Beer barrel hearkens to Main Street’s past as area moves forward

jwilkinson@thestate.comDecember 16, 2013 

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    Beer barrel history

    Martha Fowler’s family has owned the building at 1631 Main St. – perhaps the street’s oldest building -- since it was built, probably in 1865, after fire destroyed much of downtown Columbia during the Civil War. Fowler has renovated the building to historical requirements for landmark status and has erected a unique sign that harkens to Columbia’s past – a beer barrel on a pillar.

    In October 1873, Fowler’s great-great-grandfather, John Conrad Seegers, opened what was essentially a 19th Century brewpub. He brewed his own beer in the basement of the building, had a tavern on the first floor and advertised his lager by placing a beer barrel atop a 10-foot pillar in front.

— Main Street, which has seen several historic buildings renovated recently as it is rebounding after decades of decline, has gotten another taste of its authentic past.

Martha Fowler’s family has owned the building at 1631 Main St. – perhaps the street’s oldest building -- since it was built, probably in 1865, after fire destroyed much of downtown Columbia during the Civil War. Fowler has renovated the building to historical requirements for landmark status and has erected a unique sign that harkens to Columbia’s past – a beer barrel on a pillar.

In October 1873, Fowler’s great-great-grandfather, John Conrad Seegers, opened what was essentially a 19th Century brewpub. He brewed his own beer in the basement of the building, had a tavern on the first floor and advertised his lager by placing a beer barrel atop a 10-foot pillar in front.

Fowler recently renovated the building at a cost of $400,000, and erected a new pillar and barrel to help bring a bit of historical authenticity to the 1600 block of Main, which is undergoing a renaissance with the establishment of Mast General Store, Nickelodeon Theater and an Agape Senior health care provider in newly renovated old buildings. In addition, new restaurants and retailers are opening along the street almost weekly, and next year, 800 students and young professionals will move into the newly renovated 21-story Palmetto Center.

City Council last month approved the sign.

“The only way we knew it was there was from (an 1880) photograph,” Fowler said. “I thought it would be a nod to history and be something for people to talk about. It’s public art.”

‘What says beer more than a barrel?’

The barrel will bear the same words it did back in the day: “J.C. Seegers Lager Beer Brewers.”

Having a saloon and brewing one’s own beer was not unusual in and around what we now call the Midlands, which hosted large German settlements long before Columbia was even city. Beer brewing came here in the early 1730s with German settlers, according to a paper “Beer and Breweries in 19th Century Columbia South Carolina” produced by T. Gordon McLeod for the Historic Columbia Foundation.

One of the most popular settlement areas, between the Broad and Saluda rivers, is called “Dutch Fork” even today, not because the people who settled there were from Holland, but because they were Germans, which in their language meant “Deutsche.”

Seegers migrated from Haste, Germany to Columbia by way of Charleston in 1848. Before the Civil War, Seegers had several successful businesses including a dry goods store and a butcher shop.

After the war, he established the brewery and saloon at 1631 Main – one of many in the city run by German immigrants.

A barrel on a pole may seem like an odd way to advertise today, but in an age when many people were illiterate, such objects were often used to identify a business, said John Sherrer of Historic Columbia. Main Street also has had a large shoe, eyeglasses and even a golden horse, he said.

“It’s a marketing ploy. What says beer more than a barrel?” said Sherrer, who said he likes the new barrel sign. “It’s historically viable. It’s fun, and it’s cool,” he said.

A long history

The building now houses not a brewery, but the Mad Monkey advertising agency, which moved there from the Vista in June.

Fowler said Main Street’s new momentum and the city and county Bailey Bills – which freeze taxes to pre-renovation levels for 20 years – made it possible to do the work. The building, valued at $150,000 before the renovations, is now appraised at $576,000, Fowler said.

While the sign is a reproduction, inside is some authentic history.

On one wall, the name and logo of the Richland Volunteer Rifles - a militia unit formed by men of privilege perhaps in the early 1800s that went on to fight as a unit in the Civil War - is stenciled. The building is believed to have been the home of the unit after the war and the name was stenciled, perhaps in 1900 after the unit returned from Spanish American War training.

The building, which had been a wig and nail shop for years, also now features exposed brick walls, original maple and heart pine floors and an original sliding iron door.

Whether it is the oldest building on Main Street, however, slightly older than the Brennen Building and building housing Marks Menswear, is still being debated, said city planner Staci Richey, who prepared a report on the building for City Council.

While it was built in 1865, after the fire that erupted when Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union troops roared through Columbia near the end of the Civil War, other buildings on Main have yet to be studied in detail.

“It might be,” she said. “It’s the oldest known to date.”

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