Bus Boy, Bell Hop, And Bootlegger: More Stories From The Hotel Vinita

Henry Whitfield Jr.’s association with the Hotel Vinita began in 1947 when his $20 a month payments from the Navy ran out. His first, civilian job was bus boy in the hotel coffee shop.

"Back then, a waitress would carry four plates on her arm and was happy to get a dime tip, noniktter the size of the table," said Henry when asked about the predecessor to the new Skylight Bakery and Cafe, still in progress on the newly renovated first floor of the hotel.

"I carried dirty dishes stacked as high as my eyes and I only broke one cup that I remember," he said. "Mrs. Driskill, the manager, was a very stern employer, a real taskmaster. But everyone respected and admired her. Her husband and her son also ran the hotel but they were more lenient with me."

As Henry considered the renovations currently underway at this historic landmark, he recalled when Vinita was bustling with out-of-town businessmen and families traveling Route 66. Henry had opportunities to meet folks from all over the country in his second job at the hotel: bell hop. He carried guests’ luggage to their rooms and delivered ice.

Only blocks away, passengers disembarked from Pullman cars ‘and took taxis to the hotel for first class accommodations. Traveling businessmen in suits and hats booked rooms months in advance and looked forward to their first meal after a long day. Under the demanding standards of Mrs. Driskill. Henry helped to make the guests comfortable.

It was during his time as a bell hop that he began his employment at a better paying job on the side:

bootlegging. As a headstrong, rebellious young man, Henry handled many bootlegging trans actions when liquor was illegal in Oklahoma.

"Mrs. Driskill, a good Christian woman, would have fired me If she knew," said Henry. There was a steady demand for good booze, especially when delivered by discreet young bellhops.

"I would buy it from the cab stand across the street for 4 dollars, sell it to the travelers for 5 dollars, and they would give me a dollar tip. That was good money back then." He went on, "Cigarettes were 18 cents a pack. You would pay with two dimes and then inside the pack of cigarettes was 2 cents change."

Many years have passed and Henry Whiffleld no longer skirts the law, having copied the Christian lifestyle of the upright Mrs. Driskill rather than the boozing customers. His only regret is that he made his metamorphosis late in life.

Whether he was working as a coffee shop bus boy, as a bell hop, or his shady role as a booze runner, Henry Whiffield knew all the ins and outs of the Hotel Vinita. Even after leaving his jobs there, he returned frequently as a customer.

"When I drove a cab, I took my breaks at the hotel cafe, they had the best coffee in town," Henry remembers. "There were five cab stands in town. all of them busy. I

drove an old Hudson, with one of the doors wired closed. The fare was 25 cents a head."

Although the old coffee shop can never be replaced, Henry is looking forward to seeing the new Sky light Bakery and Cafe. "It is good that a new business is coming in, it would be a shame to see this great old building go the way of so many other buildings in town."

Many other Vinitans who re member the hotel and the coffee shop agree with Henry. And more than a few of the younger residents, who have no memories of the coffee shop, also agree. Many are wondering if it can possibly be true that soon we will have a lovely downtown cafe with Starbucks, pastries, and other great food. Stay tuned.

By Kathleen Duchamp, Vinita Daily Journal, June 6, 2002

 


Henry Whitfield Jr. (right) is seen here as a young mart home on leave from the Navy in 1947, shortly before he began working at the Hotel Vinita.
dat 2003

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