From hooch to haute cuisine

Henry’s on Market Street in Charleston in 2009.

A few weeks ago, in an article profiling pioneering Charleston chef John Bolton, Hanna Raskin described how Bolton returned home from World War II to an entry-level cooking position at Henry’s on Market Street. At the time, Raskin noted, Henry’s was “just starting to shed its status as a beery saloon serving deviled crabs.”

With Bolton leading the kitchen, Henry’s became Charleston’s premier fine dining restaurant. But its “beery saloon” origins are important, too, for they connect the world of Lowcountry fine dining with an earlier and less seemly era: The days of bootleggers and Prohibition.

The popular image of Prohibition today involves tommy guns, fedoras and mobsters named Lucky, but that’s really the northeastern incarnation. Prohibition in the South started much earlier than in the rest of the country — a good quarter century earlier — and it ended later, too. The bootleggers who kept Charleston and Savannah wet started out not as street toughs but rather as legitimate merchants, and after the “noble experiment” ended, they returned to legitimate trades, including running fancy restaurants. The world of fine dining in the Lowcountry, in fact, has its roots squarely in the days of blind tigers and bootleg whiskey.

In the 19th century, both Charleston and Savannah had substantial communities of Italian- and German-born immigrants. Many of these newcomers found opportunity in the retail and wholesale grocery trades.

A.J.W. Gorse, for example, arrived in Charleston from his native Germany in 1876 at the age of 11. He found work as an office boy for merchant F.W. Wagener and later went into business with his father, who had opened a grocery at Meeting and Calhoun streets. Like most grocers in this era, the Gorses sold beer, wine and liquor alongside their other wares, and their store had a saloon in the back where customers could order beer or whiskey by the drink.

The business prospered, and in 1886, the Gorses hired a 14-year-old named Henry Otto Hasselmeyer, who had just arrived in Charleston from Germany. Hasselmeyer worked as a clerk and lived in a room above the store, where he learned the grocery trade.

In 1892, Hasselmeyer and the younger Gorse formed a partnership and opened a second retail grocery and liquor business at 54 Market St. under the name A.J.W. Gorse & Co. About the same time, Pitchfork Ben Tillman appeared on the scene.

Tillman, a farmer and white supremacist from Edgefield County, rode a populist wave into the governor’s mansion in 1890. In 1893, with Prohibition sentiment riding high in South Carolina, Tillman rammed a measure through the Legislature that created the dispensary system, a novel experiment in state-controlled liquor sales. Alcohol could be sold only at a government-run dispensary in each county seat. Purchasing whiskey and beer through any other channel, including bars, restaurants, and stores, was prohibited.

Charleston’s grocers had no intention of removing the liquor from their shelves nor shuttering the saloons in the backs of their stores. By the second day of the dispensary regime, Tillman was already receiving reports that “blind tigers” — the Southern term for what elsewhere was called a speakeasy — were in open operation in Charleston.

The first person in South Carolina to be arrested for violating the dispensary law was an Italian-born grocer and saloonkeeper named Vincent Chicco, who was charged with selling beer to a detective at his store at 83 Market St. It was the first of a dozen such arrests for Chicco, who became known as the “King of the Blind Tigers.”

Chicco had plenty of company in his resistance to the dispensary laws. In November 1893, state constables raided dozens of “ex-saloon keepers and grocery men,” as the News and Courier put it, and seized liquor at several stores, including that of A.J.W. Gorse & Co.

Gorse and his partner, Henry Hasselmeyer, ended up in court numerous times over the next decade. Three separate raids in 1896 each netted a keg of beer on tap and dozens of bottles of beer and whiskey. In March 1897, Sergeant Cox of the Metropolitan Police Force entered A.J.W. Gorse & Co., to execute a search warrant. He and his men searched the first floor and found nothing, and when they tried to go up to the second floor, Gorse blocked the stairs, insisting that it was his partner’s private residence and not subject to the warrant.

While Cox phoned headquarters for further instructions, he noticed something funny. Though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, he heard “a rainy-day rattle in the gutter pipes.” He ran around to the rear yard and discovered an amber-colored fluid coming from the gutter which, upon tasting, proved to be beer. Gorse and Hasselmeyer were arrested for interfering with police officers and released on bond.

Three months later, the constables raided 54 Market St. again. This time they managed to enter the second floor residence, where they found Maria Hasselmeyer, Henry’s wife, sitting in her kitchen reading a newspaper. When the officers asked Mrs. Hasselmeyer to move, she refused.

One officer, The Evening Post reported, whispered into his lieutenant’s ear that he saw “the edge of a keg protruding from the folds of the lady’s garments.” They ended up being charged once again for interference with a police action.

Similar enforcement efforts came and went for another decade. In the early years of the dispensary, state constables put considerable energy into suppressing blind tigers. Over time, though, the raids became more cursory in nature. “The temporary and crude fixtures of those former days,” The Evening Post reported in 1903, “gave way to better furnishings, and for several years back the open and flagrant violation of the law have made many visitors think that the dispensary act had been repealed.”

In 1897, Hasselmeyer took over the grocery business from his former partner and operated it as “H.O. Hasselmeyer.” In 1899 alone, he was raided seven times for selling beer and whiskey, but the business flourished nevertheless. He and Maria purchased a home on Ashley Avenue, where they raised a son and seven daughters, as well as a summer residence at Station 25 on Sullivan’s Island. There was good money to be made in the grocery business.

Down the coast in Savannah, grocers fiercely resisted prohibition efforts, too. Georgia had led the nation in the so-called “local option” movement, which enabled individual counties to ban liquor sales through a popular vote. By 1890, more than four-fifths of the counties in the state had voted themselves dry, and in 1907, prohibition was enacted statewide.

Fred Haar, a German-born immigrant who had been running a store at 177 West Broad St. since at least 1894, quickly became Savannah’s most notorious violator of the prohibition law. In 1909, the local papers declared that a “Blind Tiger War” was on in Savannah,” noting that “Haar has been raided frequently since the prohibition law went into effect, and is regarded locally as the ‘goat’ in such operations.”

By 1913, Haar had given up his grocery business and moved to the outskirts of town, where he operated Haar’s Inn at Dale Avenue and Bee Road. Over the next few years, Haar and his son, William, were arrested on multiple occasions for selling whiskey and operating slot machines. During one trial, in which the younger Haar was fined $1,000 for prohibition law violations, the judge declared that the roadhouse “had figured in the divorce courts and was the cause of unlimited suffering and evil.”

In 1919, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, instituting Prohibition nationwide. By this point, the residents of Charleston and Savannah had decades of experience in skirting prohibition laws, and they showed no inclination to change their ways just because the ban was now federal. Fred and William Haar, in fact, stepped up their activities to a very large scale.

On Aug. 16, 1923, a New York Times headline declared, “Biggest Liquor Ring Broken in Savannah.” In a single one-day sweep, 84 men, including a prominent local banker, were rounded up and charged with conspiracy to violate Prohibition laws, the largest raid in the country up to that point.

William Haar was identified as the ring’s leader. In the wake of the 18th Amendment, he had gained control of a fleet of ships that took on loads of booze in Scotland, France, Cuba and the Bahamas. They would sail to just outside the three-mile limit of federal jurisdiction off the coast of Savannah, where their cargos of Scotch whisky, French brandy, and Caribbean rum were offloaded onto fast motorboats and landed at points along the coast. Some made its way as far north as New York and Philadelphia.

All told, 126 people ended up being indicted for their involvement in what the newspapers dubbed the “Savannah Four” ring. Among the minor players swept up in the raids was a man named Johnny Harris, who was sentenced to a $2,500 fine and eight months in prison. Harris had grown up in Virginia but moved to Savannah around 1909. By 1917, he was operating a poultry farm and a grocery business, and somewhere along the way, he became involved with the Haars and their bootlegging ring.

After serving his sentence, Harris went into the roadhouse trade, opening Johnny Harris Tavern and Bar-B-Cue Restaurant at Victory Drive and Bee Road, the same location once occupied by Haar’s Inn. (Dale Avenue was renamed Victory Drive in 1922.)

Whether Harris took over the Haar’s business or built a new structure is unclear, but his tavern was a modest white wooden building with sawdust on the floors. It offered patrons barbecued pork and fried chicken alongside beer and slot machines. Harris hired an African-American man named John Moore as his cook, and Moore helped create the recipe for what became the restaurant’s signature barbecue sauce.

Unlike the men who dominated the bootlegging trade in Northeastern cities, the blind tiger operators in Charleston and Savannah were not gangsters or career criminals, and many went on to considerable success in more legitimate lines of work.

Vincent Chicco rode his success as a blind tiger operator into a political career, being elected alderman from Ward 3 in 1911 and winning re-election four years later. A.J.W Gorse also served as an alderman and eventually left the grocery business to become an executive in the Atlantic Paint Company.

Henry O. Hasselmeyer and Johnny Harris followed slightly different paths, transforming what started out as humble beer parlors into two of the most famous restaurants in the South.

In April 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which would repeal Prohibition, started making its way through the states for ratification. That same month, Congress passed the “Beer Bill,” which made it legal to sell malt beverages with up to 3.2 percent alcohol. Hasselmeyer promptly announced the grand opening of “Henry’s Beer Parlor” at 50 Market St., in a building adjoining his grocery store.

The building lacked a kitchen at first, so Maria Hasselmeyer made deviled crabs at her house on Ashley Avenue and drove them down to Market Street in a black Packard. By November, the Hasselmeyers had converted the old store at 52 Market into a large dining room and welcomed men and women alike. In March 1934, The News and Courier noted that “Henry’s is well known for good beer and shrimp.”

In July 1935, Henry’s Inc., “a general restaurant business to deal in foods and beverages,” was incorporated with a $15,000 capitalization. The officers were Henry O. Hasselmeyer, his son, Henry Jr., and Walter Shaffer, Hasselmeyer’s son-in-law. But incorporation didn’t mean the Hasselmeyers had gone completely legit.

The 21st amendment repealed national prohibition, but each state set its own liquor laws, and only a single Southern state, Louisiana, went fully wet upon repeal. South Carolina initially allowed the sale only of malt or fermented beverages (that is, beer) of less than 5 percent alcohol. In May 1935, following a successful public referendum, the sale of packaged spirits by retailers was legalized, but selling liquor by the drink remained verboten.

On Aug. 15, state constables raided Henry’s and arrested H.O. Hasselmeyer and two of his bartenders for selling liquor by the drink. They seized bottles of rum, Cointreau, White Label Scotch, sloe gin, Benedictine, and applejack brandy. It was the first of a series of raids that nabbed some 37 people at 25 establishments and demonstrated that, when it came to serving liquor, Charleston was a wide open city. Hasselmeyer pled guilty to the charge and paid a $100 fine for the offense.

Over time, the food side of Henry’s business began to eclipse the beer and other libations. In 1938, Hasselmeyer overhauled his kitchen, installing a complete line of gas-powered ovens, ranges and fryers, which were brand-new innovations on the market. After World War II, under John Bolton’s leadership, the restaurant expanded its offerings with European-inspired dishes such as trout Colbert and flounder meuniere.

But, legal or not, patrons could always start the evening with cocktails. In 1938, Henry Hasselmeyer Jr. was called to testify before a state Senate committee investigating illegal liquor sales. “We sell drinks,” he admitted, but not openly. “We have a card system down there.”

Customers, he explained, would purchase a quart of whiskey at a retail store, “put it on deposit” at Henry’s, and each drink they ordered would be tallied on their card until the quart was exhausted. Such dodges remained commonplace not just at Henry’s but at many other Charleston restaurants and bars until South Carolina finally allowed the sale of liquor by the drink in 1973 (albeit in the much-derided mini-bottle form).

In Savannah, Johnny Harris decided to upgrade his beer joint, too, breaking ground on a modern red brick restaurant with three separate dining rooms that could hold 200 customers at a time.

The new restaurant opened for business in 1936. Its Maple Room Tavern featured an elaborate bar, while the booths in “The Kitchen” offered casual dining with a view of the barbecue pits. The heart of the establishment was the Grand Ballroom, which was ringed by 21 handmade cypress booths. Each sat six guests and had curtains that could be closed for privacy. Customers were allowed to bring their own liquor but paid a corkage fee for “set-ups,” and each booth had a white call button that patrons could press to summon a waiter when supplies ran low.

In the center of ballroom was a revolving bandstand, and patrons in formal wear danced “under the stars,” hundreds of twinkling lights installed in the 30-foot high domed ceiling, which was painted to resemble the night sky. The menu was suitable for such a large-scale enterprise, too. Barbecue and fried chicken were the specialties of the house, but they were joined by steaks, seafood and chops and, eventually, everything from omelets to frog legs.

The Hasselmeyer family sold Henry’s in 1985, ending a half-century run during which the restaurant set the standard for elegant dining in Charleston. Its location now houses Henry’s Place, its name a recognition of the building’s storied history. The second floor, where Maria Hasselmeyer one hid a full keg of beer beneath her skirts, is now home to Henry’s Whiskey Bar, where patrons can enjoy a glass of whiskey or two with no need to look over their shoulders for state constables.

Johnny Harris Restaurant is still in operation today. The bandstand was removed long ago, and tables now cover the dance floor, but one can still order platters of barbecue and fried chicken. Curtains no longer enclose the handmade cypress booths, but you can still summon a waiter by pressing the white service buttons, a small but tangible link back to an earlier era, when dining out in the Lowcountry was closely linked to the sale of illicit alcohol.