Poteau has had a fascinating history. In this series, we’re looking more at the political history of Poteau by focusing on the early day mayors.
Prior to 1898, the town had been loosely held together. Law was enforced through the U.S. Marshall’s service, but only barely. The closest U.S. Marshal was located in a small town named Cavanaugh, between Poteau and Wister. “Coon” Ratterree would ride through town occasionally, but it wasn’t enough to curtail the violence that plagued Poteau’s wild-west days.
Most decisions were made by those who had the most money or land. As businessmen and investors, they wanted to see the young town of Poteau Switch grow. Many of these early businessmen and investors became mayors and city councilmen. After the railroads came through, railroad agents further helped to establish order.
The town finally incorporated in 1898 due mainly to the efforts of Walter Beard, C.M. Bagwell, and George Witte, all of whom became mayors of the town. Shortly after incorporation, the three, along with T. T. Varner petitioned Congress to have the U.S. Federal Courthouse moved from Cameron to Poteau. The petition was successful due to two main reasons; first, Poteau Switch by this time had a much larger population than Cameron, and second, Poteau was the only town in the region that had a “brick block”. In Cameron, the courthouse was located in a small, one story wood-frame structure. In 1900, T. T. Varner loaded up all of the courthouse documents and furniture and, by mule team and loaded down on wagons, moved the entire courthouse to the McKenna Building in Poteau.
With the railroads and now the U.S. Federal Courts located in Poteau, the town was almost guaranteed to thrive. The earliest functions of Poteau’s mayors were to establish laws to ensure safety and to make sure the town ran smoothly. For example, Judge Day was the first to prohibit stock animals to roam freely on Poteau’s streets. This caused quite a stir. Other laws helped create and enforce sewer and water systems, electric systems, and traffic controls.
From the early days up through Statehood, Poteau was still a pretty rough and tumble town. Mix in the politics of having the U.S. Federal Courts located there and you create an interesting mix of law and order.
Judge Jean P. Day, Ninth Mayor of Poteau
…He caused quite an uproar during 1906 when he enacted an ordinance prohibiting stock on the streets.
On the incident, Day stated, “The streets were muddy and dusty and wooden plank sidewalks and hoses, mules, cattle, sheep, goats and hogs ranged everywhere up and down the streets. In fact, the merchants had considerable trouble in keeping hogs out of their stores. So as mayor, I drove through the law prohibiting stock on the streets and brought down on my head the ire of the populace. I was the most unpopular man in the whole country… in fact, they burned me in effigy but the law stood up and the stock were kept up.”
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