As a new cigar shop is opening in a historic gas station in downtown Cumming, the building’s underground history is beginning to reemerge.
The Cumming Cigar Company — which has held a soft opening ahead of its Aug. 11 grand opening — is operating out of the historic Sinclair gas station in downtown Cumming. While the station is well-known for being restored to its 1930s style and prominent location downtown, there is a lesser-known history of the building, including rumors of illicit activity like gambling and moonshining.
Under the building and only accessible by removing a floor covering in the cigar shop’s lounge, climbing down a ladder and squatting under a low-hanging brick wall, is a hidden basement that was reportedly a secret hangout in the past.
“I’ve just heard that that’s where the poker games [were.] I heard there was a farm lost in a poker game down there,” said Eric Bennett, co-owner of the business. “You just hear a lot of different stories on moonshine stills. That’s where the moonshine still used to be set up. I don’t know if any of that is true, but that’s the story. It’s been a good one if it’s [true.] You could go back in time and everybody’s like, ‘No, that’s where we put the motor oil. That’s all it was ever used for.’”
Bennett said though he has heard stories of the building’s history since beginning work to move in, he didn’t know it was there beforehand.
“It doesn’t have any stairs,” he said. “When we first got here, when we first looked at the building, I didn’t even know the hole was there. I used a screwdriver to pry it up. I lifted it up and really couldn’t see down in there.”
As work was done to clear out the basement, some of the items that were found point to a rowdy history.
“There were a couple of old signs and some old bottles that they cleaned out that were covered up in dirt,” Bennett said. “I found a jar of moonshine. It’s up [on display] in the wall.”
The Cumming Cigar Company is the first business to use the gas station since it was restored to its 1930s look in 2011.
The city of Cumming purchased the property in 2008 for about $730,000 and paid another $101,000 for the restoration work, with the then-goal of the building being used for a welcome center of the city.
In May, the Cumming City Council approved a lease with Cumming Cigar for a one-year lease at $1,325 per month, which the city has the option to terminate after a year.
In recent months, the council has also approved an alcohol license to serve beer and wine for the business and approved new rules that would allow smoking tobacco in city-owned buildings if at a retail tobacco establishment, if the product was purchased at the business and if it is smoked at the time of purchase.
“I’ve lived here my whole life, so I’ve seen this building when it was just a rundown old shack and there wasn’t much to it,” Bennett said. “I remember it being a trophy shop, and I remember it being a detail shop. … For a long time, I’ve always wanted to do something in this building.”
Bennett said his first job was working at a gas station his family owned on Hwy. 20 and remembered it as a gathering place for the community. He said he wants to bring that experience back to the Sinclair station and plans to have historic pictures of the building and city hanging on the walls soon.
“You walked in the door, and there was an old heater and then chairs all around and a few snacks and a coke machine, and that was it,” he said. “Everyone would just sit around. You could go in the morning, there would be a crowd in there. You go in there in the afternoon, and there would be a crowd in there. It was just kind of a hangout.”