Ahop, skip and jump off I-95 and dissected by US 21, Yemassee, though small, straddles both the Beaufort and Hampton county lines. It’s close by the Colleton and Jasper county border as well. If you get the feeling this town is a crossroads, well, that is the case. Some, in fact, consider Yemassee the heart of the Lowcountry.
And the heart of the Lowcountry enjoys eminence. Yemassee claims the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Auldbrass, Old Sheldon Church ruins, Frampton Plantation and a country club like no other. You won’t need clubs, you won’t need a caddy but you might pick up a cue stick. And for sure you’ll need a fork, for Harold’s Country Club—“in the middle of nowhere but close to everywhere”—resides in the heart of locals who love a fine meal at an American South original.
Where, exactly, might you find this legendary haunt?
Harold’s sits off Highway 21 at 97 Highway, 17A. Look for a faded, yellowed sign that, though it’s seen its share of Lowcountry sunlight, is nonetheless colorful. A grill full of ribs, chicken and a huge steak fill one side of the sign, a frosty mug of beer the other; in the middle is a circle around a bespectacled Harold with the words: “Harold’s Country Club … Bar & Grille, Est. 1973.” The likeness of Harold Peeples makes the sign. He looks like a sheriff from a tough county in South Georgia.
Fittingly, at the right front corner stands an old rusty red Fire Chief gas pump, a throwback to fill ’er up days. Inside, rules catch the eye. “You are required to pay for every steak you order.” “Please clear table.” In the poolroom, improper behavior is not tolerated. “No Smoking.” “No Hitting Sticks On Tables.” “No Sitting On Pool Tables.” And in lowercase: “follow the rules or you will be barred from playing pool.”
Rules, stools, cue sticks, steaks and more, Harold’s has unique interior collectibles, genuine auto parts and down-home Southern cooking. You’d expect all of this and more from a Chevrolet dealership turned gas station turned restaurant. On one wall you’ll see a horseshoe, fan belts, trophies, a US flag, a rack of Lance crackers and Fritos, and a Pabst Blue ribbon beer clock. Don’t be surprised to see a colorful assortment of birthday balloons floating over a royal French blue tablecloth, for Harold’s is the go-to celebration place.
What began in the 1930s as a Chevrolet dealership became a garage and gas station, which Harold Peeple’s bought in 1973. In the late 1970s, friends and neighbors began gathering there for covered dish suppers on Thursday nights. Over time the group began cooking and eating in the garage to avoid bad weather and infamous Lowcountry gnats and mosquitoes. As gatherings grew, Harold took over the cooking, charging a small fee to cover expenses.
The new car smell of Chevrolet Masters with 206-cubic-inch engines faded long ago, replaced by sizzling steaks, baked potatoes and sautéed onions. Add to that shrimp, fish, and burger baskets, wings, and extras that include jalapeño poppers and hush puppies.
Chevy engine smoke gave way to a no smoking atmosphere, a sign of the times. Over near the bar you’ll see a sign offering some advice: “Win or lose, stick with booze.”
The restaurant is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. I eased into the Country Club on a Friday at 3:30 in the afternoon. A cast of characters sat around the bar. “Like a scene from Andy of Mayberry,” I mused. On the flatscreen a NASCAR race was underway. No one paid it any mind. At the bar’s opposite end, a big plastic parrot on a perch leaned back to study the race. So it appeared.
Fame visits this venerable old dealership-gas station. When you walk into Harold’s, you’re stepping in high cotton. Harold departed this world in 2003 but in his day he had a special friendship with movie producer Joel Silver who owns Auldbrass Plantation. Joel would stop by on Sundays to chat with Harold over coffee.
In 1994, Dennis Hopper transformed Harold’s into a biker’s bar for his movie Chasers. Coastal Living, Esquire and Southern Living magazines have all covered Harold’s. Garden & Gun called it one of the best dive bars in the South.
People dive in on a regular basis. Thursdays feature a different meal each week. Fridays bring “wings and things:” seafood, fish, chicken, steaks, hamburger baskets and extras such as jalapeño poppers, fries, fried mushrooms, hushpuppies and onion rings. Saturday nights usher in 12- to 14-ounce choice cut ribeyes. Meals include baked potato, sautéed onions, salad, and a roll.
How Harold’s became an eatery is a tale worth telling. In earlier days, folks pushed and drove cars out of the garage to make room for tables and chairs. The cars left for good when changing times ended the building’s run as a garage. Popping grease guns gave way to twanging guitars. The old lube rack is now a “stage” commandeered at times for live music. (Harold built that stage over the “grease rack”).
As the garage evolved into a bar and restaurant, no one bothered to take the radiator hoses and fan belts off the wall, a good thing. They gave the place atmosphere and evidence of its DNA. Then fire came calling on May 9, 1999, destroying the bar, hoses and belts. Harold rebuilt and friends donated car stuff to restore the unique décor. A room for extra seating and private parties morphed into the bar, and Harold’s was up and running within a week, though two weeks passed without meals. That proved to be too much. Customers brought covered dishes, and the food was back. The rest is Lowcountry history. Harold’s Country Club ascended to legend.
But wait. Hold on. We have one more steak to grill.
What about that name, Harold’s Country Club? Well, a tale’s behind that too. Harold played on, coached, umpired and supported the local softball team. When that team needed a new place to play, Harold and friends formed the Yemassee Athletic Association. They bought land and built a ball field beside what today is the Country Club, known then as Peeples Service Station. After games ended, announcer Charles Jackson had a habit of saying, “Now, let’s all go over to Harold’s Country Club for a cool one.” Soon people started calling the business Harold’s Country Club.
Harold helped friends, strangers and stranded motorists, rich or poor. He valued good times and wanted everyone to have just that. A good time. But then there were all those rules. He didn’t tolerate tomfoolery. In fact, he banned troublemakers from his old Chevy dealership “for life and a day.”
That sounds like forever, but it wasn’t. A sincere apology got offenders back through the door. They had to be grateful to be reinstated at Harold’s Country Club smack dab “in the middle of nowhere.” They had to be relieved to dine once again in a place where a Saturday night carries the aroma of grilling steaks coated in Harold’s special rub. Once again they could join locals and talk about movie stars and old cars, while eating steaks beside walls sporting black cast iron skillets, equally at home with an old Coke box, Conestoga wagon, and fan belts. Fan belts donated by? Fans.