Telling the history of Claremore…one story at a time
This article appeared in the Claremore Progress, August 12, 2007. Written by Larry Larkin.
An advertising sign hanging outside a business is a common sight. All types of businesses usually will have one or more. Most of these signs announce the business name and nature of the business. But what about a sign displayed inside a building? That’s the case at the corner of First Street and J. M. Davis Boulevard in Claremore. In the bay area of Midtown Rental and Sales, a toy soldier once again stands sentry.
On the six-foot-long metal sign, a blue-uniformed soldier watches over the words “Cadet Grill.” The white letters spring from a red background. Attached beneath the Cadet Grill sign is a smaller sign that reads “Home of Mary Ann Holman, Head Waitress.” What was the story behind this sign and how did it get to its location at Midtown Rental and Sales? According to Midtown owner Louis Gardner, the sign was among items left behind in the building when he moved in. The building, at one time an automobile dealership facing the old Route 66, stood vacant for years. Gardner said that when he started cleaning up the brick building, he found the old sign in the midst of several Jeep parts.
For anyone interested in antiques, this was a fantastic discovery. For Gardner, it was even more than that. “I knew my mother worked at the Cadet Grill when she was a young woman,” he said. “I decided to fix up the sign as an honor to her. I added the second sign and they both are displayed in the building. So now, the Cadet sign hangs proudly once again, this time as a loving tribute to a mother. Where did the Cadet Grill do business? I remember the Cadet Bowl that was in the 400 block of West Will Rogers and I knew before the bowling alley it was movie house called the Cadet Theater. Had a café been in the building years earlier? As many times before, I turned to Claremore native John Smith. A phone call to his home missed my objective, but his bride, June, suggested another source.
“Maybe Judy Eagleton might be able to help you,” She said.
Another phone call followed. “Can you tell me anything about a place called the Cadet Grill?” I asked. “I believe I can,” she replied in her soft and friendly manner. “My parents owned and operated it.” Talk about something good falling right into your lap! The Cadet Grill was a Claremore café during the 1950s. Run by Judy’s father and mother, Vergil and Nathamay Smith, the Grill actually was located in two separate locations. At one time or another, sons Vergil and Jerry and daughters Judy and Nancy helped their parents at the Grill. ”My brother Vergil remembers going with our father to Miami in 1950 to pick up that sign and bringing it back here,” Judy said. “I don’t know why he remembers the cost, but he told me Dad paid $350 for the sign. That was a lot of money for that time.”
After moving from Marietta to Claremore, the Smiths opened eating places at five different addresses. The first was called the American Café in the Mason Hotel block on the town’s main street. Next came a move to the Baby Ritz near the Radium Bath Hotel, then on to Bishop’s north of the Mason. When the Smiths left, the café became known as Polly and Gail’s. The building later came down to make room for the J. M. Davis Museum.
The need for the $350 sign came with the move to the fourth Smith location. It was across the street from the Burlington Railroad station and the rock building that served as the Highway Patrol headquarters.
According to his daughter, Mr. Smith selected the new name, Cadet Grill, to honor the students attending Oklahoma Military Academy. This is where the sign made its first appearance. With electric light bulb sockets in each letter, the sign was an attention-grabber. One more move would come. “The last move we made was to the L & K Café across the street from Ernie’s Pool Hall in the 500 block of Claremore’s main street,” Judy said. “The L&K had a seven-layer baking oven and that’s the reason we moved. My father loved that old stove. To make the change official, the red, white and blue sign made the move with the Smiths.
Each of the Smith children helped at the Grill. Judy said her brother Vergil worked right up the time he left for college. Jerry’s time became limited as he reached high school. Jerry became an outstanding athlete and was an all-conference quarterback for the Zebras. A devoted football fan, Mr. Smith believed that Jerry needed to be on the practice field. Nancy didn’t enjoy being at the Grill as much as her siblings. She was there when needed, but she preferred staying home and keeping the house. “As for me, I was working down there as soon as I was old enough to serve as a waitress,” Judy said. “Even before then, I was there wiping tables and doing what I could.”
A favorite for adults and teen-agers alike, the Cadet Grill was noted for its chicken-fried steak dinners. “My father also offered the choice of two meats, one of three vegetables, a salad, hot rolls, dessert, and drink, all for 50 cents,” She said. “The policemen all knew a hot cup of coffee on the house was always waiting when they dropped in.”
Asked if the Cadet was a teenager hangout, Judy replied, “Now you couldn’t really call it one, but the young people knew they were always welcome. My father always made sure none of them ever left hungry, even if they didn’t have money at the time. He would let them pay the next time, or maybe let them wash some dishes. He also had some cots in a back room for boys to use if they had nowhere else to go. In past years, I have had several men tell me they probably would have dropped out of school had it not been for my father.” Before, during and after his son played, Mr. Smith provided meals for the football team on game nights.
“One year after the season was over, the football team was awarded a trip to the Cotton Bowl New Year’s Day game in Dallas,” Judy said. “One of the players was unable to make the trip. The remaining team members decided to give the extra ticket to my father. He rode the bus with the players and coaches and stayed with them at the hotel. He had a wonderful time.”
Because of ill health, Vergil Smith and his family were forced to close the Cadet Grill for the final time in 1958.
A serious collector of Claremore’s history, Judy Eagleton only has dear memories of the Cadet Grill. “When we closed, we pretty much just walked away,” she said.
The building stood vacant for some time before becoming the home of Miller TV. Twenty years later, the entire south side of the block was leveled. Today, it is the main street site for RCB Bank and its drive-through service.
“I can say my father was not a very good businessman, but he was a good friend to everyone who knew him,” Judy said. “My brothers and sister and I had two special parents.”
So, a quest to learn more about a metal sign had come to an end. A present-day tribute to a businessman’s mother led also to the knowledge of some early-day residents and a place called the CADET GRILL.
I never met Mr. and Mrs. Smith, or former waitress Mary Ann. I feel I missed some people I would have enjoyed knowing. Having one of those chicken-friend steaks wouldn’t have been bad, either.