Anniversary in Charleston
My fascination with Bowen’s Island began when I was courted by several cadets from the Citadel during my last semester in high school. One of their tactics to lure me to S.C.’s military college was to take me and other recruits to the restaurant on Bowen’s Island. There, in the midst of “hooaahs,” flowing beer, and adoringly drunk girls, we carved our names in the benches along with thousands of others. It was a Citadel ritual that almost got me to the Holy City.
In 2006, Dr. Jim Fisher and I took our dear friend, Dr. Naby Camara, from Guinea, West Africa, to Bowen’s Island. We were showing him Charleston sites where Capt. Styles Lightbourn, the founder of his home village, Farenya, visited during slave trading missions in the early 1800s.
I proudly showed Dr. Camara my name permanently embossed with catsup and beer. We placed our order and found seats in the heat and smoke of the oyster room. A shovel load of steaming oysters were dumped on the newspaper-covered table in front of us. We lit into the feast with a group of cadets and their wide-eyed dates – opening oysters with grimy oyster knives, slurping them down with hot sauce, and tossing shells into a hole in the middle of the table. Dr. Camara was amazed by this “Great American Custom” and enjoyed every minute.
But, in a reminder that nothing is forever, the quaint wooden building sitting on stilts over the creek burned in 2006 a few months later. The seafood dive founded in 1946 by May and Jimmy Bowen, the site of proud drunken brawls and brief love affairs, vanished into the marsh… along with my engraved name.
Robert Barber, grandson of the Bowens, rebuilt the restaurant and was there to greet Linda and me and a new generation of customers. He allowed us to visit the remains of the old restaurant now tucked under a quickly aging new building. Some of the old booths and tables remained along with some charred chairs and the old fireplace where oysters once roasted under burlap.
Barber graduated from Columbia High School in 1967, Wofford in 1971, and Duke in 1976 with a divinity degree. He gave up the pulpit for the bench after getting a law degree in 1982 and returned to Charleston. Politics called him to the Charleston County School Board and the S.C. House of Representatives. He lost a congressional election to Mark Sanford in 1994 and took refuge at Bowen’s Island.
Not to be denied, Barber tried to unseat Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer in 2006 just after the fire. He lost, returned to Folly Beach, and rebuilt the restaurant. Whoever said, “In the bleakest hours of defeat lies the birth of victory,” was right. Barber lost but Bowen’s Island was born again.
Next week: Poogan’s Porch