Townsfolk gather at the saloon in Rock Creek.
ERWIN — A whiskey distiller’s need for a place to peddle his potables led to the brief incorporation of a small municipality in Unicoi County in the late 19th century.
According to late Unicoi County historian James Goforth, William McNabb wore many hats. In his book “Erwin Tennessee: A Pictorial History, 1891-1929,” Goforth said McNabb served as Unicoi County clerk, was chairman of the county’s election commission and was a member of the local school board. He was also the operator of a licensed whiskey distillery in the Rock Creek area.
Saloons were legal at that time and such an establishment would have provided McNabb with a convenient locale to move his whiskey. There was just one hitch — only incorporated municipalities could issue licenses for saloons.
Residents of the Rock Creek area took action, perhaps in an effort to assist McNabb with his problem. According to Goforth, on May 7, 1898, Rock Creek citizens voted 33-0 for incorporation of the town of Rock Creek. A charter of its incorporation was issued by the state, a board of mayor and aldermen was elected and, as expected, McNabb received licensure to operate a saloon, which served as the epicenter of the new municipality.
“The saloon became a multipurpose facility, offering a meeting place for fellowship, camaraderie and spirits,” Goforth said in his book. “It also served as the ‘Cave Bluff’ post office and the town hall. The (board of mayor and aldermen) held its meetings there. When the meeting was called to order by the mayor, Jonathan Lafayette Winfield Carathers, everyone had to quiet down and remove their hats; no drinks could be served.”
According to Goforth, the small town of Rock Creek had a single policeman responsible for maintaining the peace and locking up the occasional drunk in a detention facility located behind the saloon. But not all laws were abided by. To get around the federal whiskey tax, a drawer, referred to as a “blind tiger,” was constructed onto the outside wall of the saloon. Patrons looking to imbibe could slide this drawer open, drop some money inside, then close the contraption. Moments later, they could open the drawer to find a pint of untaxed whiskey waiting inside.
“Although McNabb’s place was well patronized by prominent local leaders — including the town doctor, the publisher of the Erwin newspaper, and people from North Carolina — not everyone was happy about the saloon,” Goforth wrote. “Church groups prayed that the ‘evil institution’ would be removed from the community.”
In the early 20th Century, the prohibition movement began to pick up steam and, less than a decade into the new century, only a handful of municipalities in Tennessee had not yet prohibited drinking — whiskey making was no longer legal in Unicoi County. According to Goforth, McNabb sold his saloon and moved north to Virginia, where he could still legally manufacture whiskey.
Once the saloon was sold, it was no longer utilized for its originally intended purpose. Goforth wrote that a Sunday School was held in the former saloon. Eventually, the building was torn apart and donated to build First Missions Church on a lot donated by McNabb in 1909.
“Today, the Rock Creek Presbyterian Church occupies the site, at the corner of Rock Creek Road and East Erwin Road, in a structure build in the 1930s,” Goforth wrote.
While it seemed as though the town dissolved when the saloon was sold in 1908, Goforth said there are no records indicating its disincorporation.
“Apparently, when the saloon closed down, the town ceased to function and passed into time,” he wrote.