Saturday, July 29, 2017

John Freeman’s Hot Times in Hot Springs

Excitement was running high in Hot Springs, Arkansas, on January 10, 1910, with the anticipated visit of former president, Theodore Roosevelt, to town for a ceremony and speech.  At John Freeman’s Barrelhouse & Saloon on Ouachita Avenue a trio of soldiers from Company L, Fourth Infantry, from Fort Roots near Little Rock, shown below, had gathered, anticipating their role as honor guard in a reception committee.  Among them was Edward L. Haley, a Mississippian, son of a widow, and described as “the most peaceable man in the company.”

Haley and his buddies were drinking beer in Freeman’s saloon when two civilians whom they did not know entered and the soldiers, apparently in the high spirits of the occasion, invited them to join their party.  The civilians subsequently left without paying for their drinks.   When the soldiers got  up to leave, Freeman’s bartender, George Kilgore, told them to pay for those drinks.  When Haley disagreed, Kilgore took out a hand gun from behind the bar. In the argument that ensued, he shot and killed Haley.

Violence of this nature was not uncommon in Hot Springs. Kilgore had shot and killed another man in Freeman’s saloon ten years earlier.  The town was a popular hangout for outlaw gangs from Oklahoma and other notorious gunmen.  Later Al Capone and other gangsters would make it their “vacation” home.
How this murder in his saloon affected John Wesley Freeman, a deputy sheriff, former postmaster, and leading citizen, has gone unrecorded.  The incident serves to introduce an Arkansas whiskey man whose enterprise helped shape a unique community where 47 "hot springs" gush forth nearly a million gallons of 143 degree water every day.  In an effort to conserve this natural resource, President Andrew Jackson in 1832 made the springs the first federal reservation, encompassing the area surrounding the city of Hot Springs. 

Freeman was born in South Carolina of native Carolinians.  The exact date is in question.  According to the 1900 census, it was 1862.  His tombstone indicates 1857.  Of his early years little has been recorded.   One account says Freeman came to Hot Springs in its early days to buy cattle.   At the time he is reported to have been running a large cattle ranch near Buckville,  a hamlet of 100 souls located twenty-two miles northwest of Hot Springs and the center of a cotton and corn farming area.  Freeman also ran a general store in Buckville.

Although the town later would be moved to another location to make way for a dam project,  Freeman had long since decamped to Hot Springs, where, it was said, he had “a firm faith in the town’s future.”  He moved his mercantile business there, opened a wagon yard and stable, and by 1894 had started a saloon.  He recognized that the thousands of tourist who thronged the city by day to “take the waters”  might work up a thirst for something stronger  by nightfall.   By 1903 three Freeman saloons were operating simultaneously in Hot Springs, the barrel house previously cited,  Freeman’s Plateau Saloon at 700 Central Avenue and a larger drinking establishment at 650-654 Central Avenue called Freeman’s Wellington Bar & Barrel House. 

Freeman installed his brother James as the manager and buyer for the three liquor concerns.  The close location of the three drinking establishments made it possible for one man successfully to supervise them all.  Noted one observer:  “For although they are not without competition, and in close proximity, it is a well known fact that they enjoy a lions’ share of the trade.”

Most whiskey sold off the premises was contained in pottery jugs and bore the name “Freeman Bros.”  A variety of those ceramic containers is shown throughout this post.  They included Albany slip beehive “scratch” jugs and two-toned shoulder jugs with stenciled labels, some in cobalt blue.  This jug trade was described as the “largest in town, while the best families in the city keep their telephones a-ringing.”  In 1903 Freeman snagged the area franchise for Miller Beer.
Meanwhile the South Carolina transplant was having a personal life.  Early the 1880s he had married a woman named Amanda and together they had a family of five children, sons Robert, Walter and James W. ; daughters Myrtle and Vera.  Eventually both Walter and James would work for their father, James as manager of what the family called “The Tennessee Wagon Yard.”

A hot time in Hot Springs meant more than boiling water and violence.  Fires were the bane of the community.  On February 26,1905, a fire started after midnight in the Grand Central Hotel on Chapel Street. For six hours the conflagration raged.  Before this fire burned itself out, it had consumed 40 square blocks, including the homes of more than 2,000 residents. Also gone was the court house, jail, and three hotels.  At least five people were killed in one of the greatest fire disasters to hit an American city.

Freeman’s properties were not spared.  The Freeman Mercantile Co. and one of   his Ouachita Avenue saloons were destroyed.  His wagon yard and stables were consumed but the press reported that some horses and vehicles had been saved.   Although the burned out parts of Hot Springs were quickly rebuilt, Freeman was reduced to running two saloons.   

Moreover, time was running out for the family.   James Freeman died in December 1909 at the age of 43.  By that time John was a widower, living with his children, Amanda having died earlier.   His days also were numbered, dying in April of the next year at the age of 53.  John Freeman today lies buried in Hot Springs’ Greenwood Cemetery.  His headstone is shown here. Sadly, his son James, age 25, died later the same year.

The Freeman enterprises — saloons, store and wagon yard — subsequently disappeared from Hot Springs directories.  Today we have only Freeman’s jugs to remember a man hailed for his business successes, of whom it was said:  “Habits of industry, the determination to be thoroughly conversant with all the details of his affairs, and above all, the strict adherence to to sound business principles, has placed him where he is today….” 

As for the outcome of George Kilgore’s shooting of soldier Edward Haley in Freeman’s saloon, I have not been able to find further information.  Teddy Roosevelt visited Hot Springs as expected and was the honored guest at the fairgrounds.  The photo below shows him at the event, looking toward the military honor guard at left, standing at attention.  He may have known that it was missing one young soldier that day. 

Note:  Many of the details of John W. Freeman’s life are from The Goodspeed Biographical & Historical Memoirs of Western Arkansas, published by the Southern Publishing Company in 1891.

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