Just as century-old wagon wheel ruts have disappeared with time, so have dozens of landmarks across the Upstate that bore the fingerprints of the Sirrine family. A handful still stand as a testament to the New England sensibilities and Southern passion that grew within the heart of George W. Sirrine. He passed on his powerful potion of energy and ideas to his sons, resulting in both generations creating business infrastructure and social amenities that propelled Greenville into a global spotlight.
George Sirrine was born in Connecticut, yet raised in Americus, Georgia. After chasing Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s army as a scout in the “War Between the States,” he entered the carriage and wagon business like his father. In 1876, he moved to Greenville to manage the firm that became Markley Hardware & Manufacturing Company. Yet it was the patriarch’s work outside his chosen profession that made the biggest impact on the community.
“You name it, and if it was good, he was there,” says local historian and writer Judy Bainbridge. “George was involved in almost every enlightened project in Greenville in the 1880s and ’90s and into the next century. He was also in favor of women’s suffrage, which was really unusual.”
The family had barely moved to Greenville when George Sirrine joined the committee establishing the Upstate’s first Young Men’s Christian Association. By 1889, “the finest and best arranged” YMCA in South Carolina was operating inside the old courthouse, with a gym, rec rooms and parlors. Several years later, with his wife, Sarah, the Sirrines housed the city’s first free public library inside their modest home on West McBee Avenue.
In the 1890s, when typhoid threatened the region, George Sirrine formed and led the Greenville Hospital Association to raise funds for a city medical facility. Ten years later, an 84-bed hospital opened that grew into the Greenville Hospital System, which today operates as Prisma Health-Upstate.
But the public-service endeavor he promoted until his death was education. After retiring from the buggy business, George Sirrine became trustee of Greenville City Schools. He rose to chairman of the board, and by the time he died he was molding the education of an estimated 6,000-7,000 students a year.
“No question about it. Both father and sons were very influential in Greenville’s growth,” Bainbridge explains. “They were deeply involved in everything going on.” And it was about to get deeper.
The lawyer & the engineer
George Sirrine’s oldest son, William Sirrine, appeared to be the adventurer, studying at the University of South Carolina, working as a reporter in New York City and serving in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. He eventually returned home to Greenville and was elected city attorney.
“William didn’t finish at South Carolina,” reveals Bainbridge. “He passed the bar after he was a reporter, and a good one at that. The boys were in totally different occupations. They obviously enjoyed what they were doing.”
Younger brother Joseph Sirrine graduated from Furman University in 1890 and quickly found projects as a civil engineer. By age 25, he was the most sought-after mill designer in the region.
“Joe was an absolutely brilliant designer,” shares historian and documentary producer Don Koonce. “He designed 68 textile mills and most of the mills in Greenville’s Textile Crescent. Textiles were the foundation of the economy of this town for years and years. I’ll go out on a limb and say we might have had the Textile Crescent without Joe Sirrine, but not as many mills, and we would not have become the Textile Center of the World.”
Even on different career paths, the brothers frequently teamed together. When William Sirrine and Alester Furman convinced the U.S. Army to create Camp Sevier northeast of the city, Joseph Sirrine worked with army engineers to build it. When Joseph Sirrine constructed Textile Hall to permanently house the Southern Textile Exposition, William Sirrine served as president and treasurer.
William Sirrine also had a knack for land and real estate. He guided Greenville’s first beautification plan, pushed for paving Buncombe Road and formed the Greenville-Hendersonville Highway Association to develop easy access to the mountains. Meanwhile, Joseph Sirrine was creating the Greenville County Relief Organization, leading South Carolina’s inaugural Rotary Club and drafting plans for Greenville High.
Although neither brother had children, together they donated $1.3 million for a pediatric ward at Greenville Hospital. Yet as much as they fortified their hometown, it was their invitation to the world to visit that resonated for decades to come.
Brothers in business
During the Progressive Era at the dawn of the 20th century, Greenville was quickly growing as part of the New South. The Sirrine brothers found themselves surrounded by a circle of amenable mill owners and businessmen. In 1915, the group put together and hosted the Southern Textile Exposition, attaining national recognition for Greenville.
“They took a huge gamble on bringing the show,” explains Koonce. “It was a huge success. People from all over the country came to see it.” An estimated 40,000. Afterward, Joseph Sirrine quickly got to work building a permanent Textile Hall on West Washington Street, next to St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
The Hall and annual Expo helped secure Greenville’s reputation as the Textile Center of the World. Textile Hall housed the event, and all major community gatherings, until the Palmetto Expo Center was erected in the early 1960s.
“It’s absolutely fascinating what they accomplished,” says Koonce. “Greenville was unlike anywhere else in the world. The owners came together, they all cooperated together and had each other’s backs, and they collectively took care of their people. It goes without question: The Sirrines were a part of that and incredibly influential in building Greenville.”
It may have been the middle of the Great Depression, but the city of Greenville wanted a place to play. With combined funding from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and J.E. Sirrine, crews broke ground on a “state-of-the-art” venue in 1934.
With guidance from the Furman University Board of Trustees, the alumni architect designed the 15,000-seat stadium that took two years to build. Furman’s “House of Magic” defeated Davidson College 14-13 in the inaugural game on Halloween 1936.
“Furman does have a rich history with Sirrine dating back to the facility’s opening,” shares Associate Athletics Director Hunter Reid. “We played there from 1936 to 1980. At one time, Furman hosted Clemson and South Carolina on a rotating basis. The Paladins left Sirrine Stadium in style, defeating the Citadel 28-15 in the season finale.”
Today, Sirrine is home to the Greenville High School Red Raiders, as well as other events that have included the Greenville FC, HBCU Classic and NAIA Lacrosse Invitational.
Thomas C. Gower Main Street Bridge
An estimated 6,000 cars a day pass over the Reedy River using the Main Street Bridge. Back when the structure opened, there were only 300 car owners in all of Greenville County. The sturdy brick and concrete bridge is the third overpass to span that section of the Reedy and has stood almost half of the city’s lifetime. Joseph Sirrine began building it in 1910, completing it just over a year later for $30,000. Renovated in 2001, it’s named for Thomas Gower, who ran for mayor in 1870 on the single issue of building a bridge in the heart of downtown.
Greenville Country Club
Enter Heritage Hall at Greenville Country Club and you’re sure to meet “Cap’n Joe.” It’s only proper the club’s longest-serving president and one-time savior is memorialized in oil and canvas, clutching his favorite hickory-shaft iron.
In 1923, Joseph Sirrine spearheaded GCC’s move from a nine-hole San Souci escape to an 18-hole wonder on Byrd Boulevard. The Great Depression soon hit, and he used his own money to keep the club afloat, as well as its Dutch-Colonial clubhouse.
This year, Greenville’s premier golf establishment is celebrating 125 years. “Joe was a driving force in establishing the grounds we enjoy today,” asserts Kelly Odom, GCC History and Traditions Committee chair. “He had a genuine love of golf and was very business conscious. He went to New York City in 1919 to meet with Spalding Sporting Goods to find a legitimate golf pro. He was president for more than 30 years. His health had started to decline in ’42, and when members asked if he was ready to step down, that they’d found a replacement, he replied, ‘What took you so long?’”
Greenville County school scholarships
Joseph Sirrine didn’t just build schools for turn-of-the-century tykes — he built for students of the millennium. Without an immediate heir, Sirrine left the bulk of his estate as a perpetual memorial to his father and mother, to help local teens heading off to college.
The J.E. Sirrine Trust was established in 1947 and began awarding scholarships to Greenville County graduates in 1973. Since then, $37,819,127 has been awarded to 7,511 students. Today, scholarships range from $200-$2,000. Rob Rhodes, director of the scholarship program, says, “We are forever grateful. This gift has allowed thousands of students to realize their dreams of college and career. The impact of Mr. Sirrine’s generosity, as well as his strong support of college access, has been felt throughout the greater Greenville community for multiple generations and will be for generations to come.”
“Builder of Greenville”
Joseph Sirrine’s magical touch at the drawing board and engineering field went far beyond 68 textile mills and villages. After graduation from Furman University, he worked as a surveyor and then on regional projects for a New England-based engineering firm before forming his own company.
J.E. Sirrine & Company worked on projects from Maine to Texas, building pulp and paper mills, power plants, municipal facilities, bridges, sewer plants and tobacco factories. Closer to home, Sirrine is credited with helping create Greenville’s Masonic Building, Parker and Greenville high schools, Fourth Presbyterian Church, the Poinsett Hotel, Greenville’s Chamber of Commerce (the Liberty Building), Camp Sevier and Fort Bragg, as well as buildings at what are now Clemson and Furman universities and North Carolina State University. Structures that still stand in the area include the Cotton Warehouse at the entrance to Falls Park, as well as mills that have found a second life as condos, shops and more, including Mills Mill, Southern Bleachery & Print Works (Taylors Mill), Woodside and Brandon.
George W. Sirrine (father) Dec. 20, 1847 – Dec. 26, 1927
William G. Sirrine (Son #1) Dec. 30, 1870 – Dec. 11, 1959
Joseph E. Sirrine (Son #2) Dec. 9, 1872 – Aug. 7, 1947
Don Koonce has produced an hourlong special profiling the critical role textiles played in forming Greenville. To view “Building an Empire: The Textile Center of the World,” visit TextileEmpire.com.