Pottsville’s Hostess Lives to Serve

Story by Jeannie Stone

On a hot summer day Pottsville resident Jean Oates manages to flash a smile at a visitor touring Potts Inn, the historic stagecoach station in the center of town. After the sweltering encounter, Oates escorts the guest across the road toward the Drugstore Museum and, along the way, cheerfully answers questions in the brazen heat of the mid-day.

Would you like to join my husband and me for lunch after we finish up?” she asked. “You look like you could use a tall glass of iced tea.”

Perceiving the needs of others is one of the traits daughter Brenda Oates Harrison has long admired of her mother.

“Nobody ever asked for seconds at our table,” she said. “Mom was always watchful. ‘Brenda, you need more potatoes,’ ‘Honey, couldn’t you use some more butter?’ She taught it better than anyone.”

Over the years, Oates has developed quite an interest in promoting Pottsville. Through her past involvement on the Potts Inn Board, her 58 year marriage to retired pharmacist Charles Oates, and the raising of three children, she has invested her heart and taking pride in her community.

Her hospitality skills have come in handy.

“Mom has always been such a gracious hostess,” Harrison said. “There was no telling who or how many people my father would bring to the dinner table. Mr. Jim Bell was the superintendent of the schools and a bachelor. He would be one of those frequent guests, and mother would welcome them all into our home with open arms.”

Oates prepared three meals a day for her family Harrison said.

“Every Thursday my grandfather would bring the field hands over for lunch. Even when I was married, I would go over there on Thursdays. It was such a production.”

“Unless it was the night Gunsmoke came on TV, when we ate on TV trays, we were at the table being pampered by my mother,” she said.

A hostess in her own right, Harrison, the Public Relations director for St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, credits her mother for her influence. “I think my mother trained me for this job,” she said. “It’s doing everything I ever wanted to do all rolled up into one.”

Harrison also remembers her mother filling her life with beauty.

“She took me to tea parties and taught me to appreciate the lovely side of life,” she said. “In fact, I remember when she dressed me up to go see the doll exhibit at Dillard’s. That was in the 60s.”

When the Potts Inn Board was thinking of how it could become more attractive to visitors, Jean Oates recalled the wonderful doll exhibit which featured likenesses of presidential as well as Arkansas first ladies.

The Stagecoach Inn, known for its hospitality, lent an opportunity for Mrs. Oates to promote the historical significance of the community.

“We have so much more than the restored rooms and period furniture gracing the Inn,” she said. Acquiring the dolls seemed a natural thing to do.

The First Ladies Doll Exhibit, a unique addition to the growing menagerie of permanent displays, is only one of the several collections on display to the public. The dolls were originally created by Sue Taylor who began the project in 1963. After her passing, Gertrude Buchanan picked up the pieces and completed the dolls, left in varying degrees of completion and brought the collection up to date.

“At the time we were discussing the acquisition of the dolls I heard someone say we didn’t have a place to house and display them. I told her that I would just stand here holding them until we found a place,” Oates said.

In addition to the dolls, dressed in replica inaugural gowns, visitors are also treated to a visit of the original smokehouse – turned doctor’s office and now a museum, and the well house which operated as a refrigerated building for storing eggs and milk.

A barn, donated by Boyce Sinclair, houses an impressive collection of antique farm equipment, and a one room pioneer log cabin, donated by the “Piney” Page Estate gives an authentic architectural presence to the grounds.

Two servant houses call attention to the original dependence on slavery. In fact, Kirkbride Potts, the master of the homestead, brought two families of slaves with him when he arrived by covered wagon to the area from Pennsylvania.

Along with the interesting facts, charming vignettes and antique furniture displayed in the Potts Inn, the community’s original post office is situated in the wide foyer, as Mr. Potts also acted as the postmaster.

Oates and the resident caretaker Emmy Lee breathe life into the old house with stories and anecdotes concerning the Potts family, the original brood consisting of 11 children.

Another structure, a small cabin moved from Norristown, houses an amazing clothing museum featuring a breathtaking hat collection donated by former Russellville milliner Michael McLean. A large collection of mannequins posing in period clothing further enthralls the visitor.

“Just look at the handwork on those petticoats,” Oates said. “Isn’t that just amazing?”

The doctors exhibit is fascinating, as well. The office, preserved with the original belongings of the family’s physician Dr. Charles Teeter, allows visitors to observe the rudimentary tools available to the medical profession.

The total property offers an unparalleled step back in time for guests and provides a rich learning experience for students of all ages.

Plans are in the works to add another chapter to the living museum. A generous donation of Native American artifacts, given by Rev. Robert and Ellen Bearden, will open to the public soon.

“We have some real nice things from the Western tribes,” Oates said, “but we are open to receiving a few more items from the local tribes that inhabited this area.”

After completing the rounds at the main campus, Mrs. Oates ushers the visitor across the street past the antique Dipping Vat, where farmers would bring their cattle to dip for tics. Another oddity is frozen in time and preserved by the board for future generations.

The Drugstore Museum is another marvel and antique Coca Cola signs, along with her children’s toys from the 1960s, add a fun element. Antique tools of a trade that has seen phenomenal changes throughout the 50 years her retired husband practiced, sit gleaming in the temperature-controlled room.

The building, also listed on the historical register, houses a thriving photography business next door and the original bank in town.

Mrs. Oates eyes a run-down store across the street and begins extolling its virtues as a restored mercantile complete with a meeting room in the rear and handicap- accessible bathrooms with enough space behind the building to accommodate school buses.

“Oh, it could be grand,” she said, eyes twinkling.

Over a long table heavy laden with fresh produce and sandwiches, Mrs. Oates suddenly eyes my glass and says, “Don’t you need some mint in that tea?”

 

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