Tahlequah Daily Press

July 11, 2013

Interpreters at the Murrel Home take guests back in time

By RENEE FITE
Special Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Before the Murrell Home existed, the land was pasture and woods, with a creek running through it.

After George and Minerva Murrell bought it, trees were cleared for a Cherokee family plantation home. Theirs is a love story.

And there are tales of action and adventure, tragedy and triumph.

“A lot of visitors don’t understand this place was a fully operating plantation, what they did here, the plantation economy,” said historical Interpreter Amanda Pritchett.

The antebellum period in Indian Territory was the golden age of the Cherokees, Pritchett said.

The social and economic institutions were being rebuilt after the Trail of Tears.

The staff is letting visitors know that Park Hill was the important social community of the time, Pritchett said.

“We’re ready to make it one of the premier sites in this area. It’s so unique; there’s no place in the country that has the history of this place,” she said. “All the ethnic groups, the socio-economic groups and different elements, social institutions, seminaries, the fact the chief lived here. All these different subjects you can study in one place.”

“We get to talk to interesting people and do research about things history geeks like me love,” Pritchett said. “People come here because they want to learn about Cherokees and the history of this area. People don’t realize we have this history here.”

And they didn’t realize Indians had houses like the Murrell Home, added Jennifer Frazee, the new historical Interpreter at the Murrell Home.

“They thought they were living in teepees,” Frazee said.

The staff members are developing a new site plan, based on their interpretive plan. Recently they completed a new interpretive plan, which looks at the overall themes and the story they want to tell about the house.

“The story we want visitors to learn while here are the site – how we can interpret that story for the visitor, where we are now and where we want to be,” said Pritchett.

The interpretive plan includes how they address static displays, programming and special events, publications and online context.

The last one was done in the 1990s, Pritchett said: “It’s something we’ve been needing to do for a long time.”

Four new outdoor fiberglass exhibit panels, funded by a grant from the National Park Service, will be in place before the end of the year, Pritchett said. The smokehouse, spring house, barn and corral area and basic history will each be featured on a panel.

When an archaeology survey was conducted in March, researchers found the foundation of the barn. They already knew what it looked like because photos exist.

“When we’re doing interpretive events, we’ll remove the panels and return them, for when people are walking around and can see them to understand more of the history,” Pritchett said.

After completing the text for three of the exhibit panels, Pritchett is now working on the fourth. The information will be sent to Oklahoma City for the Oklahoma Historical Society graphic artist to put it all together with photos.

“We expect to have them in place in the next few months, maybe by the end of summer,” Pritchett said.

They’re working on rebuilding all the exhibits in the house and new descriptive panels for each room.

“They’ll be updated, easier to read and lower profile,” she said.

With 11 years at the Murrell Home, Pritchett has seen improvements all along.

“I love the history of this place,” she said. “When Shirley Pettengill was here, she kicked it up a notch. She did all the research and physical restoration. We’re building on what she did with the interpretive plan.”

The staff has gone through the house and outside areas, and made goals and objectives to help them tell the story better.

“All the rooms and those areas will get upgrades in the next five years,” Pritchett said. “George and Minerva’s bedroom, where she was sick with malaria, will display medicine bottles, and there will be information about the illness and treatment for the disease.”

It will be one of the temporary projects they’ll make into a program and exhibit.

“We have some of the entries of the doctors who treated Minerva, like Dr. Jonathan Brown, an Army doctor,” she said. ”Jennifer [Frazee] has been researching that.”

Since January, Frazee has been the second historical interpreter at the Murrell Home. She’s completing a master’s in American Studies at Northeastern State University and interned through NSU as an undergraduate. Last summer, she was the cabin interpreter.

“This place has a way of getting under your skin,” Frazee said. “I like history. This property has changed since George and Minerva came here. Then it was owned by an ‘old settler’ and the Murrells transformed the area.”

The Murrells were young when they eloped, and the house tells a story of action and adventure, tragedy and triumph.

“Anybody could come here and find something they love,” Frazee said.

Pritchett has been reading second wife Amanda Murrell’s diary from 1850.

One afternoon, they’d just gotten out of their dresses and were in their chemises when Dr. Wood called unexpectedly.

“It took them two hours to redress to visit with him,” said Pritchett.

Frazee was surprised and pleased to see their sense of humor.

“Now I understand that everything, people, are just the way they are today,” she said. “They were well-educated and spent time together, with no television or cell phones.”

This summer, a new cabin interpreter, Travis Wolfe, joined the staff. He’s a graduate student at NSU.

Other changes are in the works. This spring, the Lawn Social was moved from June to the first weekend in May, due to the heat with which the women, in particular, have to cope in such heavy and layered clothing.

“And this year, it was snowy the first weekend in May and it rained a little,” Pritchett said, “but it was cooler.”

The Historical Society schedules all its events in the spring and fall, she said.

“Nothing was going on that weekend in the community here or for the Historical Society, so that’s when it will be from now on,” Pritchett said.

Upcoming events through the end of the year include the Cherokee National Holiday on Labor Day weekend; Ghost Stories Oct. 26-26; and the Christmas Open House Dec. 8.

“The [Cherokee] Holiday weekend is always special for us; we’re one of the many places you can go during the weekend,” Pritchett said.