There isn’t a small town in Oklahoma, or the US, in fact, that doesn’t have some kind of history, and Pryor, Oklahoma, is no exception. Tonight I want to tell you about a small hotel that was once on the north side of Main Street in Pryor, Oklahoma. But before I do that, I need to introduce you to a couple of people and tell you about another place.
It’s close to two years since I joined Will Rogers Toastmasters. I still remember that night, and when I walked through that door, one of the first people I met was a young man named Ray Huang. Ray is a short-haired, dark-haired professional, always with a smile on his face and full of words. He sat right there.
I was thinking it was my second or third meeting when I sat down next to him and struck up a conversation. And at some point in our conversation, Ray told me he was from Taiwan and I told him I was from Pryor, Oklahoma. When he heard me mention those two words, Pryor, Oklahoma, said, “What’s that place over there that everyone’s talking about, that restaurant? It’s on that main street that goes by!”
I let my mind wander through a full list of restaurants in Pryor, mostly fast food places, and the only one I could think of was Thomas’ Restaurant. And when I mentioned that name, Ray said, “Yeah, that’s it! I always wanted to go there and have lunch!”
Well sad to say, that restaurant caught fire just a few weeks after our conversation and burned to the ground. Some of those who lived there, the ones who seemed to be in the know, said, “They will never save that building. There is too much fat there. It is in every nook and cranny, in every nook and cranny!”
And I guess they were right, because fire trucks were set up on the street, blocking Highway 69 for a mile in both directions. They poured water on that fire for two hours straight … and they never put out that fire.
Afterward, all that was left was a corner of a midway exterior wall, and the rest were simply the charred remains of what was once a fifty-five-year-old Oklahoma landmark.
But I’m happy to say that they rebuilt that restaurant and opened its doors only a few months ago. And if you don’t know, the restaurant was and is a 1950s-style restaurant, with a long U-shaped bar extending from the door. There is a row of stools on either side of the bar and a row of booths positioned along each of the two outer walls, separated from the stools by a few tables and chairs. Before the fire there were no tables or chairs there, just a narrow walkway with a dining room at the back to catch the overflowing crowd.
I was there about two weeks ago, on a Friday morning for breakfast, and I sat at the bar next to a man named John Wilkerson. Mr. Wilkerson was sitting on the north side of the bar about the middle of the left side when entering the building.
Because of his shaved head, Mr. Wilkerson may not appear so to the average person, but he is a professional man. He was dressed in a nice coat and tie with matching pants and before I sat down I noticed a woolen hat hanging from a single hook on a coat rack attached to one of the booths behind him.
I complimented him on his outfit and he said he was color blind; that he would not distinguish one color from the next; that his wife took care of all that, and always took out his clothes every night before going to bed.
Mr. Wilkerson went on to say that he has lived in Pryor his entire life and that his parents came to Oklahoma from Brush Creek, Tennessee. Sometime after his family moved to Oklahoma, he said that the governor of Oklahoma appointed his father to be the superintendent of the Whitaker Children’s Home in Pryor. “And that’s where I was born and we lived there until I was three years old,” Mr. Wilkerson continued.
Mr. Wilkerson is now seventy-eight years old and conducts his father’s business and interests, multiplying many times what his father left him when he passed away several years earlier.
“I have enjoyed living all these years in Pryor, Oklahoma, working with people and visiting.” he continued. But what I’ve enjoyed the most is walking down that main street with my dad to the Butler Hotel, where we have lunch together. The Butler Hotel was located on the north side of Graham, in the middle of the first block east of Highway 69 “.
“Of course the 1942 tornado tore it all apart,” Mr. Wilkerson continued, “but before that, I remember a large screen door at the entrance and inside was the hotel lobby. There was a comfortable chair, a couple of couches. and a sofa spaced over a mostly white tile floor, there were some black tiles in there too and the tile floor stretched from the front door to the back of the dining room.
At the back of the lobby there was a counter where you could rent a room for the night or pay for a meal. Part of the counter was a display case with some sweets inside, some licorice sticks, suckers, and other hard candies, and to the left of the counter were steps that led to the second floor where there were several rooms for rent. To the right of the counter was a hallway that led to the dining room.
There was something else in the front that caught my interest, “John said,” and it was a tall, thin metal pole with a perch on top, and there sat a big old green and yellow parrot.
Those times we were there, Mr. Wilkerson said that his dad would always stop at the counter and talk to the person on duty for a minute and then we would go back to the dining room.
In the dining room there were several square tables covered with white tablecloths. In each set were several cutlery and a folded white cloth napkin. In the center of the table were salt and pepper shakers, a sugar dispenser, and on top of the tables were one or more ceiling fans. My dad and I would sit at one of those tables and order a plate for lunch and while the food was being prepared I would get up from the chair and go out to the patio.
At the back of the dining room, leading to the patio, were a pair of swing doors, not exactly like bar doors, but screen doors. Mr. Wilkerson said he would make his way through those two doors to where there was a goldfish pond built into the concrete floor. There he would lie face down with his chin in his hands and watch several goldfish swimming in the pool.
Soon his father would yell at him, “John, the food is getting cold,” and Mr. Wilkerson said he would stand up and join his father at the table. Later, after they had finished eating, Mr. Wilkerson said that he and his father would put the napkins back on the table and return to the lobby.
At that point, Mr. Wilkerson set his fork beside his plate, a platter of half-eaten bacon and eggs, chopped potatoes, a small bowl of gravy, and a cookie. And with an evocative distant look in his eyes, he turned to me. “Ben, I’ve always liked eating there with my dad,” he said, “but what I remember most about the Butler Hotel is that parrot.”
“Some time after we had paid for our food and Dad had left two pieces for those who worked in the kitchen and dining room and bought me a black cherry suction cup from the candy box, sometime before we walked out the door back out on the street and as we were walking across that white tile floor towards the exit, somewhere over there, I heard that big old parrot squawk a couple of times as if clearing its throat. Then when we opened the door mosquito net to step back on the sidewalk, that parrot always said … Thank you! “