Image: What was left of Issac Hunter’s Tavern in 1970, courtesy of the North Carolina State Archives.
Taverns have played an important role in the history of Wake County. Not only did they host several sessions of county court and a meeting of the General Assembly, but they were used as landmarks to establish the boundaries of Wake County and even the location of the capital of Raleigh. Isaac Hunter’s Tavern was such a well known Wake County watering-hole, that the Constitutional Convention of July 1788 voted to build the new state capital within ten miles of the establishment. In 1792, commissioners decided to purchase land for the future city from Joel Lane, owner of another nearby ordinary. Local legend has it that their decision was influenced by Lane’s ‘cherry bounce,’ a potent drink made of mashed cherries, sugar and aged whiskey or brandy. However, another property owner competing with Lane for the sale of his land probably spread this rumor.
Taverns made history again in 1839 when many citizens became unhappy with the site of Raleigh’s market house and wanted to move it to a new location. So many saloons had opened near the old market house that the area (where Exchange and Market plazas are today) became known as “Grog Alley.” In addition to saloons, Grog Alley also hosted tobacco parlors, gambling rooms, and the occasional purchase of female company. Even with the Wake County Courthouse one block away, Grog Alley was “the scene of much drinking and disorder, of many a fisticuff fight, and occasionally a homicide.”* When the political party in favor of moving the market house won the municipal election of 1840, victorious supporters marched through Grog Alley shouting and carrying torches. This made the owners and guests of the taverns so angry that a blood-filled riot broke out in the street.
For early citizens of Raleigh, taverns were more than just places to buy a drink. They were important community gathering places and sites of entertainment. In the early nineteenth century, traveling shows exhibiting exotic animals (including the first elephant exhibited in Wake) and human entertainers commonly set up near taverns. Taverns also hosted other forms of entertainment and sporting events. For example, New Ruin Tavern in Western Wake County not only hosted regular dancing and gambling, but horse-racing, wrestling matches, cock-fighting and gander-pulling took place nearby.
After the Civil War, a social movement against alcohol use, called the Temperance Movement, began to gather force. A number of temperance organizations led a nationwide “crusade against the saloon,” which they believed to be a source of evil and corruption.
Under pressure from these organizations, in 1874, the North Carolina General Assembly ruled that local governments could decide to prohibit liquor. After an initial defeat, prohibition finally passed in Raleigh Township in 1886. Saloons were forced to close, but “rumors quickly spread that liquor was being ‘slyly sold’ in the capital city.”
Just two years later, in 1888, local prohibition was repealed, and Raleigh once again became “wet.” However, statewide prohibition eventually passed and went into effect January 1, 1909, making North Carolina the first southern state to enact prohibition of alcoholic beverages. National prohibition did not take effect until 1920.
Despite the best efforts of police, Wake citizens went through elaborate efforts to conceal their distilling operations. One woman, Huldah Nines, operated a distillery out of her mill. Nines worked out of an underground room, only accessible through a locked door under the dam. With the help of several men, Nines put the finished product in kegs, and floated them downriver to a landing. Caught in the act, arresting officers sentenced Nines to two years in prison.
Between the summers of 1908 and 1909, over thirty people (including four women) were arrested for selling spirits made in Wake County. During the prohibition years, distillers successfully operated underground in the town of New Hill until a crackdown in 1919, when the police captured as many as five stills a week. The rural community of “Harricane,” which included parts of Wake, Granville, and Franklin counties, was also reportedly “known less for its farming than for blockade whiskey stills.”
Original location of Isaac Hunter’s Tavern, 1969. Photo courtesy of North Carolina State Archives
Celebrate the ability to once again legally consume alcohol in Wake County with the Raleigh City Museum’s Homebrewed Raleigh small beer fest on October 23rd. Visit the museum website for more information.
*All quotes from ‘Wake: Capital County of North Carolina, Volume 1’ by Elizabeth Reid Murray