We have lost the Old South
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We have lost the Old South

Aug 28, 2023

Overnight, Arkansas lost a classic eatery. The Old South Restaurant, which perched along East Main in Russellville since 1947, burned. While the exterior walls still stand, the fire was significant, and there's no word yet on whether rebuilding is in the future.

I have a long history with this restaurant, and upon seeing the post on Facebook this morning, I felt this deeply.

Old South Restaurant (Facebook)

The restaurant itself was the second in what became a franchise spanning several states. It was originally conceived by William E. Stell, the founder of the National Glass and Manufacturing Company in Fort Smith. Stell loved the idea of the Streamliner Diners and wanted to create a pre-fab to duplicate some of that aesthetic. He worked with architect Glenn Pendergrass to develop the modular system, and the first Old South was erected along Towson Avenue in Fort Smith in 1945.

Two years later, Woody Mays ordered and had delivered an Old South to Russellville, to complement his Woody's Classic Inn and Coffee Shop. It took six days to put together, and on the seventh Old South opened, to remain open 24 hours a day, holidays included, only closing when there were power outages that prevented operation. It became a popular stop along U.S. Highway 64, and part of its 1999 addition to the National Register of Historical Places was due to one famous customer's repeat appearance. It wasn't uncommon for Elvis Presley to stop for a fried bologna sandwich back in the day.

In the early 21st century, the restaurant fell on hard times, and was even closed for non-payment of state sales tax. A community-wide effort and yard sale paid the back taxes so the restaurant could re-open. In more recent years, Dale Summit and his son, Zack, bought the restaurant and spent quite a while cleaning it up to its original splendor, while keeping the prices for the menu items reasonably low.

Back in the 1990s, I was one of those Arkansas Tech University students who regarded the Old South as our overnight study hall. Back then, there were no other places with 24 hour-service outside of the Waffle House on the north side of I-40. The Old South Restaurant had a policy — you could come stay and study as long as you like, but you had to purchase something to justify you being there. It was not uncommon for a handful of us to spread out across one of the massive 3/4 round booths with coffee and soda and the cheapest thing on the menu — honey buns, that for $1.05, the cook would dollop with butter and fry in a pan to serve hot.

I spent an afternoon enjoying a repast of my own just a few weeks ago. I’d heard good things about one of the more recently added menu items, the Friday and Saturday prime rib special. While I waited, I enjoyed some house-made Thousand Island dressing with club crackers, just like I often did many times before. The prime rib was excellent.

All the things I’d come to the Old South for were standard. There wasn't a whole lot of innovation, nor did there need to be. Some mornings on the road coming out of Little Rock and heading westward, I’d stop by for corned beef hash and eggs and lots of black coffee. The corned beef came sliced right out of the can, sure, but I knew what I was getting and I was happy to receive the fine repast.

Slices of possum pie from the cold case behind the long, low front bar. Fried pickles, cut by hand and lightly battered, almost (but not quite) the original Bernell Austin recipe, served just a few miles from the original Duchess Drive-In where they were created. Fried chicken, crunchy and tasty all the way through. Side salads that once came covered in what seemed like half a bottle of Bacos. Patty melts.

At this point in time, there's no word on whether the Old South Restaurant will rebuild. The chatter on Facebook includes residents urging the Summits to acquire and renovate the old Dixie Cafe location down the street to revive the restaurant's legacy. Indeed, even if the insurance money covers things (and I sure hope it does), there are limitations to what can be done with the old pre-fab. The walls still stand, but Arkansas code would require some changes, particularly rebuilding the restrooms to ADA specs, which would change the original layout. The old triangular kitchen would likely have to be augmented.

It's a loss, and a considerable one, for a community that once did everything they could to save it. The Russ Bus, which helps others in times of need, is collecting donations and funds for the employees who worked there (TheRussBus.org). I personally hope it's not the end of the line for one of Arkansas's most treasured classic diners.

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