A standing-room-only crowd at the Anniston library heard about the history of one of Anniston’s oldest buildings earlier this week.
Kristy Farmer, co-owner and manager of the Peerless Saloon & Grille, gave a detailed history of the saloon that spans well over a century, noting that it was one of the first saloons built after liquor became legal here in 1890. She was the featured speaker during Tuesday’s Calhoun County Historical Society meeting.
Garner was born in 1866 in Georgia and made his way to Anniston in the late 1890s. Farmer said that on Jan. 1, 1901, Garner bought the property that would eventually hold the Peerless; it was at the corner of Tenth Street and Atlanta Avenue, now known as 13 West 10th St.
The Peerless was originally located a few doors down from its present location and was moved when the new Garner building was complete. That building was the topic of an Anniston Star advertisement on Feb. 15, 1903, in which Garner announced the “new” Peerless, Farmer said.
“The new Peerless to open Tuesday February 17, 1903. It is one of the finest saloons in the south and will be strictly first class in every respect, we shall solicit only among gentlemen who know how to drink, respectfully R.E. Garner,” Farmer said.
In a news story published in The Star during the previous year, 1902, it was announced a contract had been awarded to construct the “New Garner Building,” a structure that would include the Peerless Saloon; up to that point it was located “a few doors below on Tenth Street.”
Farmer said even during Prohibition liquor still flowed at the saloon.
“Although Anniston had flirted from time to time with banning alcohol through local option laws, for most of Garner’s 15 years in business he faced no restrictions on liquor sales. In 1915 however, Alabama voted a complete ban on alcohol, enforcement was spotty and he apparently continued to bootleg through the Peerless,” Farmer said.
The old news article carefully sidestepped what exactly would be located — a bordello — on the second floor.
“[Garner] has not decided definitely as to what dispositions will be made of the second floor but he has in view a handsome and up-to-date cafe run in the best style and to be patronized by the best class of trade,” according to the article.
Farmer spilled no secrets about what the “class of trade” was located on the second floor, as most longtime Annistonians have known in general terms that a house of ill repute was located at the top of the well-worn and creaky wooden staircase.
Farmer said the Peerless was active as a saloon from 1901 to 1922, adding, “A model city also needs its own elite brothel.” She told her audience that the “madam” remained living upstairs until her death and her presence is still felt by some who claim to have seen her ghost late at night.
“I can personally confirm that she likes to startle those who have taken over places as the mistress of the Peerless,” said Farmer.
Farmer said that Garner earned the nickname of “Daddy” at the Peerless for reasons unknown.
“No records exist of marriage or any children, it may be that the ladies who occupied upstairs rooms in the brothel might have bestowed that name on him as the boss of the Peerless and it stuck,” Farmer said.
Later years, vacancy and a new lease on life
In between 1922 and 1981, for many years a business known as the Diamond Jewelry Store occupied the old saloon’s space, according to Anniston city directories. The original massive and arched mirrored barback carved out of mahogany remains to this day. Farmer said the barback was exhibited at the St. Louis exposition in 1903.
From 1981 to 1991 the building was vacant and faced demolition, Farmer said. The building was entered on the National Register of Historical Places by the Department of Interior on Oct. 3, 1985.
“At this time Bill and Froydis Collins purchased the building and interior decorations at an auction, they began the renovations on the building,” Farmer said.
A group named the Peerless Salooners was formed that would gather for cocktails and live music as renovations continued.
“In May of 1992, Bill and Froydis Collins, the Nolen Brothers from Brothers Bar in Jacksonville, Sam Higginbotham and George Faulkner, reopened the doors of the Peerless,” she said.
“In July of 1992 I joined the team as a bartender and assistant manager and in 1994 I became the general manager and co-owner,” Farmer said.
In 2009 the building next to the Peerless at 15 West 10th St. was purchased by Wilbur “Dub” Nolen and Farmer.
Farmer said that the rooms above the saloon and the grille are the most popular event rooms in town.
“The definition of the word peerless means without equal and matchless, as I’ve taken on the role as the keeper of the keys I have taken on the task as keeping the Peerless peerless,” Farmer said.
Danny Williams, 71, who attended Farmer’s presentation, said he used to patronize the jewelry store when it was open at the current location of the saloon.
Williams said now he enjoys the food the Peerless Grille cooks up.
“They’ve got excellent fried food, they have blackened catfish that will melt in your mouth, it’s fantastic food, I haven't eaten there in a few weeks but I do love to eat there,” he said.