EIU Memories: Roc’s Blackfront

It’s fashionable for bars and restaurants to claim some connection to the days of Prohibition, but Roc’s Blackfront Tavern & Grill, at 410 Sixth Street in Charleston, Illinois, is the real deal. It even has the memorabilia to prove it. In my senior and graduate school years at nearby Eastern Illinois University, I frequented Roc’s to have a drink with friends in a classier atmosphere than the usual college bars.

Roc’s ad in the Daily Eastern News, August 18, 2000.

That brick building, absent its black tile facade and martini glass-shaped neon sign, was originally built for the Charleston Courier newspaper office in 1841. Willis W. McClelland opened the Red Front Saloon there in 1917. As fate would have it, the Eighteenth Amendment banning the sale of alcohol in the United States passed in 1919. What were establishments like the Red Front Saloon to do? The saloon changed its name to McClelland’s Cafe and continued to clandestinely sell alcohol a short walk from the county courthouse.

Racing enthusiast Hank O’Day bought the speakeasy in 1931 and renamed it Hank O’Day’s Tavern after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933. Illegal activities continued, however. O’Day ran an underground casino in the room above the bar, complete with buzzer system to alert patrons of police raids. When owner Mike Knoop renovated in 1996, he discovered hidden gambling devices and paraphernalia, including total boards for horse racing and a roulette wheel that now hangs on the wall.

Roc’s as seen from Sixth Street and Madison Ave. facing south circa July 2005.

Roc’s has ties to EIU that run deeper than just being a local watering hole. Roc’s was the traditional home of the Black Knights of the Embarrass, a secret social club started by Korean War veteran students in 1952 and named after the local Embarras (pronounce Ambraw) River. EIU administrators tried to stamp out the group because they frowned on its raucous drinking. Roc’s now serves “Black Knights” coffee in their honor.

Roc’s also serves frog legs, steak, and ribs, but since Roc’s was the nicest restaurant in town (after EL Cracker’s closed), and I was a poor college student, my culinary experience rarely strayed from the salad bar. My friends and I did chow down on the free popcorn while enjoying our beers, and the combination still brings back memories (that popcorn was loaded with salt).

The 1941 walnut bar, booths taken from the old Charleston Confectionery, and antique gambling paraphernalia on the walls created the perfect atmosphere.

Roc’s Blackfront, circa 2006? Notice the office building next door was torn down. It was replaced by an alley and park.

Roc’s always had an older and more sophisticated clientele. It’s not what I would call a “college bar”. That was reserved for Top of the Roc, the former illicit gambling parlor turned music venue. A lot of local and regional bands got a chance to perform there. I recall having to ascend a long set of narrow stairs to the top floor, the decor of which didn’t match the main bar and restaurant. It was more like a dingy attic, but squeezed in a crowd in the dark with a live band performing, who can tell?

The Ex-Bombers play at Top of the Roc, August 24, 2013.

While I spent many nights at Roc’s as a graduate student, that’s not the source of my fondest memories of the place. In the summer of 2012, I returned to Charleston to help launch a monthly news magazine (which quickly crashed and burned). While sitting at the bar one night, an old college buddy, James, stepped out from the kitchen. I was in shock.

We went our separate ways several years earlier, and hadn’t spoken since. For all I knew, he was still in his hometown of Pana, or had moved to Champaign. The bad blood was forgotten on seeing a familiar face, and we instantly reconnected. He had moved back to Charleston in 2010 and was working at Roc’s as a cook. Though my business venture failed, I’m glad we had the opportunity to reconnect, and we have Roc’s to thank. If I hadn’t gone back there to wallow in nostalgia, I might still be wondering – whatever happened to my old friend?

James shared this story of a former Roc’s coworker who passed away a few years ago, who inspired him to study chess more seriously:

“So my buddy Paul Heckle that I worked with on Mondays had a routine. After we finished our shift we would have our three after work drinks; usually a Fireball and two PBRs. Then we would pick up a sleeve of Fireball and a 30 pack of Hamm’s, for which I would contribute five bucks. After that we would go to his house smoke and play chess.

“He LOVED games of all sorts. And he was VERY competitive. Starting out he probably won two out of every three matches. And because of this I started watching videos, reading theory, and playing on my phone daily. I had never taken chess that seriously before. What drove me was the look on his face in a close match as I made a mate–it was absolutely golden.

“But he died from a heart attack after I left Roc’s. And it really bugged me because we had a small falling out, and by the time I got over it, I got the news. He was truly an interesting character. I could tell you an essays worth just about him.”

As one of the oldest bars/restaurants in Charleston, Roc’s holds many fond memories for generations of locals and college students alike.

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