by Billy Ingram

151 Years Ago…

As General Joseph Johnston headed eastward on horseback from Greensborough on April 17, 1865 the fate of North Carolina, indeed the entire nation, rested on whether he was prepared to commit an act of treason so vast in its scope it would bring to an end to the cause he had been willing to sacrifice his life for, that millions had already bled out in pursuit of. With beleaguered soldiers decamped in a tattered tent city strung up along a tree line where UNCG is today, Johnston’s commanding officer President of the Confederate States Jefferson Davis had ordered him to wage Total War against a vastly superior force certain to lay waste to this region in the same vicious manner our neighbors in Georgia and South Carolina had scarcely survived.

As luck had it, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman was in a conciliatory mood and accepted Johnston’s complete surrender. A merciless tide of blood and destruction was stemmed before rail lines and manufacturing capabilities connecting Greensborough to the wider world could be plowed into the dirt its citizens would have been scratching at for sustenance. Instead of advancing with bayonets fixed, some 30,000 Blue Coats marched into town amid a herald of trumpets as the township was conscripted to serve as a processing center for Confederate troop repatriation, those young bucks that resettled in this roughneck hamlet of 2,000 became a ready source of labor for a muddy cowtown about to burst at the seams with commerce and commodity.

120 Years Ago…

It’s late afternoon, mid-June 1896. Joe Houser and Bob Cline, two rootless rounders on a multi-county mission of mayhem, whoop it up as their stolen thoroughbreds gallop southeast down a red clay roadway past Guilford College into Pomona. They slow to a trot as the road we now know as Spring Garden Street comes to within calling distance of railroad lines spidering out across the state in all directions.

It’s the great getaway… the night before Cline was scooping up piles of cash while Houser pointed his hogleg at a clerk in the Forsyth County Postmaster General’s office, making off with nigh on $30.00 in quarters, nickels and dimes.

Dismounting on South Elm Street in front of Clegg’s European and American House, adjacent to the tracks, the outlaws are surprised to see Greensborough experiencing a period of rapid expansion. Thirty-one freight trains are gliding the High Iron into town daily, workers loading and unloading boxcars by the hundreds, a mighty means of distribution fueling a manufacturing boom led by the Cone brothers who are greatly expanding operations with their newly operational Proximity Cotton Mill while construction is well underway for the Revolution plant nearby.

The city is a major brokerage outlet for insurance and tobacco, largest manufacturer of cigars in the nation, there are flour and grain mills, buggy factories, brick yards and 3 iron foundries mass producing stoves, plows and turbines; rail spurs connect their warehouses to the mainlines. Every day 29 routes comprised of some 200 passenger coaches pull up to the wooden platforms near the corner of South Elm and Depot (now McGee). The aroma of fresh cut and drying tobacco leaf, pine, manure, urine and sweat likely confounded genteel country folk used to lilac and honeysuckle in the air while coal ash and silt generated by torquedup steam engines thicken the summer breeze.

Bullwhackers seeking their fortunes at one of the many gold mines in the vicinity and dozens of Confederate veterans preparing for a reunion parade in Richmond in two weeks are converging this day on Greensboro’s rail hub, causing quite a commotion. Despite this influx of strangers, Officer Scott of the Greensboro Police Department notices something not quite right about Houser and Cline. Covered with dust, they must have come a long way at a fast clip, then paid for passage on the Eight-O-Clock to Salisbury with small change from an official Post Office transfer envelope.

Officer Scott watches from afar as the two scallawags lead their horses from the ticket office down an incline into Tatum’s Livery across Depot Street (the grassy knoll behind Natty Greene’s today). Following an inebriated gang of Johnny Rebs, they walk half a block up to the corner at South Elm and into Gorrell’s Saloon.

As the Sun Sets Slowly in the West…

South Elm has long been home to a robust service based economy but a sense of permanence is taking hold in anticipation of not just a new century but a new millennium. Replacing the rambling, lowrise wooden structures that once defined the area, 2 & 3-story mixed-use structures enshrined in locally sourced brick are being erected on both sides of the tracks. Staircases are so unfamiliar to the masses the city’s most popular weekly, The Greensboro Patriot, published an article on how to walk up them.

Despite Greensboro’s reputation as being populated by “genial, industrious, sober and thrifty” souls, just a short downhill stroll from the train depot is what fly-by-nighters are calling ‘Saloon Row.’ First stop is Robert Gorrell’s place on the corner at 341 South Elm; Collins & Cantieri and E.G. West are pouring shots just a few doors north at 329 and 327; two more bars beckon directly across the street at 334 and 344. Thirty-five year old Gorrell shares the ground floor with John Jones’ grocery store, Gorrell’s door looks to the corner, Jones faces South Elm proper. Upstairs is occupied by a hotel with an entrance facing Depot Street.

Recently completed, what’s become known as the Jones Building (Natty Greene’s today) reflects the architectural style prevalent across an aggressive expansion of South Elm taking place, a study in bold austerity with whimsical upturned brick accent grooves, white Mt. Airy granite for top and bottom window sills. The sleek wood and glass first floor entryway sports a distinctly modern look with subconscious Italianate touches. A third floor will be added soon, crowned with an ornately carved Romanesque cornice.

Gorrell’s Saloon is the fanciest Joe Houser and Bob Cline have ever seen, electrical fans descend from high woodslatted ceilings, large picture windows look out over an unrelenting cacophony of clattering carts navigating the Belgian stone covered roadway, the hollow wail of arriving steam trains coupled with the aggressive huffing from coal fired boilers as fierce Iron Horses gallop from the gate, sending grey plumes towards the heavens, leaving a sooty discharge in their wake. There’s the clamor of hammering and bricklayers at work, metal forging and horses being shoed, all of this occasionally drowned out by the teeth-rattling metalon-metal grinding of a locomotive being rerouted on a turntable just up the hill.

Sauntering through swinging doors and across sawdust covered floor the desperados remove their hats, placing them on the freshly shellacked oak bar they order “Bourbon and Branch Water.” Leaning on a corner of the bar to their left, Robert Gorrell’s lips move only slightly as he pours over a newspaper in front of him. Alongside recipes, comings and goings, and testimonials for William Jennings Bryan’s presidential campaign are ads for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for teething children that, “soothes the child, softens the gums, allays all pain.” Yeah, morphine will have that effect. The American Medical Association will give that toddler roofie another name—”Baby Killer.”

An announcement for a nearby photography studio catches Gorrell’s eye, he remarks to no one in particular, “Somebody tell Sidney Alderman them cameras a’ his are gonna be worthless once the novelty of havin’ your portrait took wears off. Hear tell he’s shootin’ pictures of tables and chairs now. He he he.”

As bartender Fayette Watkins refreshes his drink Gorrell displays a pair of pearl earrings tucked into a palm-sized gift box, “Had disagreement with Emma last night so I walked across the street to Schiffman’s at lunch time, bought her somethin’ nice. Pretty, huh? Say, I almost forgot, how’s your wife feelin’ these days, Watkins?” Changing the subject, Fayette Watkins laughs remembering, “I hope those county temperance ladies don’t make another appearance, what a ruckus they kicked up. The gall a’ those gals preachin’ the evils of alcohol in your place a’ bid’ness. That old biddy yelled at you, ‘I’d rather a son o’ mine came home dead than drunk!’ ” “And I told her, ‘Your son left here last night dead drunk! He might still have an open tab, you wanna pay it for him?’ He he he. Those ladies’ heads must be as empty as their beds. Land ‘a’ Goshen! Imagine the election day chaos if they ever give the females the vote.”

Jim Luquire, proprietor of the pool hall at the McAdoo Hotel on the other end of the 300 block, saddles up to the bar. The nattily dressed newcomer to town kicks the muck off his boots then remarks with a sneer, “What’s the point of havin’ paved streets if they’re caked in mud and horseshit all the time?” “Well mister, count yer blessin’s.” Pouring a mug of Christian Moerlein beer from a raised spigot Watkins points out, “It warn’t that long ago the general cit’zenry was defecatin’ in these streets. Doubtful we’d have sewer pipes today if they weren’t made right outsida town. You outta take a trip over to Winston, now that’s a shit hole.”

The bartender tends to others so Luquire directs his comments to Robert Gorrell who’s immersed in his newspaper, “You actually readin’ The Greensboro Patriot? You don’t believe that Democrat slanted yellow journalism do you? Look at that headline: ‘Villainous Scheme To Buy An Election: Republican leaders, in cold blood, plan the outright buying of six states.’ Hogwash! We have an $18 million debt and the Republicans have a plan to knock it right out. That scheme Democrats had lowering tariffs then taxing the top 10% earners was a bust alright.”

“Wait just a cottin’ pickin’ minute!” Gorrell puts down the weekly, “Republicans’ solution is to tax ever’one’s income and give a big chunk of it to the rich sugar producers! This notion that the government knows best what to do with folk’s money is prepost’rous. We been doin’ just fine runnin’ Washington on proceeds from liquor taxes and such.”

Luquire’s ears turn red, “Democrats have laid waste to the economy! We go from boom to bust every other month, it’s time we strictly adhere to the Gold Standard, vote McKinley and return this nation to greatness! If I’m not mistaken Mr. Cone over at the finishing plant paid his employees in Mexican Silver Dollars last week to demonstrate the financial turmoil that would ensue if we don’t pledge ourselves to the Gold Standard.”

“You say turmoil… I took them silver coins from customers for the 54 cents they’s worth. Did a brisk bid’ness. The Gold Standard ain’t nothin’ but a multimillion dollar giveaway to the big monied interests up north at the expense of Southerners like myself. The problem is in our do-nothin’ Republican Congress and Senate. No way I’m votin’ for that yankee snake in the grass McKinley. I’ll be goin’ to hear William Jennings Bryan speak when he comes to town. Heck, it’s on the pathway I take to my home on Mendenhall anyways. And sure as shootin,’ if McKinley does win the election in November, the Republicans’ll drag us into some bloody conflict halfway ’round the world, bet on that!” A chorus of “Huzzahs!” rings out from the retired insurgent fighters, one of them buys a round for the house as Luquire turns his attention to the outlaws Houser and Cline on his right, “Three things I find just too dadgum mysterious, boys—Electricity, the Holy Ghost and the Democrat Party.” His remark is ignored, these scofflaws have a train to catch, only time for one last shot of Old Crow.

Exiting the bar at sundown, Houser and Cline laugh openly at slick-haired dudes in three-piece suits prowling the sidewalks, twirling gold watch chains, tipping their bowlers and boaters to every lady in sight, unescorted or otherwise, in hopes of catching a glimpse of ankle as she carefully pulls up her skirt and petticoat to step over high curbs. A momentary flash of skin provides all the incentive these “drummers” need to toss off a lascivious remark.

With nothing but a hunch to go on, Officer Scott allows the two suspicious characters to board a train without incident.

A loud expulsion of steam envelopes the locomotive, with its brass bell signaling departure the American 4-4-0 engine chugs away from the Depot. Our purloining peckerwoods relax in their facing bench seats, landscape clacking past their windows, secure in the knowledge that, in the eyes of the law, they are long gone like a turkey in the straw.

And if this had been a few years earlier… perhaps so. But Houser and Cline hadn’t reckoned on the mid-nineties being an era of enhanced communication, a first tentative footpath leading to our present day Information Superhighway. It took little more than 24 hours for wanted posters and details of the Forsyth heist to reach Postal Inspector Dexter in Guilford County who traced their route by rail to pinpoint exactly where the hooligans left the grid to commit a burglary in Cool Springs, then tracked those nefarious knuckleheads to Mocksville where they were apprehended after a scant few days on the lam. Like folks around here are fond of saying—the world moves awfully fast these days.

And They Called THAT The Gay Nineties!

Gorrell closed his bar around 1905 after liquor laws were toughened, a direct result of the efforts of area women activists. North Carolina became the first to enact state-wide Prohibition in May of 1908, more than a decade before the rest of the country followed suit.

The spot at 341 South Elm St. became home to a number of enterprises until the Kontoulos family relocated their California Fruit Store there in 1924, in 1934 becoming California Sandwich Shop, a full service diner. They also acquired the adjoining downstairs space to open Blue Bird Billiards while the Harris Hotel occupied the upper floors. That same year Jim’s Lunch opened across the street at 348 South Elm (where Idiot Box is now), these heavily trafficked spots for greasy eats earned the intersection a new nickname: Hamburger Square. The area still retained a somewhat seedy reputation, in the 1950s a lady lost her job as a kindergarten teacher after being seen walking into the Jones Building to buy a Coke.

By the 1970s pornographic peep shows, pool halls and aging flop houses where gambling and prostitution thrived reinforced the 300 block of South Elm’s unseemly notoriety just as Friendly Shopping Center and Four Seasons Mall siphoned away downtown’s many department stores, restaurants and foot traffic. The city did what it could—widening sidewalks to make downtown more pedestrian friendly and erecting a multistory parking garage on Davie Street behind Ellis Stone (Elm Street Center now). Not long after it opened, Fisher Park housewife Amy Hitchcock (who you may remember from our profile of Murphy Anderson a few issues back) was exiting that parking lot when she was confronted by a mugger and shot. The next day’s newspaper account sealed downtown’s fate. For decades after that the grandest architectural treasures of South Elm served as little more than tinder for devastating fires and multi-story urinal cakes for the homeless.

Nightlife returned to South Elm in 1994 when visionaries Ed LeBrun and Ed Bronson demonstrated that a nightclub, Babylon, could draw hundreds of diverse partiers downtown after dark. A year later, twins John and Pete Mendenhall relocated the Paisley Pineapple into the Jones Building, rechristened 345 South Elm. By that point the downstairs had been combined into one 9,000 SF restaurant area. Critic John Batchellor raved about the food, something he rarely did. Their forward-thinking culinary efforts lured diners back to Hamburger Square for the first time since Jim’s Lunch closed in the summer of ’76.

Walls that segmented the hotel on the second floor were removed to create wide open spaces with exposed brick, a lounge made intimate with groupings of stuffed chairs, couches, coffee tables, hardwood floors, windows hung with heavy curtains alongside impressionistic paintings by Ron Curlee. It became known as the Sofa Bar. Truly transcendent, it was one of those rare places in time emerging out of a vacuum, the straightest gay bar or the gayest straight club Greensboro had ever known.

Revelers from every walk of life, disparate age groups, every socio-economic and educational background mingled freely there. The hottest spot in town as the 21st century dawned, where everyone wanted to end their night, especially on weekends when the place was packed to capacity, appetizers from the kitchen lifted upward via dumbwaiter. Sunday afternoons dreamy-eyed ravers wound down their trips there, burning off bumps in the bathroom.

A victim of its own success, after six years crowds began to thin as other entrepreneurs recognized the potential in Downtown Greensboro, opening competing nightclubs and restaurants like M’Coul’s Public House and Ritchie’s on the opposite corner.

“Within 15 minutes, someone was hiding in there and did that.”

It was a particularly busy Saturday night at the Sofa Bar on May 31, 2003, raucous even. In addition to the regulars, a young couple’s wedding party migrated over from Kress rooftop, commandeering the east room on the second floor, just right of the staircase.

A well-past-drunken uninvited exgirlfriend crashed that afterparty, determined to make a scene, threatening to bust things up, said she’d burn the place down if that’s what it took to spoil the night. She was one of the last to leave as club goers were straggling out around 3:00am. Forty-five minutes later a 6 person crew was cleaning and breaking down the bar when manager Kenneth Leslie noticed flames racing up the east room curtains where an oil lamp had ignited a stack of newspapers. They’d cleared that room just 15 minutes earlier. The fire extinguisher wielded by a server had little effect, everyone fled through the front door in confused panic.

The Greensboro Fire Department was on the scene within minutes to quickly put out the blaze, fresh in their memory was a series of blazes that destroyed virtually all of Davie Street’s business district in the 1980s and damn near laid waste to Hamburger Square as well. Three and a half hours later, while the perpetrator escaped under darkness of a new moon, firefighters were summoned back to the Jones Building for a bigger outbreak, again in the east room. Awakened with the stunning news that fire trucks had returned, employees watched from the corner of Elm and McGee as flames broke from the windows, their livelihoods going up in smoke. The first commercial arson case of 2003 was opened June first, estimating $80,000 in interior damage. No arrests were ever made.

13 Years Later—

The one time derelict structures from the 1890s that littered the downtown of old are now Greensboro’s heart and soul. It took many leaps of faith. In 2003 Daniel Craft and John Lomax purchased the Jones Building, treating the grand dame to a million dollar face lift. Craft explains why they gambled on downtown’s future, “It’s a historically pretty famous area down there. I liked the corner location, by the railroad tracks, I felt like it was an underutilized property. I remember showing friends and people in the real estate business, they thought we were crazy. They just couldn’t believe it.

“It just felt right, you know? We built a patio, opened up the center section so you could see upstairs. Greensboro needed a brewery, people were craving for that kind of thing but, of course, when we bought the building that wasn’t on the radar at all. Timing ended up being pretty good.”

Natty Greene’s brewery and restaurant has flourished there for a dozen years, a robust catalyst sparking the rejuvenation of South Elm Street, indeed all of downtown, that continues to this day. A few weeks ago, it was announced that Natty’s will be constructing what the owners say will “essentially be a steak house” in a 9,000-square-foot space in the Revolution Mill complex, a sprawling manufacturing combine that was completed not long after Robert Gorrell opened his bar. The new Natty’s will feature a gourmet foods market, on-site butcher and baker with patio seating overlooking North Buffalo Creek. An expansion of the brewery into the former textile plant is forthcoming. Meanwhile, their current operation in Hamburger Square will continue.

Over a century ago, with the Jones Building leading the way, Greensborough shrugged off the ‘ugh’ to become a proper city. “I think the 300 block continues to evolve, get better.” Daniel Craft says, “It’s a pillar location. Kind of a little bit grungy, but in a good way.” !