Chatham's Wild Oats, Also Corn, Rye and Ten Barrooms

By Frances Hallam Hurt

Would you be surprised to learn that Mother Teresa sowed some wild oats?

How about demure, ladylike little Chatham?

Mother Teresa didn't; Chatham did.

Some 50 years ago two venerable gentlemen, long since departed, described the days in the 1880's when liquor flowed free on Main Street in 10 barrooms. It didn't flow exactly free. Corn malt liquor sold for $1 a gallon and sweet mash liquor, or corn drippings, for 75 cents.

The sources for these revelations were the late J. Hurt Whitehead, banker, and Peyton Henry Jones, lamplighter. The village of 600 which they conjured between them could double for a Hollywood western, complete with dirt streets, plank sidewalks and short-lived oil street lamps — short-lived because they were always getting shot out.

In all fairness to the old Chathamites, it must be stated that they didn't support 10 barrooms alone. As the county seat of Pittsylvania, Chatham was the vortex of the slow current of rural life. Once each month, however, the slow current reached flood tide. This was on Third Monday, or court day, when county folks poured in to turn the place into a riotous free-for-all. All women and children stayed home.

As early as Saturday night, horse traders with long strings of horses, farmers with loaded wagons and drummers with samples would filter into town over rivers of dust or rivers of mud on Main Street, as the case might be. By Monday morning the village was swollen with life.

The drummers were showing their wares at the old Carter Hotel (now American General Finance) in the ground floor rooms opening onto the side street. The farmers hitched their wagons to barter at the stores. The horse traders were racing their mounts up and down the lane between the Tredway house (Town Hall) and Col. Hargrave's (Nenon), turning what is now Center Street into a horse fair. The barrooms were filled. Men clogged the wooden sidewalks and the courthouse steps.

Drinking at this period seems to have been a sober undertaking with no fol-de-rols or flourishes. Of the 10 barrooms, eight were in conjunction with general stores, the proprietors tapping barrels of ’lasses and barrels of whiskey with an even hand. These bars were usually set up along one side of the store, much as a soda fountain was later. The two all-out saloons had sawdust on the floor and a few tables and chairs, but that was all. The contrast with today's inducements to drink make them seem refreshingly honest, like any undertaker doing business with boxes and a spade.

The refreshment line-up around 1885 went like this: On the site of the Masonic Building (Tune and Toler) Lyle Johnson's general store and bar; at the site of the Reynolds Building, S.S. Spruce's general store and bar; next door was C.G. Sour's general store and bar, the handsome mahogany mirror from which went to a grandson, Jesse Sours; next, on the site of the Chamber of Commerce, a full-fledged saloon run by J.B. (Bocock) Mitchell; on the site of American General Finance, the barroom of Carter's Hotel owned by Jimmy Carter; on the site of Chatham's Square, John E. Lanier's general store and bar; on the site of Nations bank, Dr. (a title of respect, not profession) George T. Johnson's general store and bar; in the same block, Charlie Wylie's saloon plus billiard tables; around on Reid Street, M. Bolanz' bar in the basement of his home, and finally and inevitably, the Last Chance, operated at the depot by W.E. Goulsby.

It is of interest to note that the boys of the '80s liked their liquor straight — rye, brandy and corn. According to the aged reporters, a great quantity of cherry bounce was also consumed although it's hard to know who drank it, inspired by General Nathanael Greene a hundred years before.

In the beginning, not much liquor was produced locally, then Mr. Bolanz started a winery, producing excellent wine. Impromptu distilleries followed, stepping up corn production sharply. Two of the distilleries were imposing businesses, one belonging to the Jim May family out near Clarkstown and the other belonging to Hutch Pigg near Dry Fork. The latter, said to be one of the largest in the state, was steam operated employing a dozen people.

These distilleries are remembered tenderly by many an old party, it was said. They claim they haven't had a real drink since the government started to meddle. As for ABC liquor, they'll tell you it's a snare and a delusion … no hope for a high.

The tipplers of the '80s had no such complaint. Although most of the drinking brought on nothing worse than roughhousing, it also resulted in fights and even a murder. Tempers seem to have been as potent as the whiskey. In one barroom drama a man called another “a New York dude.” He seems to have been in error. His opinion was altered by a knock-down and drag-out resulting in serious injury.

One of the most startling episodes of Chatham's bar-fly days happened in 1883. It was Christmas Day, but a little too slow for the young bucks. They declared it Ragamuffin Day, and took off. Mr. Whitehead remembered it all as a little boy pressed out of harm's way against the courthouse wall.

Around 9 or 10 in the morning, these gay blades came charging down Main Street on horseback, firing into the air. They were dressed “all slappery-dash,” as Mr. Whitehead said, and wearing scare faces. They jumped off their horses, whooping and hollering, for their first drinks, then set about racing up and down Main Street. At first the racing was in earnest, but so was the drinking. By noon the Ragamuffins were doing well to sit their horses. In a final spurt of bravado, one gent rode his horse into Dr. Johnson's saloon like a King of the Wild West and quaffed his whiskey at the bar. The effect was considerably marred as he rode out the door — he fell off his horse.

On this same rowdy day, another Ragamuffin rode a bull into Bocock Mitchell's saloon, but he didn't cut a very dashing figure. The bull was as meek as Moses. By 3 o'clock all the Ragamuffins had passed out, and the mud-rutted street lay quiet in the cold light of the Christmas afternoon.

The town eventually got enough of drinking and horseplay, especially one citizen who had scoffed at the idea that the town would ever have running water. On the great occasion when the water was turned on, the good ole boys hauled the man out of bed and stuck him under a pump. “Proper Talkin' John” held the traditional view of injured innocence when the law nabbed him. He had been drunk and disorderly all morning, then slept it off. When the law arrested him in the afternoon, he protested properly, “Isn't it rather late in the afternoon to bring up a trespass of the morning?”

By 1894 the citizens took a stand. The town voted dry, but not without a few shenanigans. It is claimed that a few dry zealots made sure of victory by rounding up 25 or 30 blacks and locking them in the Baptist Church all night so they could vote dry in the morning.

The fact that Chatham had officially thrown away the bottle was not the end of the story. Bootlegging became almost a major industry. The Feds arrested bootleggers by the dozen, according to Mr. Whitehead and Mr. Jones, but the fines were not stiff. The Feds were not above being reasonable, the raconteurs claim, for the right price.

The old street lamps provided a constant source of merriment for the tipplers. Mr. Jones, when a witty of gentleman of 92, remembered it all too well, being the lamplighter. Since he never knew who shot out which lamp, it was open season — target practice as free entertainment. One man, however, pushed his luck. In a high burst of good feeling, he took a long stick and gaily knocked them all out on the way home. He had to pay.

Mr. Jones tended lamps for seven years during which them they increased from 12 to 28. It got to be too onerous a chore, he said, so he gave it up. In addition to losing them to gunshot, he was always finding them empty. They were generally regarded as a free source of oil.

He laughed about one curious instance when a certain lamp would not burn through the night. The nearby householder complained about it bitterly. The lamplighter discovered that some young folks just wanted a nice dark corner.

Public censure for public drunkenness finally did what the law couldn't. The feeling against drinking prevails in the town to this day. Chatham is dry.

Chatham has locked the door on those brief boisterous years. She is a lady, with beautiful historic homes and century-old boxwood and a cultivated prosperous citizenry. No one would suspect the skeleton in the closet, especially since it doesn't rattle. It clinks.


Books by Frances Hallam Hurt

(Available from the sponsor.)

An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County, Virginia

An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County

Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County, VA

Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County

Other Books Concerning Pittsylvania County History

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, VA

Clement: History of Pittsylvania County

Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Dodson: Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Melton: Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Melton: Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Melton: Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Melton: Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (Dover)

Byrd: Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina

Tales About People in a Small Town

Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town

Frances Hallam Hurt's online articles are posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.