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Downtown Poteau, Oklahoma: A visual history from the 1800s

The history of downtown Poteau is fascinating.  Long before Dewey Avenue became the dominant street of the historic district, the original downtown was booming.  Centered around what is today the LeFlore County Courthouse lawn, a cluster of businesses sprang up shortly after the Frisco Railway arrived.

In an ambitious project, Eric Standridge began modeling this historid district in order to learn more about the history of Poteau, as well as to learn about the history of similar towns across the state. Because this was modeled in a virtual environment, it allows the precice measurement of distances, interactions between objects, even going so far as to allow “avatars” to move around and trace the footsteps of early pioneers. The time period is primarily 1899, however, a few businesses were added in for areas where information was lacking. Every building here is modeled to scale and based off of original photos of the building, or photos of similar buildings from that time frame.

 

Poteau.Life Downtown Poteau, Oklahoma: A visual history from the 1800s
Visual rendering of how the area around the courthouse looked around 1895.

This first graphic shows how the original downtown would have looked.

The first commercial building established in Poteau was Bud Tate’s General Mercantile Store.  It was located at the intersection of College and Broadway.  When the Frisco Railroad purchased land for the rail way, Tate’s store stood in the center of the right of way.  He was forced to close up shop as the new development came in.  Although he was put out of business, his building was moved by ox team to the northeast corner of the courthouse lawn. Welsh and sons purchased the building and began operating at that location.  The building was in use until shortly after 1900 when it was upgraded to a brick and mortor store.

Around the same time as the general mercantile store was established, Melvin Flener began constructing his hotel.  Flener was a railroad agent and was in charge of housing the railroad workers, securing building material, and taking care of a lot of the logistics.  When he first arrived, a quick shack was constructed to base his operations out of.  As more people came, this developed into one of Poteau’s finest hotels.  This is the ornate building in the graphic above, just to the right of Fleener Avenue.

Other buildings soon followed, as shown in this graphic.

Poteau.Life Downtown Poteau, Oklahoma: A visual history from the 1800s

This area shows the block where the LeFlore County Courthouse is located.  From right to left, there was the general store, a grocery, the Poteau Hotel, Wooldridges Barber Shop, a meat market and lunch room, the two story building and finally another general mercantile store.

The two story building that is shown second from the left contained a drug store in the lower floor as well as a post office on the second floor.  Besides the post office, the second floor also contained Poteau’s first city hall.  During this time, George Witte would have been mayor.

Around 1899, a great fire destroyed all of the buildings here.  This fire was caused by embers from a pot-bellied stove located in a residence just behind the post office.  Once the embers hit the floor, the quickly engulfed the home and soon spread from there.  Gunshots were fired to notify residents of the town.  They formed a bucket brigade but there was no controlling the fire.

The only business to survive after the fire was Welch’s General Store.  Following the fire, he moved next door to Flener’s hotel.  Following the fire, this block was turned in to Poteau’s central park and would remain so until construction started on the LeFlore County Courthouse in 1925.

On the other side of the road, Dewey Avenue was beginning to take shape.  Until around 1901, it was considered a small side road.  The main road was known as Railroad Avenue and, accordingly, followed the route of the railroad.  Dewey Avenue is shown below, along with a comparison of where the modern buildings are located.

Poteau.Life Downtown Poteau, Oklahoma: A visual history from the 1800s  Poteau.Life Downtown Poteau, Oklahoma: A visual history from the 1800s

At this time, there were four main rails that ran down Broadway. Broadway was known as Railroad Avenue, for obvious reasons. In the center right of the model, you’ll see a wood frame building. This was railroad storage. Just a bit further to the right was the water tower and the original depot.

You’ll notice the white building on the middle left. This was (and still is) the McKenna Building. The McKenna Building was built between 1898 and 1899 and originally faced the railroad tracks. Just to the right of it is Dewey Avenue. Bonus points for anyone who can tell me how Dewey Avenue got it’s name! Around 1914, the white facade of the building was ripped off and extended with brick, while the main entrance was opened up to face Dewey. During this time, it held the opera house downstairs and Ed McKenna’s offices upstairs, which became the federal courthouse the following year.

Just to the left of that was the Hotel Eastern. This was the second largest hotel in Poteau…and was also a brothel. Today, this is where the Poteau Police Department is. There’s a joke in there somewhere, I’m sure. Something else, right in front of the Hotel Eastern you may be able to see the cows. This was the stockyards where cattle and other livestock would be loaded and unloaded from Frisco railcars. Today, this is about where City Hall sits. Of note, City Hall was the second Frisco depot, built in 1913.

To the left of that, shown here as a small building, was a general mercantile store.

Dewey Avenue was a side road during this time. Behind the McKenna building wasn’t anything more than a few scattered homes and Benjamin Harper’s cotton fields.

To the right of Dewey, the only commercial building that existed on the “south” side of the road was a legal office. This office was built in anticipation of the courthouse coming in 1900. Beyond that, the town was mostly woods with a few scattered homes.

The second photo with the red and yellow blocks show a comparison of where today’s buildings are located. Notice that Broadway got a lot narrower. The red building in back to the right is Bridgman’s. Just in front of that, covering part of the railroad storage building is KP’s. On the left side is the bail bonds building. The yellow shows paved or private areas.

Broadway of yesterday was quite a different sight from how it appears today, as shown in these comparison renderings below.

Poteau.Life Downtown Poteau, Oklahoma: A visual history from the 1800s  Poteau.Life Downtown Poteau, Oklahoma: A visual history from the 1800s

Standing where the camera is, you’ll notice that most of the businesses were along the left side of the “road”. This road, as mentioned in another post, was known as Railroad Avenue. It ran on either side of the railroad lines and occupied a space of 300 feet across. This is where the comparison with modern day gets very interesting. Looking at the rendering that shows the red and yellow square, you will notice that the road is much, much narrower today then it was.

The first yellow square to the right is the bailbonds parking, with the red being the building. Just past that is the Farmer’s Co-op buildings. The yellow on the left side shows the curb and sidewalks that run along Broadway. Interestingly, the curbs would have been about the same distance that the wooden porches in front of the old shops would have came to.

Looking down the left, you have the general store, drugstore, millinery (hat shop), and then a barber before you come to Green Avenue. Green, during this time, led up to some of the wealthiest homes in Poteau. Following Green, there was another general store, a hardware and furniture store, a blacksmith, and so on. The blacksmith’s shop is the largest building further down on the left.

To the east (right) of the tracks, very little development occurred. After the Hotel Eastern, there were only four more businesses. These included two general stores, a millinery, and a bakery. A few houses existed in between as well. The reason was simple; the railroad was booming. The train from Witteville would come through several times a day, along the first track on the left. Frisco passenger lines would use the third track, and freight lines would usually have the second line blocked. The fourth track was for through traffic. With that much activity, it kept the lines blocked. It just made sense to have all of the businesses on one side.

The graphic belows shows how important a role that the Friscro Railroad played in old downtown Poteau.

Poteau.Life Downtown Poteau, Oklahoma: A visual history from the 1800s

Without the railroad, Poteau would have remained a small hamlet of a town.  The railroad helped bring in industry and new businesses.  As shown in the graphic, cotton and ranching were some of the biggest industries of the time.  Other industry included several large glass manufacturing plants, as well as a thriving brick industry.  Just to the south of the camera’s position was the old industrial area of town.  After the KCS railroad came in, a connecting line ran through the middle of the industrial area of Poteau.  Today, that’s located where OldCastle is.

Much can be learned from studies such as this.  It provides a great overview of how the railroad towns developed in Eastern Oklahoma. This also provides a glimpse into the future.  These towns were formed around transportation and industry; two of the dominant things that help a town to thrive.  It also provides a simplified view of how things are today.  While the Frisco is gone, the KCS continues to thrive in the area.

 

 

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