On December 14, 1972, the New York Times ran an article with the headline, “Woody Guthrie’s hometown is divided on paying him homage.” It chronicled the battle in Okemah over Guthrie’s legacy—much of the town shunned the folk hero because of his ties to the Communist party, and political leaders were reluctant to officially recognize the socialist musician as a native son. At the center of the story was Earl Walker, a local oilman and rancher who was using his wealth and influence to pull the town towards embracing Guthrie as one of its own. Walker had purchased Guthrie’s childhood home— dubbed the “London house” after the large family that occupied the home prior to the Guthries— several years before Guthrie’s death. In 1972, Walker had, as a member of the Okemah Utility Authority, motioned for the town to paint its water tower with the phrase “Home of Woody Guthrie.” Additionally, Walker had successfully embarrassed the once- reluctant Okemah library into accepting a collection of Guthrie records and books by arranging for the musician’s widow and son to appear in person and present the collection as a gift.
As the Times surmised, “Were it not for Earl Walker, the memories (of Guthrie) might have lain dormant.”
Walker’s daughter, Brenda Duke, still lives in Okemah. Walker passed away in the early ’90s but Duke and her husband continue to operate Walker’s business, Liberty Oil Company, which sits in a northeast corner of town on Woody Guthrie Street.
Duke describes her father, who never graduated from college, as a man who could do anything “except practice law.” His business card read “Earl Walker, Sharecropper,” but agriculture was just one of his many interests.
“He was always involved in city politics, he just never ran for office himself,” Duke says. Walker was an oilman but he also sat on the Okemah Utility Authority. He was a liaison to the National Guard and governor of the Oklahoma/Texas chapter of the Kiwanis club. He knew almost everyone in town and still waved to the people he didn’t know. And he was a Woody Guthrie fan.
Duke remembers the day she first learned of her father’s involvement with the Guthrie legacy.
“I was in high school, and my history teacher told me that my dad owned the property, the London house,” Duke recalls. “I went home and asked dad, and he said, ‘Yes, I bought it.’ It was sometime in the early ’60s that he purchased the home, and he didn’t know at the time that Woody was ill, but he just purchased it because he said, ‘Someday, Okemah will want to honor him in some way.’ ”
When Walker learned of Guthrie’s illness, he traveled to New York, to the hospital where Guthrie was bed-ridden, and asked for the artist’s blessing in using the house as a non-profit attraction for Okemah. Guthrie agreed. According to Duke, Walker’s vision was to renovate and preserve the home. Any money made from donations would go to help fund research into Huntington’s disease, the degenerative illness that afflicted Guthrie.
“He wanted it so that the house would be self- sufficient, and the town of Okemah would never have to fund it,” Duke says. “People in the town misinterpreted what he was doing, they thought he was trying to make some gain for himself.”
Five years after Guthrie passed away, Walker began to make progress. He achieved the water tower makeover, had been recognized by the Times for his efforts, and was pushing hard for an official “Woody Guthrie” day. But many residents still balked at the idea of honoring someone who wrote columns for the American Communist Party.
Some of the people who opposed Walker had gone to school with Guthrie. A local service station worker was quoted in the Times story as saying: “Woody was no good. About half the town feels that way. I knew him, went to school with him, used to whup him. He doesn’t deserve to have his name up there (on the water tower).”
In the late ’70s, Walker’s mission suffered a major blow. Okemah’s city council determined that the London house, which had not yet become the fully preserved memorial Walker envisioned, was becoming a public nuisance, attracting hippies and transients who wished to get intoxicated under the specter of Guthrie. Walker told the city that he’d put a fence around the place, but local leaders jumped at the excuse to dismantle the Guthrie home. The London house was eventually torn down. Today, an elaborately carved tree marks the empty lot. It proclaims: “WG, This Land is Your Land.”
Today in Okemah, Woody Guthrie’s presence is as ubiquitous as a stop sign. On the southern edge of town, just off the street in his name, rests a wooden signpost—still with a crispness and gloss that betrays its relative newness—bearing a black and white rendering of the singer and the greeting, “Welcome to Okemah, Home of Woody Guthrie.” On Broadway, the town’s main thoroughfare, wedged between the old brick buildings of downtown, is a grassy little square that holds a modest memorial to the folk singer, complete with a small statue. Not far from the memorial is the Okemah Historical Society, a musty, unassuming museum of the town’s history and home to a Guthrie display featuring, among other things, his supposed first guitar. Down the road, in the dining room of the town’s main restaurant, the Brick Street Café, Guthrie memorabilia covers the walls—newspaper clippings (including the Times article), photographs, painted Guthrie slogans. Just outside the restaurant is a preserved concrete slab, ceremoniously framed in red brick, with Guthrie’s embedded signature.
Walker died shortly before the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival was created. Duke insists that her father would be mortified by the suggestion that his efforts 50 years ago somehow paved the way for the festival, but it’s hard not to draw a connection between Walker’s water tower in ’72 and the Guthrie-crazed Okemah of today.
Ironically, the man who worked so hard to preserve the memory of one of Okemah’s most beloved locals is himself a vague memory in the town’s collective consciousness. Nowhere is there a memorial or tribute to Walker, no street named after him, no official recognition of one of Okemah’s most important citizens—just a lonely, yellowing newspaper clipping laminated and posted in a restaurant.
But that’s OK, Duke says. “Really, what he wanted was for the town of Okemah to know Woody Guthrie. He said, ‘Someday, we’ll be glad that we can claim him.’ ”