Inspired by the speakeasies of Prohibition, “secret” bars have been trending for at least a decade now. In-the-know drinkers access today’s establishments by phone booths, garage doors, basement staircases, even port-a-johns. But what did the original underground bars of the 1920s and 1930s look like? In the foothills and mountains of the South, bar owners sometimes took the “underground” descriptor literally, setting up shop in the region’s plentiful limestone caverns. While some cave clubs, or dance caves, as they were often known, flew under the radar, today we know the stories of a few in Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas.
If you were a Jazz Age entrepreneur looking to build a club on the sly, a cave had plenty to recommend it. The walls and roof were already in place, for one, considerably reducing construction costs. In general, a club owner only had to wire the space for electric lights and finish the cave’s floor. Concrete was a simple option, but some clubs also laid linoleum tile, installed hardwood dance floors, and carpeted entrances. Most of these caves were strategically located: close enough to cities and towns to build a reliable customer base of middle-class patrons, and just out-of-the-way enough to avoid the attention of city police or the expense of city taxes and inspections. In the days before air conditioning, a cave’s most attractive feature was its natural temperature regulation. Many caves in the Southeast and Midwest maintain a constant temperature in the sixties year-round. Sure, the air is a little damp, but imagine the pleasure of sipping an illicit gin in a cool, dimly lit space when it’s ninety degrees outside, then taking a spin across the dance floor before ordering another round. In addition to the refreshing temperatures and the even more refreshing beverages, something about the caves themselves might have contributed to their appeal. Maybe the underground location subtly encouraged illicit behavior. Before spring break became a phenomenon, it’s fun to imagine Prohibition-era Southerners assuring one another, “What happens in the cave stays in the cave.”
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, caves played host to more wholesome activities, too. Sometimes property owners would open for summer picnics and parties, charging a modest admission fee and drawing families from nearby cities. Bands would play dance music, and vendors sold barbecue and soft drinks. This practice became an especially popular pastime in Missouri around the turn of the twentieth century.
Situated at the edge of the Cumberland Plateau, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is home to a network of limestone caves. Over millennia they have been used by every group to inhabit the area, from pre-Columbian Native Americans to twentieth-century revelers. Black Cat Cave functioned as a speakeasy in the 1920s and 1930s. It gained a reputation as a place for drinking, dancing, gambling, and flirting with the opposite sex. The club closed after Prohibition. A new generation of Murfreesboro residents learned about Black Cat Cave’s past quite recently. In 2014, after looters vandalized the cave, archaeologists from Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) arrived to assess the damage and made a breakthrough discovery. In the speakeasy days, club owners had covered the cave’s natural earth floor with a layer of concrete. When the twenty-first-century vandals broke through the concrete, they gave the MTSU archaeologists an excuse to dig deeper. Professors brought in student volunteers to help sift through the debris. Under the concrete dance floor, the team found a Native American burial site dating back some five thousand years. The men and women swigging contraband beer and twirling to big-band hits had been dancing on ancient graves.
North Alabama had its fair share of cave bars as well, from rough to refined. Between Birmingham and Cullman, Blount Springs thrived as a high-end “health resort” in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Tourists arrived from all over the South to stay at the town’s hotel and partake of the sulphur-rich mineral springs. A local entrepreneur recognized the potential and opened a speakeasy in nearby Bangor Cave. The Bangor Café Club offered alcohol, dancing, and gambling during Prohibition. The Blount County sheriff raided the club repeatedly at the behest of the governor, but its owner and its customers were undeterred. While federal prohibition ended in 1933, the state of Alabama did not legalize alcohol until 1937. Blount County stayed dry even after that. The Bangor Café Club persisted as an oasis until a fire destroyed the cave’s interior in 1939.
Perhaps the most impressive of the South’s dance caves was Wonderland Cave in Bella Vista, Arkansas, tucked in the far northwest corner of the state, between Bentonville and the Missouri border. Like Blount Springs, Bella Vista was a resort town, offering lakefront accommodations and recreation in the temperate Ozark hills. In 1929 one of Bella Vista’s owners, a real estate developer from Dallas, toured Europe with his wife. He decided that what Bella Vista needed was a nightclub like the ones he visited in Paris. Upon his return to Arkansas, he oversaw the building of his Euro-chic vision—in a cave. Wonderland adopted an exotic Eastern vibe that was fashionable at the time, hanging Japanese lanterns and serving chow mein and chop suey at the tables and booths that surrounded the dance floor. On opening night in 1930, some four hundred revelers stepped across the carpeted entrance and bellied to the marble-topped bar.
The bummer, for the cocktail historian, is that while descriptions and even some contemporary photos survive from the days of dance caves, cocktail lists do not. Perhaps these clubs chose not to list illegal liquor on their menus. Or perhaps the offerings were so straightforward that they didn’t merit a cocktail list. Whatever the reason, while we know that scofflaws visited these caves to slake their thirst, we don’t know exactly what kind of alcohol they drank. That’s a project for one of today’s historian-mixologists: a menu that imagines the cave cocktails of the 1920s and 1930s. The Black Cat Cobbler. The Wonderland Punch. The Bangor Bathtub Gin. We’ll take an Underground Old-Fashioned, please.
Reprinted from The Southern Foodways Alliance Guide to Cocktails by Sara Camp Milam and Jerry Slater, copyright University of Georgia Press, 2017.