One Degree of Separation: Charleston, The Giants Causeway, The Little Giant and the Oldest Distillery In The World.
Behind the fence and up on the porch at Hibernian Hall is an unusual monument. If you don't know to look for it or glance over at the wrong angle, you will easily pass it by without noticing. It’s a pillar of joined stone, shored up by a small wrought-iron fence. One of the rocks is inscribed-
“A section from one of the pillars of the Giants Causeway
County Antrim, Ireland.
Why was this heavy stone carried across such a vast distance to be placed in front of a building in Charleston? To answer that question we must back at its history. Hibernian Hall was built in 1840, as the headquarters of an Irish benevolent society founded in 1801.
Besides hosting balls, dinners and other charitable functions it was an important part of the infamous 1860 Democratic Convention in Charleston. Delegates representing Stephen Douglas, who debated famously with future President Abraham Lincoln, used Hibernian Hall for their headquarters and lodgings. Douglas’ nickname because of his stature, but powerful oratory was “The Little Giant.”
Ultimately, Southern and northern democrats split over the mention of the topic of slavery on the party platform. A second convention would be called a few months later in Baltimore to try to mend the political damage. It didn’t help; their votes remained divided and the Republicans with Lincoln at the helm captured the White House.
Hibernian Hall remains the only standing building in Charleston with a tie to one of the most crucial political assemblies in the history of the United States (There is a recent historical marker in front of the former Secession Hall site a block north). The building was heavily damaged by the earthquake of 1886. It was repaired and remains an active fellowship and popular spot for receptions. The stone out front is dated 1851, likely the date it was brought into Charleston. Thus, it would have been in the city during these events. I am unable to document when the stone moved into its current place, however. A glance at photographs from the Civil War and 1886 earthquake do not show it in its familiar spot. At best I can say post-earthquake, but likely 20th century.
Given the Irish heritage of the Hibernians it is understandable a piece of the homeland would be sought-after relic. As a pub guy I was very interested in the “County Antrim” connection. On the 20th April 1608, King James I granted “a licence was granted to Sir Thomas Phillips to make, draw and distil uisce beatha within the territory called the Rowte in County Antrim.” A translation of that from ye olde speak is “On 20th April, King James I granted Sir Thomas Phillips - landowner and Governor of Co. Antrim Ireland – a license to distil.”
The result of this license is Bushmills Irish Whiskey. The actual Bushmills trademark comes about in 1784. Debate rages, as it often does when “The Oldest” title is applied to anything, but Bushmills claims, due to that 1608 license to be the oldest distillery in the world. Whatever the case may be, it can be more certainly claimed that it is the oldest legal whiskey distillery in Ireland and the only one still open to the public (in Ireland). In 2006 The New York Times hailed Bushmills malt as the best Irish Whiskey.
So there you have it - One Degree of Separation: Charleston, The Giants Causeway, The Little Giant and the Oldest Distillery In The World. I will be be posting more "One Degree" blog entries soon- so please come back and check it out! Cheers!
Call us at (843) 353-3103 or book tickets online for more history and lore (and maybe some Bushmills)!
On his path to the Presidency Abraham Lincoln held many jobs. He worked as laborer, surveyor, clerk, postmaster, and a brief stint in the militia as a soldier. In 1832 Lincoln and William Berry, a friend and from his military service, opened a small shop in New Salem, Illinois.
Being in largely rural area they carried such staples as lard, bacon, firearms, and honey. Of course, alcohol was also part of the inventory. Gin, whiskey, peach brandy, beer, cider, wine and whiskey could be purchased at their establishment. The term “Grocery Store” or “Groceries” were used on the frontier to describe places where drinks less than a quart and could be consumed on the premises. It appears that Lincoln and Berry had a license for a tavern (which covered the shop), but not a grocery.
Despite having grown up in a society where drinking was firmly entrenched, Lincoln disliked alcohol. He also had no aptitude for the business. He spent more time reading or swapping stories with customers, then seriously tending the shop. There are stories of potential customers finding the place locked and having to find and retrieve Lincoln from a spot nearby where he was working math or poring over some volume.
Lincoln’s associate was not up to the task either. Berry was, by all accounts, an alcoholic. He drank while minding the shop, and ran up debts. The two had planned to build a tavern to supplement the shop, but this never came to fruition. In 1833 Lincoln sold his share to Berry and moved on to role of postmaster of New Salem.
Further bad business deals and Berry’s death in 1835 saddled Lincoln with the debt from his former venture. It would not be until 1848 that he paid off the balance. He referred to the cumbersome payments as his “National Debt.”
Political opponent Stephen Douglas tried to use this against Lincoln during a debate. Douglas sarcastically referred to his first meeting with Lincoln’s had been across the counter of a general store where liquor was sold and concluded his remarks by saying that “And Mr. Lincoln was a very good bartender, too.”
Lincoln replied by saying “What Mr. Douglas has said, gentlemen, is true enough: I did keep a general store and sold cotton and candles and cigars and sometimes whiskey, but I particularly remember that Mr. Douglas was one of my best customers. Many a time I stood on one side of the counter and sold whiskey to Mr. Douglas on the other side. But now there’s a difference between us: I have left my side of the counter, but he sticks to his as tenaciously as ever!”
In August, 1778 local businessman Edward McCrady made a career change. His previous occupation had been as a barber, which in colonial America, also implied medical services, such as dentistry. With the purchase of land in Unity Alley, he became a waterfront tavern owner.
This was a turbulent time for Charleston; it was two-years after the Declaration of Independence and the colonies were still fighting for their independence. McCrady’s tavern became a popular spot for the city’s elite to discuss politics, current events, and socialize. As a member of the militia, Mr. McCrady would also champion the cause on the battlefield. When Charleston was captured by the British in May, 1780 McCrady was taken prisoner and shipped to St. Augustine with others viewed as potential threats to the Crown.
McCrady survived this hardship and had his property restored at the end of the American Revolution. In 1788 he improved the tavern by constructing a second building, connected by a second story double piazza. This “Long Room” became a popular spot for theater, concerts and other civic entertainments. There are quite a number of Revolutionary War era buildings in Charleston, but McCrady’s is the only one that can boast an intact Long Room.
On May 7, 1791 President George Washington was the esteemed guest of honor at McCrady’s. The Society of Cincinnati, formed by former officers of the Continental Army, hosted the Commander in Chief in high style. The Long Room was done up with a display of plants and a choir brought in for musical entertainment. Washington dined on a thirty-course meal punctuated by frequent toasts. Cannons stood on the nearby street, manned by the Charleston Artillery, were fired each time a toast was made to the President. Upon hearing the booming salutes those who were not in attendance could hoist their glasses and toast Washington too! There were at “least fifteen toasts” that night (which means they stopped counting). Washington was no slouch when it came to drinking, so I'm sure he held his own!
After McCrady’s death in 1801, the property passed through many owners who used it for various purposes, including a French coffee house and warehouse. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, but it was not until 1982 when the derelict building was restored. In 2006, new owners made further renovations to return the tavern back to its’ original grandeur. It remains a nationally recognized fine dining restaurant and voted best wine bar in the Southeast!
This is a copy of the speech I gave this past 4th of July on the front of the Old Exchange Building. I worked as Operations Assistant at this historic site from 2009-2015, and although no longer part of the staff, hope to continue to give a history of this historic day in Charleston.
On May 12, 1780 Charleston was captured and occupied. The patriot defenders had put up a gallant defense, enduring the longest siege of the American Revolution. Shortly after the capture, patrols swept through the city, arresting those deemed as threats to the crown.
On their list was Johnathan Milner, a gunsmith with known patriot sympathies. In the early morning, before the family had risen, the British came to his household. Soldiers pounded on the front door, demanded that it be opened and Johnathan Milner come forth. Pressing business had carried him elsewhere; only his four daughters and son were present.
The soldiers barged into the house, brandishing muskets and bayonets. They ordered the terrified children to tell them the location of their father. Enraged by their silence, one of the soldiers angrily thrust his bayonet at Milner’s young son. His sister, fourteen year old Martha came to his defense. She stepped in front of her little brother to shield him, throwing her arms around him. She took the wound intended for him; the bayonet cut her deep over her eye.
The British left to continue their search for her father, but Martha would carry the scar above her eye for the rest of her life. Soldiers did eventually find and arrest Jonathan Milner and imprisoned him in the cellar dungeon beneath the Exchange Building.
The dungeon held fellow patriots and the citizens of Charleston who had become political prisoners. Former British soldiers jailed for their crimes and the criminals of the town were also held together in this common space. About sixty people were packed into a spot that could comfortably hold twenty. Illnesses were rampant in this damp, over crowed dungeon. According to one account, the prisoners were given “…water and food scarce enough for a child.”
Aware of these conditions, the teenaged Martha came in the face of the enemy to check on her father. She was able to converse with him through iron bars over the windows. Hidden in her pockets, she brought from home, as much boiled rice as she could carry. When the jailer’s attention was elsewhere she would hand her father the rice through the bars. No doubt this precious food helped to keep him alive during his captivity.
Sadly, the Milner’s story is not unique. There are others like it to be found, some here in this dungeon. Others prisoners were kept on the verge of starvation, in rags, aboard the British prison ships floating in the harbor. Despite this horrific suffering most of these men never turned, they never switched allegiance, even when offered a chance at clothing, food and a guarantee that they would fight for the King in some remote part of the world, away from the judgment of their countrymen.
For people like the Milner’s their cause is what sustained them; gave them strength to endure these unimaginable hardships. Look through the speeches, letters and diaries of those patriots from the Revolutionary period and you will find one word, and thought, echoed over and over again- LIBERTY. The Declaration of Independence is the summation of this pursuit of liberty.
Four years before the Milner Family began its’ ordeal, back before the fall of Charleston, the Declaration arrived to this bustling port. It was on Friday August 2, 1776 when a courier brought the unsigned copy into Charleston.
On the following Monday, August 5th, the presence of this document was formally announced. President John Rutledge of South Carolina summoned the regiment of the town. At 12 o’clock they were paraded, muskets shouldered, marching in step down Broad Street. Where the columns of soldiers came to a halt is not definitely stated, but tradition places it at the intersection of Broad and Meeting. In all probability it was where the County Courthouse sits today, but in 1776 Charleston was the capitol, and this building served as the Statehouse.
President Rutledge, accompanied by Major General Lee went to the head of the regiment. In formal procession followed Brigadiers Howe and Armstrong, members of the Privy Council, Legislative Council, Members of the House & Officers of the Army.
Thus gathered, the Declaration was first read publicly in Charleston. Who read it is also not noted, but it is thought President Rutledge would have performed this ceremonial duty. This gathering proceeded to the steps of the Exchange, where we are now gathered, and the Declaration read a second time.
Just 5 years old at the time, the New Exchange Building and Customs House was the commercial, cultural and political center of Charleston. Hundreds of people stood shoulder to shoulder on the same space you now occupy, straining to hear the words of the Declaration. This may have been the second place in Charleston where the Declaration was read, but it would be for many the very first time that they would hear these words, words powerful enough to define the great conflict they were engaged in.
When the reading concluded, huzzas and cheers split the air. Cannons boomed in salute from Granville’s Bastions and from Broughton’s Bastions placed near what we call the Battery today. Later that evening the Declaration was copied and printed, and read to the other Patriot forces encamped nearby. Troops on Fort Johnson stationed on James Island, and Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island would hear the Declaration on the 6th of August. On another occasion Major Barnard Elliott read the Declaration at the Liberty Tree near present day Calhoun and East Bay.
Reflecting on Monday the 5th, William Tennent III, who served as the minister of the Independent or Congregational Church in Charleston, remarked in his diary “This seems to be designed as a most important epoch in the history of South Carolina & from this day it is no longer to be considered as a colony but as a state.”
Four years later in 1780, the British captured Charleston and the spot where liberty was once proclaimed so proudly was now a dungeon.
Although imprisoned, the Patriots did not forget the promise of the Declaration. Nor did their families, who suffered in their absence. The thoughts and sentiments of that historic document remained with them in their darkest hours. They would see it through, no matter the sacrifice and use it build the greatest nation on earth.
You are about to hear the words that inspired our ancestors to face down a King, a tyrant backed by the most powerful military force in the world. Scar above her eye, rice in her pockets, Martha Milner embodied the strength that allowed the revolutionaries, against all odds, to seize liberty. This freedom was not just a blessing for themselves, it comes up through the ages, to us their living descendants.
I am honored to be up with these men and women- veterans, descendants of the Revolutionaries, and keepers of our history, as we once again present the Declaration of Independence to Charleston.
Michael D. Coker is a Charleston native, published author, and licensed tour guide. He has worked in local museums for 15 years, and has developed a reputation for his extensive knowledge of history. You can reach Michael by email by clicking on the links above.