We didn’t get to have tea there, but our visit to the Murrell House in Park Hill, Oklahoma, for their recent May Day celebration was worthwhile. (This event was in part meant to be a fundraiser since their budget from the state coffers is being cut.) They had activities and people dressed in costumes of the period when the house was built (started in 1844 and finished in 1845) – but sadly no tea party (just an antique silver urn, teapot, teapot stand, and large sugar bowl on a table behind one of those velvet ropes that is a more effective barrier to us well-mannered folks than barbed wire would be). It is one of many historic sites in our country and was worth a bit of time to experience, albeit sparsely attended.
[Note: I have interjected some observations on various issues purely as a personal matter and not as a criticism of anyone involved with this or other historic sites.]
The U.S. is full of history. And it’s astounding that, in my researches into information about tea and its history in this country, I have learned quite a bit of that history. Thus the interest in attending this event.
Some say the U.S. is too young of a country, that our history, going back only a few centuries, cannot compare to the millennia of history in Europe, Asia, and Africa. But despite its relative newness, our country’s history is significant and has people devoted to preserving it. In fact, its more recent nature makes people relate to it more easily. That was certainly our experience when attending the May Day celebration at the Murrell House.
Photos from our visit:
Highlights of the History of Murrell Home
You can purchase a very nice book (not too thick and chock full of great info and photos), but here are a few highlights and some things the tour guides told us during our visit:
- Original owner: George Michael Murrell, born in 1808 in Lynchburg, Virginia, in a prominent family of merchants.
- Owner’s wife: Minerva Ross, eldest daughter of Lewis and Fannie (Holt) Ross who were members of a wealthy and influential Cherokee/Scottish mix family. After moving to Oklahoma, Minerva became ill and encouraged George to marry her sister Amanda after she died.
- Moved to Oklahoma: George and Minerva, as part of the Cherokee tribe, chose to move with them when President Andrew Jackson ordered the tribe’s relocation in 1838-39.
- House built: Started in 1844 and finished some time in 1845, all genuine lath and plaster construction, high ceilings, wide wooden floor boards. Lots of renovations and changes happened during ensuing years. Named “Hunter’s Home” since George liked fox hunting.
- Other buildings: Historians figure there were quite a few other buildings on the property in the mid to late 1800s, such as a smokehouse, a grist mill, a blacksmith shop, some corn cribs, and small cabins for slaves and employees.
- Historic landmark status: Declared a historic landmark in 1974, officially putting it on the roll of places drawing funds from the state coffers (filled from the taxpayers’ pockets).
- Condition today: The home endured the ravages of the Civil War, having been raided by supporters of both sides and even set on fire (which got put out fairly quickly), but is in good solid condition and contains many original and period artifacts and furnishings. It would be a great bed-and-breakfast or even a private school building but currently sits unoccupied with various “spoiler” modifications (such as a metal handrail beside the original wooden handrail on the front staircase inside and holes in the wall with clear panels over them to show the lath and plaster construction) for the tourists.
You might say that the Murrell and Ross families symbolize our American “can do” spirit. At least, I like to think so. The Murrells showed strength, fortitude, and a truly American attitude of thriving wherever they lived. From Virginia, George and his brother went to Tennessee. George met and married Minerva Ross there. Then, he and his wife came to Oklahoma (by their own choice). The Civil War forced a move back to Virginia (there is seldom talk about things like how wars displace people this way), and the Murrells never returned to this home. Nevertheless, their lives were good and the home here went to relatives.
Seeing the Past, Appreciating the Present
The trip to see this house was a splendid way to see a bit of the past. And the best part of that was appreciating all the more the present and all that mankind has achieved to improve our lives – improvements that we want to see endure for, and be improved upon by, the generations that follow.
A few examples:
- One tour guide talked about how a pregnant woman was better off when it came time to deliver dealing with a midwife (who was often a kitchen maid) since her hands would be a lot cleaner than the “gentleman” doctor’s hands (gentlemen as a rule never got dirty, an attitude that killed more women than by the Trail of Tears that the Cherokees trod). Thank goodness for clean, modern medicine where doctors know to “scrub up.”
- She also explained a surprising aspect of women’s underapparel (and one that again makes me applaud our modern lifestyle) and how women’s voluminous skirts would catch fire, causing them to succumb to the heat and fumes, often dying (in fact, a more frequent cause of death than childbirth). Modern fashions may not always be in the best taste, but we have less fear of catching fire or having to deal with insufficient coverage where it’s needed most.
- The house, typical of its time, had only fireplaces for heat and no air conditioning (there was a small top room that originally had windows that would be opened along with window on the first floor to draw cooler air in and the hotter air up and out, plus they would sleep on the first floor in Summer). Thank goodness for electricity, central heating, and air conditioning.
- The kitchen was built originally as a separate structure, reducing heat inside the house in Summer and the risk of fire year round. Coffee beans were expensive (as was tea, sugar, cacao beans, and a number of imported products), had to be roasted, ground, and then made into a hopefully drinkable cupful. Today, we have no need for woodburning cookstoves and can zap our food in a microwave oven if we choose. Dining out is also more prevalent today, with a wide range of choices. As for coffee, Starbucks, Pete’s Coffee, Peabury’s, and others have made that a very simple potable to attain.
- The kitchen garden was sparse with only a few plants that, while healthy looking, did not seem sufficient to feed the family, let alone servants and slaves. Today, we have abundant produce readily available in clean, sanitary stores (when some dufus isn’t spraying them with mice poison as this guy is alleged to have done recently).
- Water came from a nearby “spring house” and had to be hauled to the house daily by a servant, heated on the stove, and then used for cooking, washing clothes, and bathing. Today, we turn on a tap, complain about an odd smell or taste, but in general have usable, potable water (unless you live in Flint, Michigan, of course).
Tips to the Curator
A couple of things could have improved the experience for all and assured a larger attendance:
- Have better manners than to set up a buffet for the staff in an area accessible to visitors (the little cabin dubbed the “store”). It was extremely awkward for us, not knowing if we were welcome to partake or not, yet we wanted to see the “store.” A staff member came in and started helping herself to the cheeses, fruits, crackers, etc., on display, and so we refrained from joining her, assuming it was for staff. A sign would also have been a good solution here, especially if no better location was possible.
- Check around in the area for other scheduled events (such as a graduation ceremony at the local university that took place that same day). Many people will naturally choose to attend the graduation ceremony or charity auction or whatever, especially if it is closer by.
A Final Note
The episode of the removal of the Cherokee tribe from the lands they were currently occupying was certainly a dark one in the history of this country, but it seems to have ended well. The Murrells prospered (before and even after the Civil War) and today the Cherokees have large casinos, are building shopping centers, and even run their own schools. They get large grants from the federal coffers (filled by our taxes paid to the federal government), and generally seem to be doing very well, especially those who have adopted a more independent lifestyle. Personally, I prefer to see this positive aspect, instead of the negative one that so many folks like to emphasize. Remembering that difficult journey is good so that such things are never repeated (just as many remember the Jewish Holocaust in Germany) and I have to wonder why the more affluent travelers did not provide transportation for others and thus saving them from literally walking themselves to death, but the Cherokees have a bright future and will hopefully break themselves away from the dependency on government handouts that binds many of them these days and represses their true spirit.
Right now, due to the fall of oil and gas prices, and the resultant drop in tax revenue, the state is wisely cutting the budget (overbloated due to the unrealistic expectations of the government officials that the price of oil and gas would never go down but always go up). Some people here blame the government for “giving money” to the oil and gas folks, but this is a lack of understanding of how things work as well as a twisting of the language by politicians trying to get votes during a hotly contested election season. (They were actually given promises of tax rate reductions to encourage them to come here and deal with all the dings fighting them with irrational claims of causing earthquakes through the extraction method called “fracking.” A lot of time and money are invested in oil and gas drilling and/or fracking operations.) Murrell House is one of those items on the state budget (I should say one of many, many, MANY items), and they are feeling the pinch right now by having their budget cut. So sad. If the house had stayed in private hands, it could very likely have been used to generate enough income to sustain itself without taking our money through taxation. Turning a lot of arable land into a nature trail and park didn’t help. So many homes like this open up to tourism or become a suitable business (as I had mentioned earlier in this article).
© 2016-2020 A.C. Cargill photos and text
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