Bait and steak Harold’s Country Club still binds Yemassee community together

“In March, I’ll be here 11 years,” says bartender Robin Chance, who takes time to eat from the buffet at Harold’s Country Club in Yemassee.

The old filling station still stands as ramshackle as ever, just a few miles off U.S. Highway 17 south. It’s past the hulking shell of the Edisto Motel that once served the most delicious fried shrimp in the Lowcountry, beyond the left turn to Bennett’s Point where those local shrimp sell straight from the trawler by the hundred pound.

It’s way down past the Old Sheldon Church ruins and the headwaters of the Coosawhatchie, just outside of the whistle-stop railroad town of Yemassee on a barren stretch of two-lane blacktop that meanders like a blackwater river through towering pines.

I called to get a table for three.

“How you want those cooked?” she shot back.

“You mean the steaks?” I asked.

“Yes, honey, the rib-eyes. That’s what we serve on Saturday night.”

Most folks would probably classify Harold’s Country Club as a bar, but to do so denies the fact that in a 10-minute stop one can fill up with gas, grab the coldest Miller High Life in Hampton County along with some signature steak rub, purchase a cane pole, eat several pickled eggs, and pick up a bucket of live crickets. If you come up empty down at the creek, they’ll cook you dinner, Thursday through Saturday. The place is a biker bar of sorts, a bait and tackle, gas station and country buffet all rolled into one old shack out in the middle of nowhere. But Harold’s draws a crowd.

It still stands proud as one of the last lonely surviving backcountry roadhouses, a genre of country honky tonks that have steadily succumbed to rural declines in the agricultural regions of the state. On a given weekend night, it fills with revelers. There are tourists that come inland from Beaufort, but most are locals who come to eat, drink and sing karaoke beneath multicolored flashing lights.

It wasn’t always such an iconic extravaganza.

Harold’s started life in 1973 as Peeples Texaco, where the late Harold Peeples serviced everything from automobiles to bicycles. It was his second garage, the first being a short-lived location on the other side of town that he began just a few weeks into retirement, but “the station,” as it was called, was closer to Harold’s true passion, baseball.

His widow, Mary Peeples, explains, “He retired from being a mechanic in the civil service and I had a couple years left before I was done, but it wasn’t two weeks before he got restless and bought a garage. Then the fellow that owned the store across from the ballfield passed and he moved everything over there so he could be closer to that.”

Harold was a lifelong coach and player, and the Peeples had helped raise money to build the ballfield that still stands across the road from the store. It wasn’t long before the tradition of grabbing a cold beer over at the Texaco after a ballgame was routine enough to be announced over the PA system. As the story goes, the announcer, Charles Jackson, would finish the evening with “Now, let’s all go over to Harold’s Country Club for a cool one.” A tradition was born and the name stuck.

In all country communities when they gather, be it for church or drinking, food likely follows. And it did at Harold’s, too. People brought covered dishes, enough of them that the garage would be cleared of cars and converted to a dining hall. Eventually, Harold and Mary begin serving up some of Mary’s best potato salad and coleslaw, and charging a few dollars for entry.

So if you’re headed down Highway 21 on a Thursday night, just look for the big wooden sign out front that sports the smiling face of Harold Peeples wedged between a cold frosty mug of beer and flaming steaks on the grill. You can still stop in for the “potluck” buffet.

Harold’s nephew, Ronald Murdaugh, runs the shop these days along with his daughter, Joyce Bunton. They help Mary to do the serving. Among a collection of ephemera as varied as the appointments of Graceland, the people of Yemassee sit shoulder to shoulder, digging into piles of fried pork chops, barbecue chicken, ham and chicken with dressing.

“The running joke is that we just buy whatever the store has on sale and that’s the potluck for the week!” says Mary.

Friday nights bring wings and cold beer, and Saturdays two seatings for grilled rib-eyes ordered in advance. If you’re lucky, one of Harold’s regular celebrity guests will stop in. It’s been frequented by movie producer Joel Silver and Ted Turner for years. Mel Gibson once stopped by for a cold brew.

Around the bar, stories unfold, retold and shaped by generations of regular patrons. There is the tale about how Harold finally converted the old garage to a dining room by building a stage right over top of the grease trap rather than remove it, or the time he went down to Silver’s Auldbrass Plantation and taught Martha Stewart how to fry a turkey, only to get “spittin’ mad” when she used the technique on her television show without properly attributing credit.

And there are the dark days, when the whole front half of the store burned down in 1999, just after Harold underwent open heart surgery, but reopened two weeks later without fail, with patrons bringing covered dishes again, just to keep it running. The original structure was rebuilt much like the old, and while the old signs and radiator belts that once hung proudly on the walls were gone, a visitor today would never accuse Harold’s Country Club of selling out and attempting to market notoriety. When Harold passed away from lung cancer in 2003, the store closed for his funeral service, and then promptly reopened per his direct orders. It continues on just as it has always, a reflection of the people who built it, and continue to call it their place to drink and dine. And they still play ball across the street at the city athletic complex that now bears Harold’s name.

Just as he did with the ballfield that he so loved, Harold Peeples built a community center as much as a filling station. It’s still stocked with the characters (and the character) that make it so real. They don’t come just for a potluck dinner, a rib-eye grilled as ordered earlier in the week, or even Mrs. Mary’s delicious pineapple upside-down cake. They gather to see each other, old friends and new faces, locked in a karaoke line-dance wonderland full of camouflage, pool sharks and the coldest beer in town.

Or they come for crickets and gas, or just to stop while visiting nearby Sheldon Church and see an old joint that neither fire nor time could erase. There is an authenticity at Harold’s that only appears when the venue and its traditions arise out of the people who continue to patronize it.

They say that when someone got too rowdy, Harold would ban them “for life, plus a day.” Then he’d let them back in after a heartfelt apology. Such is the way of authentic communities. They go on, even after we do not.