New bridge puts a homey bar at risk

For years, the Little Brown Jug has been a tiny but beloved social spot

Staff WriterAugust 29, 2009 

The bridge over the Neuse River in downtown Smithfield helps tie the community together, connecting downtown with points west.

But as the state Department of Transportation reveals plans to replace the aging structure, the fate of the bridge has divided the community over issues of time, traffic and beer.

Depending on how it's built, the new bridge could require the destruction of the Little Brown Jug, a beloved 800-square-foot joint once run by Ava Gardner's brother. If the bar stays, downtown merchants are afraid a construction detour would drive away customers. Although crowds aren't publicly clamoring for the bar to close, the choices provided so far have left townspeople frustrated.

"It's really pitting neighbor against neighbor," said Chris Johnson, executive director of the Downtown Smithfield Development Corp. "You're talking about a construction area that is basically the lifeblood of the community."

DOT has presented two options: tear down the four-lane bridge all at once and divert traffic around downtown, or build the bridge piecemeal, leaving two lanes open during construction.

The first idea would leave the bar standing, to the detriment of downtown merchants who depend on traffic flow. The second would let the traffic through, but would likely mean the end of the bar.

The Jug, perched on a bluff just above the river, is the kind of place where a bartender twists the top off a Natural Light before the customer makes it to his stool. Regulars boast the beer is the coldest in Johnston County, and the jukebox booms old country hits as well as modern rock, a reflection of the diverse age of its clientele. Old beer cans, including a camouflage one based on the "M*A*S*H" TV show, decorate the wall behind the bar.

In his 50 years of visiting the Little Brown Jug, David Lee has experienced his share of changes. Bar owners have come and gone, and tastes have shifted, too: when he was a kid, there was no lime-cactus beer.

But through the years, the Jug has always been a relaxed, homey place, and that atmosphere began with the original barkeep.

"Jack Gardner wouldn't put up with any foolishness," said Lee, 68, sipping on one of those fruit-infused beverages.

Foolishness, though, is exactly what bar patrons think about the possibility of the Jug's demise.

The Jug's origins

Although a title search on the bar puts a structure in its spot in 1919, owner Jeanette Schultz doesn't believe that building is still standing. Later designed as a Pure Oil gas station, the Jug today resembles an English cottage. Because of its extensive exterior renovations, the Jug wouldn't qualify for the National Register of Historic Places.

If traffic is diverted during demolition and construction, the new bridge could be designed so the bar wouldn't be affected, said Ahmad Al-Sharawneh, the DOT engineer in charge of the project. If built in stages, the new bridge could not be built in the exact same spot as the old one, meaning the Jug would probably have to go.

It's time for the old bridge to come down, Al-Sharawneh said. Built in 1924 and reconstructed in 1952, the bridge, like every other bridge in North Carolina, is inspected at least every two years. Its last inspection ruled it structurally sound, but obsolete.

If the bridge is built all at once, construction would take about two years. If left open to traffic, it could take as long as three, Al-Sharawneh said. The project's initial cost has been estimated at $5.45 million.

The fact that DOT doesn't plan to start construction until 2012 hasn't stopped people from fretting over what might happen when building begins. The Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce recently conducted a survey, with 64 percent of respondents saying they would prefer the bridge be closed and traffic diverted around downtown.

"There's nothing good about this whole situation," said Chris Kinkade, who runs two downtown businesses with his wife, Becky.

If traffic is forced to detour, he fears their coffee and book shop will be put out of business.

Schultz understands how he feels. She and her husband, Carl, bought the Jug three years ago, and have put more than $250,000 into the business, which became a bar in the 1950s. Although the couple has added a screened porch and deck, the original bar is much the same as always. If the DOT cut her a check for the property, she could move the bar, an unappealing choice.

"It's not the Little Brown Jug in a strip mall," she said.

Al-Sharawneh said DOT is still combing through all the construction possibilities and plans to make a recommendation by the end of the year. He did not dismiss the idea that a plan could be found that would keep traffic flowing while also keeping the bar, which is the hope of the Downtown Smithfield Development Corp.

"We're doing everything that we can to save the Little Brown Jug," he said. "It seems like it's very important to the people there."

To Kinkade, solving the dilemma comes down to technological ingenuity.

"We are the United States of America. We put a man of the moon for goodness sakes," he said. "If we can put a man on the moon, we can build a bridge and save the Little Brown Jug."

matt.ehlers@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4889

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