Uncovering historic roots of Roc’s

A herd of silhouetted horses race across a glass light panel, casting an amber glow that fights to illuminate the dim interior of Roc’s Blackfront Restaurant & Lounge, owned by Mike Knoop at 410 Sixth Street.

The evident speed of these dark horses hints at the fast-paced and often-hidden life of the building’s past.

Originally designated Lot 10, Block 4 in the original city plan for Charleston, the current location of Roc’s Blackfront was the birthplace of The Charleston Courier in 1841, only two years after Charleston was incorporated as a town.

A team of horses trudged through mud and dirt to heave the printing equipment from Shelbyville to the publication, lying along what was then a dirt lane named Jackson Street.

After 76 years of service, The Charleston Courier moved across the street in 1917, allowing numerous businesses to fill its void, said Bill Lair, a retired reporter for the Mattoon Journal-Gazette and Charleston Times Courier.

These businesses included W.R. Colby’s Plumbing Shop, Charles Crowder’s Paint Store with Pearl Brading and a shoemaker.

Also, among these new businesses was the Red Front Saloon, owned by Willis W. McClelland.

However, with the advent of Prohibition in 1919, the Red Front Saloon soon took on the name Willis W. McClelland’s Café, Knoop said; although, Knoop contends that the change of name and Prohibition did not impede the selling of alcohol under the noses of city officials just a few doors down at the courthouse.

“I’m sure everybody knew, but I don’t think it really mattered,” Knoop said about the illegal selling of alcohol in McClelland’s Café.

The location of Charleston between the bustling cities of Chicago and St. Louis made the city a hot-spot for illegal activity then and in the coming decades, Knoop said.

Property records indicate that McClelland sold his café in 1931 to Hank O’Day, who soon named his business Hank O’Day’s Tavern in 1932 after the repeal of Prohibition.

Alcohol began to flow legally once more downstairs, but what took place upstairs was another story.

As Knoop explained, O’Day ran a “big time” gambling operation above his tavern.

Along with roulette, poker and craps, the tavern also operated slot machines and a bookmaking operation.

O’Day’s Tavern was also linked directly to all the major racetracks across the United States, Knoop said. Individual light bulbs were labeled with the names of races that would glow to signify a race had begun, and ticker tape constantly spit out race results.

Occupying an entire wall downstairs was a totals board where race results could be chalked up and clients could analyze their bets.

Since gambling was illegal in Illinois at the time, O’Day took sly measures to ensure he never got caught.

While remodeling, Knoop uncovered a buzzer system under the bar that ran upstairs.

When the bartender got word of a possible raid, Knoop said he would sound the buzzer and workers upstairs would stow away all the slot machines and any evidence of gambling inside a narrow middle floor.

“As far as I know, they always had advanced warning of anything that was going on,” Knoop said. “I don’t think anybody messed with them too much.”

When O’Day was not tending to his bar and keeping his upstairs enterprise under wraps, he was working in his garage behind the tavern.

Bob Lawrence, an auto racing historian, said O’Day was an avid race fan who owned several sprint cars, including one built in Los Angeles for $20,000 he named the Offy.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates that the Offy would cost more than $300,000 today with inflation.

“(The O’Day Offy) was the talk of the racing community nationwide before it ever turned a wheel on a track,” Lawrence wrote on his webpage, winfield.50megs.

O’Day hired George “Joie” Chitwood to drive the Offy to victory in numerous races across the United States.

“It tore up the race tracks all around here,” Knoop said.

When the Offy wasn’t being raced, O’Day parked his pride at the entrance of his tavern, chrome glistening off of nearly every visible surface.

Knoop said most townspeople and officials likely knew how O’Day could afford such a lavish vehicle, but no one ever seemed to investigate the matter too closely.

After remodeling his tavern with a new bar and black marble front in 1947, O’Day renamed his bar the Blackfront.

The name lived on after O’Day sold the bar to Roscoe “Rocky” Brooks in 1961, who named the bar Roc’s Blackfront, Knoop said.

After the business changed hands several times between 1972 and 1996 and two buildings were annexed, Knoop bought the condemned building as it was slated to be demolished.

“It was a piece of history I just couldn’t see go away,” Knoop said.

Knoop renovated Roc’s Blackfront Café and Lounge, but he was able to restore the original bar and wooden walk-in cooler while also incorporating booths from the old Charleston Confectionery. As well, he had the entire wall of the back room repainted to restore the original totals boards.

Knoop also renovated the upstairs section of the building in 1998, creating Top of the Roc, a bar and dance area.

Jazz music now fills the hazy air of Roc’s Blackfront Restaurant & Lounge above the clank of glass and low murmur of conversation, the faint smell of stale smoke still lingering after so many years.

An amber glow casts bleary shadows around the patrons who drift among an obscure piece of Charleston’s history.


Tim Deters can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]