Then in 1719, the French explorer Bernard DeHarpe, led an expedition to the Poteau area. The modern Poteau, however, has its origin in 1885, with a few houses and Bud Tate’s general store. Incorporation of the town of Poteau followed on October 8, 1898. This same year the first public building, a school, was constructed of native stone – the building having been erected through the contributions of the Poteau residents. This was the first free school in the Indian Territory. The first Poteau post office was established in 1888.
Federal court was moved to Poteau from Cameron in 1900, and in 1903 activities of the town largely centered around this court, The Kansas City Southern and Frisco railroads were both running lines through the town. The Bank of Poteau was established in 1901, and in 1904 was nationalized. That same year the First Bank of Poteau was organized and deposits of each were estimated at about $50,000.
The Amos Handle Factory was one of the most thriving enterprises during the early part of the 1900s while The Poteau News, first published in 1895, had a subscription list of about 350. The telephone company was granted a franchise in 1904, followed shortly by electric lights and a water works system in 1906. In 1910 one of the first natural gas wells was discovered.
In 1903 the Witteville Coal Mine was operating near Poteau and, although that mine was abandoned, several others were opened and contributed large payrolls to the community for many years.
Poteau, a French word for “post” , is located on the banks of the river bearing its name. Nestled in the broad, fertile Poteau River Valley, Poteau is a progressive, friendly city with an eye upon the future and with an historical heritage second to none. Today, economic development, food processing, plastics, lumber, agriculture, cattle, coal, broiler production and tourism are important industries.
The first years of Poteau’s growth were rapid ones. In 1908, a year after the Indian Territory was admitted to statehood, the required population of 2,000 was attained and Governor C. N. Haskell issued a proclamation declaring Poteau to be “a city of the first class.”
Poteau was a city loved by the late United States Senator Robert S. Kerr. He built a magnificent home here and invested money in a great ranch and in cattle. He envisioned Poteau as a major city with the opening of navigation on the Arkansas River. He pointed out to Poteau residents that the Poteau River, with its mouth on the Arkansas River at historic Belle Point in Fort Smith, could be made navigable to the city of Poteau.
The Kerr Museum, housed on the grounds, has exhibits of the natural history of the area, including Indian artifacts, material dealing with the famous Runestones, artifacts from the Spiro Mound complex, and articles used by Oklahoma and western pioneers in the building of the Indian Territory of the Great West. The museum contains a collection of more than 300 types of barbed wire. In 1978 the mansion was donated to the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. The museum was left intact and is open to the public. The mansion is open year round as a bed and breakfast/conference center.
Poteau's population is 8,300 and is located southwest of Fort Smith, Arkansas, 130 miles southeast of Tulsa and 198 miles southeast of Oklahoma City. Poteau is almost completely surrounded by mountains. Looking eastward across the Poteau River, one can see in the distance the famous towering Sugar Loaf Mountain Peak. On the southern horizon can be seen the Winding Stair Mountain Range, the foothills of the Kiamichi's where Talimena Scenic Byway is located. Immediately on the west is Cavanal Hill.
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