“Old 66” is gone from 118, but if you linger long enough, maybe you can still whiff the exotic earthiness of whiskey and stale cigars.
That was Belton’s “aroma” back in those pre-Prohibition days, when horse residue dotted the county seat’s dusty thoroughfares.
Old 66 was a saloon located at 118 N. Main, a modest late Victorian limestone building nudged in a strip of storefronts just a half block from the town square. Records are unclear when the 66 Saloon opened, probably in 1890. Nowadays, it has a brick façade and three arched bay windows.
The failed national Prohibition Era officially began a century ago this month, on Jan. 17, 1920, with the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, thanks to more than a century of forceful leadership of temperance forces — mostly from women and religious leaders.
Prohibition finally ended in December 1933, after many realized that it had only diverted the legal sale of alcohol into the hands of gangsters.
The saloon continued to operate until the temperance movement forced owners to close the doors in 1914, when the Belton Journal moved into the building. From then on, Old 66 lived only in the dissipated memories of its rye-soaked clientele.
Bell County was ahead of the national movement to close down such alcohol emporiums as the Old 66.
In the November 1915 general election, Bell County voters outlawed liquor sales. Beer, wine, spirits — all were to be off the table for New Year’s 1916. Prohibition forces carried the election, and the county went dry.
Gale Harper Townsend (1898-1974), son of an esteemed professor and Baptist minister at Baylor Female College, first related the saga of the 66 Saloon. Townsend never revealed why a preacher’s kid would know about the Belton’s underbelly, but he wrote with authority in the Belton Journal in 1928.
The Old 66 was named after a brand of Cincinnati-brewed whiskey. Just the name aroused fond memories of “the days when the brass rail was kept polished and sawdust sprinkled on the floor in generous quantities to hide the splashed of tobacco juice on the mahogany,” Townsend continued.
Townsend recounted the back story of the building that dated back to Belton’s earliest days. “Although the building has been remodeled, and the front washed by countless rains and storms, the painted words, ‘66 Saloon’ may still be read,” Townsend recalled.
The Belton Journal staff tried to clean up the old saloon when they moved in, but some things lingered.
“In the present age of radio-infected turmoil and gasoline-filled strife, Old 66 has passed to the realm of things that used to be,” Townsend said. “Yet, the paint still clings to the red brick of the wall over The Journal office.”
Back in those days, a lively night in Belton included watching a silent flick at the downtown Opera House (now First Christian Church). After the show, folks would gather in the Old 66 to discuss the hero’s perils and film plots.
Old 66 catered to the more “elite” of Belton’s consumers accustomed to imbibing in “fine wines, likkers and seegars,” as touted by the saloon’s advertising signs on the walls.
However, it wasn’t the only bar in town. Its low-rent competitors were located along “Rat Row” on the town square luring mostly “the country boys and the old bewhiskered gents who came in half frozen in winter or about famished out by the heat of summer,” recalled S. Ada Lasater (1870-1929), reporter for the Temple Daily Telegram and the Belton Journal in the early 1900s.
Rat Row got its name “among the hogs, the hog wallows, the town cows and the hound dogs” that frequented the courthouse square. She declined to name courthouse lawyers, specifically.
Lasater, a spinster with an upright, godly reputation, opined that putting those saloons and hangouts out of business with Prohibition was probably a good move.
“If a man could drink and live alone, his drinking would be a question for him alone,” she said. But, drink drives men to trouble, she added.
“In the 1870s and early 1880s, many were the nights that a heavy pall hung over this city,” she said. “A big crowd in town or a cold day would start many a man to his home at a distance of three to 15 miles while he was thoroughly under the influence of whiskey.”
Quarrels and accidents ensued, “fanned into fury by alcoholic drink.”
A vociferous defender of the 18th Amendment, she threatened to report anyone with “a private jug way out on a lonely mountain in a private domicile where nothing but the whippoorwills wills and the whang-doodle whangs, bothering nobody.”
“Men with good minds and good hearts were made babbling idiots or insane demons….Is it any wonder that our nation was plunged into the bloodshed and the heavy costs of the World War?” Lasater asked.
By 1928, when Townsend and Lasater wrote about the “good ol’/bad ol’ days,” potent potables were only faint memories of Belton as it once was. Prohibition was the law.
Over the years, Old 66’s former site, 118 N. Main, hosted many different businesses and offices. Even by the late 1960s, some claimed they could make out the faint words “Saloon” over the front doorposts.
Old 66 was long gone off the map, but it still lived in the memories of many old-timers who shared secret smiles and knowing winks.
Townsend recalled how passers-by to 118 N. Main would often stop and gaze. “They raised a bottle of red pop with the toast to the departed spirits still hovering near the Old 66.”