Before The Jail: Mystic Den

Brent Finnegan -- March 4th, 2010

photo by ?I came across this photo uploaded by Melissa, in the hburgnews Flickr pool. It’s a shot of the buildings and businesses that used to be where the Rockingham County Jail is now.

For those of us too young to remember it, there are only faint traces of Mystic Den on the web; a hardcore band called Flowers of Discipline, a rumor of a gang called Property.

Chris Edwards writes:

By those years – when 18-year-olds could buy beer – the Harrisonburg bar scene was bigger than it is now. Hot spots of the ’70s and ’80s included Martin’s Garage (a former garage) which Touch of the Earth recently vacated; Gatsby’s, The Other Place and Mystic Den on the present jail site; and the Scotland Yard disco and Generation Gap on South Main. Melrose Caverns near North 11 was a party mainstay.

Poking around on the web led me to this video of a band called Skanks playing Mystic Den in 1986. There’s another song from the same performance called White Lies.

I remember when the jail was being built (my family moved to the Valley in ’87) but don’t have a very strong memory of these buildings. Any old timers care to fill in the blanks for us n00bs?

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53 Responses to “Before The Jail: Mystic Den”

  1. Emmy says:

    Well, I guess I’m an old timer now ;) I’ve lived here my whole live, but only have a vague recollection of what was there. I really can’t remember anything about where the jail is, but there used to be a restaurant where the court house is called The Old Virginia Ham Cafe. We went there a lot and the food was amazing.

  2. Ernie Didot says:

    Going to JMU in the mid-80’s heard a lot of cover rock bands playing stuff like “That’s What I Like About You” The Romantics, and “Roxanne” The Police. Sweaty, stale beer smellin’ nights in that joint. Not a lot of love lost to be honest.

  3. Christa says:

    I guess I’m an old timer, because I remember the Mystic Den pretty well. I also believe the Elbow room(now Dave’s) wasn’t in existence yet, but I could be wrong. Also along this strip is where the Luigi’s started. I know this because it was one of the first jobs I had as a teenager. Don’t remember which building. Wish I could remember the guy’s name that opened it. Those were pretty foggy days to say the least!

  4. Michael Evans says:

    While I was still in high school, there was a rumor that some of the members of the Doobie Brothers showed up at the Mystic Den and played a jam session after playing a concert at Godwin Hall. Not sure then (or now) if it was true, but it’s a good story.

    Speaking of Godwin Hall, I saw some great concerts there in the early 80s. I remember Tom Petty the best, but there was also Jefferson Starship, Neal Young, & Joe Jackson (I think). I’m sure there were many others that I missed or can’t remember.

  5. Jeff says:

    Elbow Room was open as early as the late 70s. I saw the Fabulous Thunderbirds there; JV was so drunk he sat on a stool the entire show. Played great though.

    Something I can’t recall is the name of a restaurant on the second floor of a building somewhere along Main Street, either on the block where You Made It is now or on the Wilson’s block. Or maybe it was in the parking lot in front of SBC – was that always a parking lot? Can’t remember. Has bugged me for years. Anybody?

  6. Jim P. says:

    As an “old” hipster/redneck, maybe I can shed some light. Christa, the Elbow Room was there. I lived over it. This was in the mid-70’s. What a great place that was! Oh, if those walls could talk what tales they’d tell. LOL
    On Water street there was Jo’s Place and Spanky’s and then on Liberty street there was the Mystic Den. I never got to go in the Den as I was banned–can you believe that?–by the owner, who also owned the Elbow Room too. In the pic, right above the two cars is Layman’s Restaurant. Even the people who went to the Den did NOT go to Laymans. It was a hard core working-mans bar. Great place but hard! That mixing of patrons would have sorta been like Elton John meets Merle Haggard and Elton John woulda lost!
    When they did the “expansion” of the courts, they tore a lot of old Harrisonburg down and the Va Ham was a casualty. That was a great breakfast spot.
    The last “true” bar in downtown Hburg as far as I can remember, was “the Spoke.” The Broken Spoke on E. Market. Former cop Christine Thomas went on a “call” down there one night and she went outta the place faster than she came in. LOL
    Oh, Lord the stories I could tell here. But I won’t.

  7. mtnsailor says:

    hey Jeff,
    Palmer House- restr. you asked about–I liked it (1977- 1980).
    The places where Jail is now–I only recall that they didn’t seem much to be fond of- many years later.

  8. The Thunderbirds also played at the Mystic Den as did Stevie Ray Vaughn. The place was definitely on the dank and dingy side, but occasionally did get some not bad bands, although never any really big names. Know nothing about the Doobie Brothers rumor.

    The Old Virginia Ham Cafe was a genuine local fixture along the lines of Jess’s, around forever and a very distinctively Harrisonburg place, certainly thre much longer than the Mystic Den, which lasted less than a decade I think.

  9. Jeff says:

    Thanks mtnsailor!

  10. joseph moubray says:

    Remember the “mini Mall” in the old J.C Penny building? It housed a restaurant and bar called Eden; amoung the other small business’ included was a well known hair salon called Full Tilt. Many of the stylists and salon owners doing business in the ‘burg today either worked or were trained there. James Hoover was it’s owner and in every way a truly remarkable person.

  11. Tina says:

    Yeah, the Mystic Den was a hole in the wall, but it was a fun place to see bands and to dance. I guess I’m one of the few with fond memories of the place, although I would’ve never gone in there alone. One of my favorite bands during that time was a local one – The Shuffle.

  12. Bill says:

    Mystic Den had carpeting that could pull off your hiking boots. Stickiest floors ever. Good bands, cheap beer that you could take away in a plastic cup and carry to the next bar. That was likely the original Calhoun’s, which was upstairs in that “mini-mall” building and an excellent place for music, dancing and general good times. By the time I got to town the Elbow Room was closed (Danny Gatton had performed there too!). The space was called Players. It was a pretty nice place for a little while, but it was spotty about when it was open. Once the Den and Calhoun’s closed the town was really hurting for a place to go.

  13. Christa says:

    Joseph, I SO remember Jim Hoover. Truly a wonderful man. I still think of him from time to time.

  14. wood says:

    How about the Broken Spoke near Gitchell’s? Oop, wrong crowd.

    By the way, speaking of Jim Hoover, who was a really good guy, anyone remember Rev Billy doing “Sissy Boy,” in which you were a sissy boy if Jim Hoover cut your hair?

    Yes, Jim Hoover did cut my hair.

  15. BANDIT says:

    Was the Mystic Den the Elbow Room at one time?

  16. Jenni says:

    I loved the Mystic Den… that picture brings back SOOOO many happy memories… anyone remember New Potato Caboose that would play there? I think Full Stop may have played there once or twice as well…

    Such a different time that was and I still remember a group of old men sitting across the street in lawn chairs the day they tore down that old strip of our town’s history.

    I remember Layman’s as well… and being intrigued by the noisy almost mysterious interior of the place but way too frightened and young to venture inside…

    Thanks so much for the picture and the sweet walk through memory lane :)

  17. Dany Fleming says:

    A couple of other bands that used to draw big crowds at The Elbow Room and Mystic Den, including me, were The Roadducks and The Nighthawks. Just raucous rock and blues. They’re both still going. I believe Hugh Southard still books The Nighthawks.

    Of course, you couldn’t go wrong with the Rev. Billy Wirtz, who often played Calhoun’s upstairs. Seeing The Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray in those little dives?….pretty amazing.

    I’m thinking Players was a watering-hole that was either where Clemintine’s is or where the parking lot is now. A few different places gave it a shot there, under different management. I DJ’d there a few times (hard to imagine I did that, actually) and I don’t believe bands played there.

    The Palmer House restaurants (I think it was 3 restaurants with 1 kitchen) were where You Made It and The Collins Center are now. One of the restaurants, The Pub, had pretty good pizza. Another funky place was The Generation Gap, where Kinko’s is now.

  18. Mrs.BANDIT says:

    Luigi’s started where Kinko’s/Fed Ex is now … really cool place in those days. And anyone remember the Nor Sandwich Shop where BW3’s is now (except much smaller) .. great sandwiches and you drank out of mason jars. The Mystic den started out as Great Gatsby in the disco era. Wow, it’s fun to remember the ‘burg in the good ol’ days … anyone remember the Binnacle Lounge … those were some rough stairs at the end of the night .. haha

  19. Andy Perrine says:

    I was in a band called The Space Sharks and we played the Mystic Den in the early and mid 80’s. Highlight of my memories of the Mystic Den was seeing Jorma Kaukonen (sic?) play there solo. We used to get great acts in Harrisonburg. Anyone remember Bonnie Raitt at the Elbow Room? How about Happy The Man?

  20. Renee says:

    As a relative newbie to Harrisonburg, this thread has been really fun to read :)

    I wonder what people in the ‘Burg will be reminiscing about 20 years from now that’s here now?

  21. Jenni says:

    I saw Dave Mathews at Jokers (where Blue Nile is now) every time they played there… for a $3 cover. Crazy to think of it now… if anyone has anymore old photos I hope they share them!

  22. Jim P. says:

    Another couple “memories/flashbacks” are..John Kay of Steppin’wolf playing solo at the Elbow Room after playing Wilson Hall at JMU, Happy the Man playing at the Auto Auction. Back then, you could rent out the place and GO wild. The whole band worked at the Pizza Hut on Carlton street (torn down) at one time.
    I remember Nor and yes they did have the best subs around! Many years before that, the place was called Doc’s Tea Room and across the street where Kinko’s is now was a place called Dairy-Rite. It was a great place and there’s still one in Staunton.
    Anyone remember the Echo Restuarant! LOL Now thats going back a ways. It was on south 11 near the bowling alley.

  23. Erich says:

    I believe the building with the black bicycle sign housed a repair shop called (I think) Rear View Cycles; across the street from that was Back Alley Bikes, where I bought my first “real” bicycle around 1981.

  24. billy says:

    Legend has it that the Mystic Den had a sign on the wall (for the bikers): “Check your colors and weapons at the door”.

  25. JGFitzgerald says:

    The bike shop was run by Craig Mauck, Crankenstein, if memory serves. He called it the Temple of the Wheel.

  26. The Reverend Billy Wirtz’s show stopping tune was “Mennonite Sur Party,” written by local boy, Bob Driver.

  27. seth says:

    i’m pretty sure the bike shop was cool breeze, no?
    rearview is a person. last i spoke to him, he told me he spends most of his time in luray.

  28. Tina says:

    Rearview (Craig Mauck) had a bike shop – I don’t remember the name of it, but I think that’s it in the photo. He had a newspaper article posted about the bike he’d specially-fit for Ralph Sampson.

    Cool Breeze was owned by someone else. Seems like they started downtown, but I can’t remember exactly where.

  29. That should have read “Mennonite Surf Party.”

  30. Jim says:

    Man, this has really brought back some great memories. I remember seeing the Nighthawks once downtown when they absolutely tore the place down. Jorma was great. Tom Petty went down to the elbow room with some of his band after they played at JMU and hung out there for several hours according to a friend of mine. His show was probably the best one I’ve ever seen in Harrisonburg. It was the last night of his tour. They played for over three hours. I missed Bonnie Raitt, but heard she put on an excellent show. Anyone remember seeing Fleetwood Mac at JMU? It was before Rumours came out. They blew Godwin up. I missed Neil Young because I had to work. It killed me. JMU used to have lots of great shows. What happened to the ‘burg? I hate to sound like an old fogey, but it sure used to be (a lot) better than it is now. Music was an absolutely integral part of the city’s nightlife.

  31. Bill says:

    The Elbow Room and Players were both located where Dave’s is now.

  32. Jeff says:

    Boston was also good. Molly Hatchet was so loud and the acoustics so poor I struggled – no exaggeration – to distinguish one song from another. (And my ears rang for a week.) Oddest billl was Blackfoot, Johnny van Zandt and Def Leppard. Locally, I liked Arznova (anyone remember them?) but at the time I liked any loud guitar band… so who knows whether they were actually very good.

    Jim raises an interesting question: What is the best Harrisonburg show you’ve seen? Doesn’t matter where: bar, club, Wilson, Godwin, Convo, wherever.

    • Tom says:

      @Jeff:
      I was IN Arznova and no, we weren’t particularly good. If I remember correctly (unlikely) we played a lot of Thursday nights at the Elbow Room. We did pretty well there but at the time the entertainment options in H’burg were to come hear us or drive around and shoot at stop signs. To our credit… we were louder than shooting at stop signs.

  33. Brooke says:

    I saw Greg Chapman at what was then, I believe, The Office (now Clementine). He was playing with a female vocalist (I forget her name) and the sax player from Dave Matthews Band. Phenomenal musician. Saw (or rather heard…I was in the back, and I’m short) a band called Everything there, too.

    But I think the best has to be Stanley Jordan at Wilson Hall.

    I played in a band at the Office, once when I was in college. I was dating the bass player, and they needed someone to back up on keys, rhythm guitar and/or vocals (whatever the lead guy wasn’t playing in a song, LOL). Interesting experience.

  34. seth says:

    like jim, i’m curious about the history of what happened to music in this town. i never realized that there was a time when we were pulling such big names to relatively small venues. if i’m understanding the timeline correctly, it sounds like all of this kind of fizzled in the mid to late 80s. does anyone know whether that was that because the venues closed or for some other reason?

    i’d also like to say that harrisonburg’s prowess as a musical center certainly didn’t end there. whatever happened, it seems that it spawned an epidemic of house shows throughout the 90s which i would say were much more representative of our culture than bonnie raitt, tom petty or any number of other big names that might have stopped through. as i understand it, this is also when houses began to be named. i think this movement culminated in the boom years of macrock before dying out a bit with the advent of some of the great new venues downtown. this is of course my own myopic understanding and i’d be really fascinated to read a well constructed history of music in the burg sometime.

  35. The music industry has changed. The first few years of MACRoCk brought in some mid-level indie bands that I was excited to see, but even since those days, things have changed. There’s not much middle ground between the big acts and the total unknowns anymore, and the booking fees reflect that.

    It’s not just MACRoCk, either. When I was going to UT, SxSW had all sorts of mid-level, recognizable acts, and now, they’re bringing in the same sorts of bands MACRoCk is (just on a much bigger scale).

  36. Marcello Amari says:

    Hugh (Beefy) Southard did the booking for the Elbow Room. He is now the owner of Blue Mountain Artists, a management agency for touring musicians. I remember seeing Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Omar and the Howlers, The (Texas) Cobras, Son Seals, Fenton Robinson, Bonnie Raitt, and many others at the Elbow Room. Highlights at JMU in the early eighties: Sam and Dave, Dizzy Gillespie, Dixie Dregs, Little Feat, Mother’s Finest, Count Basie, John Prine…

  37. Jim says:

    This is a fascinating thread that could probably go on for weeks, if not months. I remember seeing Sam and Dave at Wilson Hall in the late ’60s. That was the first concert I ever saw. I have no idea what year it was. (1967?) I’m not entirely sure why the national bands stopped coming and I don’t really remember when everything “changed”. I do recall that up until around 1998 there was a relatively vibrant local rock scene, though I think it started to decline after Kurt Cobain’s death. I played in Book Of Kills starting in 1994 and we pretty much could get a show at one local venue or another (usually the Little Grill) just by calling up whoever was booking whatever venue we wanted to play a few weeks in advance. That really started to change by the end of the ’90s and things moved to the so-called house shows. We found that it was rather difficult to get into that scene…it seemed pretty much closed off to us. I guess it didn’t help that I was a lot older than most of the folks playing original rock music in the area. I think national bands stopped coming because, one, they became very expensive to book and two, because tastes changed. By the aughts, college and high school kids weren’t all that crazy about rock and roll…for many of them, if not most, rock music is for older folks…which, of course, is not to say no young people listen to rock and roll anymore. But rock has sort of gone the way of jazz, hasn’t it? Look at the attention Snooki got recently. (I understand she’s not a musical act.) I suppose I was amused and bemused at how indeed things have changed. 20-30 years ago, the big news was Fleetwood Mac or Neil Young or the Steve Miller Band or the Kinks, etc. Heck, didn’t Frank Sinatra play Godwin Hall? (I might be totally wrong about that.) Somehow Snooki doesn’t quite seem to be quite the equal of those older acts. And I heard they paid her $75,000???

  38. Terry says:

    Anyone remember the BRANDING IRON?

  39. Dany Fleming says:

    Was that the place with the mechanical bull? Yes, Harrisonburg had a mechanical bull at one point.

  40. Mrs.BANDIT says:

    Wasn’t the bull at that huge place that was way out South Main Street … I can’t think of the name either, it didn’t last too long.
    I remember Martins Garage, they would truck in sand for their beach parties. Someone mentioned Joe’s, it was really popular … they had open mike night on Sundays and Ralph Sampson Sr. would sing “Blue Moon”. I also remember Joe’s Christmas Eve-Eve pajama party, it was wall to wall people every year.

  41. Terry says:

    Ya, the branding iron had a bull.It was down there across from the present public library if Im not mistaken.

  42. DT & the Shakes says:

    the mechanical bull was at midway downtown (or whatever it was called then, branding iron sounds right). maybe not. i was in DT and the Shakes. we played a residency at midway downtown every friday happy hour soon after we formed. kinda cut our teeth there. after we did every other joint in the burg (cars, players, belle meade … many house parties) and probably close to 30-40 shows at the mystic den. unbelieveably, we’re doing a 25th anniversary show this june on afton mountain at cardinal point winery on June 26th. if you’re in the mood …

  43. Terry says:

    Mrs.Bandit…were you refering to the old Scotland yard way out on the south side?

  44. Mrs.BANDIT says:

    Thanks Terry, that was it. After I wrote my post I noticed that Chris Edwards mentioned the name in his recollection. I only went there a couple of times, I just remember it was huge.

  45. Terry says:

    As I was looking at this old pic I remembered the small mom and pops restaurant known as F&J, It was right down from Laymans. I was just remembering how homemade and great the food was. HAHAHA

  46. esther says:

    Back in the early 80’s there used to be a vibrant atlantic coast bar band scene and they all came to the ‘burg. Charlottesville also had the Allstars and Skip Castro Band that were popular in the town. Catfish Hodge was another popular act in town. They were always on the verge of national fame but never quite made it.

    There was a guy name “Wrong Way Bill” that used to work at the Elbow Room and then went on to drive tour buses and was responsible for a lot of the national acts that played at JMU coming down to the Elbow Room after their concerts. I remember John Prine too hanging out in the Elbow Room.

    Oh, by the way, Hi Joe!

  47. sandy0885 says:

    hey i remember laymans old so well use to work there in the early 70 with crazy puff and helen and few other ones

  48. sandy0885 says:

    that was really good days i remember the broken spoken to that was my hang out when i wasnt at laymans it has been a long time but still remember the good times

  49. sandy0885 says:

    i would love to hear from anyone who remembers the early 70 as i do

  50. MB Green says:

    Okay – how come nobody cool like Tom Petty comes through Harrisonburg now?

    Cool Breeze bike shop was next to Guitars and Amps up on East Market Street.

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