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Hot Springs getaway; a visit to the Ohio Club should top your list

The Ohio Club
The Ohio Club
Mary Baker

The Ohio Club stands as one of the most historic sites in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Imagine it's the roaring 20's and prohibition has taken a hold on the country. But there's a sinister underground of gangsters like Al Capone and Frank Costello who frequented the Ohio Club for it's beer and illegal gambling. The Ohio Club is the only structure of the original Hot Springs illegal casinos that is still open. One can still see the markings on the floor where a false wall was erected during prohibition, and the sign outside was changed to the Ohio Cigar Store. But a secret password would gain you entrance into the famed casino and bar areas. Owney Madden who had owned the Cotton Cub in New York City, although banned from having any interest in the Hot Springs casinos, made a living by providing a live wire service that allowed horse races and sports from around the country to be called live in the sports book in the back of the Ohio Club.

During the early 20th century, Hot Springs was known for baseball training camps. Major League clubs like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, and Boston Red Sox brought their teams to Hot Springs to get the players in shape for the coming season. Even the great, Babe Ruth, could be seen walking the streets, visiting the bath spas, and gambling at the nearby horse track or Ohio Club.

The Art Deco structure is a short walk from the famous Arlington Hotel and is in the midst of Bathhouse Row. It has been open for business since 1905 when it was opened by John Coffee Williams and his nephew, Sam Watt. Because the two came from Ohio, they named the property, the Ohio Club. In those days it was common to name your business after your home state and there were businesses with names like the Kentucky Club, the Indiana Club and of course, the Ohio Club in Hot Springs. The beautiful hand carved mahogany bar back is an impressive piece of artwork, likely built between 1870 and 1880. It is believed that the bar back was found by one of the owners in a bar in Cincinnati, and brought down the Mississippi River to Memphis where it was loaded on a train and carried to Malvern. It is said that it was too large to load on the train cars that transported goods to Hot Springs so a special cart was constructed and it was brought from Malvern by horse and cart to Hot Springs. The reason for the large horse heads and sailing ship figureheads that adorn the mirrored bar back is unknown.

Today the Ohio Club features a bar downstairs and a restaurant upstairs where the casino once stood. The food is unexpectedly delightful. Try the cheese and sausage tray or a mouth watering pineapple cheeseburger with grilled pineapple, teriyaki sauce and peppered bacon for a change of pace or the scrumptious Ohio Burger with its spicy blend of beef topped with pepper jack cheese and bacon, an onion ring and hot mustard. Prices are moderate at $8.49 for the specialty burgers and $12.99 for the sausage platter which is large enough to serve two.