Eric Standridge is a historian and author who focuses on Oklahoma's history, with an emphasis on LeFlore County and Poteau.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the small town of Poteau was booming. Downtown, you could do anything from your routine grocery shopping to catching the latest flick at the Victory, Ritz, or Kemp theater. In 1952, a new drive-in theater was built on Broadway which became an instant hit. Occasionally, you could still catch some of the great music legends out at Taylor’s Inn.
Many iconic places have their roots in the 1950s. The Black Angus Motel and Restaurant is one such structure. Built in the modernist/international style, it remained an extremely popular destination throughout the 1950s through the 1980s.
The Early Days of the Black Angus
The Black Angus started out as the Lyons Motel. In 1919, C.B. “Pop” Lyons opened up the Lyons Drug Store in downtown Poteau. Pop had made enough through that venture that he was able to help his son, Charles Lyons open up the Lyons Motel. Initially, the motel was owned by Charles and his daughter, Annie. It’s most distinguishing feature was the large sign in front with the picture of a lion. Charles also took over the Lyons Drug Store in downtown Poteau when Pop could no longer run it.
Sen. Robert S. Kerr and his wife purchased the property from the Lyons around 1959 and immediately began transforming the place.
The Black Angus was a fairly large complex that consisted of the motel, restaurant, Ms. Kerr’s penthouse, pool, and grounds. During it’s time, the motel, grounds, and pool were some of the finest in the region.
While much of the motel remained the same, the restaurant was remodeled to fit with the theme of the times.
Outside, two replica black angus bulls were installed as a grand entrance, as well as planters for flowers. One of the original bulls was lost early on, however, the second remained standing out front until the closing of the restaurant.
Ms. Kerr had done much of the interior design. In the main part of the restaurant, rustic worm-eaten cypress planks were installed on the walls. The floors had a deep plush carpet one could almost sink into. Much of it had a very Asian feel, including the large Asian urns that were put out in the dining room. The inside was very elegant for the time. Still, sometimes looks can be deceiving. Many of the tables in this “garden room” were actually bridge tables under the table cloths. For many years, this was a popular pastime for people coming out after church on Sundays. Ms. Kerr would also host many bridge parties, both with the locals and for visitors to Poteau.
In the back, red and black carpet went down, along with leather and chrome stools around the 1950s themed counter. These would later be replaced by the blue and mauve motif.
The Iconic Carousel Room
This back room was aptly called the Carousel Room.
The Carousel Room was one of the most unique spaces in Poteau. This large circular room resembled an old type big top circus tent. The interior walls were magnificently painted with large circus scenes. Large brightly colored windows took up the exterior side of the room. Overhead, as with a large tent, white fabric drapes fanned out from the center to attach to the colorfully painted scenes on the walls and to the glass windows.
Once completed, Lady Bird Johnson dedicated the Carousel Room and Vice President Johnson walked through the kitchen shaking hands with the employees. They became frequent visitors to the Black Angus. President John F. Kennedy, when he visited Poteau, had food that was prepared at the Black Angus as well.
During the early days, it wasn’t uncommon to see Senator Kerr hanging out in the front room dressed in his blue overalls and having a coffee. Although a powerful man in politics, he was always kept that small town mentality.
One waitress recalls his visits. She was one of the first waitresses hired in 1959. She was just 15 years old and worked in the coffee shop. When Sen. Kerr came in, he would always order the same coffee and would always give her a generous tip. At that time, most people would only give a dime where he always gave at least a quarter.
Ms. Grace Kerr frequented the Black Angus often. During the early days, she would help oversee the kitchen and wait staff ensure that they did everything properly. Despite having the mansion to the south of town and another summer home on top of Cavanal, she preferred staying in her “penthouse” located behind the restaurant. According to David Deaton, she had said that she didn’t feel comfortable staying in the mansion by herself.
Ms. Kerr paid attention to every little detail. Ms. Searless states that “waitresses were provided starched white long sleeve uniforms by Poteau Steam Laundry.” She goes on to say that “[Ms. Kerr] had a Japanese Houseboy, Tadoo Banno, that also assisted in the kitchen.” The formal dining room, also known as the “Garden Room” had a strong oriental flare to it. The tables were draped with white starched tablecloths and posh silverware that the waitresses would polish regularly. In order to ensure the highest level of service, no detail was left to chance.
The first manager was Dallas Roden. The chef was selected because of his highly ranked AAA status. Chef Rodney DeCarlo was said to have been a Five Diamond chef. He was very strict in the kitchen, ensuring that the food was of the highest caliber. Jackie Woolsey served under Chef Rodney during the evening hours. Others on staff, including Ms. Louise Searless included Lowell Clark, who was the son in law of the Kerrs, Vivian Frank, and Fritz Vandoren.
Growth and Decline of an Iconic Structure
While the early days of the Black Angus were some of its finest, it remained a legacy up through the 1990s. After Sen. Kerr died in 1963, the restaurant and motel began a slow decline from its original grandeur. Still, because of the dedication that was put into it during the early days, it continued to be a popular place for locals and visitors.
Former Mayor Don Barnes still holds a special place in the hearts and minds of many who grew up in Poteau. During the 1980s, he was the main DJ at the Black Angus. In addition to performing on Friday and Saturday nights, he also helped run many of the parties and special events in the Carousel Room. During some events, such as the Senior Banquet of 1969, there were so many packed inside the Carousel Room that moving around could be all but impossible.
Before passing on, former Mayor Don Barnes recalled his memories of the Black Angus: “I too, miss the old Black Angus very much. This was the place to meet and socialize with friends over a cup of coffee, great Friday night catfish buffet and Sunday dinners after church. Years later, in the 1980s, when David and Karie Pyaet had it I DJ’ed and played music on Friday and Saturdays nights in the main dining room, which used to be called the "circus room" because it was decorated like a circus. Sure did hate to see them tear the old building down.”
One of the last moments of glory for the old Black Angus was when the late president, George H.W. Bush visited Poteau on April 8, 1994. Having heard of the legacy of the Black Angus, he wanted to stop in there to eat. Afterward, the owners put a market on the table where President Bush ate.
Today, not much of the Black Angus remains. In the mid-1990s, due to its poor condition, the restaurant, pool, and Ms. Kerr’s apartments were torn down and replaced with a state-of-the-art Day’s Inn. The original motel still exists beside the Day’s Inn, although much of the former glory has long since faded away.
Lavana Barnes Akins on February 20, 2020:
The Black Angus was always one of our favorite places. As a kid when we came back from California we always knew we were home when we seen the Angus bull. And as time went by my husband and I spent our wedding night at the motel.
Liz Westwood from UK on January 22, 2019:
The decline was sad, but you have done a good job commemorating it in your detailed article.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 22, 2019:
The way you described the Black Angus, I almost felt like I was there. You really did justice to the memories of this place for people who frequented it in the past. Nice job!