A Look Back at Burke
Local author recounts the way he remembers it
This is my story of how Burke County, North Carolina became known as “Bloody Burke.” It’s the way I remember it.
The Scotch and Irish who came over looking for a better life brought with them their knowledge of whisky making. Burke County residents were among some of them who settled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains from Pennsylvania south to Georgia.
In 1919 the 18th Amendment prohibiting alcoholic beverages in the United States took effect and created the most lawless period in our history. Manufacturing, hauling and selling illegal whisky became a way of life for many, especially in Chicago where gangs and mobs ruled the illegal trade. Congress repealed Prohibition in 1933.
The Great Depression came along in 1929 making hard times even harder. Few jobs and little money set the stage for Burke County’s white lightening period. Despite the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, alcohol sales remained illegal in the county.
Burke, at that time, was a county of many farms with lots of bottomland along the many streams. The farmers raised vegetables for their own tables, wheat and corn to sell – two items that could easily be turned into alcohol. The last piece of the puzzle was in place.
Roadhouses, speakeasies, or honky-tonks as they were known, began to spring up. A dance floor, a jukebox and illegal booze were all that were needed.
World War II saw most of the able-bodied men fewer than 37 go off to war. When they began to return they brought with them the thirst for alcoholic beverages and partying. It was also the time things began to turn deadly.
In the wee morning hours of Dec. 2, 1944, two carloads of partygoers left the Lakeside Inn, a honky-tonk on Lake James, for Oak Park, another of the roadhouses on U.S. 70 west of Morganton. From there they decided to move to still another joint, the Tip-Top, which was closer to Glen Alpine. A 1936 Chevy left Oak Park headed east with eight more partygoers, but two of the backed out; therefore, some time lapsed before the last car pulled out.
The 1936 Chevy driver noticed the other car was not following, so they turned around and went back to look for them. About 50 yards east of Bottom Drop the two cars, both traveling at top speed, crashed head-on on the centerline. Four young people in the ’37 Ford were killed, two at the scene. Two later died.
Six in the ’36 Chevy died – four instantly and two later. Of the 14 in two cars, 10 killed in a single wreck is still probably the record for Burke County.
The locations to buy illegal booze were commonplace. In fact, two places within one mile of Morganton had drive-up windows. In 1947 Burke residents voted the county dry. It was like pouring gas on a fire. Until then, beer and wine had been legal. Honky-tonks increased in number and added backrooms for gambling. Cuttings, stabbings, beatings and shootings became news for the papers just about every Monday. It was wide open, to say the least, and continued until the early 1960s when an ABC Store was voted in.
It was a joke in the surrounding counties that they would rather be tried for murder in Burke County than for stealing as they would get less time.
This story is not meant to make Burke County sound like a bunch of Tommy gun carrying mobsters. Most folks were God-fearing churchgoers, hard working people caught up in bad economic times during this period. They made whisky six days a week and took their families to church on Sunday – putting their tithes in the plate.
Alcohol induced violence, murders and cuttings became common, for example: a man opened the screen door of a honky-tonk and stepped in. A blast from a 12 gauge shot gun hit him in the chest, knocking him back through the screen. In the same honky-tonk a man parked in the parking lot, got out and started in. He, too, was shot with a 12-guage shot gun, killing him. A man shot on the dance floor of another nightspot was quoted as saying with his last breath, “I’m still the meanest S.O. B. in Burke County.”
Two brothers fell out of a joint, Western-style, to shoot it out, only to kill each other. A man went inside a honky-tonk in winter and stopped at a potbelly stove to warm. Another man cut him from his right shoulder to his left buttock. When he turned around, the second man said, “Oh my God. What have I done? I thought you were someone else.” The victim carried the scar for life.
To show the number and their locations, here is a list of liquor houses headed west of Morganton on U.S. 70. Not all were built as honky-tonks but began as legitimate businesses only to turn illegitimate later. At this time Morganton City limits was just past St. Charles Catholic Church on West Union Street.
The first place on the left, now Jordan’s Cleaners, was The Showboat Supper Club – later to become a honky-tonk and even later had a drive-up window to buy booze. The next place was The Dutch Mill situated just about where McDonalds is now. To start with, it too, was legit.
Going west, the next place was Table Rock View Service Station. It also had a drive-up window in later years. This now brings us to Pep’s Drive-in and the Skating Rink, which might not be considered a honky-tonk, but in back of a garage across the street you could buy white lighting and a lot of it was consumed in and around the two places.
Next on our list was the Twin Poplars Motel. Even further, before the railroad bridge, about where Southern Tire is now, was another place to get booze. Across the bridge on the right was still another place to buy liquor.
Past Glen Alpine on the left was an old cinder block building, its name now forgotten, but was still another place to purchase spirits. Nest door was the Yum-Yum Club, a genuine speakeasy all the way.
On top of the next hill was the Green Lantern. The next stop was Tiptop, later to be the Golden Glow, which became just that – as it burned to the ground.
Continuing down the hill on the left was the Do-Drop-In. Across the road was Middle-In, about where Faith Baptist Church is now. At the bottom of the hill was Bottom Drop.
Going up the hill from Bottom Drop to the top on the left was the infamous Oak Park. The County Line was the last booze place in Burke County. Across the line in McDowell County an old church turned honky-tonk called Tombstone deserves mention.
Take Kathy Road from Tiptop to Jamestown Road, turn right and on the right was Jam-Boogie. Go on up U.S. 70 from Oak Park to Bridgewater, turn past the chipper mill on Power House Road, then left on Benfield Landing Road past the store by the same name. In the curve on the right was Lakeside, probably the roughest of all. Old Lakeside was renamed, because Lakeside was later traded for a place further up the road on the left and kept its name.
All of these places, at some point in time, sold bonded whisky, white lightning or beer. The number of murders in Burke County nightspots has been lost in time and most of the honky-tonks are gone now, but it is part of our history and how Burke County became Bloody Burke.
Articled printed in The News Herald
Sunday, November 25, 2007
By Glen Beaver
Special to the News Herald