The Legend of The Esso Club
By: Candice Bell and David Brown
Anyone who has been a student at Clemson University knows that The Esso Club is and always will be a “Clemson Tradition”. Its status as one of the top sports bars in the country along with the vast number of Clemson students that move about the states after graduation has made The Esso Club famous nationwide. Even with its popularity, very few people know how The Esso Club actually came to be the legend it is today. This is the beginning of a long story that still has many pieces missing. Hopefully by posting this on our website others that have knowledge on the subject can send us the missing links, or possibly even correct the efforts we have made to get this as accurate as possible.
We started working on this history over a year ago, with the help of a past owner Bob Higby. Mr. Higby has been a fountain of knowledge on this subject and during our research we were pleased to find that everything he told us was correct down to the year. Many others such as “Punk” Bodiford, Dewey Barefield, and Teddy Balk have given us information that is included in this history. As I mentioned earlier please feel free to send us comments or even stories that you remember so that we might include them if we ever put together a full and totally accurate history. So, here is the story of what used to be a small gas station, and is now a well known bar, that sits in the shadows of Death Valley.
In 1918 the Fort Hill Land Company deeded the two lots that The Esso Club currently sits on to Mr. Clint Taylor. To the best of our knowledge this is one of the first modern surveys of the property that The Esso Club and part of the Gulf Station sit on today. Mr. James A. Stevenson, a graduate of the University of Arkansas, acquired the eastern most lot on December 18, 1933, as payment for surveying the land. He also owned the property that the Tiger Den sat on. Stevenson built the first building, a gas station, on the property, and the pumps sat down by the road, where the stop sign is now. At that time and for many years after this, the road that is now Highway 93 was the main road to Atlanta. ( It should be noted that the only information of any building being on this property before 1933 was a fruit stand that sat near the road.) Stevenson is also the one credited with possessing the first official beer license for The Esso Club, and Harry O. Bodiford is credited with drinking the first beer here. On July 14, 1938 Stevenson purchased the other lot from Taylor and expanded his service station. This original station sat down by the road until around 1959.
Sometime between 1938 and April 12, 1940 George Feinstein became involved with the service station and the next records we find state that George signed over executive rights to his son, Isadora “Ziggy” Feinstein. Between 1940 and 1952 we speculate that Feinstein sells or turns over his business to a person named Campbell. We have been unable to find records stating exact dates for this but we do know there was a bar in the building at this time. It sat at the end of the building where the present entrance to the kitchen is.
In 1948 Folger Herman “He preferred just F.H.(Jack) Massingill” Massingill bought the business from Campbell, He was a WWII veteran of the U. S. Army. Between the years of 1956 and 1958 The Esso Club was the only place in Clemson that you could go in, sit down, and have a beer. This is when the “The Esso Club” was coined by Mr. Tom Lew Ellen. Another story says that The Esso Club got its name from some of the senior privates at Clemson University. Supposedly they did not have many credits to list below their names in the annual, so they put that they were “members of The Esso Club”.
An ROTC instructor at Clemson University, Mr. Francis Lewis, bought The Esso Club from Massingill in 1971. Bob Higby became partners with him in 1972, and it was known as Bob and Lu’s Esso Club. Higby later bought out Lewis’ interest in 1975. Higby sold gas and did minor mechanical work on cars. He rented out the back portion of the building to a Clemson student named Jack Harmon for $50/month. Jack opened up a BBQ joint in this section of the building. This is also the first time that we see noticeable renovations to the inside of the building.
Higby had Tommy Brown, who worked for Budweiser at the time, and Jimmy Howard laid him new brick to build a larger bar. This was shortly after the renovations to Death Valley. Higby was given the old seating, and he used them to lay the top of his bar. (Although there have been many owners, the old stadium seats are still used as the bar top.)
The first time that we know of The Esso Club getting some national attention was 1977. Lewis Gizzard visited Clemson to write about a pep rally the school was having. Instead he played tennis with a man named Bill Rubin and then stopped for drinks at The Esso Club, where he ran into the likes of Jimmy Howard and others. He stayed all day, thought there was nothing better to write about, and introduce the rest of the world to a Clemson landmark. (Hopefully soon we will have a copy of this article from The Atlanta Journal posted for you to read.)
Around this time there is also a character by the name of Admiral McDevitt that we would like to mention. The admiral was retired Chief Legal Counsel for Clemson University, and he would play the piano while customers sang along. Admiral McDevitt’s name needed to be included because rumor has it that he wrote Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis Speech. Whether or not there is any truth to this, we don’t know, but it is interesting regardless.
In 1981 gas prices were going up and grocery stores were becoming the place to buy beer. Higby was having trouble buying beer to sell in his bar, so with the help of some customers and employees, the grand idea of Spittoono (which was Clemson’s answer to Spoleto) was born. Spittoono, which is still around today and donates money to a variety of organizations, was started to raise money to buy beer for The Esso Club. The “redneck” version of another festival, Spittoono was a huge success, and after the first 10 The Esso Club was no longer large enough to hold all of the people, and the festival moved to the National Guard Armory on Hwy 76. (To read more about Spittoono please see our link page.)
In 1982, after the roof over the recapping area (which is now the pool room) caved in Higby was able to purchase the property form Mrs. Mary Stevenson. It had been willed to her when her husband James passed away, and she had no insurance policy on the property.
In 1985 Don Quattlebaum bought out Jack’s BBQ, and then on December 14,1985 Higby talked him into buying The Esso Club from him. Quattlebaum is the owner that decided to no longer sell gas, and to make The Esso Club the beer emporium it is now. So, here is when The Esso Service Station gives way to THE ESSO CLUB! At that time it had the square bar (you could serve on all 4 sides) that Higby built down to the left of the entrance and just about every promotional beer sign you would ever want to see.
In the late 1980’s CBS began covering some of Clemson’s sporting events. Play-by-play announcer, Brent Musberger visited after a game, and to this day still mentions The Esso Club whenever he covers Clemson athletics. The Esso Club was a magnet for students, and Clemson fans couldn’t stay away on game days. Mr. Ron Lee was the assistant manager at this time, and bought the club himself in 1997.
The year 1997 brought The Esso Club into the national spotlight once more when Sports Illustrated picked it as the “#2 Must See Sports Bar in the Nation”. Apparently things continued to run smoothly and people continued to talk because the following year ESPN The Magazine was quoted as saying “If they had a national championship for college sports bars, The Esso Club would be our pick to win it all.” Ron continued to run The Esso Club until 2003 and made it a popular place for students and professors to get cheap beer during the non-football season.
August 2003, the night before Clemson met Georgia in Death Valley, Charles Usry became the next and current owner of the famous club. This night the first liquor drinks ever sold in The Esso Club were drunk by Tyler Tucker, and Steven and Stuart Barber.
August 2003, also put The Esso Club in the pages of FHM magazine where it was chosen #17 of the top 20 places to be on a college or pro game day. Charles kept the doors open throughout football season and then shut down for a mass gutting of The Esso Club. This is the first time major repair and renovations had been done in over 25 years. Usry moved and expanded the bar, added a full service kitchen, and basically just cleaned the place up. It was something that had to be done to keep this diamond in the rough standing in one piece. Although many people did not know what to think and Usry was accused of turning The Esso Club into an Applebee’s, when the doors reopened on April 7, 2004 everyone was pleased.
August 2005 brought Co-Ed Magazine to Clemson where they interviewed a number of girls for their Clemson layout. Four were chosen and one of those girls is a bartender/waitress at The Esso Club. The Esso Club once again got national attention.
The Esso Club and Clemson tradition are practical synomonous. The business and the building that shelters it hold a very special place in so many hearts. At the beginning of any year when it is cold you will see the many regulars enjoying a cold beer and reminiscing about past years. As basketball season approaches the fan base grows just a little to those who will be walking up to Littlejohn to cheer on their Tigers.
When the weather begins to get warm students and professors alike journey down to enjoy and drink and good company on the deck. Baseball season brings in more fans before and after the games. Although summer sends many of the students back home, summer school student s enjoy one of our newest traditions, “Mexi Monday”(started by Ron Lee in the late 90s.) After summer, well of course there is football season, and The Esso Club needs no introduction for this. Almost every Clemson fan and many of the visiting team’s fans can be found catching the scores, mingling, listening to the bands that we have outside, or just having a great time.
So, if you don’t believe us come down and see The Esso Club for yourself. Enjoy the panoramic view of both Littlejohn and Death Valley. Check out the hats signed by Tim Allen, Rodney Carrington, Dick Vitale, and Brent Musberger, among many others. Be sure to take a look around at the museum it had become. The walls are covered with pictures and articles, and although The Esso Club has been through some changes, it has not lost its mustique or quaint charm. There is so much else to write, but most of it was meant to be an oral history and writing it down just might ruin all the laughs and legends.