Majestic Saloon in Downtown Miami

Inside of Majestic Saloon in 1904Cover: Inside of Majestic Saloon in 1904

When Julia Tuttle and the Brickells granted land to Henry Flagler in 1895 in exchange for him extending his railroad to, and building a world-class hotel along, the banks of the Miami River, they made a specific request. The stipulation that both the Tuttles and Brickells required was that the municipality not allow the sale and consumption of alcohol within the city limits.

Henry Flagler agreed to the request provided that his hotel would be exempt from this requirement. All parties were united on the framework that Miami would be dry, except for the Royal Palm Hotel, when chartered in July of 1896. Flagler’s hostelry was the only place within the city’s boundaries where one could imbibe in alcoholic beverages legally.

Within a few years after the passing of Julia Tuttle in September of 1898, prohibition of alcohol was lifted for downtown Miami. This change provided a unique opportunity for entrepreneurial pioneers to be one of the earliest operators of a saloon in the Magic City. A father and son partnership seized the occasion to be one of those operators. However, they would soon find that remaining open would prove to be difficult in a young region struggling with its policy on the sale and consumption of alcohol.

B.F. Lasseter

Portrait of Byron Lasseter

Figure 1: Portrait of Byron Lasseter

Byron Fulton Lasseter was a veteran of the Civil War from Decatur, Georgia who arrived in Miami in 1899. Similar to the Burdine family, the Lasseter family lived in Bartow, Florida, prior to moving to Miami. Byron likely moved to Miami upon the recommendation of his son, Byron I. Lasseter Jr., who had been living in Miami for at least two years prior to his parents relocating to the Magic City.

Byron I. Lasseter Jr. worked for the P&O Steamship Line and was known to early Miami residents as “Captain” Lasseter. B.I. was involved with a lot of different ventures during his time in Miami. In addition to joining his father in the operation of the Majestic Saloon, he partnered with J.E. Lummus in the founding of the Miami Grocery Company in 1906.

He later got involved with the construction of the Oversea Railway to Key West, and was part of a partnership that operated the Lasseter-McDonald Hardware store, which was located at the southeast corner of Twelfth Street (Flagler Street), and Avenue D (Miami Avenue), from 1917 until 1919. Byron I. Lasseter Jr. also opened and briefly operated a tire and automotive store on Flagler Street in May of 1918, until he sold it three months later on August 14, 1918. He was both enterprising and hard working.

The operating entity for the Majestic Saloon was known as Lasseter & Company, and the establishment was located along today’s South Miami Avenue, which was known as Avenue D prior to 1920. Within a year of opening at its original location, a legal dispute ensued between the Lasseters and the owner of the building in which they operated the Majestic Saloon. The decision in this legal battle required the saloon keepers to relocate on short notice.

First Year in Business

Ad in City Directory in 1904

Figure 2: Ad in City Directory in 1904

On December 4, 1904, the headline in the Miami Metropolis read “Must Vacate Premise in Three Days”. This headline referred to the conclusion of the legal battle between Byron (B.F.) Lasseter and Charles L. Wetzel over occupancy of the building at the northwest corner of Avenue D and Fourteenth Street. Today this corner is part of the on ramp to the expressway on South Miami Avenue and SE Second Street in downtown Miami.

In its first year of operation, the Majestic Saloon was one of Miami’s first downtown drinking establishments. The saloon operated as a bar, packaging store, and restaurant. The packaging store sold bottles of liquor and beer, Havana cigars, and even offered to customize packages for mail order.

However, the Majestic Saloon was not the only bar to operate in downtown Miami in 1904. There were several other drinking establishments that opened on Avenue D (Miami Avenue), including: Ben Hur Saloon, operated by C.H. Watson (namesake of Watson Island), Pioneer Saloon, and Zapf’s Saloon. There was another establishment that opened on Twelfth Street (Flagler), near Avenue D, named The Ideal Saloon.

In January of 1904, Byron hired a contractor to add awnings to the front of the building and to apply a coat of paint to improve the appearance of his establishment. The Lasseters were bullish on their prime location on Avenue D and expected to be there for a long time. However, a change in ownership of the building forced an adjustment to their plans.

A legal battle ensued after Wetzel purchased the building where Lasseter’s Majestic Saloon operated. Byron and his son had a lease with the prior owner, and the partners insisted that they were due six months’ notice to vacate the premises per the terms of their contract. The court ruled in favor of Wetzel and gave Lasseter three days to remove his belongings from the building.

New Location & Liquor License

Majestic Saloon in 1905

Figure 3: Majestic Saloon in 1905

As luck would have it, Lasseter was able to lease two floors in a building located on the northeast corner of today’s South Miami Avenue and SE First Street. The Majestic Saloon’s new address was situated one block north, and across the street from its original location. The Majestic Saloon was back in business at their new location on March 2, 1905.

In an advertisement in the Miami Metropolis on the day it re-opened, the business was called the ‘Majestic Saloon & Café’. The restaurant was described in an advertisement in the Metropolis as follows:

“Our café upstairs has the best the markets afford in Steaks, Chops, Fish, Oysters, in each season, Game, etc., and the service is first class in every respect.”

The ad goes on to state that the entrance to the café and wine room was on Thirteenth Street (today’s SE First Street), and the saloon entrance was located “across from the Post Office”, on Avenue D. The proprietors provided two separate entrances; one for those who wanted to patronize the restaurant, and another for those who wanted to enjoy alcoholic beverages and a fine cigar. The idea of alcohol being served downtown was new to Miami residents, and many citizens objected to the presence of these new establishments.

B.F. Lasseter’s application for a liquor license for the Majestic Saloon was approved on July 3, 1906. The license was good through September 30 of 1908. Fortunately for Lasseter and Company, they got approval for their liquor license prior to the start of 1907. There was a growing sentiment by Miami residents that Dade County should have a special election to vote the municipality “dry”.

In an editorial in the Miami Metropolis on October 14, 1907, the anti-saloon faction in the county warned the public about the “Business Men’s League”. The article went on to state that the league consisted exclusively of saloon owners and that the citizens of Dade County should not be fooled by their message. B.F. Lasseter was one of the members of this league, which primarily conveyed the idea that “prohibition will ruin Dade County.” Despite the efforts by saloon owners, support for prohibition was growing in the county. However, it would take a couple of elections and a few years before the county successfully voted for prohibition.

Renewal of Liquor License Denied in 1908

Ad in Miami Metropolis on September 8, 1908

Figure 4: Ad in Miami Metropolis on September 8, 1908

When B.F. Lasseter went to renew his liquor license in August of 1908, he was surprised to learn that his application was denied. He immediately filed an appeal with the County Commission which upheld the denial. During the appeal, Lasseter learned that R.J. Peck and other merchants on the block filed a complaint with the commission that the proprietor of the Majestic Saloon was not a “sober, law-abiding citizen.”

The protest was presented by R.B. Gauthier, who represented the men who filed the complaint. As evidence, Gauthier presented a certificate from the City of Miami clerk that stated that B.F. Lasseter had forfeited a bond in municipal court on a charge of fighting. The chief objection presented by the plaintiffs was “the fact that the saloon is in the most conspicuous and important business part of the city; that in order to reach the post office women and children from Thirteenth Street and Fort Dallas Park are compelled to pass it, and because the saloon is not run in an orderly manner.” Ultimately, the group wanted the county commission to revoke any liquor licenses for saloons within the central business district of the city of Miami.

Given the objection, Byron F. chose to dissolve the corporate entity that ran the Majestic Saloon, Lasseter & Company, on August 8, 1908, and then had his son, Emery J. Lasseter, file for a new liquor license for the Majestic. However, this petition was denied on September 2, 1908, when a construction contractor, who did work in the saloon, provided testimony about the “general character of the place.”

The original liquor license was set to expire on September 30, 1908, and Byron F. was running out of time before he lost the right to operate his saloon. The expiration date arrived, and he was forced to close the establishment until his liquor license was renewed or reissued. After being closed for more than a week, the county commission finally approved the renewal of the liquor license on October 7, 1908, when it was re-submitted by Byron I. Lasseter. No reason was given for the change in position of the county commission.

Dade County Voted Dry in 1913

Headline in Miami Metropolis on January 31, 1911

Figure 5: Headline in Miami Metropolis on January 31, 1911

The anti-saloon faction in Dade County was relentless. There was a ballot measure voted in 1911 for prohibition, but the “drys” came up short to change the law on the sale and consumption of alcohol in the county. The two opposing sides regarding prohibition were labeled to as “drys”, referring to those in favor of prohibition, and “wets”, those who were opposed.

In 1911, when the measure was on the ballot, the Majestic Saloon was one of two drinking establishments that stayed open on election day. There was a Florida state law requiring all saloons to close on election day, but the Majestic Saloon ignored the law, and was criticized by the Miami Metropolis in a headline story the next day. The paper stated that the Sheriff was out of town and nothing was done to enforce the state law.

The vote for prohibition once again appeared on the ballot in October of 1913, but this time the measure passed. Voter turnout in the city of Miami was lower than expected, and turnout in the northern part of the county, which was rural and in favor of prohibition, was better than expected. The outcome of this election ensured that all saloons would have to either close or eliminate the sale of alcoholic beverages moving forward.

Near Beer & Chero-Cola

Ad in Miami Herald in 1915

Figure 6: Ad in Miami Herald in 1915

While many of the saloons tested the new law by continuing to sell alcoholic beverages, ultimately law enforcement was mandated to enforce the new county ordinance supporting prohibition. Despite the crackdown, the Lasseters continued to seek new ways to skirt the new law. One of their ideas was to sell a concoction referred to as “near beer”, which was a fermented drink that provided a lower alcohol percentage than regular beer.

This workaround did not go unnoticed by law enforcement. On August 12, 1914, Byron F. was detained by the sheriff for selling near beer in his establishment. The sheriff required that he close his business until he rid his place of, and stop selling the illegal beverage. That prompted Lasseter, on January 10, 1915, to purchase the Magic City Bottling Company, which was renamed to “The Chero-Cola Bottling Company”, a plant that bottled soft drinks and other beverages. The Majestic Saloon became the place to buy and drink Chero-Cola.

However, the Lasseter family was not done trying to sell near beer. On October 11, 1915, Byron I. was arrested by Sheriff Dan Hardie while selling the forbidden beverage at the Majestic Saloon. Several months later, on March 8, 1916, Miami City Mayor, Parker Henderson Sr., signed a law making it illegal to sell near beer within the city limits. On that same day, Byron I. invited Sheriff Whitman to his establishment to watch him sell the only bottle of near beer he had in his possession. Whitman promised that he would arrest him if he did, which is what happened. Byron I. Lasseter was intent on getting arrested so that he could test the constitutionality of the new law.

On March 13, 1916, when the lawsuit challenging the near beer law was heard, Judge Blanton declared the ordinance to be unconstitutional and discharged the indictment against Byron I. stemming from his arrest for selling the controversial beverage. Following this ruling, the city of Miami appealed the decision and considered re-writing the law. Instead, they decided to regulate the sale of near beer and required merchants to apply for a license that cost them five hundred dollars per year once they were approved.

However, things changed when the State of Florida passed a law, in April of 1917, prohibiting the sale of near beer within the state. The merchants who purchased licenses were told that they would not be able to file for a refund. A few years later, national prohibition was ratified, and the saloon owners were forced to stop selling alcoholic beverages.

Lasseters after the Majestic Saloon

Once it was clear that the saloon business was no longer viable in downtown Miami, Byron F. Lasseter focused his efforts on the soft drink distillery business. He retired from Chero-Cola Bottling Company in 1925, and spent his final years living at 1780 NW Fourth Street, which was located a couple blocks from Tatum Field, a venue that later gave way to the Orange Bowl. He died on April 17, 1931 at Jackson Memorial Hospital following an automobile accident.

Byron I. Lasseter served as a merchant marine captain during World War II, and then later owned a fishing vessel called ‘Valcour’, which he operated out of Miami. He lived a full life before his passing on October 21, 1957. He was seventy-eight years old at the time of his death.

While many believe the myth that the earliest drinking establishment in Miami dated back to 1912, it was a few saloons located in the downtown central business district that were the real pioneer watering holes. The Majestic Saloon was one of those forgotten establishments that harken back to a time when the Magic City looked more like a western outpost than the modern metropolis it is today.

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Images

  • Cover: Interior of Majestic Saloon in 1904. Courtesy of Miami City Directory (1904).
  • Figure 1: Portrait of Byron Lasseter. Courtesy of Ancestry.com.
  • Figure 2: Ad in City Directory in 1904. Courtesy of Miami City Directory (1904).
  • Figure 3: Majestic Saloon in 1905. Courtesy of Ancestry.com.
  • Figure 4: Ad in Miami Metropolis on September 8, 1908. Courtesy of Miami News Archvies.
  • Figure 5: Headline in Miami Metropolis on January 31, 1911. Courtesy of Miami News Archives.
  • Figure 6: Ad in Miami Herald in 1915. Courtesy of Miami Herald Archives.

2 Comments on "Majestic Saloon in Downtown Miami"

  1. Having been involved with the wholesale alcoholic beverage business in Miami since 1970 it goes with out saying I found this story very interesting.
    Thank You once again Casey for giving us these rare glimpses of the early days of Miami.

  2. A very interesting article, indeed! Now, tell us the story about the “blind tigers” and the moonshiners! There were plenty of both in South Dade and no doubt, some of their product made it to Miami to be sold. National prohibition proved that when there is a will, there is a way ….

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