say maybe a hundred a month,” Gipson said after unlatching the cattle gate on the overgrown road that leads to what remains of the park.
“Some summer months you’re doing way more than that, some winter months you’re probably less than that. It would help a bunch if we had a bigger volume. More donations would lead to more money to spend on maintenance, which certainly it needs.”
The years have not been kind to Star House. Its upper floor is too deteriorated to walk through, and last year’s record floods filled the bottom floor with nearly 3 feet of water, evidenced by dirt and water markings along the wall.
Most family members and historians agree Parker had large white stars painted on the ranch house’s red roof as a sign of status and nobility.
“It was to signify that he was eagle of the Plains,” said Ardith Parker Leming, Parker’s great-great granddaughter.
Parker was inspired by the homes of the commanders at nearby Fort Sill, she said.
“He never wanted to be outdone.”
The roof is now uneven, as the home continues to settle, and the sun shines through holes in the roof and second floor.
Gipson’s uncle, Herbert T. Woesner, acquired the home in 1958 from Parker’s daughter, Linda Parker Birdsong. Birdsong had been living in her father’s home after it was removed from its original location a few miles away to make way for an artillery range at Fort Sill. After the move, the home had no access to plumbing or a water well, and Birdsong traded Star House to Woesner, who had expressed interest in displaying it.
“So she came to my uncle’s house on Easter morning in 1958. She stayed in her car, she blew her horn, my uncle comes out to see what she wanted,” Gipson said.
“She said … if anything’s ever going to be done with the house, it would be up to him and if he would trade her a livable house, for the Star House she’d go along with the trade. So, that’s how the house came to be here.”
Parker was known for living in two worlds, that of his people and the world of the white settlers. He hosted generals, prominent Native Americans and cattle herders in Star House. It was a place of great pride for the Comanche leader. For years, family members and officials with the Comanche Nation have sought to restore the home, but efforts to find common ground with Gipson on how that should happen have stalled.
In July 2015, the National Trust for Historic Preservation gave the Comanche Nation a $15,000 grant to assess the condition and possible restoration of the house. The report found there was enough original material in good condition to be preserved or restored.
“The report really underscored and emphasized the immediate nature of what needs to happen,” said Beth Wiedower with the trust. “Now, unfortunately, nearly a year and a half has passed since that and the proper action hasn’t occurred.”
Since the home is privately owned, options for restoration grants are limited, Wiedower said. Most grants for historical preservation require properties to be accessible to the public.
This year, Preservation Oklahoma placed Star House on its annual list of endangered places, which the nonprofit has done several times before.
“It really needs a lot of help,” said Executive Director David Pettyjohn. “We kind of hope by keeping up the awareness that the local community continues to be a part of the discussion.”
Gipson has an affection for the home, which is apparent when listening to him speak about its history. He said he wants to see the home restored, but he is less than eager if the path to restoration means giving up ownership or allowing public access to the park grounds. For Gipson, Star House is the last piece of the once bustling Eagle Park that still has some of its old magic, and he feels a sense of responsibility in its stewardship.
“I thought in my youth that I’d be running the amusement park all my life,” Gipson said while standing next to the crumpled remains of The Wild Mouse wooden roller coaster
When Gipson was 21, his father was working to repair the coaster, which the park had purchased used, when he fell and hit his head, causing his death. The coaster never did become operational, and new regulations made insurance prices too high for the park to remain open. The park, he said, is where he grew up. Gipson and his sister are the last remaining family from the park’s glory days.
“I never tried to run him down. I never will, because they’ve been too good to us,” Leming said.
Gipson and his uncle always welcomed Parker’s relatives, Leming said, even allowing them to hold their family reunion on the park grounds before the home became too damaged to safely host the large group.
“They treated us so well,” Leming said of Gipson and his uncle, Woesner. “They never charged us a thing and gave us a key. No we don’t like the house falling apart, and we wish they could fix it. They know that, they know we don’t like it, but we’re not going to be upset with them about it.”
Leming said she visits Cache often, and she always makes time to stop in Gipson’s diner to eat and talk to her old family friend. But she no longer has the heart to visit the home of her great-great grandfather, the Eagle of the Plains.
“I don’t want to go down there,” she said, “because it makes me too sad.”