If you ask most people where they would think the oldest bar in Florida is, they might guess it to be St. Augustine. Founded in 1565, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously European occupied settlement in continental United States. I'll admit being a little disappointed to learn that the oldest bar in the state only dates back to 1903 and is way up in Fernandina Beach, just North of Jacksonville. When we started this quest of visiting the oldest bar in every state, I was looking for real colonial history dating back hundreds of years, and Florida should have it! Once again though, I was happily surprised and thoroughly impressed with the beauty and history of The Palace Saloon!
Stepping through the wooden swinging doors and crossing the tile mosaic floor into this restored turn of the century gem quickly alleviated my skepticism. The grand hand carved mahogany mirrored bar, underneath the molded red and gold tin ceiling and hand-painted murals on the walls gave the overall regal ambiance that must have impressed the regular patrons including the Rockefellers and Carnegies in her earlier years. The original owner, Louis G. Hirth, wanted a gentleman’s club different from the town's seedy bars, and as a major seaport at the time, his Palace became the watering hole of the very wealthy. It was even the first hard liquor establishment to serve Coca-Cola and was presented with a chin dispenser for the syrup by the company’s founder. Hirth was a shrewd businessman. Anticipating the demand for liquor right before prohibition, he rented storehouses and stocked up on hard liquor bottles. People lined up by the busload to purchase liquor up until the very last minute before the law went into effect.
Painstakenly remodeled in the fifties, the Palace retains its beauty, while offering a much more casual, almost “divey” atmosphere. In fact, I even had to take a picture of the now antique but operational cigarette machine they had. It must be twenty years since I’ve seen one of those! I ordered the house specialty, a well-poured Pirate’s Punch. While Bruce and I sipped our drinks and admired the antiques, a friendly couple sitting next us struck up a conversation. Pam (Big Red) and Clyde were fascinating to talk to as Palace insiders. Pam had her first drink at the Palace and even bartended there over the years. I really enjoyed her ghost story of Charlie, a Palace fixture having bartended there for 50 years, whom still in his afterlife watches over the bar. She recalled cleaning up after a long shift and being alone, coming back out to the bar to find two glasses of whiskey mysteriously waiting for her on the bar. Apparently Charlie was rewarding her with a well-earned end of the night toast!
In spite of such a dark history and Savannah's apparent focus on ghost story tourism, old streets of the historic district were picturesque lined with enormous moss draped oaks in front of the stately well maintained homes. We climbed down steep stairs down to cobblestone streets to find a large marketplace along the river dabbled with historic markers of statues and more parks. One particularly cool area was a tile x marked square which echoes if you stand at the very center. After a day of touring we were able to truly appreciate the beautiful squares by sitting in one near our hotel, sipping wine, while Bruce smoked his cigar, and like a small hometown, strangers greeted us and stopped to chat as they strolled through with their dogs.
Unlike the elegance and dignified discovery of the Revolutionary War heros that we found on our previous trip to Charleston, it was the dark, crime ridden past of The Pirate House we sought in Savannah, GA. We learned the beginnings of the Pirate House were very honorable. It starts with the humanitarian, James Oglethorpe who founded Georgia and the City of Savannah in 1733. His colony outlawed slavery, limited land ownership, and offered an economy based on family run farming. The plans for the city included small parks or squares every few blocks which still exist and have even multiplied. An experimental garden was planted by botanists from Britain who had brought specimens to grow from all over the world. The Garden was modeled after the Chelsea Botanical Garden in London and was named The Trustees Garden after Oglethorpe's men. Though the garden is long gone, the herb house that was built in 1733 still stands and is one of the original buildings that comprise what is now The Pirate House.
The herb house its expanded structure eventually became a Tavern and due to its close proximity to the river, it became the watering hole of pirates. The lawless ship's captains often needed to add to their crew and resorted to criminal measures to lure unsuspecting men into the life of piracy. Seven tunnels had been dug in the high banks of the river to make transporting cargo ashore easier, and two went directly to The Pirate House leading into the Rum Cellar, making it the perfect set up for pirates to shanghai local patrons. Along with other tunnels in the city, they were also used to transport and store yellow fever victims, which give way to many spooky ghost stories about the tunnels. We especially enjoyed our pirate clad tour guide, Christopher Blackswitch telling us about the young yellow fever victim crying tears of blood for his mom often seen in the window of the building. Unfortunately for my husband Bruce, it is only women who are able to catch a glimpse of this spector.
It is with George Washington's first tour of the southern states on horseback that we focused our visit. We explored the trail of Washington by touring the Heyward-Washington house which he rented for his eight day stay in Charleston. We also explored the Old Exchange building where Washington attended a grand ball in his honor. Washington remarked in his diary that the women were "elegantly dressed and handsome ladies".
My favorite story started in the Exchange. After Washington's visit, the City Councilmen commissioned John Trumbull to paint a portrait of Washington to commemorate the visit. Trumbull painted a seven-foot royal portrait of Washington but, much to the Councillors dismay, had Washington posed in front of the city of Trenton, NJ. Councillors refused to pay Trumbull for the portrait, so Washington stood for a second portrait, this time featuring Charleston in the background. Trumbull got his revenge on the Councillors, however, by inserting a laughing horse behind the President, with the horse's butt prominent and its tail strategically raised over the city and its council in direct line of fire! We had to go to city hall to see the original of this caustic portrait.
The fragrant white flower vines, and Spanish moss covered tree lined neighborhoods of perfectly preserved colonial homes provided the perfect ambiance making us feel like we had strolled back through time where we found McCrady's tucked back on the brick lined Unity Alley. As we stepped through the door under a quaint wrought iron gas lamp sign, McCrady's did not disappoint. It is actually the outside of two buildings closed in with 3 large brick arches that were once open bays along the left, housing a romantic booth in each. On the right was a long elegant wooden bar with a wine cache above to be reached by a library style rolling ladder. You could look up and see the once outside windows above in this cavernous room. Sam, our bartender served me the uniquely tasty Marcona time out, and Bruce sipped an equally interesting Incan affair. These delicious drinks put us perfectly in the right frame of mind to absorb some history!
This building had originally been purchased by Edward McCrady in 1778, as a Tavern. Two years later, when Charleston surrendered to the British, McCrady had been taken prisoner and sent to St. Augustine, FL where he was held for a year before his release. Coincidentally, our visit marked the 235th anniversary the siege of Charleston, where Major General Benjamin Lincoln of the Continental army surrendered to the very day. This didn't stop McCrady from eventually returning to his tavern and building on to it including an elegant long room on the second level where music, dancing, and shows were performed. McCrady's was not the local dive pub of the old city, but the destination for the city's upper crust members. George Washington himself was hosted at the Cincinnati Society dinner complete with music and dancing in the long room, where it is said they enjoyed a 30 course meal.
Another interesting old bar we found while in Charleston was The Blind Tiger Pub. This Charleston landmark was built in 1803 as a bank building and is right in the heart of the historic district. The bar had a 19th century colonial ambiance with a fun heritage. The name came from the dispensary act put into effect in 1893 by governor Benjamin Tillman. The act was an attempt to restore the dignity of the city by state control of all alcohol sales. Charlestonians responded by paying for entrance to see a blind tiger where the alcohol was included in the fee. The fictional blind tiger never appeared but patrons would leave "blind drunk".
Most of these posts are written by Cheryl and edited and added to by Bruce. Learn more about us on our About us page.