GREENSBORO, NC — Greensboro’s brewery community is – despite the pandemic – quite vibrant. That said, the downtown beer scene has been in existence since before the city’s population reached 1,000 people.
“There were less than 500 people in town, but it was still served by five stores and three saloons,” says Richard Cox, digital technology consultant at UNC Greensboro and researcher for Well Crafted NC.
Cox says the project found evidence of the city’s first saloon in Greensboro’s first town census in 1829.
“We found some from 1850s to 1870s and then it sort of explodes at that point,” he details.
By 1899, Cox says there were ten to 15 saloons solely on Elm Street.
“Then as you got farther away from Elm Street you’d actually start finding saloons that were in houses,” he adds.
In total, Cox says his team has discovered more than 30 saloons in Greensboro, mostly centered around Elm Street and the train tracks.
“That was our Main Street, there is the tracks there, which means there’s travelers, it also means that’s where people are leaving work and they’re gonna congregate there,” Cox says.
That is, until January 1909, when prohibition kicked in.
“There was some people being misled they feel, in that a lot of people who voted for prohibition thought beer was going to be excluded,” Cox says.
The next year, some saloons owners were able to adjust when an exemption was passed for gentlemen’s clubs. Two years later, however, that exemption was closed.
“Then you have these gentlemen clubs that are closing, which feeds right into speakeasies and blind tigers,” Cox details.
When prohibition slowly ended, North Carolina still had state laws in effect which didn’t start coming apart until 1935 with local option laws, Cox says.
Then, breweries began to try to start up. Budweiser explored building a brewery in Greensboro for about a year, but it never came to fruition.
“Schlitz, of course, ended up building the largest brewery ever – at that point – in Winston-Salem, and then later in Eden, Miller welcomed a large brewery,” Cox says.
With the next phase came craft breweries in the mid-80s, breathing new life into the buildings which once housed the city’s first saloons.
“You just walk down South Elm Street you’ll see old bank vaults, or saloon pieces or times of history in the area and you don’t really acknowledge or realize how far back it does go,” says Karmen Bulmer, general manager at Little Brother Brewing on South Elm Street.
Bulmer says when they first moved in, they found pre-prohibition bottles in the building.
“That was one of those moments when I realized this place has a ton of history,” she adds.
The building that’s currently home to Little Brother Brewing was once the C.C. Shoffner and J.R. Stewart saloons. Across the street, Natty Greene’s is in the building which once housed the R.P. Gorrell saloon.
Across the tracks, a renovated building now home to The Christman Company was once the Cascade Saloon. Even the F.W. Woolworth store, the site of the famed “sit-ins” in 1960, was once the Benbow House Bar located within the Guilford Benbow Hotel.
“You kind of imagine people hustling and bustling off the train from work,” Bulmer says, looking out of one of Little Brother’s windows in the direction of the train tracks.
Although the saloons were once considered taboo depending on one’s beliefs, the modern-day breweries throughout the city are now viewed as anchors.
“They’re community hubs,” Bulmer adds. “They give you that insight into that piece of the community.”
If we can learn from history, looking at how long it took for the beer scene to recover from prohibition places added emphasis on the importance of the breweries prevailing over the pandemic.
“The brewery community is so inviting, it’s very welcoming,” Bulmer details. “A lot of co-op-etition, we’re all kind of helping lift each other up.”