It was built to be our state headquarters but ended up being home to Okemah’s Freemasons. Now that they’ve abandoned it, too, the massive white building serves as a quirky museum, housing mock scholastics and random bric-a-brac.
On the first floor, a one-room schoolhouse environment displays dolls seated calmly at desks, their vintage books and papers proudly surviving in front of them. The walls boast war memorabilia and snapshots of long-gone townspeople performing their various trades: a pharmacist tinkering with his glass medicine bottles, a homemaker preparing meals. In the center is a tribute to Okemah- born Woody Guthrie, his personal letters and photographs strewn about behind glass. Next to one of his old guitars sits a stack of records and a signed copy of his autobiography. Eager tour guides include descendents of Okemah’s founders, whose ancestors came to town in covered wagons.
While the museum is special, the real heart of the building is upstairs, where Masons held induction ceremonies and decided how to spend their dough.
“As a longtime member of the Okemah Masonic Lodge, I held many positions,” Bill Elliott said. “For many years our lodge provided a wide range of community support … We provided
Okfuskee County schools with scholarships for graduating seniors. We assisted the American Legion with funds for local students to attend functions at the state Capital. The Lodge was one of the major contributors to the building of three baseball fields.”
The Lodge also lent a hand to neighboring towns, providing financial assistance for the Sunrise Fire Department when they needed a new fire station, and to the town of Paden to help restore a nearly 100 year-old school auditorium.
But when enthusiasm began to fade, the Lodge was forced to close. “The reason our lodge failed was due to lack of attendance and support from our members,” Elliott explained. “You need a minimum of five members present to hold a meeting, and we could only attract three or four.”
The Grand Lodge of Oklahoma requested that the Okemah Masons turn in their charter and move the remaining members to a nearby town.
Abandoned, the empty upstairs rooms gather dust. Piles of Okemah’s history lie around haphazardly, stirred together with hints of modern life. In the former bathroom, a blinking internet modem sits next to a rusty toilet. In another room, injured mannequins lean up against the walls. An antiquated sewing table sits lonely in a small space strangely labeled “Pastor’s Study.”
But while Okemah’s financial support club has closed, it has not shaken the town’s spirit.
“Okemah changed after the I-40 was built,” said resident Roger Thompson, explaining that there are at least eight new businesses in town to support a community that has not dwindled. “Okemah has remained around 3,000 people for the last 25 years. We’re small compared to a number of surrounding cities, but we’re fiscally solid and looking forward to the future.”
Except for a little construction—a new McDonald’s being built on the corner—the streets of Okemah are calm, occupied only by a small helmeted boy driving a four-wheeler. Some businesses are clearly new, while others are boarded up or seemingly abandoned, with signs like “FALL SALE” hanging in the spring windows. But there are flashes of excitement, too, like the Crystal Theatre, once Oklahoma’s premiere movie house, being restored to its original glamour, or flyers for the Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival, where hoards of fans descend on the town each year to see members of Guthrie’s family perform alongside other folk musicians.