An Early History of Drinking in Raleigh

An Early History of Drinking in Raleigh

October, 11, 2010, by Ladye Jane

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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



Read More

Olde Raleigh, Other posts by Ladye Jane.


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  • Michael
    10/11 12:57 PM

    Great article! I love any posts that examine the history of our fine city.

  • Tony Woodard
    10/11 02:04 PM

    Not only is it said that Lane got the commissioners drunk, it is historical fact that Lane charged the state for the cost of the drinks.

  • ncmyk
    10/11 06:10 PM

    lady jane - the article didn’t exactly explain the pictures.  the 1969 picture shows empty site of the original location and the 1970 picture shows rements of the building.  i am assuming that at some point the building must have moved from the original location to whereever it is being shown in the 1970 picture?

  • crit
    10/11 06:12 PM

    Sounds like Grog-Alley is alive and well right in front of the Jackpot.

  • Marky Mark
    10/11 10:27 PM

    1970’s era Isaac Hunters Tavern looks in about as good of shape as the Jackpot too.

  • Lisa Jeffries
    10/11 10:39 PM

    This is probably the article I’ve enjoyed reading the most in quite some time!

  • Ladye Jane
    10/12 10:38 AM

    @ncmyk - Talked to the Archives about the file names of the photos, and they were actually taken right around the same time, just accessioned at different times (making their years different).

    Isaac Hunter’s was a series of buildings (house, barn, shed, etc.), so whomever labeled the photos was just remarking that there was once one of the buildings on that empty spot.

  • ncmyk
    10/15 10:41 AM

    thanks for the info ladye jane!

  • Micah
    10/19 01:56 AM

    So, exactly where were the two photos taken?

  • will a
    10/20 01:35 AM

    gander pulling….

  • Raleigh Boy
    10/23 07:00 PM

    Micah—The second photo with the vacant lot and large oaks was the site of Isaac Hunter’s tavern on Wake Forest Rd. J. Crawford Biggs built his house there in the early 1920s. Sometime after that Mr. Biggs had the smaller 18th century structure (first photo), which sat in his front yard, moved to a site behind his house where it was used variously as a dwelling and a barn. Nothing remains of any of this now, as the North Raleigh Hilton now occupies the property. I think there’s a historical marker across Wake Forest Rd. from the hotel noting the earlier existence of Isaac Hunter’s.

  • casual observer
    10/26 11:40 PM

    well, at least we have the NORTH RALEIGH HILTON.  Awesome.  Historical tavern replaced by The Skybox Grill and Bar.

    Our city founders would be proud.

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