A new book by Kat Robinson visits classic eateries in Arkansas, including Russellville’s historic diner.
Last year, Arkansas food writer Kat Robinson brought us Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State. This year, she follows up with Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley, available today from History Press with photos by Grav Weldon. In the book, Robinson reveals how fried chicken came to a tiny burg called Tontitown, who’s responsible for the creation of the Arkansas Delta Tamale and who created the fried pickle. Read an excerpt from the book about Old South restaurant, which has been serving cups of coffee, fried honeybuns and other comfort foods in Russellville for 66 years.
The Old South
The last location for what was once a national chain, now a historic site.
Elvis Ate Here.
Time quells a lot of memories, but not all of them. I can quite clearly remember my first week in Russellville as a student at Arkansas Tech University. It was the first time I lived away from home. I learned a lot of things very quickly. I learned that at night, you could see stars from the center of campus, that there was little to no insulation on the outside of my room at Roush Hall, that driving up Mount Nebo with its little tight hairpin turns was a lot of fun and that you really only had two options for sitting down and eating overnight in town: the Waffle House or The Old South.
I wasn’t the only student who quickly found out that the latter was the better choice. While you could only really hang out at the “Awful Waffle” as long as you had your plate in front of your face, at The Old South, you could sit up all night nursing a cup of coffee if you bought just one item off the menu. That item, in my case, was usually the fried honeybun—a Hostess honeybun removed from its package and heated in a skillet with a lump of margarine, dumped on a plate and presented with a fork. There were many nights I spent in the back room of the restaurant, usually in one of the round booths with one or more companions from school, poring over the notes for whatever test we were taking or, as became more common in my case, scribbling down yet another piece of poetry or prose for Mrs. Tyson’s composition class or a slightly scandalous piece of fiction for B.C. Hall.
Those distant early 1990s days were packed from one end to another, and like with many college students, sleep just wasn’t as important for me as it came to be later on. What most of us failed to grasp, though, was just how important the restaurant where we huddled happened to be to history.
See, The Old South was about forty-five years old about the time I was looking at twenty. In my late teens, I didn’t really comprehend the value of the sleek art deco styling or of the time capsule that the place had become for the last remnants of the great Route 64, which, if not of the same cultural importance as Route 66, was certainly a byway of significance in the way this part of the country unfolded in the middle part of the twentieth century.
The restaurant was built in 1947, a couple years after the end of the second World War. As much as today’s residents of Russellville would like to believe that it’s the one and only, it wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t the first—that was The Old South in Fort Smith, opened around 1945 at 711 Towson Avenue (now a parking lot for Sparks Regional Medical Center).
Here’s what it all amounts to. The Old South wasn’t a family start-up like other restaurants I’ve talked about. It was a concept restaurant—a franchise, at that—created as a turnkey operation. The original man with the plan was William E. Stell, an Oklahoma-born businessman who created and founded the National Glass and Manufacturing Company in Fort Smith back in 1929. The company created fixtures, furniture and metalwork for restaurants and department stores. It wasn’t a far jump for Stell to develop a modular diner system to take advantage of the new automobile culture that was developing. Unlike the Streamliner design (which was a contained prefab unit), Stell’s idea was for a modular, build on-site system that could be adapted to the location. He employed the help of architect Glenn Pendergrass (he designed the El Chico restaurants around Dallas) to design the concept he envisioned.
The first, that Fort Smith store, was an experiment. Stell brought in a guy from New York City to form a menu—none other than Schwab’s R.C. Strub. The approach of a Kansas City–style steakhouse menu was adapted for use in what would be a series of roadside diners. The idea was to create a restaurant quickly. And it did catch on.
No one knows for certain how many Old South restaurants were built, but the last “other” restaurant (in Camden, South Carolina) apparently closed in 2005. The original location was demolished in the 1970s. There were several in Oklahoma and Arkansas, most of which were given different names, such as the Little Rock location, which housed Gordon Adkins and the Ritz Grill.
The Russellville location, though, started quick and has endured for the ages. The last week of March 1947, Stell delivered on a contract to Woody Mays, owner of Woody’s Classic Inn and Coffee Shop (the motel still operates today, though the coffee shop is long gone), and had the location built in just six days. It opened on April 4, 1947, on the outskirts of town.
Now remember, this was long before Interstate 40 ran coast to coast. While folks tend to recall Route 66 as the best way from Chicago to the California coastline, it wasn’t the only way to get out there. Route 64 (which actually intersects with old Route 66 in Tulsa, Oklahoma) was the best way to get from the East Coast in North Carolina out as far as Arizona and took drivers on the most direct east–west route across Arkansas. Because of this, folks of all ilk traveled the highway, and when they came into Russellville, they stopped at The Old South for a bite. Didn’t matter who they were, they stopped. That includes the likes of Ernest Tubb, B.B. King and even, yes, Elvis Presley.
Back in the 1990s, I didn’t know what the place looked like inside during the day. I was too busy leading the extraordinarily packed life of a would-be band director and broadcaster, and the only time I managed to get inside was when I was pulling an all-nighter. Other Tech students made fun of the place, with rather crude names for the eatery. You might think it was the sort of place you wouldn’t revisit later on, but it was. It didn’t take me long after graduation and a whirlwind few months that sat me down in Jonesboro at my first TV job in 1995 for me to realize I missed the place.
It’d take me time to make a real return, and by that point, it was May 2008. I was pregnant and craving fried chicken, and it was, as always, crisply and heavily battered, greasy and served with that notorious salad on the side that wasn’t much more than lettuce and carrot shreds—comfort food.
Since then I’ve dropped in from time to time, usually grabbing breakfast. And it’s a breakfast I have always appreciated, pretty much from when I could afford something more than the fried honeybun. The corned beef from a can, the hash browns and eggs fried on a griddle top enhanced by well over sixty years of grease—enough to give you a heart attack if you ate it day after day—food for the soul when you were on the road and you didn’t know for certain how long it would be before you got back home. Consider it a homecoming, if you will, a place to land for a lonely freelancer trying to get a scoop on a story to sell to whatever magazine would throw a little cash her way.
The Old South ceased being a twenty-four-hour operation sometime in that interim when I was growing up, living life and getting my head on straight. It couldn’t compete with IHOP or the new Waffle House or the late-night coffeehouses with their posh lighting and even posher coffee menus. At The Old South, there’s coffee, regular or decaf, and you can get cream and sugar if you want it, but that’s about it. It’s the sort of thing that apparently doesn’t really appeal to today’s college crowd (though I understand the hipsters really dig that sort of scene).
The place nearly ceased to exist altogether in April 2013, shut down for nonpayment of taxes. But folks around town have ties to the place, this old section of Americana, and they banded together and held a citywide yard sale and paid the taxes. And it’s open again.
Sixty-six years is a pretty dang good run for any restaurant, even more so for a restaurant built in just six days. Whether The Old South survives this generation and the ones to come after it remains to be seen. But I think it’s about time I plan to drop in and grab myself a bite. I might even order that damn fried honeybun again.
Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley is available November 12. Click here to order.