(Photo courtesy Library of Virginia)
Richmonders of a certain vintage associate Climax with an animated electric sign on Belle Isle. It all began with the city's beery past.
Beginning in the early 1930s, drivers on the Lee Bridge spied the sign — not so different from the Sauer's sign on Broad Street — that read "Richmond Va. Home of Climax Beverages." It faced the bridge and backed up against Hollywood Cemetery.
The story of how Climax came to be in the middle of the James River begins with beer and natural springs.
Beer and Richmond may not seem a likely connection, but throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, the city boasted several busy breweries.
A remnant of that frothy era is in the Carver community, at 1125 W. Clay St. Here, between 1933 and 1969, Home Brewing Co. produced Richbrau Beer. Home Brewing, originally founded by the energetic Peter Stumpf as Richmond Brewing Co. in 1893, changed its name in 1897. By then, there'd been brewing activity on or near that location since around 1868.
Home Brewing, under the guidance of Fred "Fritz" Sitterding Sr., survived the national prohibition of alcohol by producing soft drinks and bottling drinking water in pre-filtration Richmond. By 1916, Sitterding purchased the Beaufont Lithia Springs company that produced water from springs at Beaufont (approximately where the Chesterfield Towne Center is today).
Sitterding used the verdant acreage as a family gathering place and for public rental. In 1926, he renamed the water division the Beaufont, but by 1932, public water treatment lessened the demand for bottled water. Instead, a different thirst required quenching.
At the end of that dry summer, the Virginia General Assembly legalized 3.2-percent-alcohol beer. William and Fritz Sitterding, with brewmaster George A. Bernier Sr., got the brewing band back together again.
That year, too, Home Brewing formed its Climax Beverages division, which included the tart ginger ale made with real ginger (and, as family tradition goes, a smidgen of cayenne pepper).
The Climax sign may have been installed on Belle Isle around 1932. Celie Florence, a direct descendant of the Sitterdings, remembers seeing the sign her whole life. "We'd go down to picnics at Beaufont across the bridge and it was always there," says Florence, who is now in her 60s.
Florence's lifelong obsession with airplanes may stem from the time when as a little girl, "if I was very, very good," her parents would take her to Byrd Field (now Richmond International Airport) to watch aircraft take off and land. She even got to go into the control tower. "The Climax sign and the beacon on top of the MCV tower were used by pilots to vector in their approach to the airport," she says.
At night, the Climax sign showed its stuff. Radiating from the "i" were several neon lines that flashed off and on, giving the appearance of rising and popping bubbles. Richmond then had a wealth of wonderful neon signs, many of which were designed by native Lewis L. Rudd, who died in 2001.
On Nov. 18, 1955, a Library of Virginia photographer went to Belle Isle to record the Climax sign in daytime repose. Why is not clear. By 1965, the Climax sign transitioned to the less dynamic Philip Morris billboard that nonetheless retained the clock. Thus, Richmond was deprived of a vivid landmark for commercial interstitials and tourist photos.
In June 1969, Home Brewing sold Climax Beverages and the Central Virginia Tru-Ade franchise to the newly formed Climax-Tru-Ade Bottling. Richmond lawyer John T. Grigsby intended to establish the plant at 1609 E. Franklin St., but this venture doesn't seem to have gotten off the ground.
Home Brewing, a small company that long predated the microbrewery and craft-beer craze, couldn't compete against the distribution tactics of larger producers. In October 1969, Home Brewing announced it was halting operations, citing three years of operating losses. The Richmond Times- Dispatch, perhaps somewhat facetiously, called it the "Saddest Day in Richmond Since April 1865."
The Richbrau brand, unaffiliated with the prior firm, was revived as a Shockoe Slip microbrewery in 1993, although it closed in 2010.
Mike Valentine, Celie Florence's son and a collector of Home Brewing and Climax paraphernalia, recalls seeing bottles using the "Climax Ginger Ale" name as late as 2001. "Northern Neck Ginger Ale is the closest I've ever gotten to the way it tasted," he says.