In a state known for it’s characters, it truly takes someone special to build a reputation like the one of Colonel George M. Chinn (1902–1987) . Growing up in Mundy’s Landing in Mercer County, Kentucky, Chinn earned the nickname “Double Chinn,” thanks to his robust physical frame and family’s surname. Robust not only in stature but in personality, Chinn had highly diverse interests and accomplishments, and he was influential not only in Kentucky, but across the world. He played on the 1921 Centre College national championship football team, was personal bodyguard to Governor A. B. “Happy” Chandler, and served in the armed forces during both World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam, becoming an accomplished ordinance engineer and designer of the M-19 automatic grenade launcher.
Yet one of Chinn’s most lasting and notorious legacies is his cave house. During prohibition, he blasted a cave into the limestone cliffs of the Kentucky River and used it as an illegal watering hole and gambling den called “Chinn’s Cave House.” Unsurprisingly, the cave did cause Chinn a few legal headaches but, as the excerpt below from historian Carlton Jackson’s Kentucky Maverick reveals, this twentieth-century renaissance man always had a trick up his sleeve.
Chinn hired the services of a man named Tunnel Smith (Smith does not seem to have had a “proper” name, just “Tunnel”), who knew a great deal about explosives. Chinn, too, was an expert in explosives, but overwhelmingly of the military type, not the kind needed for this project. Smith began to blast away at the façade of the palisades with TNT, and soon he had a tunnel twenty feet long that went straight from Highway 68 to the back of the cave. Veering off to the left was another cave, judged by Smith and Chinn to be at least a hundred feet. Chinn was pleased; early on, he envisioned what he could do with this place in matters of merchandise. Even before the blasting was completed, George Morgan hung up a shingle at the cave’s entrance reading CHINN’S CAVE HOUSE and began to implement his planned layout of the cave. The front tunnel had three parts: on the left as one walked into the cave, there was a twelve- to fourteen foot wood-burning grill where Cotton made thick country ham sandwiches for sale at 15¢ each and “foot-long” hot dogs for about the same price; a few different brands of soda pop were also available. In the middle was a walkway: customers could go to the end of the front tunnel but were usually forbidden entrance to the one-hundred-foot side tunnel. On the right of the front tunnel was a bar. Only grownup people could “belly up” to this bar, because Chinn built it high so that a child or even a teenager could not reach the top of it. Chinn wanted his customers to imbibe, even though the country was right in the middle of Prohibition (in fact, more booze was sold and consumed during this time than before Prohibition became the law of the land). He did not, however, want to run a business that might encourage young people toward ruinous alcoholism. The high bar discouraged teen attempts to drink beer or other “moonshine” products. To help sales, George Morgan Chinn frequently placed half-eaten “sandwiches” (which turned out to be made of rubber, bought from a local novelty store) on the bar to create an incentive for customers to order food to go with their drinks—which would in turn induce a renewed thirst.
There were no chairs inside the cave itself; if one wanted to sit while enjoying a country ham sandwich or hot dog and “pop” (a euphemism for beer), there were a few seating arrangements just outside, between the maybe ten feet separating the cave’s entrance from busy U.S. 68. Just feet across from the highway was the Kentucky River, which then had no line of trees shading it, as is the case nowadays. With cars and trucks zipping by on the road between Lexington to the east and Harrodsburg to the west, the quest for “comfort” was quite dangerous, especially after Chinn installed four gasoline tanks for drivers to fill up their cars or trucks. The outdoor seats were precipitously close to the highway itself; with motor vehicles speeding in for gas, coming to screeching halts before the tanks (gas was about 24¢ a gallon) it was sheer foolhardiness to keep sitting there.
But sit people did: to bring in customers George Morgan Chinn counted on his reputation as a football player on Centre’s team in 1921, the magical year Centre “destroyed” mighty Harvard, as the well-known and liked assistant coach at Centre thereafter, and as the all-time winning coach at Catawba in North Carolina. He was well known in this area of Kentucky and many a patron stopped by simply to see Chinn and perhaps chat with him, lingering on the first bite of Cotton’s delicious country ham sandwich. People flocked to his place by the hundreds or even thousands, keeping George and Cotton very happy indeed. Even people driving by who did not stop always gawked, curious, at the Chinns’ unusual establishment. Though he had created quite a traffic nuisance for the Kentucky State
Police, Chinn quickly became known as the “Cave Man of Kentucky.” He installed a sign at the cave’s entrance: “If you Like Me, Come on in. If not—there’s the River—go jump in it.” Many patrons smiled at this advice, attributing these words to Chinn’s sense of humor. He kept insisting, however, that there was more than one meaning to the phrase.
An online writer remembered that in wintertime, a kinsman always stopped at the Chinn Cave House when traveling to Lexington and then back to Harrodsburg. She’d scoop melting ice off the palisades at the entry to the cave to mix with her glasses of bourbon, pulling off a sizable icicle to serve as a swizzle stick. Great crowds gathered between Lexington and Harrodsburg to “test the waters, especially during winter time, for their libations.” They found the circumstances quite to their liking. An online oldster recollected going to the palisades and Chinn’s establishment on his mule. A donkey, he asserted, was not good in bad weather. If it rained, sleeted, snowed, or iced during winter, a donkey invariably found a hole, made either by a rodent or bad weather (some places on Highway 68 were “mud puddles” after a heavy downpour), and fell down, being therefore of no use in getting its rider back home. So, said the memoirist, “if you’re drinking” or “plan on drinkin’,” always “ride home on a mule.” Cars, trucks, horses, mules, donkeys, and pedestrians almost always intermingled in the places around Chinn’s Cave House, causing traffic jams and bad tempers.
Many patrons wondered how Chinn could make a profit by relying so heavily on country ham sandwiches and hot dogs. Of course, he couldn’t. But what most patrons could not see was the completely illegal line of slot machines in the dimly lit left tunnel of the cave. Surprisingly (but knowing Chinn’s local reputation, perhaps it is not so surprising), the authorities discovered the slots, charged Chinn with operating an “illegal game of chance,” and hauled him into court. In typical self-assured Chinn fashion, he defended himself, arguing that the slots did not constitute an illegal game of chance because “you don’t have a chance” when you gamble at Chinn’s. Why? Because every slot was rigged so that anyone who played it lost money. The jury was convinced; he was acquitted. At the end of each day, Chinn opened the slots and counted the money. Although the machines were only for pennies and nickels, he still turned a goodly profit. George Morgan finally collected all the slots in his cave, toted them across the road, and threw them into the Kentucky River. He was afraid young children would find the slots, start playing them, and become addicted. He did not want such a thing on his conscience.