When visitors flock to North Carolina’s High Country this fall, most will come for the bucolic scenes of the Blue Ridge Parkway and reminders of slower, simpler times. But beneath the floors and behind the walls of many of Blowing Rock’s historic establishments lie evidence that their past relationship with alcohol was not as simple as one might think.
Blowing Rock was officially granted a town charter in 1899 and sentiments alternated back and forth on the legalization of alcohol for nine years. In 1908, residents of Watauga County took a vote and overwhelmingly approved an initiative that would make alcohol illegal, a whole 12 years before the 18th amendment prohibiting alcohol would take effect across the country.
This was not popular with some of the locals – especially those who a produced powerful moonshine nicknamed “sugar head” in stills located deep in the woods of Watauga County.
“In other parts of the country, North Carolina moonshine is regarded as the most potent drink there is,” a Watauga Democrat article from 1925 said. “Even in wet territory, on Mexican soil, they would come up to Oasis temple train, which was made up in Charlotte and beg for the stuff with a kick in it.”
Restaurants in Blowing Rock sold and hid the illicit liquor their patrons produced in makeshift speakeasies, routinely flouting local and federal temperance laws.
One prime example exists in a former raucous dance hall named “The Bark” (now Canyons Restaurant and Bar) on Highway 321 South.
“Locals in-the-know would often direct affluent tourists to The Bark for some souvenir ‘shine,” states the menu at Canyons. “Evidence of trap doors, cubby-holes, and “secret” rooms large enough to load a vehicle still exist in the building today.”
The current owner, Bart Conway, asserts that evidence of these activities still exist in the basement of the building. Past rows of furniture and supplies in his storage room, a small trap door made of horizontal beams of wood blends inconspicuously into the wall. Upon lifting the hatch, an entire room is revealed complete with a large square passageway where liquor was loaded off trucks.
“This is where they passed things through,” Conway said. “I have found empty liquor bottles in this room as we work on it. They had these areas where I guess they hid from whoever the local authorities where at the time.”
During some remodeling to mitigate noise in the restaurant, they also uncovered a trap door that led to the stage. Conway can’t say for sure what the purpose was, but his money is on something related to the liquor downstairs.
Meanwhile, Antler’s Bar and Grill located in Blowing Rock’s Mayview Park had its own methods for skirting the local authorities.
Opening in 1932, it is estimated to be one of the oldest continuously operating bars in the state and although prohibition had been repealed, it would still be more than 30 years before drinking liquor in public was allowed.
Through the kitchen and down a narrow flight of stairs into the basement, a vestibule bench would be slid aside to grant access to a compartment large enough to hide several liquor bottles for thirsty patrons.
“There’s a bench in the basement, that when you open it, when you slide the bench away, it opens a slit in the floor just big enough to put a bottle of liquor,” current owner Cobb Milner said. “You could probably put 100 bottles of liquor down there.”
After it became legal to one to bring their own liquor to a restaurant, the restaurant then installed lockers along the wall of the basement to keep the alcohol out of the wrong hands. The lockers still sit bolted to a concrete wall, doors missing and hinges exposed to the dark expanse of storage space.
For many years it was an open secret that places like the Antler Bar and The Bark could provide alcohol, but now its secrets hide beneath their current iterations as Canyons and Bistro Roca.
“Blowing Rock has always been a town where people knew they could get a drink, “ Milner said. “People still come to Blowing Rock because we have nice places here, but it’s no longer the draw it used to be.”
Other Honorable Mentions:
– At the Chetloa Inn, an unassuming table sits between the elevator to rooms and the guest entrance to the restaurant. Lifting the tabletop reveals a large tin-lined compartment perfect for storing liquor during the prohibition. According to Chetola owner Kent Tarbutton, his mother bought the piece in New York City specifically for the resort.
– The Buffalo Tavern near West Jefferson has a hidden cellar underneath a porch where locals would drink.