SPRING PLACE — Jeff Stancil watched four years ago as state budget cuts left him with essentially no staff and very little resources to run the Chief Vann House, but he found ways to keep moving ahead.
“Everything was fine until what I call ‘black Wednesday’ in 2009,” said Stancil, who retired Friday as site manager of the property. “The state devastated us with cuts.”
Before that, things seemed promising for the state historic site. Under Stancil, the Vann House added a museum, log cabins, 85 acres of original plantation land, several exhibits and pieces of furniture and God’s Acre, a Moravian Mission cemetery. The Vann House is a two-story brick house built in 1804 by Cherokee Chief James Vann. The plantation once stretched over approximately 1,000 acres in what is now Murray County.
“It seemed like things were on a roll, then we hit a cliff,” Stancil said. “I had 11 good years, spectacular years, then four dark years at the Vann House.”
Even during the bleakest times, Stancil used resources to keep the Vann House open for tours four days a week and worked to acquire 24 more acres of land to the east of the house.
Sunday the Friends of the Vann House threw Stancil a surprise retirement reception where he was praised for his years of dedication to preserving Cherokee history at the Vann House and New Echota, where Stancil began his career in 1980 as a summer intern. State Rep. Rick Jasperse read a resolution recognizing Stancil for his “deep personal committment” and for making the Vann House a “jewel of the state park system.”
“His entire career has been spent preserving our culture,” said Jack Baker, a member of the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council in Oklahoma. “The Cherokee Nation is appreciative of what Jeff’s done to preserve our history.”
The Moravians were missionaries who ran a school on the plantation before the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of the Cherokee in the mid-1830s. Stancil was also praised Sunday for helping preserve Moravian culture.
“There’s a lot to be said about a place,” said Anna Smith, a Moravian and Cherokee from North Carolina. “There’s no Indians living here anymore, but it has been a place for the Eastern Band and the Oklahoma Cherokees to come home to, and Moravians, too. I’ve been back here many times. Jeff’s such an ambassador to all those people.”
The Vann House, which was part of Fort Mountain State Park following the state cuts in 2009, is now a satellite site of New Echota. Julia Autry, who was a site interpreter for the Vann House until those cuts, will return as the site’s only full-time employee.
David Gomez, site manager of New Echota in Gordon County and now the Vann House as well, said Stancil is a “great historian and mentor.”
“When I need information, it’s not ‘go to the library,’” Gomez said. “It’s go to Jeff.”
Autry, who has worked with Stancil at both sites, joked Stancil has forgotten more Cherokee history than she has had the opportunity to learn.
“He’s definitely one of a kind,” she said. “He’s a keeper of stories and knows a great deal.”
Stancil said because of the way his retirement was set up, if he didn’t leave, he would have lost some of his retirement. He is moving back to his hometown of Jasper.
He said he feels better about his retirement knowing the site is in good hands.
“I didn’t want anything to happen to that house on my watch,” Stancil said. “I want the house to be there 1,000 years from now. It’s such a special house.”