August 13, 1996
On November 1, 1935, when Walt Kehres announced plans for construction of a new restaurant and hotel building on the north side of the square, it was a cause for general rejoicing in Perry. The depth of the Great Depression was still being plumbed, and any stirring of activity, however minor, was welcome. What Mr. Kehres proposed, however, was a truly major project. He was going to build a sturdy new two-story home for his Elite Hotel & Restaurant, one of the mainstays of the city's business districts. It signalled confidence in Perry's economic future, and that was just the thing needed to reassure other local businessmen, as well as their patrons. It was a tangible sign of hope on the horizon.
The story is interesting today because Clyde Speer, new owner of the Kehres building, has just revealed plans to recondition the 60-year-old building and convert it into a hotel again, pumping new life into the downtown area. For the past several years the ground floor has been the home of Georgia Curtis' furniture and antique business with a museum collection on the second floor.
Mr. Kehres' announcement came 20 years to the day after he started in the restaurant business here. A story in The Perry Daily Journal on November 1, 1935, said work on tearing down the old structure would begin the following Monday morning. It was the last wooden building remaining on the Perry square and therefore of historic significance, but local civic boosters were anxious to see it go. The new structure was to be 100 x 95 feet, with John Mildfelt, a local contractor, in charge of construction. "The new building will be modern throughout with a buff brick front and will add greatly to the value and appearance of the business district on the north side of the square," The Journal reported. The news paper account continued:
"Beginning in the restaurant business here 20 years ago this fall with a meager stock of only a few fixtures valued at about $65, Kehres has conducted a successful cafe business here since that time. Some 12 years ago he purchased the building. This structure was one of the first to be built in Perry and with its passing goes an early landmark," the story said. A public auction was held to dispose of the old hotel furnishings to make way for all new fixtures and furniture.
Long-time Perryans remember that Mr. Kehres at one time was in the restaurant business with Roy Rueb, who was married to Walt's sister. Mr. Rueb, also known as LeRoy, and two brothers, Albert and Alex, were Cherokee Strip run pioneers and colorful local characters. An article in The Journal's 1953 souvenir edition saluting the 60th anniversary of the run had this to say about the brothers:
"A favorite resort in the new city of Perry was the all-night restaurant of the Rueb brothers, Albert, Alex and LeRoy. These boys were located in a dugout near Wharton before the (Santa Fe) depot was moved to Perry and came to town when the trains quit stopping at Wharton. A bakery was annexed to the restaurant. The boys were good providers and kept the best eating house in the city, but they had plenty of troubles. They were on the street up town from the 'red light' district, whose turmoils and battles kept the town supplied with midnight and early morning static. Every rounder, after midnight, when there was nothing to do around the saloons, ambled down to Rueb's.
"It was a nightly occurrence for the late wayfarer to see any number of fleeing forms go by down the line from Rueb's. 'Catch him, Alex!' 'Give it to him, LeRoy!' rang out in the after-midnight air, and throughout the battle the night policeman, Bill Penn, waited on the half-sober customers and complacently took his midnight lunch.
Instinctively, every battler reached for the catsup bottle as his first weapon. But, other than Bill, only one person won the battle at Rueb's; strangely enough it was Angus Miller, the Beau Brummell salesman of the city. On an early morning parade he drove the proprietors to call the police reserves. Finally the Rueb partnership was broken up and the last of the brothers departed. The 'Blue Point' restaurant was famous the first winter for jack rabbit stew and kafir corn cakes. The latter, as a dish of society, promised to prove a revolution in good eating.
Although the story said all the Rueb brothers departed the city, old-timers tell me that Roy sold his restaurant to Mr. Kehres and then went to work for him as a cook. At any rate, there you have a bit of local lore, the heritage of what later became the Elite Hotel, which is about to experience yet another rebirth. Our next column will take one more look at the old building.