In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most small towns had downtown hotels that were the social centers of the community as well as a place for railroad passengers to stay overnight. Conway had several but the Joseph, on the northwest corner of Van Ronkle and Harrison, is often considered to have been Conway’s last “downtown Southern hotel.”
The Joseph was originally built in the early 1890s and was operated in connection with a wagon yard owned by Fullwood Smith. George G. Steed bought the two-story gray wooden structure in 1902 and renamed it the Steed Hotel.
According to Ernest Steed, one of Steed’s eight children who helped operate the business, beds cost 50 cents per night and many of the rooms had two or three beds in them. The hotel served all-you-can-eat meals, cooked by Mrs. Steed, for 25 cents a meal.
For several years in the early 20th century, the De Hines and the Joseph were the only hotels in Conway. The Hotel Bachelor wasn’t built until 1921. Area farmers coming in from Faulkner County and surrounding areas to sell their cotton or other produce were typically the ones who stayed at the hotel.
The hotel was at one time painted a light cream color and had marble-topped wash basins, pictures and feather beds with pillows. The bathrooms were “down the hall.”
George Steed died in 1929 and his wife, May, died in 1933. The hotel was then rented to B.B. Barry, who continued to operate it until it was sold to George and Alice Mae Joseph in 1941 for $3,050. Joseph, a 52-year old Syrian immigrant, renamed it the Joseph Hotel and Grocery.
When the Josephs took over the hotel, Dave Ward still had a blacksmith shop behind it but had a new bus factory on Harkrider. There weren’t any other stores east of the hotel. That is where town basically ended.
The Josephs continued to run a wagon yard and horse stables for people who came to town and needed to stay overnight. Railroad men, soldiers (during World War II) and traveling salesmen who arrived by train continued to find a night’s rest there.
Mr. Joseph passed away in 1951 but Mrs. Joseph continued to run the hotel. It eventually transitioned into a rooming house with a store. There were 12 rooms for boarders on the second floor that rented for $3 a night or $15 a week. A large number of its semi-permanent residents were elderly men on Social Security or welfare.
Living quarters for the Mrs. Joseph were located on the lower level along with a kitchen/dining area and the grocery store. Mrs. Joseph was known for her thick ham or bologna sandwiches which she made and sold there. Cheese was in a big round block that was cut with a slicing wheel. She had chickens and turkeys behind the store which she would kill if someone wanted one.
Many long-time residents remember going into the store with their parents for a sandwich or a soda out of the old Coca Cola box. Others remember how good the ice cream was. Still others remember the neighboring businesses, Carl Brady trucking business, Earl Rogers or the Moix Model Market.
In Mrs. Joseph’s later years, she was unable to run the store and had to have care as well as help to keep it open. By that time, the Joseph had become an iconic landmark in Conway. Many remember its residents, who tended to be older single men, sitting on the porch watching the world go by. Some had lived there for years.
By the time Alice Mae Joseph passed away at the age of 92 in 1986, the building was in a dilapidated condition and was considered a fire hazard. The Josephs’ daughter, Onita, kept the structure for two years, selling it to Norman A. Marjorie and Keith Jones in 1989.
The new owners found that its renovation would be too costly. The property was condemned as a health and fire hazard by the Conway City Council and in 1990, the old building was demolished. Today, Rogers Plaza and the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce building are located where the “last Southern hotel” in Conway once stood.
Cindy Beckman is a freelance writer specializing in state and local history. She may be reached at email@example.com