The mystery of the secret underground downtown Dayton speakeasy has spawned a new mystery — an old whiskey bottle emblazoned with the etching “Belle of Dayton.”
In January, research by the Dayton Daily News revealed that an unusually decorated basement room in an East Third Street commercial building fits the long-running local legend about a hidden piece of downtown’s Prohibition-era history - a speakeasy.
This year is the 80th anniversary of the end of Prohibition, a period that lasted from 1920 until 1933.
Stories about speakeasies reachable through underground steam heating tunnels crisscrossing downtown have been passed on for generations. The exact location of the covert Third Street watering hole had been lost to the general public over the decades until revealed by current building owner Paul Hutchins. It had only been known to the building’s owners and a few curious tenants who ventured into the basement of 124 E. Third St.
Now, Don’s Pawn Shop, directly across the street at 107 E. Third St., has a related mystery that employees there want to solve. Employee Terry Carolus read the Jan. 20 Dayton Daily News story and contacted the newspaper with a new mystery.
In 2010 during extensive excavation work to fill in a basement area of Don’s beneath the sidewalk, workers uncovered a large pile of broken glass along with four old intact but empty bottles. One is labeled “Belle of Dayton,” a brand unknown to local history expert Curt Dalton, author of the book “Breweries of Dayton: A toast to brewers from the Gem City: 1810-1961.” A bottle that looks to be from the same manufacturer is etched “Sour Mash.” Sour mash is a distilling process.
Another bottle is the size and appearance of a patent medicine container and a fourth, made of darker tinted glass, has raised lettering that says, “Trade Mark Lightning.” The ages of the bottles have not been determined yet.
“Obviously, somebody was manufacturing these,” said Carolus. “It wasn’t Joe Schmoe in his garage.”
The basement area that was filled in was reachable by the same underground downtown steam heating tunnel system that could have taken visitors to the underground speakeasy across the street.
Pawn shop employees wonder whether the bottles might have been underground brands distributed during Prohibition. They’d like any information that readers might provide to shed some light on their origin.
Carolus said the basement area was filled in to shore up the sidewalk, which was showing signs of deterioration.
One clue that might apply was uncovered by Dalton last week. Dalton found that the address of Don’s Pawn Shop was the location of the wholesale liquor store Sol. Rauh and Sons Co. at the time the flood hit in 1913. The company then moved to 130 North Main St. after the flood, Dalton found.
Was “Belle of Dayton” a local brand of one of many distilleries once in the area? Dalton is trying to find out.
The former basement speakeasy today is a windowless 80-foot-by-20-foot room with a raised wood-plank floor, ornate plaster moldings on silver-painted walls and the remains of wiring for ceiling electric outlets. The room is used now for storage and is nearly filled with boxes of legal documents. Some paces away is a bricked-in rear building entrance. At one time, it led to a carriage shack that’s long been torn down.
Patrons could pull into the garage and enter the speakeasy sight unseen, Hutchins said. A tunnel of sorts led them to the hidden room, Hutchins added.