The Star House—named for the series of white stars painted starkly on its roof, signifying nothing in particular—has all the makings of a tourist trap, on paper. It’s a famous Comanche’s house in the middle of Comanche County. When I sought it out, I imagined a Disney World-styled tour of antiseptic antiquity, old props behind velvet ropes, with a teenage tour-guide reciting trivia. Maybe a pamphlet.
The truth is that the house is anything but a tourist trap, despite its potential to become one. Though it is now difficult to find except by chance, there are those who would accord it a prominent place as a stop among many on a “Quanah Parker tour” in Texas, plucking it from its hundred-year home. But for now, until the right time and price emerge, the house stays home, tucked away in the tiny town of Cache—fittingly enough, French for “hidden.”
Lawton, home of the Fort Sill Artillery Base and the fifth-largest city in the state, strikes me powerfully as a town without culture, big enough to serve the Wal-Mart and Applebee’s needs of its nation-spanning soldier population, but lacking anything resembling a soul. It’s a purgatory just north of the state line, a buffer zone between the nation-unto-itself that is Texas and the entire rest of the Midwest above it, where competing cultures cancel each other out, leaving nothing.
I’m not, apparently, the only person who harbors odd feelings about the city. One man familiar with the place told me, with marked profundity, that by his measure “the ceiling is lower there,” while another man said more bluntly that “there’s nothing in Lawton—nothing!” Most whom I’ve spoken to about the place agree that the whole region makes an impression with its emptiness, edging so near to the far side of Oklahoma, with stark fields where cacti grow, where the Midwest starts to feel more like the West.
I have felt, and still feel adamantly, that there is sorrow in the air there that exists as something more tangible than just poetic feeling. To find out why, I decided to mine Lawton’s history—but with a goal so vague, I was desperate for any half-decent advice to get me started, which is why I took it to heart when the man who told me Lawton was “nothing, nothing” said cryptically, over our last round of drinks, that “if you want to find the real Lawton, you go look for Quanah Parker.”
* * *
“Oh this is the prettiest country I have ever saw I wish I could climb up all of the Mts. that we saw coming on the train.”—A letter from Spicie Mae Strickland to her mother. Lawton, Oklahoma Territory, November 2, 1901.
She’s got a point. Parts of southwest Oklahoma are mountainous and pretty, made all the more marvelous by the flat expanse that surrounds—fields that, at the time of her writing, were coming up for grabs in one of the last land openings in Oklahoma history. If Oklahoma as we know it can be said to have begun in the hands of Sooners, these last lotteries were the purview of the nation’s Now-or-Nevers.
IN ITS EARLIEST DAYS LAWTON ITSELF WAS CALLED “FORT SILL,” UNTIL THE IDEA AROSE TO NAME THE GROWING CITY IN HONOR OF HENRY LAWTON, THE MILITARY BASE’S QUARTERMASTER, A DECORATED GENERAL, AND THE MAN WHO CAPTURED GERONIMO.
Spicie Mae Strickland, later Petty, was one among the masses, and a lucky one for all the land she managed to snare—320 acres. Overnight, the tent city of Lawton sprouted up as a metropolis on the frontier, its development both bolstered and made necessary by the existence, just to the north, of Fort Sill. From the very start, the base and the city shared a symbiotic relationship, and it’s impossible to think of the two as separate entities. In its earliest days Lawton itself was called “Fort Sill,” until the idea arose to name the growing city in honor of Henry Lawton, the military base’s quartermaster, a decorated general, and the man who captured Geronimo.
Altogether, the history makes an impression. At first, in the early 19th century, Indian Territory was meant to serve as a reservation for all the native peoples who persisted in existing in defiance of Manifest Destiny. By late century, the eastern lands had been carved off and designated as also suitable for settlement, becoming “Oklahoma Territory.” leaving the old moniker for the more barren west. By the Civil War’s end, even that was beginning to become fair game, and Fort Sill was founded for the primary purpose of neutralizing uppity Indians.
This slow but ceaseless takeover represented more, much more, than a simple transfer of land and title, and its resonance was not restricted by geography. The author Angie Debo seems to recognize the national significance of Oklahoma’s origin story in 1949, when she writes:
Oklahoma is more than just another state. It is a lens in which the long rays of time are focused into the brightest light. In its magnifying clarity, dim facets of the American character stand more clearly revealed. For in Oklahoma all the experiences that went into the making of the nation have been speeded up. Here all the American traits have been intensified. The one who can interpret Oklahoma can grasp the meaning of America in the modern world.
Oklahoma, and particularly this part of Oklahoma, was where the so-called “Indian Wars”—which had existed in some form or another between European colonials and American natives for centuries—met their denouement. Though conflicts and rumblings of uprising would continue throughout the country, this is where the grander scale of the battles all ended, and where sites like Fort Sill became POW camps for Natives like Geronimo. It’s where the buffalo died and the white man won.
It’s easy to draw comparisons between Geronimo and his contemporary, Quanah Parker. They both lived where Lawton stands now, but while Geronimo was revered for his refusal to surrender to the changing times, Quanah Parker became famous for somewhat the opposite—as a Comanche who watched the last Indian lands be sold away before his eyes, he emerged among his people as a leader of incorporation between the ways of white and red.
Parker recognized the reality of the day, forging vital relationships between the fading native and domineering colonial cultures. He adopted an Anglicized surname, was fundamental in founding the Native American Church, invested wisely, and died wealthy, perhaps as the richest Native person in the country at the time. He showed his people that they could live and even thrive in a white world. He went hunting with Theodore Roosevelt, and it is no coincidence that decades after he watched the buffalo disappear, he was present at the turn of the century establishment of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge just west of Lawton—a federal project that brought the buffalo back to Oklahoma, and saved the species from extinction.
In 1890, Parker built the Star House and lived there with the company of his many wives—seven in total. He lived wealthy, respected, with the friendship of a president. In stark parallel, Geronimo was a prisoner of war just miles to the east, along with 341 fellow Chiricahua Apaches, from 1894 until his death, his only escape attempt ending in failure.
Today, deep within Fort Sill, Geronimo’s grave is simply stone beneath a tree in the middle of a small Apache cemetery, decorated with flowers, oils, and eagle feathers that have yet to be blown away with the wind. Parker’s grave is opulent, at the front of the base, the highest monument in its main military graveyard. It’s no wonder why they received such disparate honors—Parker got along with the winning side. But where his grave stands now is not where he was buried, and his house no longer stands where it was built. The history has been shifted, distorted, quietly concealed. It’s the loser’s history, as told by the side that won.
Realizing this, I remembered my drinking buddy’s entreaty, stuck inside my mind like some kind of holy creed. Parker was becoming more than just a man to me, instead a symbol of all this uprooted, whitewashed history, the remnants of which hung so heavily in the air. Dig deeper, I thought. Go look for Quanah Parker.
* * *
Wayne Gipson and I made poor first impressions on each other when we met at the Trading Post, his store in Cache, for a tour of the nearby Star House. Despite being on time, I was made to wait for a half an hour before we set off, without explanation or apology. But the snub, and Wayne’s chilly demeanor, mostly served to stoke my curiosity; the idea of one man tending to what I imagined was an important Native relic while conveying zero concern for the opinion of his sole client for the day struck me as both insane and fascinating.
I waited at a booth inside the store, where nothing besides the food behind the counter seemed less than 20 years old. From the outside, the place looks completely abandoned, with dusty windows and no signage. Atop a tall pole outside is a rusting, decades-old arrow pointing to a place called “Eagle Park”—an out-of-commission amusement park that Wayne’s family once operated, down the long, gated road leading south of the store.
Today, the wide field where the park once stood is empty, overgrown with weeds, surrounded by industrial detritus. But there is a circle of wooden buildings just out of view, stuck out of time—most prominent among them, the Star House.
Though considered a historical site of nominal significance by the government, the house exists today due to the efforts of Gipson, his family, and especially his late uncle, Herbert W. Woesner Jr., who moved the house from its original location as a favor to Parker’s family years after his death, when the expansion of Fort Sill’s artillery fields threatened to raze the place entirely.
The ring of old buildings—Gipson calls them “historical things”—where the Star House stands now were a small side attraction at Eagle Park until the park’s closure in the 1980s. There’s a small plaque on the house’s northern wall that describes it as a historical site—but though Gipson says the governor of Oklahoma paid a commemorative visit at the time of its installation, the sign was purchased by Woesner himself.
“It’s just been a part of my family, I guess,” Gipson said of the house’s place in his own history. “I was raised in the amusement park there, and it’s just always been there. I was born two years after it was moved, so it’s always been here, as far as I know.”
If you want to know why he works so hard to keep the place standing, that’s as good of an explanation as you’ll get. Gipson offers tours personally, and he’s not a typical guide, given to exaggerated enthusiasm and easy-to-recall lore. He narrates evenly, from memory, exuding a deep melancholy while staring mostly at his hands. He speaks simply and without pretense, with an extreme distance that I initially found unsettling—but as we progressed, his manner made the scarcest details stand out all the better, and my imagination filled in the cracks.
As the tour wore on, I became increasingly dumbstruck at the miniscule parameters of the operation. This is not a commissioned job, sponsored by a museum or university. It’s a thankless enterprise, run in a ramshackle way without outward want of profit or widespread recognition. Though donations are accepted, tours are technically free, and whatever funds have kept it standing have come primarily from local sources, and Gipson’s own pocket.
It’s not as though he makes it easy on himself. Though the house could easily be a tourist trap, and probably a fairly successful one, scheduling a tour takes an absurd amount of effort, and the process of arranging one is far from obvious—even though, by Gipson’s account, the place has naturally attracted more visitors over time. “I guess it had to get a little older before it could get interesting,” he said.
But interest doesn’t pay the bills, and without a sturdy business structure, it’s hard to see how the operation could continue. Many who come for tours end up leaving frustrated without one as they wait for Gipson to finish his duties at the Trading Post.
“I have people come by that can’t wait until I give [tours to them], and that bothers me… and I don’t know what to do personally in my current situation to change it,” he said, discussing the bottleneck he faces as a one-man operation giving in-depth tours that can easily last two hours. “I had a lady come by… showed up right near one o’clock, and I explained to her that I give tours in the afternoon, after I can lock the doors here at the Trading Post. And she couldn’t wait for a tour, because she was traveling on the road, and she told me she was quite upset.”
There’s money to be made in the house’s extant audience, but that would only come from making the tours a full-time operation, with established hours, advertising, billboards, all the trimmings. So I asked Gipson the obvious question—is he interested in having employees? He chuckled. “Hah. I don’t know.” He says he’s hesitant to hire help, since the erratic schedules of tourists would require them to be available “at the drop of a hat.” Also, money is a concern.
“At the current time there’s no way to employ somebody. Today I did a tour for four people, they donated 20 dollars, and, y’know, that’s not a whole lot… It’s not a lot of money to give on to somebody that you hire to help you. So I don’t know,” he said, in his ultimate answer to the problem. “That’s why we need to get more information out there, so that people schedule their trip towards when it is available for me to give it to them.”
There is another solution, of course, in selling the house, which Gipson says he’s entertained. And while he is sometimes approached by organizations with offers to take over the place, he’s yet to hear an offer that he likes.
“I’m afraid that they’re gonna come up with the idea to take the house and want to move it somewhere, which is a frequent story.” According to Gipson, some have wanted to move the house as far away as Fort Worth. “Apparently they’re making this map of Quanah Parker interest points, but it seems strange that they’d want to move the house so far away from where it came from if they were doing that. They say it’s got 6.9 million people there, all these schoolkids who’d want to see it. But if you move it down there, then what are the schoolkids up here gonna do?”
From the sound of things, if there were offers to fund the house’s renovation and upkeep in exchange for a transfer of ownership and the right to move the thing, he would probably be considering them. But most offers have stalled at inquiries as to whether the house is definitely for sale, never reaching hard dollar talk. So for now, the house stays where it is, preserved to the best of Gipson’s ability, hidden behind his store in Cache.
With this realization I began to understand what my muse back in the pub had been talking about when he told me to go look for Quanah Parker. On the surface, there’s a grave in Fort Sill, where Parker lay dead, and a token commemoration—but just miles around the bend, his house still stands, and a part of him is still alive. The history isn’t gone. It’s just hiding.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 15. August 1, 2013.