People can see lots of Starrs in and around Eufaula and its namesake lake.
Belle Starr Grill. Belle Starr Hideaway Inn. Belle Starr Campground. Belle Starr Creek. Belle Starr Marina. Belle Starr’s gravesite.
The famous outlaw’s name populates what was fertile farmland until 1964, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Canadian River to make one of the world’s largest human-made lakes.
Covering 102,500 acres and the largest reservoir within Oklahoma, Lake Eufaula has turned the area into a tourism powerhouse, and proprietors quickly latched onto the legacy of an independent woman buried just above the dam about 15 miles due east of Eufaula.
“Belle Starr was connected to the Jameses and the Youngers – outlaw heroes to poor, rural people,” says Connie Morris, executive director of the Lake Eufaula Association. “Plus, being a criminal wasn’t something a woman would do back then. There are not many women outlaws that people remember. She was a liberated woman before her time.”
Morris adds that the mystery of Starr’s death in 1889 – she was shot in the back while riding from Eufaula to her homestead – “is appealing – you know the draw of the outlaw and people thinking, ‘Oh, you poor soul.’”
The weekly Indian Journal, begun in 1876 in what was Indian Territory, is Oklahoma’s oldest continuously operating newspaper. It began in Muskogee before moving permanently to Eufaula in 1887.
The eighth annual Heritage Days Festival, May 25, is in Posey Park, named for poet and satirist Alexander Posey. Arguably the Muscogee (Creek) tribe’s greatest writer, he was born near Eufaula in 1873. The town of Posey, 60 miles north and which eventually became Bixby, was also named for him.As an editor at the Indian Journal, Posey created Fus Fixico (Muscogee for heartless bird), a persona commenting on tribal politics, traditional folklore and the dubious breakup of land titles under the notorious Dawes Commission. Posey was 34 when he died while trying to cross the flooded North Canadian River with a friend.
Just before statehood in 1907, the territorial legislature shifted the McIntosh County seat from Eufaula to Checotah. Two special elections within the county did not settle the dispute; Eufaula city leaders refused to hand over the county seal and records. During a gunfight, Eufaula locals repelled a heavily armed force from Checotah that tried to take the records in 1908. Two men died. A year later, a final special election determined Eufaula would be the permanent county seat.
Susan Morris, of the Lake Eufaula Association, says Our Favorite Place is unique to the region because the gallery and gift shop only sells products, crafts and art made by Oklahomans. Owner Karen Weldin says more than 100 artists, vendors, authors and photographers display their work in her store.
Ron Hood, an orthopedic surgeon in Muskogee, was looking for a lakefront investment in 2010 when he discovered the property holding Starr’s grave and headstone. A self-described Oklahoma history fanatic, Hood quickly bought it.
“My family has been here for five generations and been intertwined with the state’s history,” says Hood, whose grandmother was born in the cabin once owned by Cherokee statesman Sequoyah. “The property was in great disrepair and I thought that was a shame.”
Hood bought an 1850s cabin in California, Missouri (near Columbia), and moved it near the gravesite. Hood says the original owner of that relatively spacious cabin may have encountered the Shirleys, Starr’s parents in Carthage, because the few wealthy people in central and western Missouri of that era tended to know each other.
A descendant of Starr, architect Gene Starr, helped Hood redesign the cabin to resemble the one seen in old photographs with Belle Starr out front.
Hood cut a new path to the tomb and cleared the area of brush. Unlike previous owners of the property – one thought there was gold hidden there; another charged admission – Hood doesn’t profit from the gravesite.
“What’s the value of history if no one can see it? History doesn’t come alive unless you can touch it,” he says. “We’ve never had any vandalism. People take pride in it.”
Starr’s grave sits on Younger’s Bend, just east of the Lake Eufaula dam, which transformed nearly everything around it.
“Prior to the lake, Eufaula was a farm town … and it might have gone the way of all these abandoned little towns,” Morris says. “Now it’s a tourist town. But it took a good 25 years for Eufaula to embrace the lake because people were mad; they didn’t want to give up their land.
“Now the lake is the biggest source of income because of tourism.”