Eric Standridge is a historian and author who focuses on Oklahoma's history, with an emphasis on LeFlore County and Poteau.
Kennedy Visits Oklahoma
1961 was a huge year for both residents of Poteau and all of LeFlore County. In that year, one of the most loved presidents of recent years traveled to Poteau and to Big Cedar to dedicate the new highway.
However, this visit was not without controversy. The highway, although important for the area, was quoted by one newspaper reporter as being “a mountain road that starts nowhere in particular and goes to a suburb of the same place.” Further, a statement made by the former president towards then Senator Robert S. Kerr caused a huge uproar throughout the country.
President Kennedy and Senator Kerr had been political allies for many years. After taking office, Kennedy soon realized the importance of having Kerr as an ally.
Kerr was never shy about using his influence to get what he wanted for the good of Oklahoma. By this influence, he was able to arrange for President John F. Kennedy to visit Big Cedar, OK to dedicate US Highway 259.
Days before President Kennedy was scheduled to arrive in Big Cedar, Governor Edmondson frantically called President Kennedy to find the real reason for his eastern Oklahoma visit. Kennedy told Edmondson, “Why Howard, I’m going to Oklahoma to kiss Bob Kerr’s ass!” Of course, the media jumped on this statement, but as many have said, this could have easily been a premeditated political maneuver.
Local Preparation and Arrival
Secret Service agents showed up several weeks prior to the dedication. At that time, Poteau had a population of 4,776. In preparation, the town added 26 additional long-distance telephone circuits and 26 teletype machines. Plus, residents spent many weeks cleaning up the streets and buildings, and creating a festive, presidential atmosphere downtown.
Sen. Kerr secured several cars from Holton-McDonald Chevrolet for the presidents secret service men and other personnel. Included in that was a 1962 Old Starfire Convertible. Kerr purchased that car for the president to ride in with the stipulation that it would remain in Poteau and would never be sold. The other cars were special ordered from Chevrolet for the event, but would be returned after the president's departure. The dealer, H.S. McDonald, presented the cars to Sen. Kerr.
Kennedy flew in to the Ft. Smith airport. From there, helicopters flew him in to do the dedication ceremonies.
Kennedy's Dedication Speech
On October 29, 1961, the skies above Big Cedar were filled by dual-rotor helicopters. Visitors swelled the small town of a few people to a population of over 20,000. People came from all over the United States to witness an event that happened in a small town out in the middle of nowhere.
Many local residents remember the occasion. One, a child at the time, remembers standing in awe of the crowd. Suddenly, the roar of the helicopters could be heard along with the wild cheering of the crowd. They seemed to appear out of nowhere, rising above a hill and then sweeping over the crowd.
In all the commotion, Kennedy was so entrenched in his speech that he almost forgot to cut the ribbon to open the new US highway.
State Representative Carl Albert noticed a Secret Service man holding a pair of scissors and pointed this out to Senator Kerr. Kerr took the scissors, and in his “simple country boy” fashion announced to President Kennedy, “Mr. President, we have come here to dedicate a highway.” At that point he handed the scissors to Kennedy who clipped the ribbon and officially opened US 259.
Tour of Poteau
Following the dedication, Kennedy returned to Kerr's ranch for a private show with Kerr's prized cattle.
"New Englander John F. Kennedy got a look Sunday at some of the Southwest's sleekest show ring cattle on the vast Kermac Angus ranch near here, and a brief lecture on the importance to the nation of beef cattle raising."
After visiting the Kerr Ranch, they returned to Poteau in the presidential vehicles, where it is said that they stopped off to have dinner at the Terry House, also known as the Woodson Home.
One story that was told was that Mr. Webb was driving the president through town when they came across a group of people wanting to see the president. Kennedy told Mr. Webb to pull over so he could greet them. Since this was an unauthorized stop, and a local was driving the president, the secret service agents quickly pulled up and surrounded Mr. Webb and demanded to know what he was doing. The president quickly sorted out the situation, but Mr. Webb was no longer allowed to drive after that.
Prior to leaving, the president then toured Poteau, which mainly consisted of the downtown area.
For many, it was a day that will be forever etched in their memories. Martie Wisdom, a young kid during the time of the visit said it best, "It's something you'll never forget"
Preparations for President Kennedy in Downtown Poteau
© 2017 Eric Standridge