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Lucille’s Restaurant, a historic restaurant in Mulhall, burned early Wednesday morning from a fire that firefighters believe was caused by lightning. Although the frame of the building remained mostly intact, the inside of the building was gutted and destroyed.

Julie Larman didn’t believe the news when she awoke to a call that Lucille’s Restaurant, where she worked as assistant manager, was burning Wednesday morning.

But when she got a half mile outside town on her way from her home in Orlando, all she saw was a glow.

“Panic hit quick,” Larman said. “My heart sank, and I knew it was bad — really bad.”

When she arrived, the back part of the building was in flames, which spread within minutes.

“Once fire came in the dining area, it spread so quickly,” Larman said. “I could tell then it was going to take everything.”

Located on U.S. Highway 77 and Main Street in Mulhall, Lucille’s Restaurant has been a regular hang-out for townspeople and a destination for bikers and many others who traveled from miles away to visit the rustic restaurant where they were invited to “drift away to the way it ought to be.”

The restaurant was named for America’s First Cowgirl, Lucille Mulhall, and its design, atmosphere and decor contained a wealth of history and a hint of nostalgia. On any given night Thursday through Sunday, the building was packed with people who came to enjoy a sense of community and popular favorites like steak and fried chicken.

“It’s a place where you bring your friends from out-of-town and show them what Oklahoma is all about,” said Terri Roselius, who owned the restaurant with her husband, Jason.

Much of the restaurant, bar and dance hall burned during the fire Wednesday morning.

It took several dozen firefighters from five departments who responded to assist Mulhall’s volunteer firefighters an hour-and-a-half to contain the fire, said Mulhall Fire Chief Roland Taylor. The fire started on the west side of the building sometime before 3:40 a.m., he said.

He said they thought lightning may have caused it, but the state fire marshal’s office was investigating the cause.

When Roselius drove up from the south and first saw the building, she thought it would be OK. As she continued north, however, she said it became obvious that the restaurant was a total loss.

The outer structure of the building remained mostly intact, creating a skeletal frame for the mess of charred wood and ashes inside. Front doors, modeled after the saloon entrance in Lonesome Dove, flapped open in the wind exposing the damage.

“It brought me to tears thinking about all the hard work and everything everyone has done on this restaurant,” Roselius said.

She and her husband bought the restaurant three years ago after they fell in love with the historic bank building and the people of Mulhall. A year and a half ago, they threw out the menu and changed everything, Roselius said, from the bricks on the outside to interior decorations to the food.

Although they live in Oklahoma City, she said, they spent virtually every weekend at the restaurant with their children, ages 4 and 6.

Lucille’s was more than a restaurant to many.

Residents said the old bank building, which was built in 1894 and served as the bar for Lucille’s, was one of just two historic buildings in Mulhall that survived the F-4 tornado that razed the town in 1999.

“The tornado took everything else we had,” resident Frankie Foster said. “It just makes me sick.”

Her husband helped build the restaurant, and he ran the bar for several years.

“If I wanted to see him, I came down here,” Foster said.

Before the restaurant dance hall was constructed, she said, they used to push aside tables and dance around the salad bar.

“It’s really going to hurt our town,” she said. “This was basically what supported the town.”

Mulhall resident Jean Brainard came to Lucille’s just about every weekend with her family. Her son bused tables on Sundays after church, and Brainard and her husband, who train horses, brought many of their out-of-town clients to the restaurant as well.

“Lucille’s really was life in Mulhall. If you look around Mulhall now when there’s no Lucille’s ...” she said, trailing off as she fought back tears late Wednesday morning. “It’s not just a business, but life.”

Often when they came, the restaurant was packed and there was nowhere to sit, so Brainard said they would wait outside on the porch and enjoy a beer until space opened up.

“It wasn’t a get in, get out deal,” she said. “It was an experience.”

Waitress Kim Berglan smoked a cigarette on the curb across the street late Wednesday morning, still trying to register what had happened.

“I just can’t believe it,” she said.

A single mom, she must now find another job that can provide for her family — a task many of Lucille’s more than 20 employees also face.

A number of them stopped by Wednesday morning to pay their respects and share tears, hugs and disbelief.

Roselius said she would have to discuss plans with her husband, who was out of town when the fire happened, but she would like to rebuild.

Larman said it was an honor to be part of something so special.

“You just have to look at the positive in everything,” she said. “Hopefully we can clean up and build a bigger and better Lucille’s.”



History

Lucille’s Restaurant was named for Lucille Mulhall, whom Will Rogers dubbed “America’s first cowgirl.” Mulhall, the daughter of Oklahoma ranch owner Zach Mulhall, starred with Rogers in the Mulhall Wild West Show.

Lucille’s was located in the old Oklahoma State Bank Building, which was built in 1894. Residents said the bank was one of two historic buildings that survived the devastating tornado that ripped through the town in 1999.

Owners transformed the old bank into a bar, but strived to maintain the building’s rustic ambiance. The original bank vault was kept intact, complete with a hole that robbers drilled into it years ago.

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