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A Story of Oklahoma: Poteau Switch in the Early Years

Eric Standridge is a historian and author that focuses on Oklahoma's history, with an emphasis on LeFlore County and Poteau, Oklahoma.

Old Poteau Switch, 1898

Old Poteau Switch, 1898

The No. 2 passenger train rolled in from Ft. Smith at precisely 1:39 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon. The air brakes clamped hard on the wheels, and the train slowly screeched to a halt. Curious onlookers watched as passengers stepped off the train and on to the wood-planked platform. Dust billowed up along Railroad Avenue and then quickly dissipated, revealing a score of newly built businesses.

Across the street, a horse-drawn hack rumbled down Beard Avenue toward the train as passengers began making their way across the tracks and into town. Most would stay at the newly established Flener Hotel for the night, while others headed toward Cavanal stop only to rest their weary backs. The train only stopped for 15 minutes to take on coal and water and to clean the fires before the whistle sounded and the train departed once more.

Back at Flener’s Hotel, the onlookers continued to watch from a second-story balcony. Rowdy laughter echoed through the door as men passed time playing poker or seven-up. The steady staccato of horse hooves ricocheted off the wood-plank buildings. As they entered, the stale reek of cigar smoke welcomed them home for the night.

Poteau's Building Boom

Poteau remained a sleepy little agricultural village until the late 1880s. Once the railroad to Bengal was completed in 1886, the area immediately saw a building boom. Poteau didn’t gain official status until the following year, when on October 27th, the first post office in town was established. The new town, officially known as “Poteau Switch,” took its name from the nearby Poteau River.

Eight miles northeast of Poteau Switch, Cameron was a lively, bustling town. The town had a population that nearly doubled that of Poteau Switch. As the federal court was located in Cameron, residents of Poteau Switch had to travel there for official business. Before the St. Louis and San Francisco established the first passenger service in Poteau, people had to travel on horseback through rugged terrain to reach Cameron. Traffic to Cameron was frequent, as the town also hosted the nearest passenger train service.

During this time, life in Poteau Switch resembled life in much of the rest of the country. The railroad depot served as the core of the town. As in many cities throughout the country, people milled about the depot as they waited for the train to arrive. Other groups congregated in one of the four hotels in the area, engrossed in popular gambling games such as poker or seven-up. During the hot summer months, porches in front of the businesses lining Railroad Avenue were often nearly overcrowded with people, while during the winter, folks would huddle up around their wood-burning stoves.

Much of the area surrounding Poteau Switch was dotted with large farms. Horses pulled the farmers' crop-laden carts along the wide roads to the freight depot or the market. Corn and cotton were among the more popular crops to plant. During this time, farmers would produce about 45 bushels of corn or 1 1/2 bales of cotton per acre. Poteau Switch area also contained numerous horse farms, hog farms, dairy farms, and cattle ranches.

Jap Evans, who would later become the first postmaster of Poteau Switch, kept many pigs on his farm. At night, the howl of Prairie wolves would echo loudly across the region. Occasionally, Evans would wake up to discover that a good number of his pigs had been killed by the wolves.

Bridgman's Furniture, late 1800s

Bridgman's Furniture, late 1800s

The Town's Layout

During the early days, settlers into Poteau Switch simply began building where there was room. No town plan had ever been laid out, and remnants of this chaotic building spree can still be seen in modern Poteau. The home of pioneer settler Bud Tate had to be moved in order to make room for the new railroad. Walter Beard’s blacksmith shop was once located in the center of Beard Avenue near the corner of the county courthouse. Dewey Avenue, the town's "Main Street" begins curving significantly towards the south near the middle. An old story explains the reason the street is like that. During the time the street was laid out, a log cabin hung halfway over where the street was scheduled to go. The owner of the cabin refused to move it. Undeterred, the builders simply moved the street.

Barber, late 1800s

Barber, late 1800s

The Town's Businesses

After the railroad came through Poteau Switch in 1886, the main business district began in the area where the courthouse lawn now exists. After Bud Tate’s store was moved there, John Dennis and his son, Jim, built a store for William Anderson Welch Sr. John and Jim Dennis also constructed a store for R.F. Forbes almost 200 feet south of Welch’s store, which was known then as Forbes and Donage’s.

By 1890, Welch’s store became one of the most visited stores in the area. Bud Tate’s store had closed down, and the old Poteau Hotel was constructed in its place. Sam McKissack constructed the first blacksmith shop in Poteau. Other businesses located on the present courthouse square included two barbershops and a butcher shop. Cox’s Drug Store, Smith’s Millinery, the post office, and the city hall were all located in one building on the southeast corner of the courthouse square.

As Poteau Switch continued to expand, new wood-frame buildings were constantly under construction. Resembling a scene from an old western movie, these buildings ran the length of the St. Louis and San Francisco right-of-way for quite a distance. At this time, there were very few businesses on the southeast side of the tracks, where present-day downtown Poteau now stands.

Since whisky was illegal in Indigenous territory, saloons and other such establishments didn’t exist. Still, that did not deter residents from seeking a good time. In 1886, Flener’s Hotel was built directly across the street from Welch’s store and was one of the most popular spots in Poteau Switch. While many visitors came to the two-story hotel for the beds, others came for the entertainment. On weekends and for special occasions, Melvin Flener would convert the dining room into a dance hall. Local musicians would play popular songs such as "When the Foeman Bares His Steel" or "When a Felon's Not Engaged".

Flener served as the floor manager at these events, and he was a no-nonsense type of guy. One old report told that anyone who became too rowdy “was promptly and quietly visited by Flener who hit the unwanted customer in the head and took him out for fresh air.” In the front room, it was a common sight to see patrons playing gambling games. For the most part, these games remained civil. Occasionally, especially when whisky was smuggled in from Jensen, Arkansas, the games got too heated. Pistols would appear, and Flener would have to take drastic measures. Besides the gambling and illegal booze, Flener's also sported the occasional lady of the night. On October 5, 1898, Melvin Flener closed the hotel for good. By then, he had been in business for 12 years and wanted a rest.

Besides Flener’s, other hotels included the smaller Howell hotel and the Poteau Hotel, both located on the northwest side of the tracks. Hotel Eastern was the only one on the other side, and it was almost as big as Flener's. Hotel Eastern was a well-known brothel at the time.

Several millinery stores and barbershops served the more fastidious residents, as well as the casual visitor. For men, a weekly visit to the barbershop was almost essential. As the town grew in stature, any well-respected man in Poteau Switch had to keep a clean and tidy appearance. Many could no longer be seen as shaggy-looking settlers. The three barbershops in town kept brisk business, serving not only the residents of the town but also the many railroad travelers.

Most shops were small and tidy. The shops consisted of a straight-backed chair with a headpiece resembling a crutch, a basin of water, a piece of common soap and a brush, "setting" chairs, and enough towels to last a week; "One towel to every ten to twelve customers.” Haircuts were generally five or 10 cents and shaves were three cents.

As the barbershops were of paramount importance to men, the millinery stores were essential for women. During the late 19th century, etiquette articles suggest that it would have been a disgraceful act for a woman to venture out of the house without a hat or even gloves. The two millinery stores at Poteau Switch served the population well. Headwear ranging from massively elaborate hats to simple schoolgirl bonnets were produced there.

Most clothing and other common household items were purchased through the local general stores, but many people opted to purchase these items through mail-order catalogs. Besides the general merchandise stores, Poteau Switch boasted a hardware store, a furniture store, and a cobbler. For such a young town, this in itself proves the rapid growth that took part there.

When people were sick or injured, they relied on one of the two drug stores in the town. During the 1880s, Dr. Cox was the only doctor in town. He also owned the largest drug store in the area. While these stores did brisk business, most people relied on home remedies for minor irritations. In fact, during this time, whiskey seemed to be the cure for any type of ailment.

The drug stores stocked the medicines that were available to them. Rows of glass bottles lined the shelves with such unique labels as “Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People," "Beechham's Pills," and "Ayer's Sarsaparilla." These pills promised to do everything from changing the color of one’s skin to instantly relieving constipation. Opiates were welcomed as an ideal tonic, and large numbers of Americans became addicted. Antiseptics and antibiotics were not available until after the 1900s. Even aspirin, the modern-day cure-all, was not invented until 1899, and it would be several years until the medicine gained widespread popularity.

Welch's Store, late 1800s

Welch's Store, late 1800s

As the area around Poteau Switch was mainly agricultural, and game was varied, most residents were able to keep a healthy diet. Two butcher shops supplied residents with fresh meat from the nearby farms. In addition, the two grocery stores imported foods by rail from around the country and sold them to local residents.

People relied on horses for travel throughout the area. Farmers also made great use of horses, as powerful machinery had not arrived in Poteau Switch yet. To house the large population of horses in the area, several stables were constructed throughout the town. These stables were located on just about every corner of old Poteau Switch, and it seemed that there were more stables than there were businesses.

For those traveling about Poteau Switch, a livery yard was established. The livery yard offered horses and teams for hire and provided a place where privately owned horses could be boarded for a short time. In addition to providing vital transportation services, the livery was the main source of hay, grain, coal, and wood.

Because of the stench, noise, and vermin that surrounded liveries, cities and towns attempted to control their locations and activities. Often the scenes of gambling, cockfighting, and stag shows, they were condemned as sources of vice. With the advent of the automobile after 1910, the livery stables quietly disappeared, as did many of the old-time wood-frame businesses of the late 1800s.

Sources

  • The Birth of Poteau
  • A Place Called Poteau
  • The Forgotten History of LeFlore County
  • Oklahoma Chronicles
  • Oklahoma Historical Society
  • The Pioneer Papers

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Yes on September 14, 2020:

Very interesting!