May 6, 1997
It's good to see signs of business activity stirring again at the southeast corner of Sixth street and Fir avenue. The site has been bare ground for too many years, but sometime this summer it will become the home of the Tire and Lube Plaza to be operated by Jim and Nickie Smith. The last visible use of that corner was as a temporary location for the historic old Episcopal church structure, the "church on a perch," which now has a permanent home on a promontory overlooking the lake at CCC Park.
But since well before that, through the early years of this city, that particular part of Sixth and Fir has been a hub of activity. Perhaps the one that many people of my generation remember best is the Cain Hotel and its adjacent Seventy-Seven Drive-In Cafe. Both were owned and operated by a genial grandmother, Daisy B. Cain; who moved here in the 1930s with two grandchildren, Katherine and Buddy Lessert, to take over the existing two-story masonry building. After redecorating and brightening the lobby and other rooms, she had a semi-circular shaped coffee shop constructed on the south side of the building and it quickly became a popular hangout. The property was wide enough, with a generous west frontage, to accommodate a parking lot for its customers.
Mrs. Cain was slightly heavy, so in her wardrobe she favored loose-fitting dresses that disguised her ample girth. She was a friendly lady with a ready smile and a personality that seemed ideally suited for an innkeeper. Besides all that, she was a poet. Her rhymes were published regularly in some of the popular pulp magazines of the day. She frequently chose to versify dreamy but chaste images of romance, or family devotion, and she was delighted to discuss her love of poetry with anyone, including the young people who enjoyed the Seventy-Seven Drive-In Cafe.
Another drawing card for the place was a large double room in the hotel that was set aside for dancing, just off the drive-in. There teens and young adults happily jitterbugged on a hardwood floor generously doused with corn starch to reduce traction. Music was provided by all the big bands of the day via 78 rpm records in a jukebox. The nickelodeon, with its halo of softly hued neon lights, was plugged into a socket along the wall. Because beer was served at the drive-in, dancing was not allowed on the cafe's premises, as I recall. The hotel room that was used for dancing was separated from the drive-in only by its name and by a sturdy brick wall, but that met the legal requirements. You could take soft drinks and sandwiches, but no beer, from the cafe into the ballroom, where tables and chairs were provided.
Daisy's grandchildren, Katherine and Bobby Lessert, were high school students when the little family moved to Perry in the late 1930s. Both had many friends. Katherine became a drill leader in the Perry high school pep club, the Red Hots, and she was a good choice for the job. She was attractive, extremely popular with both boys and girls, and had a friendly personality perhaps inherited from her grandmother. I read of her death a few years ago in Oklahoma City where she operated a well known boutique bed and bathroom specialty shop. Buddy, who was a couple of years younger than his sister, also had a wide circle of friends. I have lost track of him.
The name of the Seventy-Seven Drive-In Cafe derived from its location on U.S. Highway 77, which at that time was a major north-south highway passing through Perry on Sixth street. It was a main artery connecting Oklahoma City and Wichita, with numerous Perry-size towns scattered along the way. Perry had several hotels like the Cain to accommodate travelers. Sixth street carried a great deal of traffic in those days, but Fir avenue was just a two-lane east-west street with bar ditches lining both sides as it crossed the city. With establishment of the Charles Machine Works, Inc. complex in 1959 and the later location of I-35 on the west side of Perry, Fir has become the dominant traffic carrier and now has a four lane ribbon through here. Motels along the highway have pretty much extinguished all traces of operations like the Cain Hotel.
After Mrs. Cain closed her hotel and cafe, the building housed other tenants. Mr. and Mrs. H. C. Galaway operated a small but well-stocked grocery store there for several years, and Art and Bonnie Hamby had a Dairy-Queen Drive-In on the west front of the building for a time. Eventually the old building was sold and torn down and in recent years the site has served primarily as a temporary parking lot for large trucks passing through here. If you're old enough to remember the Cain Hotel and the Seventy-Seven Drive-In Cafe, perhaps you can still visualize those venerable institutions, plus Daisy Cain and her grandchildren, as you drive by today.