From Boundary Street to Bowens Island
When Cile Barber first visited Newberry, she had no intention of staying. She and her husband, Robert Barber, both Charleston natives, had been living in Columbia for nearly 27 years. Upon the recommendation of a friend, Cile visited Newberry to go see the iconic home at 1103 Calhoun Street with its large, white Corinthian columns. The man in the home spoke to her and suggested she go view a house just around the corner over on Boundary Street. Cile was not interested in window-shopping for a new home. “I said, ‘I don’t want to look at a house. We’re going to live on Bowens Island. We’re going to go back to Charleston.’” She had a point. Both Robert and Cile grew up in Charleston. If they were going to uproot and move anywhere, it would certainly be back on the coast where their memories began and families’ roots ran deep. That’s when she saw the house.
“I knew my husband would like it because it’s the kind of house he always liked,” Cile said. “We like the old houses and antiques and all that and so I called him; he said ‘Oh, well, we’ll come and we’ll take a look at it sometime.’” The Barbers scheduled an appropriate time with the current homeowners, the Jordans, to visit the home; upon visiting, they enjoyed the both the home and the owners immensely. Thus, began the deliberation. The benefits were obvious; the home in Columbia was close enough to his work that he could easily come home for lunch with his wife and, with a little wise timing, make a straight shot to and from work each day. Cile, weighing the pros and cons, spoke up. “I was 55 and he was 61 and I said, ‘Two old people don’t need to be moving to a town where they don’t even know one person. Not one.’” Mr. Barber admitted she was right. “He didn’t say too much more and then we went to bed. The next day, twelve o’clock rolled around and he didn’t come home for lunch and so I waited a while.” She kept waiting; he still didn’t come home. Mrs. Barber called his secretary and asked where he was, only to be told that he was out to lunch. Mrs. Barber was puzzled, seeing as how she was sitting at their home in Columbia waiting on him to have lunch with her. “So, at four o’clock, he walks in the door. I said, ‘Where in the world have you been?’” Their son, Mike, followed his father inside. “’Mike, you want to buy this house?’” Mrs. Barber recalls her husband asking. Mike answered yes. “‘Well, I might have bought a house today,’ Cile recalls her husband answering. “I said, ‘What?’” In 1985, Mr. and Mrs. Barber moved to Newberry.
Having just uprooted and moved to an entirely new place, the Barbers started to realize the curiosity of their situation. “It’s so funny because we didn’t know anybody, and I kept thinking our children are all out of college,” Mrs. Barber said. “I said, ‘What are we going to do?’ We left our church because I wasn’t going to go forty miles to church every day.” That’s where the subtle charm of Newberry’s people started to take root. Mrs. Jordan, the woman who had just sold her home to the Barbers, sincerely insisted on taking Cile with her to Central United Methodist Church to go to choir practice each week. The kindness was not forgotten.
Now settled in the new home, Robert and Cile Barber were faced with the realities of being empty-nesters in a new town. Robert was going to have to do some traveling all over the state for work; this would mark the very first time Cile had ever been by herself. “I’m one of six children and I had six children,” Cile laughed. The ineffable qualities of Newberry’s residents became obvious. “I never felt uncomfortable even though it was a big house and in a strange place where you don’t know anybody. Of course, the Dickerts lived across the street and they were wonderful. I know it would have taken us a lot longer to get to know Newberry if it wasn’t for the Dickerts. They just introduced us to people and they were just there for us.” Acts of kindness could be found throughout the town as they came to know its ins and outs.
The Opera House became a significant part of the Barber’s life in Newberry. Cile quickly got involved by joining the Opera House board, frequently meeting to foster the growth and development of a huge staple of Newberry. The Barbers found their home. “I just loved it and so did he,” Cile said. Even though her husband wasn’t on the board with her, his love of the Opera House and desire to see his wife thrive meant a world of opportunity. “Anything I wanted to do at that Opera House, he was right there. He loved it. Loved every minute of it. We used to go once a year with Newberry Federal to New York to go to the shows and stuff. After the Opera House opened, we just got season tickets and we didn’t go [to New York] anymore because they have a lot of things that we really liked,” Cile laughed.
With their desire to see the Opera House thrive, the Barbers began what would become a tradition and signature mark of both their good intentions and family roots: the Opera House oyster roast fundraiser. The idea’s inception began as a Valentine’s Day dinner at their home for around fifty people. Themed as a Victorian evening in Newberry, the dinner was created in remembrance of their dear friend, Bill Carter, and was intended to raise money for the Opera House. After hosting several successful fundraisers at their home, Cile and Robert decided to have an oyster roast. The success was obvious and immediate. “That’s the easiest money raiser you can have because for people in Newberry, there’s a nucleus that love oysters and they don’t have access to them,” said Mrs. Barber. For nearly fifteen years, the Barber family has been supplying oysters for the annual fundraiser. Held on the first Sunday of November each year, the tradition shows no signs of abating.
The Barber family are no strangers to seafood. Long ago, Robert’s mother and stepfather, May and Jimmie Bowen, purchased a 14-acre island near Folly Beach, settled on the island and began the now landmark Bowens Island Restaurant in 1946. Renowned for their coastal cuisine and one-of-a-kind atmosphere, Bowens Island Restaurant has been featured on numerous primetime television shows, print publications and used as a location for the 2010 film Dear John. Every surface in the historied restaurant bears the scrawled names, dates and humor of its patrons from its many decades of being in business. In 2006, tragedy befell the Barbers and Bowens Island Restaurant when it was destroyed by fire. It was devastating; not only had they witnessed the sudden and swift destruction of their family’s historic restaurant, but the pain struck deeper. All those years, all those walls marked with the ink, paint and knife-etched memories of so many people were swept away as well. Cile and Robert’s son and proprietor of the restaurant, Robert Barber Jr., was faced with rebuilding the restaurant. Cile recalls, “I said, ‘Robert, you’re not going to let people write all over the walls, are you?’ He said, ‘Mom, that’s a tradition; I have to let them do that.’” And he did.
An even greater tragedy came in more recent years when Robert Barber Sr. became terribly sick and was given three months to live. In his tenacity, Robert fought on for three more years before passing February 1st of 2015. Several months before passing, when doctors had informed the Barbers that no further treatment options were available, Cile and Robert made the choice to leave Newberry and return to the home they knew so well on Bowens Island and spend their ever-precious moments together with the majority of their continually blossoming family tree on the salt-aired Charleston coast.
And in the hardship of the fire, of what was lost of the original cornerstone of a folk-hero legend, of all the names left on every surface of the building that burned, now, a bigger, greater, vivacious restaurant exists with even bigger walls and broader, virgin surfaces upon which families tattoo and return and remember in the years to come. So, too, is Cile and Robert Barber’s legacy in Newberry; yes, her one, enduring love may have slipped the surly bonds of earth, but Cile is better for having known and loved him; her family has grown and grown and continues to blossom from the cornerstone of their love. Just as Bowens Island serves as the halcyon paradise many in the Barber family call home, so, too, does Newberry bear the kind fruit of Robert and Cile Barber’s life in this beautiful, changing town; it is far sweeter, far more precious for having known their presence and merriment. And each year, as the Opera House hosts its fundraiser, so, too, can you catch the whiff of oysters roasting, taste the fruits of the Barber family’s labors and remember that they, too, have never forgotten Newberry, the Opera House or the kind hearts that welcomed them.