People on my tours are amazed to look at the exquisitely-beautiful pre-Revolutionary house at 58 Meeting Street and realize that it once home to a drab, dimly-lit grocery store. The house was built the same year Ludwig von Beethoven was born, 1770, and featured the popular “single house” construction of invidual rooms on each three floors, divided by a central hall. The orginal lot faced Tradd Street with a perpendicular facing on Meeting, so there was never a piazza, but it did include a substantial carriage house on the Meeting Street side and a small garden between it an the adjacent Tradd Street lot. When it was sold to grocer John Doscher in 1872, Charleston was mired in post-Civil War economic decline, and any commercial advantage of a building was first priority. Doscher remodeled the front and side facades with store front windows and placed simple central entrance doors on both Tradd and Meeting Street. Charleston zoning was reletively non-existent in those days, and it was quite common to have a business on the first floor of a residence, with living quarters above. Doscher’s Grocery was sold in 1917 to Greek immigrant Peter Christantou, who with his brother Harry, ran the business for more than sixty years. Before World War II, Pete and Harry raised fighting chickens in the back garden, and patrons could pay to see cock fights. Inside a store marked by wooden shelves piled with canne goods, you could buy a single cigarette or linger drinking beers as Pete and Harry kept tab. Over the years, the ancient cash register became too much of a bother for the brothers, who preferred making change from jingling pockets filled with coins. By the sixties, when I was growing up, we called them “Mr. Pete” and “Mr. Harry”, and venturing into the old store was like walking into a museum. Soft drinks and beers were chilled in an open water cooler that lay on aging, crisscrossed electrical wires, so each reach to grab a cold one had the distinct possibility of a shock. As 16 year-olds, we looked at Pete and Harry’s as a the most logical answer to our craving for under-aged beer, and found a fool-proof metho by enlisting tall neighborhood friend Demmy Howard to make the purchase. Although Demmy was underaged as well, Pete and Harry couldn’t see very well by then, and saw only the silhouette of the six-foot-two Howard and assumed he was old enough. The old gentlemen died and the store finally closed for good by the late seventies, and the house has since been restored beautifully to its 1770’s grandeur, but we teens of the sixties will never forget the days spent at Pete and Harry’s.
One of Charleston’s nicknames from long ago was the “Madeira City”, referring to the inclination of residents to pull a cork. Archeological digs at various locations around the old city have verified that indeed the liver was an overworked organ, as artifacts often have included a wealth of wine and liquor receptacles. Among the prominent citizens known for an astounding drinking capacity was “two-bottle” John Rutledge, who found time between cocktails to preside twice as Governor of South Carolina, sign the Constitution, and be appointed Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Much of the political discourse of the colonial period was hashed out in the convivial atmosphere of private parlors, where it was a common practice for elite barristers and administrators to gather late in the afternoon and imbibe until the wee hours.
Charleston is one of the few cities able to boast that it thwarted two different Prohibition periods. During South Carolina’s Dispensary era from 1893-1907, liquor was lawfully sold only from state-approved locations in official bottles. Charleston’s answer was the “Blind Tiger”, in which patrons supposedly were paying to see an exotic animal show at a place of business that sold bootleg drinks in back rooms. During the federal Volstead Act of 1919-1933, Charleston wharves did a brisk trade in homemade hooch disguised in fishing and vegetable boats. The greatest testimonial to Charleston’s boozing determination can be found under police reports in early 1900’s city directories, in which thousands of gallons were confiscated by patrols and supposedly dumped down drains at the old Hutson Street station. The police captain who signed these reports was named Duffus, and anyone who believes the stuff was all disposed of is entitled to that name as well.
In defense of the drinking legacy, Charleston’s water supply was suspect for most of its history. There was no sewer system until the 1890’s, and the thousands of outhouse “privies” were constantly leeching pollution into the soil and water table. Cholera and typhoid fever were deadly water-borne diseases very common to the city, so pulling a cork was not only enjoyable, but often healthier as well. Today, we happily carry on the chuggling tradition – but only for the sake of history and our health, of course.
Many strollers notice the small lane off Meeting Street between Tradd Street and St. Michael’s Alley with the name Ropemakers. It actually was the site of Charles Snetter’s Rope Manufactory from the 1790’s until 1803. In the era before industrialization and steam power, rope was made by hand along long such “rope walks”. Workers would push an apparatus on wheels that would “lap” the long lengths of hemp and fiber, twisting strands into thick sections of ship rope or fishing net. In this method, the stress on the rope was dispersed evely among the twisted mass of strands, and to create length an mass suitable for hauling sails or ocking ships, workers would walk the equivalent of six or seven miles a day up and down the narrow lane. Much of the raw material used in the colonial period was hemp from the cannabis plant, which is better known as marijuana, and the same stuff they were working on Snetter’s walk was beig smoked in pipes at local taverns. The practice of making rope in this manner faded with steam-powered mechanisms that could do the work faster an more efficiently. Snetter did not live to see the day that his rope work would be made obsolete, and although he died in 1803, Charleston has “knot” forgotten him.
Among the distinctive sounds so fasmiliar to historic Charleston is the short, sharp squeak made by pressing thumbs along stretching palmetto fronds, as sweetgrass basket makers knit creative designs as they have for centuries. Waeving cominations of the aromatic sweetgrass with colorful patterns supplied by bull rush and long-leaf pine requires a binding stitch, and the tradtional binder is the flat, long leaf of the palmetto. Lowcountry families have carried on this ancient art whose genesis was in West Africa, and generations of descendants work meticulously on single baskets for hours, even days, to keep this cultural connection alive. What was once a functional creation meant for holding goods and food is mostly decorative today, but the common thread of ancestral history makes sweetgrass basket weaving much more important than just pleasing the eye. Sweetgrass baskets will never be mass produced, and are one of the most original and timeless forms of South Carolina art work. There is a great deal of skill and affection that goes into each basket, and each new weaving echoes with the sounds of an honored past.