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Ghost Fry

From the days of Georgia’s founding charter, which banned both liquor and slavery, up until the present, drinking and race have been the two of the most consistent themes of the state’s history. From the 1740s till the 1870s, the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages was largely unregulated in Georgia. Federal laws passed during the Civil War and tightened thereafter slowly restricted the traditional production of distilled liquors. In 1883 counties gained the power to regulate and prohibit alcohol until the legislature enacted statewide prohibition in 1907, one year before it disenfranchised most of Georgia’s African-American voters.

The saloon, or “bar room,” as it was more commonly known, was generally a male preserve into which a respectable man might venture from time to time without irreparable damage to his reputation, particularly if he were an aspiring politician or local squire coming around to “treat the boys” as election day loomed. Women who frequented bar rooms were considered to either be prostitutes or well along the way. In the days before legal segregation many saloons served both black and white customers, and the crusades for both prohibition and segregation raised the specter of racial and sexual boundaries dissolving in the potent essence of Georgia com often, and only half-jokingly, referred to as “pure Jeffersonian Democracy.”

Before the town of Toccoa was established in 1873, the small settlement at that place was known as Dry Pond, and its chief attraction to neighboring farmers with time on their hands was Henderson’s Grocery—the “groceries” being mainly rye and corn in their more concentrated forms. The grocery’s first owner moved west in the 1830s and swapped the building and land to Col. James Blair for a cowbell.

Over the next 40 years the grocery changed hands many times, and changed locations as well. Whenever the lot on which it sat was sold, the new owner usually had plans to build, so he would sell the grocery, which would be rolled on logs to a new address. In time, it became a great nocturnal diversion of the town rowdies to roll the grocery to a vacant lot, forcing the owner to hunt it like it was a strayed hog. By the end of its long career the standing town joke was that any man who bought a full gallon of liquor could have the entire establishment delivered to his door at no extra charge.

Another ambulatory saloon of the era was “The Floating Battery,” of Elbert, one of only two bar rooms in that county in 1880. The proprietor set up shop in a large covered boat on the Savannah, traveling up and down the river, tying up at different spots to serve the locals, then moving on. The difficulties encountered by the patrons are unrecorded, but easily imagined.

Another riverine tippling parlor was in Dodge County, near Poor Robin Springs. P.H. Coffee got the county’s last liquor license before the onset of local option prohibition in the fall of 1886. In the Ocmulgee River swamps along the Wilcox County line, he built a little shed up on stilts, which was known as “The Owl House,” and proceeded to pour.

Since Wilcox was already bone dry, and all other liquor licenses had expired in Dodge, Mr. Coffee had a legal monopoly of ardent spirits over a large territory. One night in early July 1886 Coffee fell victim to either burglars, militant prohibitionists or second-rate carpenters: the Owl House collapsed into the Ocmulgee and floated toward the sea. Undaunted, Mr. Coffee announced his intention to rebuild and exercise his monopoly for the few months he had remaining.

A far sounder piece of construction, also on a county line, was Bank’s County’s most famous watering hole, The Barrel. The town of Baldwin was incorporated in 1896, lying partly in Banks and partly in Habersham County. Habersham had voted to go dry in 1885, but Banks had remained wet. Baldwin was the natural place for a saloon to assuage the thirst of the nearby booming railroad junction of Cornelia, and in 1897 an enterprising citizen commissioned Henry Eglie and William Vogle to build the largest barrel in the state of Georgia to hold not liquor, but paying consumers of same.

Eglie and Vogle were German Swiss, citizens of Habersham’s flourishing New Switzerland community, which had been established in 1881 and had become one of the major wine-producing areas of the South. The two men were coopers—barrel-makers—who constructed fermentation vats for the local wineries as well as for Georgia’s many breweries. Their giant barrel was 22 feet long and 16 feet in diameter with a capacity of 40,000 gallons, or about 100 drunks. Set on its side in a frame building with a front porch, the barrel was an immediate success.

In 1899 Habersham’s disgruntled prohibitionists reacted by declaring that the saloon actually lay within their county and should be closed. The county line at that point was the old Wofford Trail, a long-vanished Indian path. The controversy over its exact location raged until Governor Candler sent the state surveyor up to run the line and determine The Barrel’s fate. The saloon was found to lie in Banks, but its reprieve was brief. In December of that year Banks County went dry and The Barrel was bunged forever.

© 1995, John Ryan Seawright


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