Big Daddy's Wrightsville Beach Memories

by Carrie Davis Conway

My grandfather, age 98 September 3, affectionately known as Big Daddy, has a gift for storytelling. His blue eyes widen and dart when there is danger, twinkle mischievously when telling something naughty and grow wistful and dreamy at the lovely parts. He clasps his hands loosely in his lap or holds them fingertip-to-fingertip, prayer-like. His voice is deep and melodious and he has an infectious, booming laugh.

It is like a benediction to see him transported to childhood, to the romance of riding the surf, watching movies over the ocean under a full moon and hearing swing music drift across Banks Channel.

My grandfather s parents, Oliver and Mary Penelope Wallace, moved the family from a rented house on Dock Street in downtown Wilmington to a newly built cottage on Columbia Street in Wrightsville Beach during late summer 1928. It was a two-story house suitable for year-round living with servants  quarters underneath the home and one of the few grassy lawns on the beach.

At that point, looking south, there was nothing between our house and the next street down, just vacant land, remembers my grandfather. We were about a block and a half away from Station One, where the beautiful Oceanic Hotel used to be. It was an idyllic situation in the wintertime because there were only ten or twelve families that lived down there all year long. There were the Willinghams, the Colucci family, the Ford family that lived on the comer of Atlanta Street, the Whipley family that lived up on the northern end of the beach; on the southern end there was the Frownfelter family, the Robinsons, the Werkhausers, and Mr. Callaway, who lived on Lumina Avenue.

At that time, my grandfather was 12 years old and had just started the seventh grade at Hemingway Grammar School in Wilmington. He was the second of four children - Arrington, 14, Mary Penelope, 9 and Bill, 3. Their live-in maid, Gertrude, who was about 16 years old, earned $5 per week plus room and board and Sundays off. She cooked, cleaned, ironed and kept a fire going during the winter months. My grandfather and his older brother chopped large pieces of driftwood and the remains of pilings over a sawhorse in the backyard for fuel.

The working men on the island went into town each day on the streetcar or walked across the trestle crossing Banks Channel to Harbor Island, where their cars were parked. The children also took the streetcar to town every day for school. They trudged across the trestle and footbridge crossing Banks Channel, over the causeway spanning Harbor Island, across the Intracoastal Waterway, down to McCumber Station, then across the trestle over Bradley Creek. Just across the trestle was a little fishing community, Seagate, that lay along the creek.

I can remember well when you d take the streetcar down from Wilmington, and you got to Seagate, if the conductor didn t have a passenger, he d try to gather steam and just pour it on and sail right over that old rickety trestle, remembers my grandfather. That was quite a sensation because he d really open it up. I used to have recurring nightmares about that, thinking the tracks would disappear and we d just be sailing through the air. I reckon I had those dreams for years and years.

Shell Road, now Wrightsville Avenue, made of crushed oyster shells, along with Oleander Drive, were the main arteries connecting the beach to town.

I can remember my dad telling me he courted my mother sometimes by renting a buggy and driving down to the beach on Shell Road. He being an old farm boy, he would have known how to manage a horse, you know. I reckon that was one of the things people did in those days, my grandfather says.

There used to be a boardwalk on the east side of the island,  Ocean Avenue. Through the years, that disappeared because hurricanes took all those houses out on the east side of the boulevard and on the west side too, my grandfather recalls. I can remember as a boy seeing people fish off their front porches. The surf would come right underneath the house -- at high tide as well as low tide until it just finally took them out, you see. I remember standing down there one time with my dad. We were one street south of our house on the ocean side. We sat there and watched one house wash right into the Atlantic Ocean. That September, a storm just took it right out.

The family had several dogs during those years at the beach. Drake, the family s Chesapeake Bay retriever, was partial to my granddad, who used to harness him to his younger brother s Red Flyer wagon and tow him along the boardwalk. Chiggers, a mongrel puppy, arrived one Christmas morning as a surprise for baby Bill, who was then about 4 years old.

We had the pup in a big cardboard box and brought it in when everybody was opening up their presents and told Bill that the big box was his. He started toward the box, and the puppy starting wagging his tail, and you could hear this thumping from inside the box, and Billy Boy drew back like he didn t know what was going on. When they opened the thing up, there was this pup. Chiggers was forever jumping up and down on Billy, nipping at his front and raking him with his paws, until by spring, his little blue sailor s coat was in tatters. It was a disgrace, chuckles my grandfather.

That same Christmas, my grandfather and his big brother, Arrington, got a 22 Remington pump.

We d shoot everything around, but we never hit anything to speak of. I did kill a few ducks later on, and Drake retrieved them for me.

Summertime provided endless entertainment. My granddad and his friends threw each other off the tops of dunes and had mud fights in the abandoned bathhouse north of the Oceanic Hotel. At night, my grandfather took Drake to the beach to chase sand crabs. He carried a big carbide lantern to illuminate Drake s antics as he caught crabs by their legs and tossed them into the air.

Those were happy days. We were just kids running around barefoot, shorts on, burnt up from the sun, he says, smiling.

Sunscreen was non-existent, as my grandfather s weathered skin attests.

Back in those days, if you didn t put something on, the sun would just cook ya, he recalls. So if you knew you d be out for a couple hours or so, you d put you some Vaseline on your face and shoulders. Well that was like basting a turkey!

My grandfather loved riding the surf.

None of us had any surfboards to speak of. Sometimes we d find an abandoned ironing board, and we d ride that. But I preferred to body surf. You d go out and swim over the slough and get out to the sand bar where you could stand up then wait for the waves to come. In September, man, they d get up four or five feet   I mean, real nice. You d stand back there and when you d see it coming, you d start swimming so that you could be moving as it came over the bar. A lot of people didn t know how to pull their shoulders back and ride with their head thrust forward out of the wave. A lot of them just put their face down and their hands out in front of them. Anybody could do that. This other required some more dexterity, you might say. It was just a wonderful feeling to ride right up to the shore. You d get through and your bathing suit would be full of sand, and you d swim back out and try to get that out of your pants and then catch another one.

In those days, you could rent a bathing suit for the day.

If you came down from town with a family, say, of four or five chillun , and you didn t have a bathing suit, you could go to a bathhouse and rent one. They d give you a little brass tag with your number on it. You d put that on your wrist, see, put your clothes in a locker, put on that rented bathing suit, and go out in the surf for three or four hours, come back and take a shower, explains my grandfather, his voice rising with excitement at the thought of the delight those folks must have experienced to trade the closed-in, stagnant heat of town for the cool ocean breezes off the Atlantic and the clear, blue-green water.

Lumina Pavilion was a marvel.

They held dances there and they had a movie screen set out in the Atlantic Ocean. The projector was in the building. Of course, films were silent back in those days. It was quite a thrill to sit there on dry land and look at a movie being shown out on pilings in the Atlantic Ocean with the waves breaking underneath. Especially when the moon would come up. A very delightful scene. Yes, very. We kids used to go up there, walk up from Columbia Street, me and Arrington and Sister, walk up to the Lumina and stand underneath and watch the movies, and join a lot of other people that were there. Sometimes, it d be low tide where you d have no problem, but sometimes at high tide, the water would just keep coming back to where we were sitting on Coca-Cola crates enjoying it until we d have to stand there in knee-deep water to see the end of the movie.

After moonrise, Lumina became a stage for musical acts and formal dances.

Those dances they held at Lumina were fabulous. All the girls d dress up in their party dresses. The men always had a tie and a coat on. The summer regalia was usually a blue coat with white trousers, you know, with white shoes or black and white shoes or brown and white shoes. Very formal-like. Genteel. When a boy took a girl to a dance back in those days, he could expect her boyfriends to break in on him while he was dancing, and that consisted of what they called  cutting in.  What a boy would do if he wanted to dance with a girl who was dancing with another fellow, he would go up and touch the boy s elbow, and if the girl knew the fellow, no problem. And if not, the other fellow would introduce him, if he knew him, to this girl, and then they would dance on for a while  til the next number. Popular girls were being broken all the time. And they d dance with ten, 12, 15 people at a dance, the popular ones. They usually got in a particular area where everybody knew they were there, you know. Who I remember particularly was Catherine Alexis, who married one of the Emerson boys -- she was very popular and she had her own set up there -- and boys would line up and break in to dance with her.

Back in those days, not everybody had a car like they do today, explains my granddad. People rode the streetcars. You d pick up your date in Wilmington, get on the streetcar, come down, you d have about a 35-40 minute chat, you know, a cool breeze blowing, get out and dance until midnight, get back on the car and go back to town. Ah yes, how sweet it is!

In addition to Lumina, there was the Harbor Island Casino, which was almost directly west of Columbia Street. It always attracted a crowd but never had the same following as Lumina. Al Katz and His Kittens was a favorite band. Their vocalist was Teddy Grace.

Now she was one good singer, terrific. I have one of her records now, my grandfather says, grinning like a kid. When she was singing, we could sit on our front porch on Columbia Street and hear her. See, water causes sound to amplify and carry. That woman could be singing over in that casino across the channel, and we could sit on the front porch and hear her sing in the summertime. And one of the songs that she used to sing was,  Stick Out Your Can, Here Comes the Garbage Man.  That was suggestive, you know!

There was also the Seashore Hotel, which stood halfway between Lumina and the Oceanic at about Station Four.

One band I remember that came there one summer was Don Redman. He had a great song called  The Chant of the Weed.  Old Don Redman was a piano player, and I m telling you, he could really play, remembers my grandfather. Sometimes they charged for the dances, but the concerts they held at the Oceanic on Sunday afternoons were free, and you could go and sit on the outside porch and dangle your feet and listen to the band playing inside, which was very nice. You had to get dressed up to go, though. You didn t go up there in your bathing suit like they would today. You d put on a clean, white shirt, clean trousers, and a pair of shoes, and go sit out there and listen to it, you know. A lot of fun. This was really before the big band era. This was swing music. Jazz and swing. Benny Goodman, you know, the King of Swing, and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and Sammy Kaye and His Orchestra.

Snacks could be had for less than a nickel at Werkhauser s open-air soda shop stand, where my great-uncle Arrington jerked soda one summer. Werkhauser s place opened and closed on a hinge, and there was no place to sit down so folks stood at the counter. My grandfather and his friends spent hours hunting for pocket change through the cracks in the boardwalk in front of Werkhauser s place using sea oats with chewing gum stuck to their tips.

On Friday and Saturday nights, black musicians played on the corner. One strummed a washboard with thimbles on his fingers, another played a homemade base fiddle -- a string tied to a block of wood. Another played a makeshift bazooka. And a fourth blew into a gallon jug.

Man, they could turn out the music! remembers my grandfather. They could play anything you asked them to play. They had a hat there, and you could throw them a penny or two. Oh man, they were something.

Just across from Werkhauser s stood Pop Gray s place, which was a little more refined. Pop Gray had Coca-Cola tables and chairs, a jukebox and beer.

During my grandfather s second summer at the beach, a man came and opened a small movie theater next to Pop Gray s Soda Shop at Station One. The theater seated 20 people on crude wooden benches.

He d show these old silent films. It wasn t very successful. Billy and I used to wait  til low tide and slip in under the barbed wire so we could get in for nothing, and I m sure that some time or another he must have sat there running the projector and counting heads and there were more people in there than he had sold tickets to! he recalls gleefully.

Provisions were purchased in town and carried by trolley to the beach.

Mother would go to town on the streetcar every week, shop, purchase the groceries for a week, and it was always a great thrill when she came back. Late in the afternoon, they ran an enclosed baggage car down to the beach on the trolley with each woman s groceries labeled. Ours was delivered to the end of Columbia Street, and of course we kids would go down and get it in the wagon and take it back up to the cottage. It was always wonderful to get in that box and see what she d bought for that week. Gertrude would put the stuff away and we d jump into the cookies and the cakes. That was real good livin .

Several local peddlers sold their wares up and down Lumina Avenue during the summer months. My great-uncle John Fox came to the beach every day to sell cakes and bread for Fox s Royal Bakery. His cart had huge, wide wheels, which he pushed from Lumina to the north end and back on the boardwalk. But the most legendary and beloved peddler was James, the soft-shell crabmeat man.

I got  em! I got  em! he d sing out. James the soft-shell crabmeat man! Little neck clams on the half shell! I got  em! went the familiar call. Every day, James would work his way down the beach strand carrying two wicker bushel baskets meticulously packed with little neck clams on the half shell, soft-shell crabs, dainty packages of cooked shrimp, fresh uncooked shrimp and fresh-picked crab over ice. In later years, James would sell bunches of flowers -- mostly brightly colored zinnias.

During their second summer at the beach, my grandfather got a 16-horsepower Johnson standard twin motor for his 16-foot Old Town Canoe lapstrake runabout.

That thing was powerful, and it pushed that Old Town Canoe round faster than anybody down at the beach, remembers my grandfather proudly. With his little brother Bill hunkered down in the bow and my grandfather steering from the rear, they won a silver cup in the two-man runabout race during the Carolina Yacht Club Regatta. Every time Bill popped his head up to get a view of the action, my granddad hollered at him: Get on down in that bow and stay down there! You got too much wind resistance!

We took that boat out and crabbed and fished, went over to Masonboro Inlet, went over to Shell Island, went over to Figure Eight. And of course we trolled for bluefish and Spanish mackerel in that boat. We d fish for puppy drum off Masonboro Island in the fall of the year. We d always take the dogs with us, of course. At least we d take Drake. The other dogs didn t amount to much, remembers my grandfather fondly.

Another favorite destination was Money Island, where rumor had it there was buried treasure.

Money Island, as we called it, was a spot just east of the Sprunt place out in the inland waterway. It wasn t very large. Why, at high tide, heck it wasn t 100 feet long and 50 feet wide. A lot of people went over there digging, but nobody ever found anything! my grandfather says, chuckling. I certainly didn t. But it was a lot of fun to go over there and picnic and fool around. In the early days down there, not everybody had a rod and a reel like they use today. Most folks used a hand line that you d twist over your head like this and throw. It was just a braided line with a sinker and a hook on it. A hand line is what they called it. People would come in the summer, pay two bits for one of those, use sand fleas or shrimp as bait, toss that line out in the ocean, and catch fish that way. If you got pretty good, you could sling it about 75 or 80 feet, you know. There was an art to it, just like casting.

My grandfather admired the Robinson boys, great fishermen who had learned from their father and who were strong from hauling in the nets and would later become lifeguards and college football stars. In the fall, under a half moon, Robinson and his sons worked the inlet, the father directing from the stem, his sons flanking either side of the rowboat.

s far back as he can remember, my grandfather wanted a pony. As a boy of 6 or 7 living on Dock Street, he used to go across the street to St. Thomas Catholic Church, buy a candle for a penny, and pray for God to deliver his fondest desire.

Back in those days, most of the boys  magazines had a picture of a beautiful pony on the back inside cover where you could send in a name, and if you won, they d give it to you. Of course, they never did, and that was just a come on to keep you reading the magazine.

His wish came true during his second winter at the beach. His daddy found a pony, Star, for a good price in town and built a shed in the back of the beach house where the children could keep it. He sent Arrington the eight miles into town to the Broadfoot House in Forest Hills to fetch it.

I remember when Arrington arrived, I was waiting on the Harbor Island side of the bridge -- looking, looking. Finally, he came into view. We got ready to take him across the footbridge, and he wouldn t fit. So, we took the saddle off, led him across, and then put the saddle back on. I rode him from Station One up to Columbia Street. That was my first trip. I just felt well, it was the most wonderful thing in the world I reckon, having a horse!

My grandfather would always tell us kids Star was a marsh pony descended from the steeds of the Spanish conquistadors, who explored the North Carolina barrier islands in the 1500s. The horses turned wild when their riders were killed or captured.

We only had him that one winter, but I did ride him that winter, baby, I m telling you. I didn t like to ride him with a saddle. I rode him bareback. I d go out the backside of the house, head north, and go over the dunes and get over on the ocean and just ride him pell-mell up to Masons Inlet. He was always veering away from the ocean. You couldn t get him to go in the water.

My grandfather never knew of another family that owned a horse on Wrightsville Beach.

In the fall of 1933, my grandfather went off to Wake Forest College as a freshman. The next winter, he got a call from his mother saying the beach cottage had burned down. None of the family had been harmed -- they had moved downtown to Third Street for the winter. My grandfather bummed a ride home from school, where he saw the total devastation of the beach. More than 100 houses were destroyed from the Oceanic Hotel north. White ashes blanketed the area. Among the ruins at 25 East Columbia Street was my great grandfather s mustache cup, which to this day sits on Big Daddy s dresser.

My grandfather s childhood photos all burned in the fire, but his stories live on.

 


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