Drinking in a little family history

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I have discovered my great-grandfather was once the town policeman for Rock Creek, a tiny, incorporated town in Unicoi County, Tennessee, with an interesting, but brief history.

My mother found somewhere recently a book called “Erwin, Tennessee, A Pictorial History, 1891-1929” by James A. Goforth (printed in 2004) and shared it with me. Erwin was – and remains – a small Appalachian mountain town whose fortunes were tied closely for many years with the fortunes of the railroad.

One of the things Erwin is known for is the town that hung an elephant. Yes, an elephant. An elephant named “Murderous Mary” was hung in this very month (September) in 1916, but that’s another story and has nothing to do with my great-grandfather.

My great-grandfather pops up in the book in a short section on the town of Rock Creek, which existed from 1898 to 1908. Its story goes like this:

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Rock Creek was the brainchild of William B. McNabb, an Erwin, Tennessee, area political and community leader who also happened to own a legal whiskey distillery on Rock Creek. Being an enterprising businessman, he wanted an additional outlet for his product, but saloons were only legal in municipalities.

Not to worry. On May 7, 1898, the 33 residents of Rock Creek voted unanimously to incorporate the community as a town. By late November, the state had granted the charter.

In due course a mayor and town board were elected, and lo and behold a license for a saloon was granted to McNabb. The saloon served as town hall and as the “Cave Bluff” post office.

They had a certain decorum. Hats were removed and no drinks were served during town meetings.

The town had one policeman and during seme of its history, my great-grandfather, Bill Edwards, was that policeman. Those that had a bit too much to drink at the saloon were locked up in a shack behind the saloon called the “calaboose.” It costs a $1.50 fine to get out and the fines were split between the mayor and policeman. Goforth notes that was the policeman’s only pay and the only source of income for the town. He was on a 100 percent commission plan!

A photo in the book shows my great-grandfather with a bear cub on his lap sitting in a row of men, including McNabb, the town’s postmaster, a country doctor and a federal whiskey tax inspector.

The bear cub was one of two McNabb (who is holding the other in a grainy photo in the book) bought off a hunter. They were a playful novelty at the saloon until they grew up to be “big, mean, aggressive bears, disrupting the community and terrorizing the inhabitants.”

McNabb sold one to a man who divided it with his neighbors, leaving none for himself, and the other was sold to a Veterans Administrator Center and was a table delicacy.

By Goforth’s account, the saloon was quite popular and attracted a varied clientele that included prominent area folks, but the prohibition movement brought it all to an end. Seeing the end coming, McNabb sold the saloon in 1907 to a North Carolina man and moved to Virginia.

Today the saloon site at the corner of Rock Creek Road and East Erwin Road is home to a church.

What happened to town of Rock Creek? It just disappeared.