Clan MacRae

by Susan Taylor Block
April 2007

The name MacRae is well known to Wilmingtonians for many reasons — most notably for Hugh MacRae Park, the sprawling long leaf pine forest off Oleander Drive — but few pe­ople are aware of the family’s longevity in the community and their unsurpassed contributions.

Through seven generations, leaders of the MacRae family have exhibited the best of the old Scottish work ethic while executing some of the most creative business ideas Cape Fear has ever known.

The clan’s descendants are intensely proud of their Scottish heritage. Agnes MacRae Morton conceived the idea of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, an annual event that draws the clan to Linville. Hugh MacRae II is a proud member of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, in Scotland. And most of the MacRae men have kilts hanging in their closets.

The MacRae family lived in Scotland for centuries before Roderick MacRae immigrated from Inverness-shire to Wilmington in 1770. He spoke Gaelic, wore kilts and had a fondness for traditional Scottish fare such as haggis. Though he eventually made his way to Chatham County, his grown son Colin moved to Cumberland County. By 1814, Colin’s son, Alexander (1796-1868), lived in Wilmington. His residence, “Dunnegan Castle,” was located on the southeast corner of Front and Princess streets until it was damaged by fire. After 1840, Alexander MacRae lived at 420 Orange St. (now razed) until his death in 1868.

Gen. Alexander MacRae, like several of his descendants, was a talented civil engineer. He helped plan the construction of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad and served for a time as president of that railroad as well as the Wilmington and Manchester line. Gen. MacRae, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the oldest officer in the Confederate army, had nine sons, most of whom served in the Civil War.

Though Alexander’s sons’ accomplishments were impressive, it was son Donald (1825-1892), father to Hugh MacRae, who had the strongest Wilmington connections. Though he weighed just 125 pounds, he was a business heavyweight. President of Wilmington Cotton Mills and Wilmington Compress, he also had interests in banks, railroads, Florida real estate and five blockade runners. He served as area British vice consul, president of the Thalian Association and was a strong advocate for public schools.

Donald MacRae’s son Hugh (1865-1951) graduated in 1885 from M.I.T. His career would mix technology and financial brilliance and would give him entrée to many of the nation’s rich and famous, including Presidents Roosevelt and Wilson.

History records Hugh MacRae’s involvement in the tragic post-Civil War climate of hatred and fear, which led to the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898.

He was also known to make quiet gifts to those in need. He was a miner, developer and innovative agriculturist. He owned his own bank in Wilmington and maintained a branch in New York. He also owned considerable western North Carolina acreage, which included Grandfather Mountain; the Tide Water Power Company; about 70,000 acres of New Hanover, Pender and Columbus counties; the Oceanic Hotel; the streetcar system; Harbor Island Pavilion; and Lumina, the site of the Azalea Festival queen’s coronation in the festival’s early years.

Hugh MacRae, through his Carolina Trucking Development Company, also created six agricultural colonies peopled by farmers recruited from abroad. Marathon, settled with Polish immigrants; Van Eeden and Castle Hayne, settled with Hollanders, St. Helena, a colony near Burgaw, settled with Italians; and Artesia, settled with Hollanders and Poles. However, the Van Eeden colony failed the first time and MacRae and Dr. Alvin Johnson of New York resettled the land in the late 1930s with Jewish Holocaust escapees.

By 1947, Hugh MacRae’s two grandsons, Hugh MacRae Morton and Hugh MacRae II, were working with him. After the grandfather’s death in 1951, estate settlements would lead eventually to grandson Hugh MacRae’s management of the Wilmington development business and grandson Hugh Morton’s ownership of the mountain property in Linville.

Hugh MacRae Morton

Hugh Morton, whose stellar life and career would become legendary, attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia before enrolling in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in 1939. World War II interrupted his schooling and he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Morton became enamored with photography at the age of 13, and published his first photograph in Time magazine at the age of 14. The U.S. Army acknowledged his expertise by making him a newsreel photographer. It was not a job for sissies: Morton was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his heroic efforts.

On December 8, 1945, Hugh Morton married Julia Taylor of Greensboro. The couple had four children: Julia MacRae Morton; Hugh MacRae Morton Jr.: James M. Morton: and Catherine W. Morton. The Mortons divided their time between Wilmington and Linville until 1974, when Julia and Hugh Morton moved to their home at the base of Grandfather Mountain.

While carefully preserving its natural resources and beauty, Morton transformed Grandfather Mountain into an international tourist draw. He dreamed up the Mile-High Bridge, extended the road to the top of the mountain, built the visitor’s center, promoted a black mountain bear he named Mildred and later her cubs into celebrity, hosted “Singing on the Mountain” and created a series of much-distributed postcards from his own spectacular photos.

Proving he could be as immovable as a mountain, Hugh Morton spent more than a decade resisting National Park Service efforts to build the last leg of the Blue Ridge Parkway over Grandfather Mountain’s Calloway Peak (elevation 5,964), the highest point in the Blue Ridge mountain range. Park Service engineers, blistered by public criticism, designed the 7,650-ton Linn Cove Viaduct, an award-winning, elevated highway. Morton’s subsequent gift to the Nature Conservancy of 3,000 acres of the mountain prohibited further tampering.

Despite the demands of managing Grandfather Mountain, Hugh Morton never quit taking pictures and making movies. His work was flawless and earned him numerous national awards. He authored several important photo anthologies, and eventually published pictures in virtually every important magazine in America. He followed his beloved Carolina Tar Heels with his camera and was a fixture at the basketball press table throughout his life. It was less known that he was a filmmaker, but he did beautiful work. Among other titles, he created the documentary The Search for Clean Air, which was featured on PBS stations nationwide.

Hugh Morton’s influence is all around us. He was the person who persuaded our state government to plant wildflowers along our highways. He was chairman of the commission to bring the Battleship U.S.S. North Carolina to Wilmington. He helped get the Hilton chain to build a hotel on the Cape Fear River. And he even had a hand in bringing a quiet North Carolina boy into a very bright spotlight when he asked Andy Griffith to entertain the N.C. Press Photographer’s Association in 1950. Griffith, an unknown, was paid $25 for his presentations. By the next year, he was playing on Broadway in No Time for Sergeants.

So when the Azalea Festival committee voted Hugh Morton its first president, they showed good sense. Though he modestly shrugged off the honor of that first presidency, in favor of Dr. Houston Moore, Morton had worked diligently since 1946 to make the 1948 Azalea Festival debut a success. He encouraged Wilmingtonians to plant azaleas, persuaded the local government to plant an additional 175,000 azaleas at Greenfield Lake and recruited garden clubs to transplant azaleas from their own private gardens to public spaces.

Morton encouraged the festival fathers to be careful stewards of the event’s ticket take, seek out quality in celebrity guests and make the azalea itself the guest of honor. He knew that if the first festival ended up in the red, it would be the last.

Hugh Morton not only attended and photographed the festival, but continued to be a vital part of the event even after he moved to Linville. In 1982, scheduled to crown Lynda Goodfriend Queen Azalea XXXV, Morton asked the festival committee to change the plan a bit. He had just witnessed UNC freshman Michael Jordan’s athletic feats, particularly his winning shot in the NCAA tournament. Sensing Jordan, a Wilmington native, was on the verge of worldwide celebrity, Morton requested he be allowed to pass the crown to Jordan at the queen’s coronation. Ten days after shooting that winning shot, the Laney High School graduate crowned Queen Azalea. Hugh Morton beamed and delighted ever after in retelling the story of the night he “made an assist” to Michael Jordan.

When Hugh Morton died on June 1, 2006, the Azalea Festival and the entire state of North Carolina experienced a great loss. The 2007 N. C. Azalea Festival is dedicated to the honor of this visionary, promoter and friend.

Hugh MacRae II

Hugh MacRae II, the son of Marguerite Bellamy and Nelson MacRae, was born November 20, 1924 and spent his childhood living on the southeast corner of Park Avenue and South Live Oak Parkway.

His maternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. John D. Bellamy, lived at 602 Market St. The house had a third-floor ballroom where he could run about, and there was always lots of good Southern food around, like fried chicken. James, the Bellamys’ chauffer, killed the chickens straight from the backyard coop. MacRae fondly recalls that life at the Bellamys’ house always had a relaxed Southern air.

“But in my grandfather’s house, things were more formal than in my mother’s family home. My great-grandmother, wife of Donald MacRae, was Julia Norton from Boston and there was an elegance to her life there that became part of the MacRae house on Market Street. My grandfather had also gone to school in Boston and had been influenced by what he saw there.”

MacRae attended St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire before entering Princeton in 1942. World War II beckoned and he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1943, where he learned to fly B-17s, though the war ended before the young captain had time to fly a mission.

In 1946, MacRae graduated from Princeton, and then earned a degree in commerce from UNC in 1950. He then returned to Wilmington to work for his grandfather and cousin Hugh Morton.

After the death of his grandfather in 1951, Hugh MacRae II began running the Wilmington family business, changing the name from Hugh MacRae and Company to Oleander Company. With his sister Marguerite as a partner, he found himself an owner and the manager of much land. He worked for a time as a building contractor and became interested in the idea of building a shopping center on Oleander Drive. He had heard of James Wilson Rouse, the man who was just beginning to popularize suburban shopping centers in Northern cities and whose company would eventually coin the word, “mall.” MacRae employed Rouse to advise him while he built Hanover Shopping Center. At the time, downtown Wilmington was about the only place to shop for clothes and many other things. Women generally wore dresses and heels when they shopped downtown and there was an unhurried pace in most every store.

Hanover Shopping Center was a huge success and even now, 51 years later, remains a popular shopping spot. But MacRae was a pioneer – and he felt the angst of a pioneer the night before Hanover Center opened, in 1956. “Pop said he was walking around the parking lot that night thinking, ‘I hope I haven’t hitched my wagon to a dummy,’” said Hugh MacRae III, who, with his brother Nelson, helps run at the Oleander Company. The same parking lot was full the next day.

In 1976, Hugh MacRae II also built Independence Mall as a joint venture with Strouse, Greenberg and Co., of Philadelphia. MacRae has been a part of all the mall expansions and keeps a hand in its management. He also manages other businesses and real estate holdings.

In 1997, Hugh MacRae II began his own personal efforts to heal the wounds of Wilmington’s Race Riot of 1898. He joined forces with Bertha Todd, well known African-American community activist and has contributed time and money towards the 1898 Memorial. “I admire his courage,” said Todd, “because he stepped forward in the early years … and has continued to support our efforts. He also symbolically and warmly opened Hugh MacRae Park to all people. He has been a good friend.”

Today, at 82, the senior MacRae still enjoys golf, and any conversation that includes golf course designer Donald Ross, Scotland, Linville, Princeton, Old Town Plantation, St. Paul’s School, opera, military band concerts, Camp Lejeune, Wilmington’s Military Affairs Committee, St. James Church, and his family: wife Bambi, children Rachel, Hugh, Nelson and Meg, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Sources: Author’s interviews with Hugh MacRae II; the late Hugh Morton; Jim Morton; Catherine Morton; Hugh MacRae III. Information gleaned from North Carolina Collection, UNC; Perkins Library, Duke University; Bill Reaves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library (N. C. Room); MacRae Family Collection; UNCW Special Collections and Chuck Reisz.


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