CLEMSON -- The famed columnist Lewis Grizzard once considered placing a personal ad seeking a Georgia coed that would attend the games with him and not “think that getting down on one’s knees and barking at a Clemson fan was odd behavior.”
Grizzard loved his Georgia Bulldogs.
Having a Budweiser with his friends in a hole-in-the-wall bar likely came in a close second. Many of his columns were stories of his drinking buddies in Georgia.
He surely thought Clemson wasn’t such a bad place after he traveled to the ESSO Club in 1978.
“He cemented our reputation,” said regular “Punk” Bodiford.
Grizzard came to the ESSO Club before Clemson traveled to Georgia that year. He wrote a column for the Atlanta Constitution telling the Southeast about the place. According to most of the old-timers, the place was never the same.
It was the kind of place that Grizzard loved - enough characters to fill a year full of columns. But there was the matter of the stadium a few hundred yards away, and, well, blood is thicker than beer. No one can remember if he came back. But he helped introduce the rest of the world to a Clemson landmark.
The Esso Club |
Not that it needed the publicity, but suddenly a self-described redneck hangout was hip. The regulars remember the place becoming a lot more popular when Clemson football took off in the late 70’s. In the 80’s CBS started coming to Clemson and play-by-play announcer Brent Musberger found the place. He began stopping by anytime he was in Clemson. Now, the nation knew about the place.
It became a Clemson landmark, a constant reminder of the small-town, backwoods atmosphere people associate with Clemson. For some it was proof of Clemson’s redneck status. For the rest it’s a sign that no matter how big Clemson football makes Clemson, there’s something about the place that never changes.
It’s Southern, and while the South is having a hard time these days keeping its identity, the ESSO Club doesn’t look like its going to be changing anytime soon. Travel any secondary road in South Carolina and you’ll find a gas station that doubles as a Saturday night hangout for the locals. That there is one across the street from Death Valley somehow gives Clemson part of its identity.
The New Esso Club |
While you can see a panorama of Death Valley, Littlejohn Coliseum and Jervey Athletic Center from the benches outside the ESSO Club, the view from Death Valley toward the ESSO Club is reassuring. Clemson hasn’t changed and probably won’t.
Current owner Ron Lee is about to start renovating the place - an attempt to bring it up to code. As the property has passed through about six owners since the early part of the century, upkeep hasn’t been a top priority. Just keeping the place open has been a struggle at times.
The Spittoono Festival was started in 1981 as an effort to raise enough cash for the owner to serve beer for the first football game. According to Bodiford, Bob Higby, the owner at the time, didn’t have the cash on hand to buy the beer and the distributors wouldn’t allow purchases on credit. The regulars came up with the idea of having a square dance and selling t-shirts. After buying the beer, there was enough money left over for a local charity.
Bodiford is regarded as the local historian because he’s been hanging around for the better part of 25 years and his grandfather took the first drink at the location in 1933.
“I’m told that it was a general store type place,” he says. “The first beer ever sold on this corner was sold to Harry O. Bodiford. Right down there on the corner where the original service station was.”
It’s tempting to say that little has changed about the ESSO Club since that day, even though there have been many changes through the years. The place has at various times served as a general store, gas and service station and then a bar. As it has evolved, the interior has changed - the bar was originally in a small room off to the right of the present bar’s location. However, little attention has been paid to cosmetics, which is part of what gives the ESSO Club its charm.
“You don’t want to make a lot of changes,” said Lee. “You have got a lot of older men and women that don’t want the place to change at all. There’s a lot of history here, you want to keep it just like it is.”
Lee is raising funds to make some improvements to the structure - all with the approval of the regulars.
There will be a new roof, ceiling and floor in the pool room, a new heating and cooling system, repairs to the outside stage and the women’s restrooms will be upgraded. They walls are deteriorating from moisture, so they’ll be repaired and a retaining wall is being constructed behind the building.
And if Grizzard were still around, you get the feeling he would approve as well -- the place after all will still serve Budweiser and contain some of the best conversation around.