In summer 2014, pilgrims to the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah will have an all-new destination: A living museum dedicated to the life and era of the famed folk singer.
This House Is Your House, a local nonprofit, has purchased the lot where Guthrie’s childhood home, the London House, once stood. Although the house was torn down many years ago, miraculously, the wood and stone from the home were salvaged. Now the home will be painstakingly reconstructed through the efforts of This House Is Your House, a group of three partners: Matthew Bridwell, Johnny Buschardt and Daniel Riedemann.
Reidemann, the partner overseeing the historic reconstruction of the home, recently made a living museum of TV personality Johnny Carson’s childhood home. According to media and fundraising liaison Bridwell, it was Riedmann who approached Bridwell and his partner, Buschardt, with a dream of seeing the London House rise from the dust.
“While researching his next project, [Riedemann] found out that Woody’s childhood home (the London House, as described in Woody’s autobiography, Bound For Glory) had been torn down, but the wood and stone from the house had been kept and stored away,” Bridwell says. “It was at that point that he set his sights to rebuild Woody’s London House using the saved wood and stone. On one of his many visits (this time during the 2013 Woody Guthrie Folk Festival) to Okemah, he met my partner, Johnny. Daniel told Johnny his hopes and dreams for the site but that his biggest hurdle was raising the money to make those hopes and dreams a reality. Johnny explained that we could fill that void.”
In addition to rebuilding the home itself, the site also will include a 2.5-acre compound that includes a visitors center and gift shop, outdoor performance space, and camping and RV grounds, all kept self-sustaining by a solar power station. Bridwell says they plan to have the project completed in time for the 2014 Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in July.
Bridwell says the project is yet another way for fans who already travel to Okemah for the festival to honor Guthrie’s life and achievements.
“For many years now, thousands of people made the pilgrimage to Okemah every year to view the site where Woody grew up,” Bridwell says. “Each July, almost 10,000 people have come to take part in the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. For almost all of those festivalgoers, part of their journey also includes paying respect to the place where Woody grew up – the London House.”
Any festivalgoers who visited the spot last summer would have found little – a hilly, vacant lot dotted with a few foundation stones drowning in the overgrowth of weeds and vine. That is about to change.
Once the construction is complete, Bridwell and his partners plan to turn the compound over to the Okemah Community Improvement Association. “The economic impact will be large,” he says. “It will become a whole new tourist attraction for Okemah. It will mean more money coming into that community through increased business from local retailers, such as restaurants, gas stations, retail stores and, of course, the museum itself. It will also mean more tax dollars coming into our great state of Oklahoma from visitors that will be from out of state. It truly will be a win-win situation for everyone.”
According to Bridwell, This House Is Your House has received an enormous outpouring of encouragement from the community, Guthrie’s family and even some celebrities.
“We have had so much interest from outside parties,” he says. “Obviously, the Guthrie family has been supportive. Woody’s sister, Mary Jo, and his son, Arlo, have made it clear they will do whatever they can to help the project. We have had other artists express interest, such as legendary singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson headlining a benefit concert last fall.”
Guthrie’s fascist-killing instrument also will live on in legend with the London House project. Gibson Guitar Corporation – the company that produced Guthrie’s machine of choice – is partnering with the project to create a limited edition series of eight guitars, each made from the recovered wood of Guthrie’s childhood home. The instruments will be auctioned off in early 2014, with all proceeds going to benefit the London House and compound.
“With so much interest from so many people, this project truly is a success on all levels,” Bridwell says.
The London House project is just the latest manifestation of the enduring respect for Oklahoma’s legendary troubadour. In 2013, the already renowned Woody Guthrie Center was established in Tulsa’s Brady Arts District. In addition to exhibits and public events, the center also houses the Woody Guthrie Archives, including correspondence, lyrics, recordings and more.
Although the two centers share the same mission and intend to provide each other with support, Bridwell says the London House compound will differ from its partner in Tulsa.
“Unlike the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, which is nothing less than a world-class museum, our project will be a living museum, a place that will allow visitors to see and touch those things of the time that influenced Woody,” he says. “Fans, artists and historians will be able to walk down the same hallways Woody walked and stand in the same rooms Woody stood in.”