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By Connor Ashlock
George’s Local Brew is one of many businesses located along Jerseyville’s main drag that comes with a history all its own.
Located in the Historic Downtown Business District, the local bar and restaurant has stood tall and proud in the same spot since the 1800s, and it has the wells in its basement to prove it.
Indeed, in the old days, it wasn’t uncommon to find homes and businesses with wells in the basement. Although, we often tend to get so wrapped up in the history of ages long-since passed that we fail to learn about the not-so-distant past.
Thankfully, those basement wells and the recollections of June Simpson, 91, remain to tell the story of an interesting occurrence that took place back around 1960.
Many will recall when gambling was largely outlawed in Illinois, but in the true spirit of prohibition, there was an underground market that supplied the demand.
Lodges, fraternal orders and other organizations and establishments came in to satisfy the need to pull the lever, including the Eagles Lodge, which was housed in the same spot that George’s is now.
“All the bars were doing it— they all had slot machines,” Simpson said. “They were exclusive, members only. They had a buzzer at the door in order to get in and you had a card to use.”
Simpson’s husband, Ronald, was a member of the Eagles Lodge and one of the trustees and she was a member of the Ladies Auxiliary. Due to their involvement in the lodge, they were more than aware of the illicit activity that occurred at the lodge’s bar.
“I kept telling them they were going to get caught,” Simpson said.
The gambling machines were located roughly in the same area where the walk-in cooler is at George’s. Simpson can recall that there were six machines in the room— possibly eight— but definitely six, with three on either side of the room.
“The room had a lock on it and you never knew why people were going in there,” Simpson recalled.
Of course, the Eagles weren’t the only ones around town who had slot machines, nor were they the only establishment that you could walk into and find folks playing card games for money— a practice which, interestingly enough, is still outlawed in Illinois outside of approved establishments.
As Simpson recalled, Sunday mornings were men-only hours at the lodge, and card playing was a favored activity among the men at that time.
The police, though, weren’t giving local establishments free reign. Undoubtedly law enforcement was aware of the gambling situation, but it doesn’t seem that it was one of their chief concerns unless it started becoming problematic.
As Simpson and her family sat down with owner Chris Lorton, the conversation revolved around that particular time in or around 1960 when the local gambling issue started to heat up a bit.
“The police, from what I understand, had somewhat of a raid on slot machines earlier in the year, then in time the clubs all started putting them back,” Lorton explained.
As things started to slowly return to normal, one Friday evening would prove to be an exciting one for the lodge when a couple police officers made an appearance at 5 p.m., just as the band was setting up.
They talked to June, asking her questions like what the name and address of the place was.
“Then they said they’d be back in an hour to raid you for slot machines,” Lorton said. “So during that time they didn’t want to get busted again so the guys hustled up, took the machines through the bar down to the basement and threw them in the well.”
According to Lorton, in the hour time slot afforded the lodge members, law enforcement returned to the courthouse or police station to check on their information before returning.
“Then the cops came back an hour later like they promised and when they came in, the band started playing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ They looked around, realized there were no machines, and they left,” Lorton said.
According to Simpson, there wasn’t any time to load up the machines in someone’s trunk, nor was there any time to take the money out of the machines, so there’s still some coins in them to this day.
Simpson shared that normally there would’ve been time to take the machines out of the bar, but that wasn’t the case during this particular instance.
When Lorton bought the building in April 2016, one of his first priorities was to renovate the basement. The first time Lorton heard of the slot machine incident was from a guy on his crew who had been a member of the Eagles and knew the story.
“He said years ago they went down to the basement and tried to see if they could get the slot machines out of the well because they heard there was money in them. They went down there and couldn’t find the well,” Lorton said. “There was 100 years of stuff down in the basement— all kinds of carnage. I had HVAC, electric, plumbing— a whole bunch of things to do and that basement needed to be clean as a whistle.”
Lorton and his crew went to work and within a few days, they discovered that the well had been effectively camouflaged to prevent the discovery of the machines within it. Since then, Lorton left the machines in the well untouched, but has recently decided to return to them.
Lorton is currently making plans to get the machines out of the well in the coming weeks and hopes to restore at least one of them in the hope of displaying it at the bar.
The last 60-some-odd years in that cold water did quite the number on the machines, but the interesting, and sometimes hilarious history associated with them has pushed Lorton to give their restoration a good college try.
With Simpson and her husband being present that evening when the raid took place, she still gets a kick out of it when she recalls it. It sure didn’t scare her away, as to this day she is a member of the Eagles Ladies Auxiliary in La Porte, Tx.
Many have wondered through the years where Jerseyville picked up such nicknames as “Sin City” and “J-Vegas,” but stories such as this might help explain their origin.
By the way, for those interested in knowing, Simpson reported that even though those machines could pay out, most of the time they were pretty tight.