Across-the-River Joints We Knew & Loved
Story Rufus Ward
Establishments serving strong libations and good food have a long history around Columbus. From the rye whiskey of Lincecum’s and Pitchlynn’s 1820 storehouse to the fried catfish that gave its name to the 100 block of South Fourth Street, the mixture of food and beverages has been with us since the founding of Columbus. In fact, the first tavern in Columbus predated the first church building by almost 10 years.
It was west of the Tombigbee, though, that the glory days of local joints reached their zenith. During the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s the joints west of the river were the hangouts for both locals and students from Mississippi State and the University of Alabama. Starkville was dry and the legal age for beer in Alabama was 21 rather than Mississippi’s 18.
Those who lived through those years here still wax nostalgic about barbecue from Bob’s Place, rhythm and blues at the Southernaire and country music at Mack Banks’ Western Supper Club.
During prohibition and the decades that followed, the law did not crimp the style of those who wanted a drink. Establishments selling alcoholic beverages thrived west of the river. They ranged in flavor from the Jungle to the Silver Spur. The Jungle was built during the early 1940s about where the new river channel cuts the Old Macon Road. It “… was a real honky tonk … it was pretty rough there during the war years,” recalls a former patron who wishes to remain nameless. A common saying about the rough places was that, “you would be searched when you went in and if you didn’t have a gun or knife you would be issued one.” Booze was illegal, and raids by the sheriff were common. One Columbian recalled as a child being at a joint during a raid. “I sat and played on top of buried milk cans full of illegal booze while Sheriff Ott Smith was making a raid on the place in search of the booze … but he never looked under me.”
There was the Silver Spur down the Old Macon Road. It looked like a large barn. I was always told the reason behind its appearance was because when it was constructed during World War II you could get lumber to build a barn but not an entertainment establishment. George Dyson recalls that his grandfather, John Bowlin, opened “The Spur” in 1946 as “a dine and dance supper club that originally required a membership card to get in.” It was famous for its good steaks and the availability of good beverages. Around 1970 it was sold and acquired more of the atmosphere of a honky tonk.
The Southernaire was the quintessential Southern beer joint. Ed Anderson built it in the 1940s as the 20th Century Club. Located just past Bob’s Place west of the Tombigbee bridge, it became the Southernaire and finally The Club. The Southernaire, with music by Big Ben and the Nomads, attracted students from Starkville to Tuscaloosa. The beer flowed, the music was great, and if one had the poor judgment to get into a fight, he might find himself decked by a future all-pro linebacker.
Several years ago I was working on a case with an attorney from one of the larger law firms in Atlanta. When I told him I was from West Point, Miss., he asked: “Where is that in relation to the Southernaire?” The popularity or notoriety of “The Aire,” as the case may be, was spread far and wide. To this day, music by Big Ben is the centerpiece at many high school reunions.
When I think of joints west of the river, I can’t help but remember Mack’s Western Supper Club at Crawford. Years ago I was doing some legal work for Mack Banks when a cousin from Texas called me. He was bringing some friends from Dallas to Columbus to go hunting. He asked if I could take them to a real Mississippi honky tonk. I called Mack and asked about bringing some out-of-state hunters to his club and he replied that I didn’t need to ask; “just come on down.” We had not been there long when a fight broke out on the dance floor. The people from Texas started looking for an exit when someone hollered, “Mack said he had some special guests tonight and he didn’t want any trouble inside.” Suddenly the fight stopped. The combatants and the crowd all then went out to the parking lot where the fight resumed.
Each establishment had its own personality. The Snow White, just down old Highway 82 from the Southernaire, was a good place to get a beer inside or a fifth of liquor around back. The Hi-Hat and the Lakeside across the road from each other were said to be rough. One of the old joints was called the Round House and had a sawdust floor. Fresh floors were obtained when needed from the nearby Bruce Lumber Company. There was the Dew Drop Inn with its dirt or sawdust floors where it was “… guaranteed to have a fight going on.” At Old West Point Road and Highway 82 was the Straight Eight Jr. In the 1970s, Rasputin’s and Granny’s catered to the so-called “hippy” crowd near where the Magnolia Speedway is now.
Across from Bob’s and the Southernaire was the Coffee Cup. It was open late and many a not-so-steady person went there to drink some coffee and sober up before hitting the road home. In The Noblest Roman, a novel about bootlegging in Mississippi by Pulitzer Prize winning author David Halberstam, it was to the Coffee Cup that the bootleggers went after making their run.
No place created the fond memories of so many as does Bob’s Place. Bob’s was one of those rare establishments that crossed generational lines. The beer was cold, the food, especially the barbecue, was unsurpassed and “Aunt Barbara” ruled from behind the counter. BooBoo served food and she kept everyone in line. James only had one arm, but to this day I have found no one who is his equal for fixing barbecues, hamburgers and fries. It was also one of the last places to have “car hops.” Not just catering to a nighttime crowd, Bob’s plate lunches were legendary. For those who wanted a little more than beer and food, there was also the poker game that was usually going on under the old Highway 82 bridge.
The tearing down of Bob’s Place in 1991, for the new Tombigbee bridge to the island, marked the end of an era that had started at that same spot some 173 years before. George Dyson, a friend who remembers the hangouts of the ’50s and ’60s reflected: “It was the glory time in this country, Rufus. There will ne’er be another period like that. There were some bad times and bad folk, but they were far outnumbered by those who were the best of the best. It would suit me just fine if Heaven is much like the ’50s … Course I’ve got to get there first!”