White House of the Chickasaws

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An original ornate bed is the showpiece in the Johnston’s bedroom.
EXTERIOR SIDE VIEW The Chickasaw White House, built in 1895 for Douglas H. Johnston and his wife Bettie, has been restored and is now a museum.
A well-equipped kitchen had amenities not common in the late 1890s.
The parlor has high ceilings, stately wallpaper and original furnishings.
EXTERIOR Two of three large crepe myrtles frame the front of the Chickasaw White House near Millburn.

White House of the Chickasaws: restored, stately home is now a museum

By Linda Miller

Just off the main highway that runs through the tiny town of Millburn stands a wonderful and well-preserved piece of Chickasaw and Oklahoma history.

From the outside, the white Victorian house framed with towering crepe myrtles and a welcoming wrap-around veranda gives little indication to its significance.

Known as the Chickasaw White House, it was built in1895 for Douglas Hancock Johnston and his wife Bettie. Both were educators; he was superintendent of Bloomfield Academy for girls in Ardmore.

When Johnston became governor of the Chickasaw Nation, the family residence doubled as a place for official business, political activity and meetings with tribal leaders and officials in Indian Territory and later the state. The home also became the social setting for luncheons, afternoon tea parties, weddings and lavish parties.

William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, who would become the ninth governor of Oklahoma, married Johnston’s niece, Alice, in the parlor in 1898. Their son, Johnston Murray, was born in the house in 1902. That baby grew up to follow in his father’s political footsteps as the state’s 14th governor.

Bettie Johnston, known for her beautiful gardens, named the three-bedroom house Breezy Meadows, but newspaper stories of the day referred to it as the Chickasaw White House and it stuck. It is listed as The White House of the Chickasaws on the National Register of Historic Places. While the house is Victorian, it also has Queen Anne features.

As it no doubt did in the early 20th century, the restored house impresses immediately upon stepping into the parlor with its 14-foot ceilings, large windows, stately wallpaper and ornate furnishings.

A settee given to the Johnstons as a wedding gift takes a place of prominence in the parlor, much like it might have more than 100 years ago. Many important documents were signed on the oak library table. A hall tree is original to the house, too.

Many of the furnishings throughout the house are made of tiger wood, an exotic wood not often used these days. About 85 percent of the furnishings and appointments, including mantels, are original. That’s a staggering percentage considering the family moved in nine years before statehood.

From the parlor, massive pocket doors open into another room where a rare square baby grand, sometimes called a coffin piano, is showcased. Music was important to the family and they were one of the first in the area to own a gramophone. It wasn’t unusual for the furniture to be pushed against the wall and carpets rolled up so guests could dance.

They might have even spilled over into the dining room where visitors can see Julia Chisholm’s hand-painted china, candlesticks and urn. Chisholm was one of four girls at the academy in Ardmore who came to live with the Johnstons after the school burned. Bettie Johnston saw such potential and qualities in the girls that she wanted to make sure they continued their education. Chisholm, the great-granddaughter of Jesse Chisholm, a trader and interpreter who marked the trail that would be named for him, became a nationally recognized artist. Her paintings hang throughout the house.

Like other rooms, the kitchen reflects the family’s wealth with a wooden ice box, a pie safe, matching corner cabinets, a dry sink, stove with a water reservoir and a hot water tank, amenities not common in the late 1890s in Indian Territory. The family also enjoyed a claw foot bathtub, flush toilet and an early-day washing machine. Water was provided from three sources, including a windmill and water storage tank.

Bettie Johnston’s mother, a granddaughter of Chief Tishomingo, slept in the East bedroom. The fireplace mantle and most of the pieces on display are original.

Off the bedroom is a smaller room with its own entrance that served as the governor’s office. It’s filled with books, trunks, a large desk and his wife’s secretary.

The couple’s bedroom is on the West side of the breezeway. It’s the only room with a closet plus a small nursery for their four children. A beautiful, ornate bed is the showpiece in the bedroom. Murray, the future governor, was born in that bed. A few of the Johnston children’s favorite toys and a much-used rocking horse are in the nursery, along with a metal-framed crib that converted to a toddler bed.

Much of the history reflected is from 1898, when the family moved in, to 1939 when the governor died. Only family members ever lived in the house, and the last moved out in 1971. Many furnishings remained in the house though some were stored at the Oklahoma Historical Society. Caretakers tried to keep a watchful eye on everything but years of neglect showed. In 1998, the Chickasaw Nation purchased the property and started working on plans to rejuvenate the historic home.
Restoration was extensive because the house had to be dismantled board by board. Everything that could be salvaged was while pieces damaged beyond repair became patterns for new copies.

Attention to detail was imperative. The pie safe and dry sink in the kitchen had to be replaced so mirror copies were built exactly as they would have been more than a century ago, complete with dove tail joints.

The mansion paper in the parlor took five years to perfect because it was hand-blocked in layers like the original.

While the house needed several years of attention to be brought back to life, three large crepe myrtles in the front yard continued to grow and bloom, withstanding 118 years of freezing temperatures and blistering summers. Bettie Johnston planted them when she moved into the house.

As the crepe myrtles may have done in the early 1900s, today they sway in the wind and seem to motion visitors to step inside, to get to know the Johnston family, how they lived and their importance to both Chickasaw and Oklahoma history.

The Chickasaw White House is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. For more information, call (580) 235-7343.

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