By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(Oct. 11, 2018) Highlighting the 150th anniversary celebration of the Town of Berlin’s incorporation on Saturday is a man whose roots in the town go back three generations, Mayor Gee Williams.
Williams is scheduled to deliver remarks on the historic occasion at 2 p.m. on Artisan’s Green.
“It’s a big day for Berlin,” he said. “My plan is just to make some remarks that are appropriate to the occasion, that honors our past, talks about where we are today, and the opportunities for the foreseeable future.”
Williams jokingly promised his speech would not be overly long.
“Basically, it will be more about how we have come to grow and change as a community, changing with the times,” he said. “I don’t think any of it was purely by happenstance. It’s kind of like the analogy: it’s not what happens to you as a human being, it’s how you react to it. I think that’s a perfect analogy for our little town.
“I certainly will do everything I can not to make it boring!” Williams continued. “I don’t want anyone to fall asleep, but at the same time I hope to make it something that people can reflect on and that gives a little bit of insight about the kind of community we have become over time, and about the possibilities for our future.”
Williams’ grandfather, W. G. Williams Sr., grew up in southern Sussex County and moved to Berlin during the late 1920s.
After selling his share of a timber business operating in North Carolina, he started the first feed business in northern Worcester County, Berlin’s Best Feed. One year after prohibition ended, in 1933, he approached Worcester County officials about obtaining a beer and wine license.
“They told him, Mr. Williams, we’d be glad to help you, but we don’t have any license board and we don’t have any regulations, but we’ll get right back to you,” Williams said.
Within a month, the regulations were in place and he returned. Williams said his grandfather then obtained Worcester County’s beer and wine license number “001.”
“It was a good while later before they had a second license, which was in Ocean City,” Williams said. “They had a very difficult time getting the restaurants and bars to apply for licenses, because they simply said, ‘Why should we get one of those when we can make so much more money selling it like we do?’”
- G. Williams Sr. opened Williams Tavern during the 1930s in Berlin and sold the business to his son in 1969, who then operated it until he passed away in 1987. Williams said his mother held onto the tavern until the mid 1990s.
Along with being the first restaurant and bar to hold an alcohol license in Worcester County, Williams Tavern also was one of the first to serve African Americans.
Williams, in a 2015 interview in this paper, recalled getting know “dozens and dozens of black members of the community of Berlin” as a cook and server at Williams Tavern. He started working there at age 11.
In the same interview, Gregory Purnell, who frequently speaks on behalf of the local African-American community, said of Williams, “He’ll go down in Berlin history, not just as the mayor, but as a catalyst for the culture and the Berlin experience.”
“There are families with deeper and longer roots, but in terms of having communication with a broad spectrum of people in this town, I think that’s part of my family’s legacy – and we’re very lucky,” Williams said.
William Gee Williams III enjoyed a career as a journalist and newspaper publisher. He was elected to the Town Council in 2003 and became acting mayor in 2008 when then-Mayor Thomas Cardinale passed away in office.
Williams was elected mayor in 2008, 2012 and in 2016.
“There are so many stories and so many families – the Phillips family, the Harrison family, the Esham family, the Moore family, as well as the Ayres, Hall, Purnell and Whaley families, and many, many others that have deep, deep roots easily into the 1800s – if not even later,” Williams said. “Like most small towns, every generation has had to stumble to create opportunities for the next generation, but here at least we’ve always kept these core families that have been able to plant their roots here,” he continued.
“That has created the core that has now made it possible for people from all kinds of background with all kinds of diversity – who share our values – to come here and succeed. And it’s more about shared values than who your family is,” Williams said.
The story of the Town of Berlin today is a story of success. During the last five or so years, national publications almost weekly have named the small town of just 4,000-5,000 people one of the best in the country for its shopping, its robust event schedule, and its historical charm.
“It’s an unexpected pleasure, which I think also sums up a lot of peoples’ experience when they first come to Berlin,” Williams said. “Certainly, I never expected this to happen during my lifetime, and certainly not during my public trusteeship as mayor of the town.
“It’s been very gratifying, not only as mayor but as a lifelong resident, to see what a small community can do when everybody gets involved,” he continued. “Everybody doesn’t have to do everything, but I think most people have to do something to support the folks who are trying to get things done.”
To put it another way, Williams added, “All things must change, but our responsibility as citizens is to make sure that as a community we make sure we make changes that are for the better.”
“Hopefully, this brief moment in time for our 150th anniversary will be not just about what we’ve done, but what we can possibly do in the future to build upon all the work that came before,” he said.