Taverns, Bars and Juke Joints

Greg Tucker, The Daily News Journal, June 12, 2011

By the middle of the 20th century, Rutherford County was widely recognized as a mid-south transportation center. A directory from the era observed: “From Murfreesboro, heavily traveled federal and state highways spread out in eight directions. Buses and freight trucks arrive and depart hourly.”

And for those who made their living ‘on the road’, Rutherford County was also know for its taverns and tourist courts.

Catering to through traffic and meeting local demand for both products and services, each tavern or roadhouse was unique, but all shared certain characteristics. All were locally owned and operated – classic ‘mom and pop’ enterprises with several family members directly involved in the business.

The business premises were usually simple. Often the owners’ home was part of or adjacent to the place of business. The fare was basically beer and snacks, but whiskey was usually available for a ‘regular’ customer and ‘some action’ could be found upstairs or in a back room.

The mid-century yellow pages and city directories categorized the taverns as ‘beer gardens,’ but only a few of the businesses used paid advertising. The only tavern telephone was likely to be the owner’s residential number.

Beer signs, juke boxes and game machines dominated the decor and provided much of the interior lighting. Most such establishments were located along the pikes ‘out in the county’ just beyond city enforcement boundaries. Several were remote or found in the ‘more enlightened’ local communities.

Christiana was home to the Flat Rock Cafe, a black establishment with only a bare flat rock for a floor. Lacking none of the essentials, the jukebox and game machines stayed busy. Andy Miller and his wife owned and managed the business. “If you want to dance, you danced on the rock,” remembers one occasional patron.

Unique in its mobility, Carney’s Tavern literally traveled out the Shelbyville Highway. Carney Handley owned the business and property across from the old fairgrounds (a bit north of Wendy’s). When the property was sold, Carney moved his tavern intact south a couple of hundred yards and continued serving his established clientèle.

As new businesses pushed out toward the proposed Interstate, Carney sold and moved again, taking along his business and building. A third and last move put him out of what is now the parking lot for the Cracker Barrel restaurant.

Some of the more ‘enduring’ joints included Dominick’s Place on the Nashville Pike (1029 West College Street), the 41 Club (just beyond the railroad underpass on the Nashville Pike), the Little Brown Jug on the Woodbury Pike, and Ma Neeley’s in at least two locations on the Lebanon Pike. Zack’s (‘a really rough place’) was across from the coal yard in Murfreesboro. Smyrna had the Golden Camel, and out the Shelbyville Pike were Oliver’s Place and the Torch Club.

The section of West College/Nashville Pike between the Manson Pike intersection to the underpass, known as ‘Tuckertown’, was home to numerous taverns and nightspots. Holt’s Corner, which endured for many years, was said to be ‘the toughest beer joint in town.’ The Weeping Willow, originally a black establishment dating from the era of segregation, was reportedly owned by a prominent black businessman and politician.

The Nelson Tavern, originally at 910 West College Street in Tuckertown, moved to 950 N.W. Board Street after the New Nashville Highway was completed. Owned and managed by Edgar and Elizabeth Haney, it continued for many years as one of the last of the Tuckertown taverns.

Mr. & Mrs. Elgin Oliver at Oliver’s Place (‘located past the fairgrounds’) actually advertised their hours (8AM to 10PM daily, 8AM to midnight on Saturday), but many of the businesses stayed open to paying clientèle until a visit from a friendly deputy reminded then of the closing hour.

Some of the ‘joint’ proprietors were prominent in other endeavors which often overlapped with the tavern activities. Spann Hackney, T.R. Rowlette and Tooter Travis were part of the local gambling circle, which in an earlier decade was based at the White Front Barber Shop on the Courthouse Square. Hackney operated the Golden Camel tavern and tourist court that was a busy gambling venue in Smyrna. Rowlette had the popular Torch Club on the Shelbyville Pike. Travis, a noted bootlegger, ran a tourist court/tavern on the Nashville Pike.

Travis’ enterprise is believed to have evolved from a ‘dog wagon’ near the Manson Pike river crossing. (There were several ‘dog wagons’ around the county in the Depression and war years, including just off the Square on East College Street. They were ‘wagons’ because they had wheels, usually immobile. Walk up customers were served through window counters. The ‘dog’ term probably referred to ‘hot dogs’, but some suggest it referenced the strays under the wagon waiting for scraps.)

The Travis tourist Court provided cabins for ‘short stays’ and offered regulars ‘whiskey and women’. some of the old-timers remember hearing that Travis ‘wouldn’t rent to anyone with a suitcase’. A popular competitor was the Red Fox Motor Tourist Camp on the Manchester Pike about halfway between the Buchanan and Hoovers Gap communities. This remote service station, tavern and tourist camp catered to the freight haulers and local loafers.

Most of the taverns are gone, and even the old structures have disappeared, but few vanished as completely or with as much controversy as the Stones River Tavern. It sat next to the river on the Shelbyville Pike until July 25, 1976.

On Friday afternoon, July 23, 1976, Fosterville farmer Horace Rich, Sr. to complete some ‘bush-hogging’ at the farm, and headed off for the afternoon. The 65-year-old widower picked up a companion and headed to the Stones River Tavern, where he was a regular patron. Well-known to the other tavern ‘regulars’, Rich was respected and regarded as someone not to be pushed or crossed. “He bore watching,” noted on acquaintance.

On this particular afternoon, Rich joined several friends in a game of ‘Tonk’. (Tonk is a fast-moving card game, similar to rummy. Players match cards and count points. Play is for money with stakes paid to the winner of each hand.) At the game table were a semi-professional gambler named Jarman, Jarman’s wife, Rich and his companion Hoyte ‘Whimpy’ Holt.

Holt’s family owned and managed Holt’s Corner in Tuckertown. Known simply as ‘The Corner’, the tavern was first opened by Wimpy’s parents, who at one time live don the premises. Both Wimpy and his sister helped with the ‘tough’ family business. Wimpy’s reported address was at the tavern.

During the course of the afternoon, Holt and Rich began to argue. (Newspaper account called it a ‘tavern brawl.’) The dispute carried over into the parking lot. According to witnesses quoted in the media, Rich went to his vehicle and got an ax. As Rich approached, Holt pulled a pistol and fired once hitting Rich in the lower chest.

As Holt and others fled the scene, Rich got into his truck but died in the driver’s seat before leaving the parking lot. (It was later determined that the .38 slug had passed through the victim and dropped to the ground where it was found by investigators.) Holt was arrested, charged with second-degree murder and released on a $5,000 bond pending arraignment.

Early Sunday morning, July 25, 1976, the Stones River Tavern was destroyed by fire ‘of suspicious origin’. Co-owned Tommy Dowell estimated the uninsured fire loss at $100,000 and reported receiving telephone threats. Fire investigators determined that the vending machines had been burglarized before the fire.

On the following Friday, a barn on the Holt farm on the Mankins Road was destroyed by fire. A shed and the family residence were also slightly fire damaged. Fire investigators suspected arson. The Holt family claimed to have received telephone threats and the family tavern was under guard. No arson charges were filed, however, on either the tavern or the farm incidents.

Three months later Holt was indicted for murder in the second degree. A year later, defended by John Holloway and Steve Waldron on self-defense grounds, Holt entered a plea of guilty to involuntary manslaughter. The plea was accepted and Holt was sentenced to ‘not less than two nor more than five years’ in the penitentiary. But on application, unopposed by Guy R. Dotson representing the State, the sentence was suspended and Holt was given two years of unsupervised probation.

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