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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Incident at the White Oak Inn

We've been talking about Joe Blees here on the Blog. Today, I thought I would present a heretofore unpublished story involving Joe Blees and another of New Gretna's colorful characters, Hillary "Sach" Robbins. It was written and illustrated by the Herrintown Poet who is a contributor to the "Bass River Gazette" and a welcomed member of our informal historical group here in Bass River. The story deals with Joe's running the White Oak Inn during Prohibition.

The Herrintown Poet often takes liberties with the spelling of names. They are often spelled phonetically. Call it poetic license. For instances, Joe "Blees" is spelled Joe "Bleeze", but they are the same person.

The Incident at the White Oak Inn

by the Herrintown Poet

[A true story as I heard it from Ferron Lamson who was an eye witness the night of the incident. It took place at the time of Prohibition.]

The Inn

The White Oak Inn wasn’t much, even as speak ease’s go, but it was convenient. The Inn was a large two story house and stands back a piece off the road that runs down to Bucto and within sight of the draw bridge on the Bass River. The house had been built by a family of sea faring men back in the days when these men made their fortunes sailing their sloops weighed down with cargoes of white cedar lumber cut from the near by swamps and charcoal from the burn pits on the pine wood plains. They sailed as far as the islands in the south, where they traded for barrels of rum, sugar, and molasses on their return trip to Jersey.

One can still sense the ghostlike forms of these seafaring men who once walked the sanded board floors in the old house. The faded grandeur of the old place could be seen in the imposing entrance and foyer. A short corridor below the stairs connected the entrance hall with the dinning room where a brass chandelier was suspended from the plaster ceiling medallion, and a yellowed Italian painting of a reclining nude hung over the mantel, reminders of the once elegant style of this old house.

Joe Baleeze, the owner, had transformed the old place’s atmosphere into the dim gloom and musty smell of a road house. The once elegant dinning room had been converted into a make shift barroom with several small tables scattered about. It’s been said of this speakeasy that strong men have been knocked off their feet by the forceful odor of stale beer and cigar smoke that poured out to great you whenever the door opened.

It was here in the White Oak Inn that Joe Baleeze dispensed his bathtub beer and hard liquor from two o’clock in the afternoon till breakfast the next morning. The innkeeper was scarecrow thin with a dark complexion and black hair styled in a pompadour with a pair of carefully trimmed sideburns. This roadside saloon keeper charged customers a steep one dollar for a water glass of hard liquor. His motto could be seen tacked on the wall. It read “U-Pay Before We Pour.”

The Inn with its sparse furnishings and meager menu of fat pork fried to a sandy crispness and hard baked, indigestible biscuits held one novel attraction that always charmed the visitor to the White Oak Inn. It was Presto the monkey. Joe Baleeze had acquired the pet from two Greek sailors he met on the Camden waterfront. They were stranded and in need of money so the seal was struck, and Presto wound up in the White Oak Inn with a new owner.

The Inn Keeper was greatly proud of Presto, his prize monkey whose antics and skill were renowned throughout Herrintown. The exploits of this wiry animal had gained him a reputation for craftiness that made him a valued amusement for the Inn. He was a strange looking buff yellow, short haired beast with a long tail and powerful chest. He had a flat sooty face with a squashed nose, all puckered and wrinkled, and his eyes were red rimmed. Presto was indeed a knight among monkeys and the delight of all the visitors to the inn.


The patrons of this roadhouse were unspeakably crude folk you would not find in the polite circles of Herrintown society. Satch, or Satchmo as he was known here in Herrintown, was a loyal patron of the White Oak Inn and fit in just fine with the Saturday night crowd. Satch was famous in his corner of the world. In Herrintown you could hear plenty of stories about Satch, all of them liberally laced with fancies about his exploits.

Satch was a big, raw boned man, a shade under six feet tall with a brick red face and deep set gray eyes that some men swore were the coldest they had ever seen. He was broad at the hips and had an unsteady gait that made him wobble as he walked. He was all bone and sinew with no cushion of fat on him tosuggest a life of ease, a lean, long shanked man. He walked everywhere at high speed, and his habitual pose was to thrust his left hand into the pocket of his coat and to smooth his hair back with quick strokes of his right hand. He had a personality like a beartrap and a reputation of settling scores in his favor by whatever means he thought fit the game.

Satch was a champ-een at everything – singing, dancing, whiskey drinking, cussin, and fighting. But with all his reputation for rowdiness, he had a sense of humor that made him popular. He was a man’s man for sure.

Satch Shows Up

It was late by the time Satch showed up at the front door of the White Oak Inn. He had just finished off two quarts of white muscatel that afternoon, giving him a head start on the regular crowd that evening. As the door swung open, every eye turned toward the familiar figure framed in the doorway. Satch was wearing his old blue suit and snap brim hat. Peering through the blue haze, he made his way quickly to a table around which sat half a dozen men sipping sour mash whiskey from tall glasses.

Satch pulled up a chair and joined the circle. He dug out a crumpled dollar bill from his pocket and dropped it on the table. The inn keeper moved across the room with a straw covered jug of hand pumped well water under his arm and a black bottle of sour mash whiskey in his hand. He poured Satch’s glass full to the brim. Satch tossed the whiskey back, held his breath til he coughed and water filled his eyes, and wiped his chin off with the back of his hand. He hunched up to the table, rolled a cigarette, took a kitchen match from his shirt pocket, and struck it against the table. R-R-atch ! It sputtered and burned. He cupped it in his hand, lit the cigarette, stuck it in the corner of his mouth and watch the smoke curl up.

The conversation around the table was frivolous and free, and the boys got to joshing each other. By this time Satch was beginning to feel his liquor. He leaned eagerly across the table to join the boys. Well, something was said that hit Satch’s funny side, so he laid back and laughed.

Meanwhile, Presto was providing the entertainment for the guests, skipping lightly from table to table. Whether he was jumping from excitement or nervousness or from the effect of the stuff he had drunk, for it was considered great fun to pour the monkey a few spoons of whiskey in a glass and watch him drink it down and lick his wiskers, is not known.

Whatever made the monk jump onto the table where Satch and the boys were seated, no one can say, but nobody was prepared for the chaos that followed. Presto, with all his cunning, slipped his paw with an eel like move into Satch’s coat pocket, feeling around for loose coins. Satch’s mouth curled in a smile as a thought came to him that brought him to his feet with a jerk. “Ha, Ha!,” he laughed, as he reached out with his callused hand and grabbed the monkey by the tail and pulled him up at arms length. He then whirled the monk roughly in a circle through the air, dashing the poor beast against the lighted chandelier.

In an instant bedlam let loose as everyone tore for cover. The atmosphere was filled with ear piercing shrieks and jarring sounds. The brass chandelier laid scattered over the floor. The monkey had hit the wall with a thud and slid in a heap to the floor, stunned and quiet.

Satch Makes His Getaway

With a sudden both, Satch gained the door and made his getaway. In the dark of night he didn’t notice the two steps down. He walked into the air, hit the ground, staggered, and pitched forward, sliding head first on his knees and elbows, half way under the parked model A Ford. He stood up, leaned on the hood to regain his balance, and quickly vanished from sight, headed toward town.

At the Bridge

It was a warm, sticky night, hot for late May. Everything was silent and dark. Russell, the bridge tender, was leaning lightly on the rail. All of a sudden he was interrupted by a noise. He leaped at the sound. “Hi!” , he called out. “What’s that?” Not receiving any answer, he stumbled into the road. A dark figure was passing, feet going Plop – pity – plop. Satch yelled back over his shoulder, “A crazy man is chasing me with a butcher Knife.” The bridge tender watched bewildered as the lone figure disappeared in the dark.

Back at the Inn

There was a lot of racket going on back at the inn. The crowd was slowly coming out from under cover, including the inn keeper who gathered up the monkey from off the floor, slung him across his shoulder and started for the door. The crowd followed. They were stumbling and talking together, laughing and making big circle with their arms in the air over their heads to illustrate how Satch had wreaked the place. All were wondering what he was going to do about the chandelier being ruined.

“There’s nothing to be feared about.” Joe Baleeze uttered these consoling remarks in a very confident tone, but he could not keep from taking unusual care to the fastening of the doors that night, and he carefully cleaned and loaded the old rusty shot gun which hung upon the wall of the front room.

A Few Weeks Later

Well, that’s about all there is to tell, except that a couple of weeks later Satch was in Levi’s Barber Shop in his usual chair, the green one with the straw bottom, next to the spittoon. He was leaning back against the wall, his hat pulled down low on his head, glancing through The Police Gazette.

“Satch.”, Levi said, “You sure keep this town in an uproar. I bet there’s more laughing done here then any town its size in America.” Satch looked up over the paper with a smile as big as six bits.

The End

* * * * * * * * * * *

The Herrintown Poet's story is more about Sach Robbins than Joe Blees; however, it supports what we already know about Joe and fleshes out his New Gretna persona. Note that the Herrintown Poet's mentioning of Joe getting Presto on the Camden waterfront is consistent with Joe's draft card, in Wednesday's Blog, which documents that Joe worked in the Camden shipyards. The Herrintown Poet is right on target, as usual.

As I've said, Sach is an interesting character. Perhaps, we'll talk more about him at another time. Most of his exploits that I am familiar with deal with the dark side of his character which makes writing about him somewhat problematical, as I won't want to embarrass or offend any surviving family members. Those of you out in the Blog-O-Sphere who are familiar with Sach know my delima. Receiving some amusing stories about him might help balance any future account. I hope I receive a few.

Pete S

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