A country club like no other
By Tom Poland
Down near Yemassee is a country club like no other. Harold’s Country Club proclaims that it is “in the middle of nowhere but close to everywhere.” That’s true. You’ll find it off Highway 21 at 97 Highway, 17A. I did when I pulled up in front of a faded sign that’s seen its share of Lowcountry sunlight. Nonetheless it’s colorful. A grill full of ribs, chicken, and a huge steak fill one side, a frosty mug of beer the other, and in the middle a graphic: a circle around a bespectacled Harold and words: “Harold’s Country Club … Bar & Grille, Est. 1973.” The likeness of Harold Peeples looks like a sheriff from a tough county in South Georgia.
At the right, front corner of the building stands an old Fire Chief gas pump. Gives the place character. I walked up to the front glass door with a sky blue paper note stuck to the glass: “Benton’s Fresh Boiled Peanuts.” You could smell salt in the air.
As I stepped inside rules caught my eye. “You are required to pay for every steak you order.” “Please clear table.” In the poolroom, a list served notice that improper behavior would not be tolerated. “No Smoking.” “No Hitting Sticks On Tables.” “No Sitting On Pool Tables.” And then in lowercase: “follow the rules or you will be barred from playing pool.” Over near the bar some advice: “Win or lose, stick with booze.”
Locals heeded that advice. At 3:30 in the afternoon a cast of characters sat around the bar. “Like a scene from Andy of Mayberry,” I mused. On the flatscreen at the bar’s end a NASCAR race was underway. No one paid it any mind. At the bar’s opposite end, a giant plastic parrot on a perch watched the race. Well, it appeared to.
Harold’s is family friendly. That doesn’t preclude a poster in the poolroom of a woman with fabulous legs promoting a vampire movie, Bordello of Blood “Where customers come in, but they don’t come out.”
Well, no worries, you’ll come out of Harold’s Country Club in good shape but know that when you walk in you are stepping in high cotton. A touch of fame attends this venerable old way station. Celebrities have trod here. Harold left us in 2003 but in his day he had a special friendship with movie producer Joel Silver who owns nearby Auldbrass Plantation of Frank Lloyd Wright fame. Joel often stopped by on Sundays to have coffee with Harold.
In 1994, Dennis Hopper transformed Harold’s into a biker’s bar for his movie, Chasers. Coastal Living, Esquire, and Southern Living magazines have all covered Harold’s. Garden & Gun called it one of the best dive bars in the South.
What would become Harold’s Country Cub began in the 1930s as a Chevrolet dealership. Harold Peeples bought what had become a garage and gas station in 1973. In the late 1970s, friends and neighbors began gathering for covered dish suppers on Thursday nights. Over time the group began cooking and eating in the garage to avoid bad weather and infamous Lowcountry gnats and mosquitoes. As gatherings grew, Harold took over the cooking, charging a small amount to cover expenses.
Today, every Thursday features a different meal. Fridays feature “wings and things” and seafood and fish and chicken and steaks and hamburger baskets and extras such as jalapeno poppers, fries, fried mushrooms, hush puppies, onion rings, and more. Saturday nights usher in 12 to 14-ounce choice cut ribeyes. Meals include baked potato, sautéed onions, salad, and roll. Yes, dive right in.
How Harold’s became an eatery is a tale worth telling. In earlier days folks moved cars out of the garage to set up tables and chairs. In time, the cars left for good. The garage’s lube rack is now a “stage” seating area commandeered at times for live music. (Harold built that stage over the “grease rack.” How cool it’d be to see that rack rise with a country band on stage, a platform like no other.)
As the garage evolved into a bar and restaurant, radiator hoses and fan belts stayed put. Gave the walls atmosphere. On May 9, 1999, a fire destroyed the entire bar area, hoses, belts, and all. Harold rebuilt. Friends donated artifacts to help restore the unique décor. A room for extra seating and private parties morphed into the bar, and Harold’s was up and running within a week though two weeks passed before meals could be prepared. Missing the first Thursday potluck proved to be too much. Customers asked Harold if they could bring covered dishes. The food was back and the rest, as they say, is history.
But wait. Hold on. We have one more fish to fry.
What about that name, Harold’s Country Club? Well, a tale’s behind that too. Harold devoted much of his time to baseball and softball. He played, coached, umpired, and supported the local softball team. When that team needed a place to play, Harold and friends formed the Yemassee Athletic Association. They bought land and built a ball field across the road beside what today is the Country Club, known then as Peeples Service Station. After games ended, announcer Charles Jackson had a custom of saying, “Now, let’s all go over to Harold’s Country Club for a cool one.” Soon people started calling the business Harold’s Country Club.
Harold, despite all his rules, had a heart. Rich or poor, he treated folks the same. He had a reputation for helping friends, strangers, and stranded motorists, whoever. He valued good times and wanted everyone to have just that. A good time. But then there were all those rules. He didn’t accommodate tomfoolery. In fact, he banned troublemakers from his old Chevy dealership “for life and a day.”
Folks that sounds a lot like forever, but it wasn’t true. A sincere apology got offenders back through the door. And you know they had to be grateful to be reinstated at Harold’s Country Club down yonder “in the middle of nowhere.” Down yonder where winds stream Spanish moss back like an older woman’s tresses and old oaks tremble when winds stir limbs heavy with resurrection ferns. Down yonder in Spanish Moss Land where a Saturday night carries the aroma of grilling steaks and locals talk about movie stars, old cars, and rules. Lots of rules.Visit Tom Poland’s website at www.tompoland.net Email Tom about most anything. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It, in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II in 2014. The History Press of Charleston published Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia in 2014. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.”