Food+Drink » Features

Harold's Cabin was like a Dean & DeLuca 50 years ahead of its time

The Real Meaning of Mercantile



Harold Jacobs was a progressive. When the early 20th century Charleston mercantilist saw an opportunity, he went for it. He brought snoballs — syrup-covered shaved ice — to Charleston in 1929. His Harold's Cabin corner store was the first shop in the city to sell Ritz crackers. He launched, arguably, the cheese spread trend in the Holy City with his wildly popular Savoure blend, a mix of cream cheese, poppy seeds, scallion, relish, and Lawry's Seasoned Salt. And in the late 1940s when a bank turned him down for a loan to install a freezer for the food-of-the-future, frozen vegetables, Harold didn't give up.

"I went to the Citizens Southern bank on corner of Cannon and King," Harold recalls in a Jewish Heritage Collection oral interview stored on CofC's online archive. "I asked for a loan, and they almost threw me out of the bank. The man said to me, 'Who is going to buy frozen vegetables when we have all kinds of fresh vegetables in Charleston?' Ten days later the VP of the bank called me back and said, 'I'll give you the money.' He did it because it was a good idea."

That interview was recorded in 1997. Jacobs passed away 12 years later at age 95. In its obituary, The Post & Courier remembered him as a leading gourmet foods specialist, but since his passing little else has been written about Jacobs' huge contribution to the city's food legacy. That is until John Schumacher, Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park's food and beverage director, stumbled upon a decrepit corner store at 247 Congress St. — the site of Harold's Cabin.

Harold Jacobs sold over 300 different cheeses in his shop - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Harold Jacobs sold over 300 different cheeses in his shop

"His is a great story," say Schumacher, sitting inside the renovated dining room of Harold's Cabin. Covered in local artwork and decorated with a nod to the cafe's name — chairs upholstered in moose print and plaid fabrics, antlers adorning rough-hewn wood walls, and the original pot belly stove sitting in the center of it all — Schumacher continues, "Harold helped his Mom run this store..."

But let's go back. According to Jacobs' oral history, his grandparents came to America from Prussia. His paternal grandfather, Isaac Jacobs arrived in 1860, moved to Ohio, and immediately enlisted with the Union Army. Somehow, after the war, Isaac ended up in Due West, S.C. and there he met and married Jeanette Slager. The two would settle in Charleston and open a mercantile at 508 King St., where they lived above the store.

  • Jonathan Boncek

By the time Harold's father was born, the store had been moved to 510 King. Raised as an Orthodox Jew, Sam attended Brith Sholom Beth Israel Synagogue, but he fell for a reformed Jewish girl named Mignonette Cohen who attended Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim. The two ultimately married and chose to keep a kosher home, though Harold grew up attending both synagogues. And from what Schumacher has researched, this open-minded upbringing may have been a key to Harold's success — he would go on to serve all factions of the Charleston community.

Harold's family eventually moved to what was then the suburbs — Hampton Park Terrace — to a house next to Allan Park. There they found a small space to open their own mercantile at 247 Congress St. Sam thought it looked like a little cabin in the woods, so he named it after his son, Harold. By his own account, Harold had a great upbringing there. He attended Charleston High School and helped out at the store which sold things like bread, milk, kerosene, candy, and most importantly, snoballs.

  • Jonathan Boncek

In his recording, Harold says a block of ice would be delivered weekly and at age 15, he'd hand-shave it to sell the snoballs to neighborhood children. A small snoball was 3 cents, a large 5. This being the height of the Great Depression, nearly all the children bought the small size, except one.

"Fritz Hollings lived across the street. He'd come down and buy the 5-cent snoballs but no one else could afford them," says Harold in the recording.

In between shaving ice, studying, and stocking groceries, Harold also took a speedwriting and typing course at night. "That saved my life when I went into the military," he says. Like nearly all young men of the era, Harold found himself in the army and served in North Africa and Italy during World War II. After the war, he married Lillian Breen and returned to Charleston and his customers at Harold's Cabin.

Harold's interior from above - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Harold's interior from above

And that's where this story really takes off. Harold moved his storefront to Wentworth Street (the building no longer stands) and made it his business to be on the cutting edge of gourmet foods.

"He sold more than 300 different cheeses," says Schumacher. Many older Charlestonians may recall the fact that Harold's Cabin (he kept the name in the move) sold things like fried grasshoppers and chocolate-covered ants. But it was so much more than a novelty shop. "Harold was a master marketer," says Schumacher. "He turned the store into a destination for tourists. He convinced bus lines to stop there. He got into making gift baskets. It was like Dean & DeLuca, 50 years ahead of time."

Suffice it to say, all this history mesmerizes Schumacher. "I love talking about it. I just want to add another chapter to it," says the owner who has spent countless hours poring over Harold's papers that he left to the College of Charleston.

Young Harold - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Young Harold

But beyond the fascinating history, another part of the story, of course, is that the revival of Harold's Cabin is a joint one — Schumacher's partners include RiverDogs' President Mike Veeck and film star Bill Murray. And while the two may not be making the day-to-day decisions at Harold's Cabin, Schumacher says Veeck, and Murray have been fully involved in the restaurant-building process.

"They're extremely soulful and loving that these historical connections are being made," says Schumacher of his partners. And they also have had a hand in the actual design of the space. Murray came up with the idea of putting a series of drawers under the staircase to add storage. He also just found a postcard the other day on Ebay of Harold's Wentworth building. "He emailed and was like 'Hey, I just ordered this,'" says Schumacher.

All three men are intrigued by Harold's story, but they also realize they're not the second, but the third act for the space. "We were sitting in here one night working, and this black man knocked on the door in tears. He said, 'This used to be my grandparents' store.' Turns out his grandparents, the W&H Smith on the original sign, owned it and sold soul food in the back," Schumacher says. "So that family had memories here too. We're just continuing the building's story."

Add a comment