May Dale Smith bought the Gill House in downtown Searcy in 1924 and replaced it with the 50-room Mayfair Hotel, which was a jewel of hospitality for the community for years. It also provided the first job for many young residents of White County.
will tell you the few things that I remember about the Mayfair Hotel in Searcy. I started there in 1947. The Mayfair was operated by two sisters, May [Dale Smith] Branch and Rose Neely. They lived at the hotel and took their meals there. “Miss May” was in charge overall, and “Miss Rose” was in charge of the kitchen and dining room, where I worked. Assisting them was their niece Phyllis Smith, who was unmarried. I worked weekends during the school year and full time in the summer. Several students from Harding College also worked there during busy times. Blanche Height, Verleen Vaughn and Norma McMillian were the girls that worked with me. There was another girl named Jane who worked there briefly. The reason I remember her is that she went to the movies one day while the rest of us were working and when she came back she told us she had met a guy at the movies and they were going to get married. We never met him, but she left a few days later saying they were going to get married that day.
On every Sunday’s menu there was tomato aspic and lemon chiffon pie. I didn’t like the aspic at all but it was a favorite of the diners. Some would order a half of cantaloupe with a scoop of ice cream on it. Apple pie with a slice of slightly melted cheese was also a favorite, as was iced coffee with cream. At the back of the hotel was a beautiful rose garden. There were other kinds of flowers there, too, but it was called “The Rose Garden.” Miss Rose would have me get the flower basket and we’d go to the garden and she would choose the perfect ones for the tables. I went back there a few years ago to see the garden and was saddened to find there was no more garden. It was now a parking lot.
Miss Phyllis worked at the front desk, getting the guests booked into rooms and seeing that their needs were met. She had very long hair and we would sometimes see her sitting on the back steps towel-drying her hair. There was a porter of “bell-hop,” I think they were called then, named Fred. He was a pleasant fellow but when a guest got a phone message he seemed to take on an air of dignity, put on his white gloves and pick up the silver tray that had the message on a folded piece of paper, and walked around calling out the person’s name. There was also a cook for the weekends. His name was Henry, and he made wonderful yeast rolls that seemed to all be the exact same size. I saw Blanche Height recently and she reminded me that when Henry took his rolls out of the oven and no one else was around, he’d call out “Miss Pat … Miss Blanche” and give us a hot roll with a pat of butter on it. Dining at the Mayfair was very proper, almost had a formal atmosphere. Crisp white linen tablecloths and napkins. We were taught how to serve and how to set the tables. Miss May was very strict about things being done properly.
The Mayfair was the place where people that were traveling through White County stopped for the night or maybe just for dinner. I don’t remember any blacks that either stayed there or dined there to my knowledge. One time there was a Spanish family that came in and they spoke very broken English, so it took a little time for me to get their order. Lots of the office workers from town also had lunch there most days. Lots of banquets were also held there.
Those of us who needed to stay there were given rooms that were off to the side and partly below ground. Usually, two of us shared a room but quite often we’d all get together in one room and have a ball. There was a maid who had been there forever it seemed. She was a German lady and lived down in one of the rooms where the rest of us girls lived. Sometimes we’d forget to take our glasses back to the kitchen, and she would tell us to clean up our mess. We were all afraid of her because that is the only time she talked to us. She never smiled or spoke to us and didn’t even seem to blink her eyes. We tried to avoid her at all costs. I’m sure she was a very nice lady who probably thought we were a bunch of teenagers from another planet.
The dining room help was paid $12.50 a week plus room and board. The tips were very good and I bought my school supplies with them. The hotel furnished our uniforms and had them laundered for us. I don’t know how much the maids were paid.
Neal Buffaloe also worked at the Mayfair. He had this recollection: “My Mayfair experience began right after my high school graduation in 1942, and I spent from May to December as night clerk. It was a pretty good deal – room, board and $30 a month for nine hours a night, seven days a week, but I was able to pay my way through Harding… Miss May had been married [to R.H. Branch] and had a son Rufus, whom I never met. Miss Rose was married to Harry Neely, a semi-retired judge who may have been in part-time law practice in Searcy during my 1942 stay at the hotel. He was a fine man, and we often had breakfast together… The Mayfair was a high-class operation, and I learned a lot from my experience there. All three of the ladies I have mentioned were very good to me and I kept in touch with them throughout my Navy years.”
I have often thought of Miss May and Miss Rose and Miss Phyllis over the years and wished I had known more about them and about the history of the Mayfair. These are some of my memories of things at the Mayfair some 55 years ago. vvv
Author in the Mayfair flower garden.