By Danny Crownover
Robert “Bob” Barton was believed to have been born during 1843 in Ireland. He operated the first sea food restaurant in Gadsden and was the first to bring in oysters. Old Bob, as he was sometimes known, was the all-time blind tiger king of Gadsden and Etowah County.
Barton struck it lucky when he drew a prize of $2,000 cash in the old Louisiana lottery of 1883. He was advertising that he had started a shoe shop and a barber shop in the front end of his “Horace Greely” house. The businesses actually were fronts for his blind tiger in the old B.B. Whorton mansion located on Third Street just back of the former Dobson store that once stood on the northwest corner of Broad and Third streets.
Barton advertised this way: “Go to elder Bob Barton for your fine lemons, oranges and cocoanuts. A few slices of his tropical fruits will make a lean man fat, a poor man rich, cure the mumps or the whooping cough and make you too honest to suck borrowed eggs or steal from your mother-in-law.” Barton did not advertise his wines, liquors or other intoxicating beverages but sold them in great quantities.
Barton, who conducted an oyster saloon and a blind tiger on Broad Street, flung a beautiful flag of Auld Erin to the breeze on March 17, 1882. He never failed to pay due respect to Ireland’s patron saint, St. Patrick. When the day rolled around, Barton’s little cafe was crowded with friends from dawn until far into the night, for he could beat the world in frying oysters and broiling steaks.
Most of the Third Street side of the block was taken up by Barton’s big two-story colonial home, which used to belong to R.B. Whorton and had been abandoned in the 1870s. Carrie Berlin, and later Sal Sugarfoot, operated a disorderly house in the stately mansion.
Still later, Barton used the premises for the biggest and most notorious blind tiger ever in the city. He called it the Horace Greely House, and a huge banner stretched across Third Street proclaimed it as such in three-foot letters.
There have been many big raids over the years on illicit liquor manufacturers and dealers in Etowah County but none of them was more spectacular or more interesting than the one in the early 1880s that wrecked the blind tiger conducted by Bob Barton in a colonial mansion on Third Street between Broad and Locust streets.
Barton, who conducted a blind tiger in the Whorton old mansion on North Third Street, permitted poker and dice games in his establishment. The backyard was surrounded by a high board fence and a doorman out in front saw that only “members of the club” gained admittance. There were wicket gates at various intervals through which the helpers delivered whiskey. Old Bob was never seen by the customers, except the nabobs who refreshed themselves in the parlor of an old colonial mansion.
A big raid was staged by 21 voluntary policemen, young men who stood high in business and social circles. Although they received no pay, the young men were sworn officers of the law and wore badges and carried clubs. This volunteer group soon began to work on old Bob. They staged raids, collected evidence and soon had Barton in jail, but the only charges against him – 56 of them – were for violating the prohibition law.
Gambling paraphernalia was found in various upstairs and downstairs rooms, but the doorman always was able to warn the gamblers of a raid.
Some officers were afraid of Barton. They expected trouble, possibly a battle, but when told that the object of the visit was to destroy his stock of goods, old Bob merely said, “Go ahead.”
Barrels, kegs, jugs and bottles were seized and hauled in two wagons to the northwest corner of Locust and Fourth streets, where with much ceremony and under an armed guard, Barton’s whiskey, wine, beer, ale and bitters were emptied into the gutter. Hundreds of gallons of the stuff were poured out, and the event was watched with mingled emotions on the part of bystanders as the liquid rushed down the ditch toward the depot of the Tennessee & Coosa Railroad.
For many years afterwards, the 21 young volunteers made up of doctors, lawyers, merchants, editors, clerks and the like, talked of the raid. It was the opinion of all of them that the raid was potentially one of the most dangerous ever attempted in Etowah County up to that time.
The matter soon went to court, with Judge Turnley who had moved to Gadsden from Cedar Bluff where he was prominent in Cherokee County legal and newspaper circles, presided. Just before the advent of prohibition, Barton had employed the judge as his attorney, paying him a retainer in advance.
Turnley was chairman of the county prohibition campaign committee and was as dry as a desert, but when Bob was indicted 36 times for violating the prohibition law he waded in and defended Barton so ably that Bob was acquitted of most, if not all, of the charges.