Sunday, July 2, 2017

“Daddy” Garner and the Oldest Saloon in Alabama


Raised on a farm in nearby Georgia, Robert E. Garner found his way to Anniston, Alabama, during the latter part of the 19th Century.   Known as “Daddy” there, he created a saloon he called Peerless and a whiskey he named “Old Wildcat.”  The whiskey disappeared with Prohibition, but the saloon, shown right, has been revived by his modern counterparts and now is accounted the oldest such establishment in Alabama.

Robert was born in Pike County, Georgia, in 1866, the youngest son of Eliza M. and John Garner, a Civil War veteran.   His education appears to have been minimal.  The 1880 federal census, taken when he was 14 years old, registered him not “at school” but as “farmer.”   Listed with the same occupation were three older brothers, likely the reason for his leaving Georgia.   As the fourth in line his chance of inheriting any Garner land were very dim.  That same year his mother, Eliza, died and his father appears to have married again.
Garner’s whereabouts for the next few years have gone unrecorded.  In the late 1890s he surfaced in Anniston, Alabama, on the slope of the Blue Mountain, about 112 miles from his birthplace.  It was a good choice to locate.  Named “The Model City” by Atlanta newspaperman Henry W. Grady because of its careful planning,  Anniston was rapidly becoming the fifth largest city in the state.  Though the roots of the town's economy were in iron, steel and clay for sewer pipe, planners touted it as a health spa with several resort hotels easily accessed by rail.  Local wealth allowed the building of elegant public buildings, impressive churches, grand mansions, commercial buildings and industrial facilities all set within a carefully conceived landscape.
But even a model city requires a saloon or two and Garner provided one of the fanciest watering holes in town.  Built in Classic Revival Gothic style, the Peerless featured a massive mirror-backed mahogany bar, shown here. It had been purchased at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and moved by Garner to the Peerless in 1906.  He also bought old church pews, had them sawed in two and fashioned customer booths from them.

A model city also needs its own brothel and there again Garner did not disappoint.  He set aside the entire second floor of the Peerless for that purpose. There were four rooms, each with its own ornamented fireplace, and a fifth bedroom in a loft accessed by a ladder.  Watching over this red-light establishment was a formidable madam named Lucinda Talley who sat at the head of the stairs to screen visitors.  She was known for running a strict enterprise and carrying a gun.  

It is something of a mystery how Garner earned the nickname “Daddy.”  No record exists of a marriage or any children.  It occurs to me that the ladies upstairs might have bestowed that name on him as the boss male of the Peerless and it stuck.

Meanwhile, Garner himself was busy building a wholesale liquor trade, supplying whiskey to other saloons and restaurants in Anniston.  Obtaining whiskey by the barrel from distilleries in Maryland, Virginia and elsewhere, he decanted it into a range of ceramic jugs for sale. Examples appear throughout this post. Garner also featured his own proprietary brand, “Old Wildcat,” at the Peerless bar and sold much of it in half-pint (seven ounce) glass bottles that were blown at a glass factory 42 miles east of Anniston in Tallapoosa, Georgia, one reputedly owned by Garner himself.

Although Anniston had flirted from time to time with banning alcohol through “local option” laws, for most of Garner’s first fifteen years in business he faced no restrictions on liquor sales.  In 1915, however, Alabama voted a complete ban on alcohol.  Enforcement was spotty and he apparently continued to bootleg liquor through the Peerless.  

Meanwhile Garner had faced a setback when his Tallapoosa glass factory burned, taking with it whatever Old Wildcat was on premises.  That was followed by the death of Lucinda Talley in 1919, reputedly shot by mistake by a policeman who was chasing a fleeing suspect trying to take refuge in the second floor bordello.  That same year Garner died at the age of 63 and was buried in the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Pike County.  His unusual gravestone is in the shape of a couch and the inscription mentions him only as a son.

In death, Robert Garner left behind a reputation as a philanthropist in Anniston.  Never having married and with no children as heirs, he left his considerable fortune to the creation of a new hospital, an original structure having been outdated and later burned.  Using his money the city fathers built a new municipal institution and named it Garner Hospital, shown below. The building now serves as a nursing home.
The Peerless Saloon for a time was a jewelry store, sat empty for years, and at one point faced demolition until 1985 when it was placed on the Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service.  The building subsequently was restored to its original luster by new owners and is considered the oldest saloon in Alabama. The upstairs was renovated into one large room that has a billiard table and a 1890s decor. It can be rented for events.  Downstairs the new owners have preserved the period look.  Robert “Daddy” Garner, if he walked in the Peerless today, likely would feel comfortable taking his place behind the mahogany bar.































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