Over half of the historic sites on Oklahoma’s new “most endangered” list are in rural areas or small towns, according to Preservation Oklahoma.
The list of endangered historical structures and places includes a 130-year-old railroad depot that served the then-thriving town of Clayton; Tullahassee, considered the oldest of the surviving all-Black towns of Indian Territory; and the Tall Chief Theatre, built by Alex Tall Chief, the father of prima ballerinas Maria and Marjorie Tallchief.
Each of the structures, plus eight more, are on Preservation Oklahoma’s 11 Most Endangered Places for 2022.
Preservation Oklahoma Executive Director Chantry Banks said he doesn’t think there’s a big difference between preservation efforts in rural vs. urban areas except that resources to invest in preservation tend to be more plentiful in urban areas.
“When it comes to preservation efforts, I think the hearts and the love and the attention is all there,” he said in an interview with The Daily Yonder. “But it’s the resources. It’s the monetary resources. And it’s also the brick-and-mortar resources.”
Still, he thinks one positive aspect of a rural community is how the community comes together to preserve a structure or area after it’s been identified.
“I feel like, especially if a property is identified, especially in a very small town – I feel like the whole community joins together in efforts and advocacy,” Banks said. “And the people who own the lumberyard say hey, ‘I’ve got sheetrock. I’ve got lumber. We can donate that and make that happen.’ That doesn’t always happen in urban parts of the state, and also there’s a lot of times a lot more red tape [in urban areas].”
Banks noted that inclusion on the list, which was started in 1993, doesn’t necessarily mean the structure or site will receive additional funding, but it helps get the word out about it. Since joining the nonprofit in February 2020, he said he has paid particular attention to western and northwestern Oklahoma, which are more rural areas of the state.
Banks said he is also trying to focus on underrepresented areas, such as Tullahassee, which is home to around 100 residents today.
“As an all-Black historical town. Tullahassee is, I think, a perfect example of an underrepresented, rural part of Oklahoma. And so it just felt important to focus on the entire community and what few buildings are still there,” he said.
Carol Conner, editor of The Fairfax Chief newspaper in Fairfax, Oklahoma, said the Tall Chief Theatre is an important part of the community. The Fairfax Community Foundation has been working to restore the theater for many years, she said.
“Getting recognition for the historic nature of the theater, as well as its pressing needs for a new roof might finally bring the financial resources necessary to help with the work,” she said in an interview with The Daily Yonder.
The theater is located in the Osage Nation, and Alex Tall Chief built it in 1928. Conner said it is believed he built the theater as a way for tribal citizens and others in the community to take their mind’s off the gruesome events surrounding the murders of tribal members for their money and land that took place in the 1920s, as noted in the book and upcoming movie “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
She said she hopes inclusion on the list will bring more attention to the historic structure, especially with the upcoming movie about the murders to be released.
“Since Fairfax was the location of the gruesome events, it is expected that even more tourists will visit our town than currently do. With the release of the book, we have had people from all over the country and around the world visit our town,” she said.