Part I: Remembering Benton in its ‘wet days’
By Freddy Burton
On July 18, 1947, the voters of Saline County chose overwhelmingly (by 60 percent) to go from a wet county to a bone dry county. Ten years before they had decided to go dry on whiskey, but not on beer and wine.
Since I was born in 1947, I must rely upon those who are old enough to remember and stories and ads from the 1947 Benton Courier.
My father, Robert L. Burton Jr., was born in 1921. His mother died of TB and left my grandfather, Robert L. Burton Sr., with two sons, Robert and Ralph.
My grandfather and his two sons lived in the Broadway Hotel on the corner of Main and Sevier streets in Downtown Benton. Actually there was nothing on the corner, but the driveway for the Benton Bus Terminal. This driveway is now home to Cleo’s Furniture Co. The building for the hotel is now behind Cleo’s and was built in 1924 by A.V. Martin.
My grandfather was in the beer business and sold the world famous Jax Beer. In 1935 he bought a new 1936 Chevrolet 1 ½ ton truck for $345 with payments at a whopping $27 a month! My father was 15 years old and drove this truck to deliver Jax Beer all over Saline County, with his younger brother Ralph riding shotgun.
It didn’t take long for my father to get a nickname, which stayed with him his entire life. You guessed it: JAX. Many people, even today, think that Jax was his real name.
I’m proud to say that my grandson’s name is Jax — not as a tribute to the beer, but to my father. As he would be making his deliveries, the “happy” customers in the beer joints would greet him with a big “Here comes Jax!”
I owe much information for this account to the following: Richard “Dick” Jacobs, Arthur B. Holliman, Pokey O’Kelly, James McCutcheon, Sonny Bowers and Dois “Cotton” Sutton. Since this article will have a Part II, I would like to ask people to call me at 501-860-2716 or 778-5933 if they have something to add to Part II. If anyone has a picture, that would help also.
“The Spot” was a house-turned-beer-joint that the owner painted big spots on. It was located on Military near the present-day Arby’s fast-food restaurant.
At 103 W. Market St. in the Walton Building was a billiard parlor and beer joint. Holliman’s Cleaners was across the street. Arthur B. Holliman remembers seeing women standing outside tapping on the window trying to get the attention of their husbands to tell them it was time to come home.
At 115 South St. was another pool hall and beer joint, which is now home to Edward Jones. James McCutcheon remembers coming to town with his grandparents to buy groceries at Gingles. As they were walking out of the store, they turned left down South Street; before they got to this pool hall, a guy was knocked out onto the sidewalk by another from the establishment. He said seeing them fight on the sidewalk looked like a scene out of an old western movie.
On Sevier Street across from the courthouse was another pool hall/beer joint. The front doors were the old-style swinging downs you would see in a movie scene showing a saloon. Sonny Bowers remembers getting down on his knees as a youngster and looking to see what was going on. He said there was always a lot of noise coming from these places and as a kid he was just plain curious.
The Desoto Café on Military, located about where Ferguson Furniture store is today, had a nightclub called the La Lune Club. This was a place for dancing and parties.
At the Y on Military where Congo Road goes to the left and old Highway 67 (now Highway 5) goes to the right where there was a joint called Sunshine Station.
The Country Club Dance Hall, owned by I.E. McCray, was a hot spot. The room for the dance floor was painted blue and they called it the Blue Room. It was located near the corner of Military Road and Green Street, about where the Sonic is today.
One of the most notorious spots was The Oaks next to the Harris Filling Station, about where Alright Printing is today on lower Military Road. There was a terrible car wreck there on Christmas Eve in 1938. A speeding car containing six young people from Bauxite and Mt. Olive communities crashed into a gasoline pump at the station. Four riding in the car were killed and one innocent bystander, Ellen Styers, also was killed. Doris McDonald and Dois “Cotton” Sutton were burned but survived and were taken to the Bauxite Hospital.
The Nelsons had a beer joint called ‘Nelson’s.’ The building is still standing today at the corner of Edison Avenue and Border Street.
Ralph Willman had a beer joint across the street from where Save-A-Lot is today.
Jake Styers had a winery and was a bootlegger. Cotton Sutton said you could buy anything from old Jake on any day and at any time.
In Bryant at the corner of Highway 5 and Reynolds Road was a place called The Log Cabin.
Down by the Ed Dodson Bridge, across from where Ed and Kay’s is today, was the Dodson beer joint.
Out Highway 67 toward Malvern was Dollie’s Place, a dance hall, run by Dollie McCloud.
Farther out ‘67 was the Oklahoma Inn or better know as The Bloody Bucket. This is the place you went to if you were looking for a fight. The story goes that Hinamin Abercrombie landed his plane on the highway,went in and had a beer, and then flew off in his plane. It has also been reported that he flew his plane under the Ed Dodson Bridge near Dodson’s beer joint.
With the pool halls and beer joints, Benton was also a gambling town. You could play penny-ante poker at the pool halls, or if you liked higher stakes, you could go upstairs at Charlie Womack’s house at 108 Main St. — now home to Meredith Wineland’s law office.
People have told me that if you had enough money and knew how to work the angles, you could buy off the police for around $20 a week. In this environment the Golden Rule was not “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Rather, the gold ruled and the motto was, “You help me, I help you, or we don’t do business!” Plain and simple.
The late Dr. Quin Baber wrote this in a paper some years ago: “In the 1930s and ‘40s, Saline County was wet and there was a bunch of bars around the square. On Highway 67 just west of Benton was the Oklahoma Inn. Its nickname was The Bloody Bucket because every Saturday night there was a killing, a fight, or a shooting or stabbing. The blood on the floor got so thick that people had a hard time dancing because their shoes stuck to the floor.
“There was a family that lived in Lonsdale in the ‘40s by the name of Lonsdale. They had a recreational center called the Colony Center ... They were a wealthy family that had made money from the railroad. Johnny Lonsdale was the most colorful character there ... One thing in particular that Johnny did was drink a lot of Scotch. The story goes that he had twin pearl-handled pistols that he carried and on any given time, after he had too much Scotch, he would begin pulling his guns out inside the skating rink, and on occasion even firing them. It wouldn’t be uncommon for him to get on the microphone and announce for everyone to ‘pull off those damn skates and get the hell out of here.’ One lady said she could still remember hearing those skates hit against the wall as everyone began in a mad fury before Johnny started shooting ... He also ran for governor of Arkansas in the 1940s.”
One Saturday night at the Colony Center a young, handsome John Landers walked through the door. He got the attention of all the young ladies, but this didn’t set well with three rough boys from Paron.
After John had skated and danced with several girls, the Paron boys thought it was time to set this young city boy from Benton straight. The three walked up to John and said, “Were gonna whip your___!”
John had no response and went about his business. It was about 1:30 a.m. and John decided it was time to leave with one of the local girls on his arm. As he walked through the front door to the outside, he came face to face again with the Paron boys. Of course they all had had a few drinks and were ready for a fight. This time they said, ‘OK, City Boy, you’re fixin’ to get your____w hipped — real good!”
Still holding on to his date, John calmly said, “Before you boys do that, you need to know that my big bother is Watt Landers, and when he hears about this you boys will need plastic surgery! That is, if you’re still alive.”
Immediately the Paron boys said, in unison, while they took off their hats, “Mr. Landers, have a nice evening.”
Actually Watt was not his brother but his uncle, but at 1:30 in the morning, who cares?
Watt’s reputation was well-known through out Saline County. His motto was: “Everything should be settled with a good fight.” He and Spajo Richards made good running buddies.
Since Downtown Benton was the “heart” of the county, it saw the greatest concentration of this type of activity. On Saturdays, Downtown Benton was like Park Plaza Mall in Little Rock. Folks from all over the county would come to Benton to shop, eat and socialize. Downtown was a swarm of humanity. There were barber shops on every street open to 9 or 10 on Saturday night, for those once-a-week haircuts.
If you had a weak battery in your car, you parked it on the hill at the west end of South Street where the 911 building is today. When you got ready to go home you could get your vehicle rolling and pop the clutch to get started. This hill was known as: Battery Hill or T-Model Hill.
When the sun went down, things got rowdy. By the late ‘40s the stage was being set for a showdown between the Drys and the Wets. That’s Part II.
Freddy Burton is a former Saline County Clerk and a lifetime resident of Benton. To contact Burton, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.