The Ohio Club at 336 Central Avenue in Hot Springs (Garland County) is considered Arkansas’s oldest continually operating bar. It was founded by John “Coffee” Williams and his nephew, Sam Watt, in 1905. It became a popular watering hole and meeting place for notorious figures such as Al Capone, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, as well as local legends like Owen “Owney” Madden and Arkansas gambling czar William Stokley Jacobs. The Ohio Club has never closed its doors despite bans on both gambling and alcohol. The Ohio Club was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Hot Springs Central Avenue Historic District on June 25, 1985.
In 1905, Coffee Williams and Sam Watt founded the Ohio Club as a bar and casino. Reportedly, the bar was named the Ohio Club because their family had roots in Illinois, Kentucky, and Ohio, but both the Illinois Club and Kentucky Club had already been established. The Ohio Club had in-house gaming and a full bar, attracting many patrons on both sides of the law.
However, the Arkansas General Assembly made gambling illegal in 1913, and the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919 outlawed the production, sale, and distribution of intoxicating beverages nationwide. In response, the Ohio Club officially became the Ohio Cigar Store, which was a front with a fake wall. Behind the wall, the bar was on the main floor, while the gaming tables operated upstairs. Advertisements for the Ohio Cigar Store featured two different phone numbers, 210 and 211, respectively. Singer Al Jolson performed at the Ohio Club in 1915, and baseball legend Babe Ruth frequented the club. President Theodore Roosevelt was said to have visited on occasion.
Gambling and drinking continued at the Ohio Club. During the Prohibition era (until 1933), Hot Springs was frequented by many well-known gangsters. Al Capone and Lucky Luciano visited the Ohio Club to meet local bookies; Luciano reportedly met with Hot Springs’s chief of detectives Herbert “Dutch” Akers near the Ohio Club. In the 1920s, William Stokley Jacobs—who owned an interest in the Kentucky, Ozark, White Front, Southern, and Belvedere clubs in Hot Springs—partnered with Ohio Club owners Williams and Watt.
The Ohio Club was raided by local officials many times, although it was sometimes just for show. In 1946, however, Arkansas prosecuting attorney Sid McMath closed all the gambling houses in Hot Springs. After McMath was elected governor in 1948, his colleagues were voted out of the local government and the gaming resumed.
Beginning in 1958, the City of Hot Springs decided to tax gambling and liquor operations at clubs like the Ohio. The state ruled the tax unconstitutional, but the New York Times reported in 1964 that the gamblers and bootleggers of Hot Springs ignored the ruling and paid the tax anyway. Money raised from these taxes was used to improve the city and establish good public relations between the club owners and the community.
In 1975, the Hill Wheatley Trust purchased the Ohio Club. In 2010, real estate broker Mike Pettey purchased the business. He and his wife, Dona Pettey, reinvented the Ohio Club as a bar and restaurant. In 2016, they purchased the building from the Wheatley Trust. Dona is lead singer of the Ohio Club Players, the club’s house band.
The Ohio Club is known for its massive 1880s-era mahogany backbar, which was acquired by the original owners from Cincinnati, Ohio. It was allegedly sent down the Arkansas River on a barge to Memphis, Tennessee, where it was shipped by train to Malvern (Hot Spring County) and made its way to Hot Springs on a custom-built horse-pulled wagon. The entire front of the club was removed and later rebuilt just so the bar could be installed. The bar is decorated with hand carvings of horse heads and half-naked women. The interior of the Ohio Club is filled with gambling and gangster-related artifacts, such as photographs of Al Capone and tables made from roulette wheels. There is a stage upstairs where the Ohio Club Players perform several times a week.
The Ohio Club is situated between the Thompson Building, designed by George Mann, and the Plaza Hotel building on Central Avenue. Its exterior, which has not changed much since its creation, features an A-frame roof with a rounded dome-shaped portico below the roof line on the front façade. It is decorated with a line of circular pieces accented by a blue background above five triple-pane windows with arched top pieces to accommodate the hemispherical “dome” above them. Below the windows on the rounded portico are five decorative panels, each with three circular pieces in a line. These pieces are painted white and sit on a blue background. The “dome” is painted to look like gold and sits on a blue background. Four large windows below the rounded portico showcase neon signs, and below them are more windows and the entrance. Outside the club is a bench with a life-sized statue of Al Capone sitting on it.
For additional information:
Albritton, Orval E. The Mob at the Spa: Organized Crime and its Fascination with Hot Springs, Arkansas. Hot Springs: Garland County Historical Society, 2011.
Ohio Club. http://www.theohioclub.com (accessed September 25, 2018).
“Ohio Club.” Local (January/February 2006): 5.
Robinson, Kat. “The Ohio Club, Arkansas’s Oldest Bar.” Tie Dye Travels with Kat Robinson, January 3, 2016. http://www.tiedyetravels.com/2016/01/ohio-club.html (accessed September 25, 2018).
Turner, Wallace. “Hot Springs: Gamblers’ Haven.” New York Times, March 8, 1964. Online at https://www.nytimes.com/1964/03/08/archives/hot-springs-gamblers-haven-wideopen-casinos-flout-laws-under-eyes.html (accessed September 25, 2018).
Cody Lynn Berry