Taylor's Inn in Poteau: Little Dixie’s Music Mecca
Oklahoma is well known for its music history, from Cain’s Ballroom to Shelter Records’ Church Studio. During the 1920s, Greenwood became known as America’s Black Wall Street. Located just outside Tulsa at the time, this Black Wall Street was where the legendary Count Basie first encountered jazz music.
While most of these facts are well-documented, other places that so deeply inspired Oklahoma’s musical roots have been forgotten.
Taylor’s Inn is one such place.
Little Dixie’s Music Mecca
Built in 1937, Taylor’s Inn was a music mecca in Southeast Oklahoma. For a number of years, it rivaled Cain’s Ballroom in attracting talent. Highly renowned artists such as Bob Wills and Glenn Miller graced the stage to the delight of a greatly enthusiastic crowd.
Owned by Frederick (Freddie) Taylor, besides the large ballroom, Taylor’s Inn also contained a small grocery store near the front of the building, a restaurant, and several independent motor lodges next door. When it opened, Frederick would have just been 22 years old, but he already had a soul for great music and good food.
Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys were frequent performers. After forming a new band and moving to Oklahoma City in 1934, Bob Wills began hunting for larger markets. By the time Taylor’s Inn opened, Bob Wills was already a big star. He was broadcasting live radio performances from Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa and would soon begin performing in movies.
From 1937 until enlisting in the war in 1942, Bob Wills and his band were frequent performers at Taylor’s Inn. After the war, and a brief time spent in California, Bob Wills returned to Oklahoma where he continued to play in various places from 1949 until the Texas Playboys were dissolved in 1965.
Bob Wills wasn’t the only famous musician to grace the stage at Taylor’s Inn. Another country music legend, Hank Williams Sr., was still early in his career when he performed there. Other groups, such as The Oklahoma Ramblers with Roland Crews would frequent the place.
While early country music was always a hit, Taylor’s Inn was also known for hosting some of the best jazz musicians in the world. Legends such as Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller graced the stage on multiple occasions. During the war years, Doris Day would often perform with a large dance band. Red Nichols and His Five Pennies and Harry James continued to play at Taylor’s Inn even after the war was over.
In the early 1960s, Buddy Rich, a famous drummer and bandleader came out to perform at Taylor’s Inn. Following one of the band's sets, Rich made a pass at Freddie’s long-time waitress, Ester. Rich wasn’t aware that Ester was one of the main people at Taylor's Inn. Shocked at his boldness, Ester slapped him and subsequently kicked him out of the ballroom. Luckily, it was smoothed over quick enough and the performance continued on.
Heating and cooling such a large ballroom was never an easy task. During the summer months, the stage and dance floor were kept cool in an ingenious way. There was a large fan room at the back of the dance hall. Frederick would fill this room with large blocks of ice during the afternoon before a dance. Large fans would blow across the ice blocks and keep the dancehall cool.
During the winter months, things were much different. Several large coal-burning stoves were installed and filled with local coal, many times unprocessed. At the end of the night, there was a chance that both musicians and dancers would be covered with coal dust and ash. Still, despite that, Taylor’s Inn remained one of the most popular destination points for music in Southeast Oklahoma.
The Food of Taylor’s Inn
With great music comes great food. Taylor’s Inn was no exception. In addition to having one of the finest dance halls in the state, Frederick and Ester Taylor had a cuisine that was inspirational. A very distinct aroma hailed the senses that consisted of garlic salad and steak seasoned to perfection.
With their Lebanese roots, much of the food offered had a very exotic appeal, especially during and following the war years.
Taylor’s Inn had two main specialties. Their steaks and a very unique Tabbouleh salad. This is a traditional salad served in Lebanon, having originated in the high mountains of Syria and Lebanon. It is made of finely chopped parsley, tomato, onion, mint, and bulgur, and is seasoned with a lemon-olive oil mix.
I never knew what the price of our meal would be. No personal menu, just a little sign that read "Steak, Chicken, Salad, not sure but maybe Spaghetti". You walked in and he would say to you "Steak tonight", that’s how you ordered. So there was no menu with prices to show the cost of the meal.
Menus were non-existent at Taylor’s Inn. After sitting down at one of the tables, visitors would often be greeted by the waitress Esther Lee or by “Freddy” or “Mama Taylor”. First-time visitors may be given the option of chicken or steak, but often it was what Freddy decided you should have. Regulars were rarely asked. Instead, they already knew what you wanted and how you wanted it cooked.
While the food was always a surprise, so were the prices. On most nights, the price of the meal was what Frederick was comfortable with at the time. Visitors could eat the exact same thing for several nights in a row and still be charged a different price each night.
Despite the unusualness of the restaurant, between the exotic cuisine and the divine music, visiting Taylor’s Inn was always a bargain.
I remember Mama Taylor would open a bottle of beer for you and would wipe off the rim of the bottle with her palm before she handed it to you. That always irked Bob Smedley and he would tell her," bring me a Bud Mama and don't open it"! Bob carried his own opener when we went there.
The Myths and Legends of Taylor’s Inn
As with Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Taylor’s Inn boasts a fair share of myths and legends.
Just behind the ballroom and restaurant, several old single-room motor lodges still stand. Although dilapidated with time, many legends that performed at Taylor’s Inn stayed in those rooms. At the time, they were located on the main highway that led south towards Wister and beyond. As larger hotels and more modern hotels and motels began to spring up in the area, the small motor lodges went into disuse. Today, many people claim that they are haunted with ghosts of the past.
One of the most persistent myths about Taylor’s Inn was that it was frequented by Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. The myth says that Pretty Boy would visit the Inn and stay for several hours. Just before leaving, he would offer the waitress a large tip. However, Floyd was gunned down three years before Taylor’s Inn opened.
Another myth that has been told about Taylor’s Inn has been proven to be partially true. Legends claim that Taylor’s Inn was a popular bootleggers’ waypoint during and after prohibition. Behind the ballroom, liquor was stashed in metal milk containers and then buried in the ground. One of the most common liquors to be stored this way was whiskey. While this is partially true, it was not for distribution as one commonly thinks of during the prohibition era.
In Oklahoma, prohibition was written into the constitution at statehood. It wasn’t until 1933 that the sale of even low-point beer was made legal. Alcohol, on the other hand, wasn’t repealed until 1959. Still, moonshiners and whiskey peddlers were quite frequent in Southeastern Oklahoma, which made getting alcohol much easier. Because Taylor’s Inn wasn’t legally allowed to serve alcohol, a certain amount was kept in reserve for special cases.
A common practice prior to 1959 was in effect. While beer was served at Taylor’s Inn, alcohol was not. During a dance, visitors were allowed to bring their own bottle. They could then order “set ups” which consisted of bowls of ice and 7-ups. With that, visitors could mix their own drinks. This kept Frederick and Ester out of trouble while still allowing visitors to have a good time.
The End of an Era
Taylor’s Inn remained an iconic landmark in Southeastern Oklahoma through the early 1990s. By this time, the dance floor was no longer used and had become “wavy” from years of disuse. The big band and western swing legends had all passed on, given way to the techno hits of the 1980s and the grunge styles of the 1990s. Many of the motor lodges had fallen in while others were near collapse. Although the glory days of Taylors Inn had passed, the restaurant, and “Freddie” continued to be a popular place for both locals and visitors to relax.
The end of Taylors Inn came in 1992. During that year, a large fire destroyed one of Southeast Oklahoma’s most important buildings. Not ready to let go, stories and photos show a frantic Fredrick struggling to save what he could before the fire consumed it all.
Although it has been many years since the inn was last standing, the music and legends born from Taylors Inn will always remain.
Freddie Taylor's Garlic Salad
juice of two lemons
3 cloves crushed garlic
mixed in 1 cup vegetable oil
mix in peeled & crushed tomatoes to the above
tossed with green salad
garlic salt to taste
let it wilt for at least 5 hours
(Recipe provided through Facebook)