Houston 101: Carrie Nation Comes to Town, Hatchet in Hand

Not who you want to see swinging open your saloon's door.
Not who you want to see swinging open your saloon's door.

The Houston of 1905 was a two-fisted drinking town, with more than 50 saloons servicing a population of 58,000 people.

It so happened that back in 1903, a man named Charles Crook opened one such establishment, and as a raised middle-finger to the age's most formidable anti-alcohol crusader, named his Fifth Ward bar the Carry Nation Saloon. (Both "Carry" and "Carrie" are considered correct spellings of Nation's first name.)

Nation, you'll recall, was the six-foot-tall, 175-pound, hatchet-wielding, whiskey barrel-smashing, glass-shattering temperance terrorist, whose failed first marriage to a drunkard of a doctor, one who drank himself to death, propelled her ultimately to scores of what she called "hatchetations" of saloons. (Her second marriage was to David Nation, a teetotaller. For about ten years, she lived with him in Brazoria and Fort Bend Counties, before his involvement on the losing side of Fort Bend County's 1889 Jaybird-Woodpecker War sent the Nations scuttling back to the relative safety of Kansas. But that's another story.)

Ten years after her return to Kansas, Nation received word from the Lord Himself: She was to kick up her temperance-preaching a notch. Or eleven. No more would it suffice to merely harangue drinkers and greet bartenders in the street with the words "Good morning, destroyer of men's souls."

She would now commence to wrecking shop, and wreck shops she did. Often at the head of a war-band of hymn-singing women, Nation barged into at least 30 taprooms between 1900 and her death in 1910, smashing the fixtures in each while praying and chanting praises all the while.

After dozens of arrests, she was a worldwide celebrity, so Crook, the Fifth Ward saloonkeeper, knew exactly what he was doing in naming his bar after her. (Other saloonkeepers of the time were more wary: many posted signs reading "All Nations save Carrie Welcome in This Bar.")

Ultimately Crook would dodge that bullet, or hatchet, as the case may be. Having escaped Nation's wrath for two years, he sold his pub in 1905 to a man named Joseph Dawson.

By that time, Nation had heard that the place was around, and she was not amused. She reportedly told Dawson to change the bar's name. He failed to do so. Nation slipped a shiny hatchet into her bag and bought herself a ticket on a Bayou City-bound train.

Although Nation had been on a couple of preaching junkets through Houston before, this one would be different. This time, it was personal.

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At 9:30 p.m. on the night before New Year's Eve of 1905, she strode through the swinging doors of her namesake saloon, hatchet in one hand, a brick in the other and righteous fire in her steely eyes.

She hurled the brick past bartender John O'Brien's head and into the mirror behind the bar, sending a deluge of glass cascading on the glittering bottles below. The stunned O'Brien could only watch as the hulking, fanatical woman then demolished a case of whiskey with her axe.

By this time, Dawson had heard the commotion and came running downstairs from what was then a two-story building. (Yes, what was once the Carry Nation Saloon still stands, at the northeast corner of Wood and North San Jacinto Street, albeit minus the top floor.) Although he swore an affidavit to the cops, no charges were ever filed in this incident.

Nation gave her own version of events to the Houston Daily Post. "I requested that my name be taken from the place several months ago, and I told the proprietor that if he did not change the name I would come back and wreck the place. He promised that he would change the name. He failed to do it, and I had but one recourse. I am not a man and could not whip him; I did not want to use a pistol on him, and I simply wrecked the saloon."

See? Simple.

The next day black paint covered the Carry Nation Saloon sign. Some time later, the saloon reopened as the Carnation Saloon. Under the new name the bar outlived Nation, who died in 1910. In 1912, Dawson sold out.

Today, the building (1002 and 1004 N. San Jacinto) houses a funky combination steakhouse/bail-bonds business, though for a time a couple of years back, it did operate as a jazz bar. Perhaps Nation's ghost had something to do with the failure of that enterprise.

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