by Gretchen Stringer-Robinson
Bowen’s Island, published by Evening Post Books, mirrors the comfortable style of its subject. The book provides information about the Barber family, the restaurant and island itself, as well as photos and recipes.
Incorporating a time-line, interviews, and newspaper articles, it is a wonderful souvenir as well as a history book. Heck, I guess it’s a cookbook too!
With a forward by John M. Burbage, historical author and editor at the Post & Courier, and an introduction by southern historian William P. Baldwin, the book’s pedigree is in place.
But don’t think that this is a dry tome filled with dreary facts. Not with May Bowen and her crew of big-hearted, colorful family and friends. The personal reminiscences and the photographs carry you right back to the restaurant as it was “in the day.”
If you’ve never been to the Bowen’s Island Restaurant, go – now! You’ll find good Southern comfort food in a lovely setting on Folly Creek, with the echo of the past still wafting in the breeze. The old restaurant with its graffiti-strewn walls and collection of old T.V.s, hairdryers, old tables, and rickety chairs is gone but only physically.
Some of the mystic cook John Sanka’s essence must have taken hold because the oldsters who have gone on, well, they aren’t really gone at all. You feel as if they’re sitting next to you in the “new” restaurant and in the dock house. But not in a creepy way! No, in a sociable, “Are you going to eat that or not?” way.
May Bowen may have been gruff to visitors, and I personally remember being intimidated by her when my now-husband took me to Bowen’s Island on a date. But her food was good and her heart was big.
Interview with Robert Barber and Andy Weiner
I was able to talk to Robert Barber, who even when elected to the S.C. House of Representatives, has always been a very down-to-earth person. To follow are some question-and-answers from him:
GSR: Loved this book. It was a fun read. And the pictures!
RB: We ran an ad in the Post & Courier for people’s pictures. Most of my Bowen’s Island memorabilia was destroyed in the fire at my home in 2011. It really made me glad to see the response.
GSR: Where can people get the book?
RB: It’s available at the restaurant, through me, or through Evening Post Books. There will be some book signings in the future.
GSR: I’ll send you our link. We’d like to know about those so we can tell folks. I liked the recipes too.
RB: Yes, after all the folks who proof-read the book, we omitted the canned tomatoes in the spaghetti sauce recipe. We’ll update that in the next reprinting. So, add canned tomatoes!
GSR: Do you know why (or how) the palmetto tree came to grow out of the restaurant? Did they build around the tree?
RB: That tree was growing in front of the old restaurant. My grandmother used to sit on the porch and they ended up roofing the porch and screening it in and when they did that, they didn’t want to take the tree out.
Then when we built the new restaurant the tree was there, so we built around it.
GSR: What’s your earliest memory of the restaurant?
RB: There’s a picture of my grandfather in the book where he’s standing at the end of the building right outside the oyster room. He’s by the door where you would bring the oysters in.
To the right of where he’s standing, we had a pit made of concrete blocks with a sheet of tin, like you used to cook oysters, and we had a couple of sawhorses with plywood on them. People would come and tell us how much they wanted and we’d cook the oysters for them.
I remember standing over where the oysters were cooked. I think I was about four.
GSR: Any idea when the first person put graffiti on the walls?
RB: Some people swear they wrote on the walls in the 50s, but I used to have a picture of a small group of nursing students from M.U.S.C. from 1972. There was no writing on the wall near them then. I’d say late 60s, early 70s was when it started.
GSR: Do you know when you first started having live music at the dock house?
RB: Not off the top of my head. Maybe in the late 90s. Andy Weiner has a good memory about the music. You should ask him.
So I did….
GSR: Do you recall when they started having music at the dock house on the island?
AW: That dock house was built by Richard Pinckney. I helped him on it. He had a sailboat and a pile driver and we built it. At first we did benefits. Jon Elder, who ran Bert’s Bar on Sullivan’s Island, headed up a couple of events and Billy Walton, who managed Cumberland’s, he did some.
My first was “Rock for Kids” in 1999 for Camp Good Times, for kids with autism. They needed money because Mark Sanford had stopped their funding. Hootie and the Blowfish contributed. Then we did some Piccolo Spoleto in about 2000. We started the Blues Series there too. I have some DVDs of the Bowen’s Island Memorial Day concert.
Go to the restaurant, have a great dinner, and buy this book
The book includes interviews with the cook, a retired oyster-picker, and others. There is an NPR interview with Robert Barber and Sammy Backman discussing their memories, the oyster-men, and the future of oystering.
This is something you don’t think about when you go to a restaurant: who was there before, how they worked, what their concerns were, and what the concerns are today.
For all its simplicity, Bowen’s Island delivers a multi-layered look at a small spit of sand where hearts beat, lives were lived, and people worked, hard.
Gretchen Stringer is our History Correspondent and an Adjunct History Instructor at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College and Central Carolina.