HOPKINSVILLE, Ky. — In September 1955, the great-great-grandson of Hopkinsville founding father Bartholomew Wood had a unique idea. He wanted to open a drive-in liquor store — a piece of Hopkinsville history that still sits on the corner of Fourth and Clay streets known as The Copper Still.
The writing on the outside of the building proclaims it as “America’s first drive-in liquor store” and it may very well be.
Ben S. Wood, the original owner, is referred to simply as “daddy” by his son, Ben S. Wood III. When asked why his father opened a drive-in liquor store 62 years ago, Wood said the best he could tell, it had to do with the perception of drinking during that time.
“I think where he came up with that idea was that, at that period of time, in 1955, alcohol was pretty much frowned upon and most people didn’t want to be seen at a saloon,” he said. “I think that’s what partially helped come up with the idea, and he thought ‘well, if they can just drive up there, we’ll serve them from the window and they won’t be there very long.'”
The family would have known about perceptions of drinking, too, since saloons and liquor licenses run in the family. Wood’s great-great-great-grandfather, Bartholomew Wood, became licensed in 1798 to operate a public house, something like a tavern and hotel, he said. From 1798 through 1891 and again from 1933 through current day, the family was in the liquor or beer business continually.
“(The taverns) were really kind of your TV station, newspaper, your radio and everything else because that’s where you got most of your information from the so-called outside world, outside of Hopkinsville,” Wood said.
Wood doesn’t think anyone in his family held a license from 1891 through 1933. That’s when his daddy got his first beer license to operate inside a duckpin alley, a mini bowling alley. Then, in 1946, his father bought the Horseshoe Bar, then located on Seventh Street.
A name change
Opening the first drive-in liquor store didn’t come without problems, however; an argument ensued with the state about what exactly was covered under the liquor license.
“At that time, the alcohol beverage control board in Frankfort did not consider your parking lot to be licensed premises, only the building,” Wood said. “They had a legal argument, and my daddy finally won it, about if they were selling on unlicensed premises when they passed the bottle through the plane of the building’s window.
“That was quite a problem there for a little while.”
After Wood’s father opened the drive-in liquor store, other Hopkinsville businesses jumped aboard the trend. Everything from dry cleaners to drug stores began offering drive-in services because of “that idea of daddy’s.”
Today that original drive-in liquor store may be known as The Copper Still, but until 1976 the name on the business license was just Drive-In Liquor Store.
Wood started working for his father after college in 1967 and they opened two additional stores in Hopkinsville and two in Paducah, and continued opening stores throughout the state over the next several years. Each store was given a name that described it, such as Drive-In Liquor Store or Greenville Road Drive-In.
Wood eventually took over the family business and in 1976, made the decision to change the name of the stores — with a little help from a girls’ softball team and Christian County Judge-Executive Steve Tribble.
Tribble approached Wood about sponsoring the softball team and talked him into it, but again, Wood ran into some legal issues.
“I got to checking on it with the law and you couldn’t have anything on the jersey that had the word liquor, beer or wine on it,” he explained.
Since the store names all contained the word liquor, like Drive-In Liquor Store, Wood wouldn’t be able to sponsor a team without a name change. Wood decided he needed a different name anyway and, with the help of a group out of Evansville, Indiana, he found something synonymous with liquor, beer and wine, but without using those words.
That’s when The Copper Still was born.
Alcohol consumption being “frowned upon,” particularly in the early days of the store, has led Wood to some interesting observations about their customers at The Copper Still.
“Truthfully, when we first opened the liquor store there, according to my daddy, they did twice as much business on the side with the back of the car to the street, as they did facing the street,” he said. “They kind of thought they were hidden better with their back to the street (on the right side of the building).”
He said that trend even held true all these years later.
He laughed when recalling one particular lady who didn’t want to be seen at a liquor store. Her regular order was a bottle of bourbon that cost $4.85 and with the 3 percent sales tax back then, the total always came to $5.
“We kept a fifth of barrel of Barton . there by the window, tracked up,” he laughed. “She had money in hand and it was like a rolling stop at a stop sign.”
Another woman would drive up and ask her maid to order. The order was always the same, Yellowstone whiskey, 90 proof. Wood said he knew the purchase was for the driver, so one day he decided to have some fun with her.
“Kind of for fun, I got the 100 proof and brought it over and made it very obvious I was putting the 100 proof down in the sack,” he said, which made her question the passenger about whether she was certain it was what she drank.
On Jan. 31, Wood sold The Copper Still stores to Paul Patel, of Princeton. After 50 years, Wood said he “decided I was ready to do something else for a while.”
Patel, who has operated liquor stores for nine years, said he feels like a “lucky person” and plans to keep the sign up. He’s proud of the history of The Copper Still and is glad to be a part of it now.
That history is something Wood feels people are more interested in these days and said the attitude of the public about alcohol sales has drastically changed in the past 10 to 20 years.
“The pendulum has kind of swung all the way to nowadays, you advertise if your grandfather was a bootlegger that was put in prison,” he said. “Everybody is proud that their grandfather was a moonshiner. Twenty years ago, that wouldn’t have happened.”
Wood said he would have never imagined having a brewing company, Hopkinsville Brewing Company, in downtown Hopkinsville and two distilleries, MB Roland and Casey Jones, in Christian County. When he started in the business in 1967, only 34 of Kentucky’s 120 counties were wet, where you can sell alcohol.
“Now, most everybody that votes, votes for change to have alcohol (sales),” he said. “It’s something that, it’s not going to make people stop drinking if you don’t have it there, they’re just going to drive farther to do it and pay a little more.”
Embracing the brewery and distilleries is something Wood believes is good for the county. He noted the tourism business and the popularity of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and its craft tour that includes a visit to MB Roland in Pembroke.
Is it really the first?
The sign declaring The Copper Still on Fourth and Clay streets as the first drive-in liquor store in America went up about 20 years ago, to the best of Wood’s recollection, who said the determination wasn’t “real scientific.”
“My daddy used to travel quite a bit, and we did too, and if we saw a store like that, we’d typically stop and just ask them when they went in business,” he said. “We never found anybody that had been in business longer than we had with a drive-up window.”
People have also asked about the sign over the years and they’ve always been the oldest store known to anyone who asked. An internet search over the past couple of months couldn’t find one that was older. The closest found by the Kentucky New Era was a store that opened in 1957, Melrose Drive-In Liquors in Phoenix, Arizona.
Of course, drive-in liquor stores are only legal now in a handful of states, but if there are any older, there doesn’t appear to be any record of them and they almost certainly have gone out of business.
Given the legal issues The Copper Still faced with the state over whether handing a bottle through the window was covered under a liquor license, it seems to indicate, at least in Kentucky, it was a new form of business for alcohol sellers.
It’s enough evidence that makes Wood, and current owner Patel, feel confident in The Copper Still’s claim to fame of being America’s first drive-in liquor store.
“We’ve talked about it and checked other places to see how long they had been there,” Wood said. “I never found any that had been there as long as my father had.”
Information from: Kentucky New Era, http://www.kentuckynewera.com