By: Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
A couple of weeks ago I was coming into the Hitchins Post for lunch when former magistrate Mark Miller stopped me and started teasing that I shouldn’t be there, because it wasn’t curry day. (My abiding love of Parthvi Patel’s chicken curry apparently precedes me.)
After a few minutes of good natured banter, Miller asked me if I knew about the “secret room” in the culvert. Intrigued, I admitted I didn’t, and he preceded to tell me a tale of secret entrances into the basement of an old theater building, moonshiners, and other assorted shenanigans.
If I was interested, he said, I probably needed to get down into the culvert to snap some photos soon – before the culvert replacement destroyed all traces of the hidden space. I was interested, and though I was taking everything Miller told me with a grain of salt (at his own advice), I figured the place to start was with getting permission to hop the barriers and climb down in the hole. I sent an email to the transportation cabinet, but before I got my answer I flagged down the nearest member of the contract crew working the job, who just so happened to be the supervisor. Noting that it was public right-of-way he advised me of their schedule and told me to feel free to check it out before they dug it up.
So, on a weekend before they were set to start digging, I pulled on my muck boots and climbed down a bank, into a hole in the ground, to see what I could see.
The first thing to become apparent was that there was no secret room, not exactly. What you did have in the pit was a small antechamber, created by the void between where the current culverts meet up, the old supporting structure, and the foundation of the old theater.
You could, however, see the yellow-orange brick of that old building. That much of Miller’s story was panning out. But I didn’t see any way you could have gotten into the basement of that old building. I also didn’t think there was enough space in the smaller chamber – little more than a crawlspace really – to distill a batch of liquor.
As it turns out, however, there was more fact in Miller’s story than either of us realized. He’d urged me to seek verification, noting that he’d heard all these tales secondhand, and one of the people he suggested speaking with was Carter County Clerk Mike Johnston.
So, during a recent break in fiscal court for an executive session, I did just that. Johnston confirmed that the building that used to stand in the spot where the Hitchins Post now sits – the Stevens Building – did house a theater, among other businesses. He said there was also at one time a place under the culvert where you could access the building, and that children and teens used to sneak into the theater that way to see movies. Though Johnston had never snuck in that way, he knew of folks who had.
As for the moonshining, while there may or may not have been liquor made in the Hitchins area, Johnston said there was definitely bootlegging going on there back when the entire county was dry. At least some of that booze was sold by a group Johnston called “the Corner Gang,” and they kept part of their supply stashed under the culvert. Johnston explained a purchaser would pull up to the corner, place their order, and the bootlegger would fetch it from the space under the roadway.
It wasn’t just bootlegging this gang got up to either, Johnston noted, explaining they weren’t above other petty crimes. For instance, the theater once played host to bluegrass act Flatt & Scruggs, but the famed duo complained that they had items stolen from their trailer – including their trademark white Stetson hats. And while no one directly blamed the Corner Gang for pilfering the hats, there were a couple of members who showed up shortly thereafter sporting a pair of sharp, white Stetson hats, he said.
While the theater eventually closed, the building remained for some time, Johnston said, before being torn down prior to the building of the current gas station on the site. The last remnants of that old building, flakes of crumbled yellow-orange brick, can now be seen on the edge of the Hitchins Post parking lot. But the rest – like the Corner Gang, and Flatt’s and Scruggs’ lost Stetsons – is now just stories and memories of a time gone by.
Still, I’m glad I climbed down in the ditch and got a look at it before it was gone. And next time I hear a moonshine song, I’ll think of that hidden space under the road.
Jeremy D. Wells can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org