We have to time it just right, as the tide has stretched out to its lowest point and is starting to crawl back in. My grandmother expertly threads the string through the fishs mouth and drives the stake in the sand below ankle-deep water and tosses the bait a few yards out to the deeper, more intimidating water. As she finishes her preparation I look around me. There is the constant drone of the cars crossing the drawbridge toward the beach, cars full of children, beach umbrellas, shovels and pails, picnics. There are boats traveling along the Intracoastal Waterway. Small boats zip by with water-skiers behind them, teenagers showing off for their friends. Barges with cargo chug north, filled with building supplies for the future. How small and insignificant we seem huddled here on the murky bank of the waters edge.
My grandmother says its time to check the lines. This involves inching out toward the bait, a light finger on the line, the net tight in the other hand. I want to pull the bait to me, in knee-deep water where I am surefooted. My grandmother encourages me, Be brave, go farther than you think you can, I promise you those crabs are more scared of you than you are of them!
Well, I know that to be false, but I want to conquer this fear of the unknown. The deeper the water, the more creatures for my bare legs to blindly touch, but I press on. I am more buoyant as I progress. I slide silently to the point I can tell the bait is lying directly ahead on the waters floor. I pull up the weighted object slower than I think is humanly possible. I anxiously try to determine if I am pulling up the fish head alone or if it has attracted company. A fishing boat races by, and the resulting wake rocks my confidence, the line is almost pulled out of my grasp but I steady it and keep pulling. The water is so navy blue I see nothing but a faint shadow as something rises close to the surface. A deep breath and a novice splashing scoop of the net underneath and hallelujah! Two enormous, angry blue crabs, fighting and spitting and pinching their way into my net! I turn to my grandmother a few yards away checking the other lines, triumphant in my victory, half terrified and half disbelieving, but wholly proud and accomplished. My grandmother looks up from the bucket and whoops, Great job! Come quick, add them to the bucket, I have just brought in two dozen myself! -- Taylor Smith Riley, Summer Rest Road, July 1980
Summer Rest Road was originally part of a neighborhood of summer vacation cottages, a place to find rest during the summer months. Located just north of the entrance to Wrightsville Beach lies a secret hidden to many. There is a visible change when you make that left hand turn off of Wrightsville Avenue, past the space where the Babies Hospital used to be, and over the small bridge spanning a small tidal pond. You drive through the cool canopy of giant live oaks, blanketed by moss. Vivid blue water sparkles on the right, teeming with the daily activity of a thousand boats -- the busy thoroughfare of the Intracoastal Waterway. A variety of houses line up on the left, mostly new homes or remodeled versions of older ones, they hold the stories of many generations of coastal living. My family spent many generations at 311 Summer Rest Road -- the white house with the wide planked porch, the neat green shutters, the upstairs dormer windows with their expansive view of the water below. I was one of the last of my family to curl up in the arms of the massive oak at the end of the driveway, finding comfort and dreaming.
My great grandparents, Burrows Lansing Smith and Nettie Fleming Smith, first moved to Summer Rest Road in the fall of 1920. They were a young couple with a small baby (my great aunt Nancy Smith Rose) and it was the only house they could afford. It was called the Cooper summer cottage. Back then the neighborhood was made up of small summer homes that were meant for warm weather living and were not winterized. The Cooper Cottage had a fireplace with flues to heat several rooms and electricity, but no running water and no bathroom.
In a personal memoir my great grandmother wrote: I loved the little whitewashed cottage at first sight. It was a story and a half high, made of vertical rough-hewn boards ten inches wide with a two-inch strip to cover the cracks. The porch in front and around the side had a quaintly made railing. Behind it a great live oak stretched its huge limbs almost over the entire yard. So benign and god-like it appeared that as I gazed up through the branches to the blue sky beyond, I instinctively prayed. And ever since, in times of trouble, sickness, world war and death, looking up under it has been my favorite place to pray. The limbs seem to stretch over the house in blessing.
During the years of the Great Depression may have been financially difficult for the Smith family and their neighbors, but life for my Great Aunt Nancy and her sister, my Grandmother Jean Smith Holman, and their brother Lansing Smith was rich in gifts from the land and sea and the beauty of their natural surroundings. My Great Aunt Nancy, now 92, fondly remembers the days of their youth spent exploring the wilds and water surrounding their home. While their father was busy setting up a dairy behind their house to make a little extra money, the children spent warm afternoons discovering treasures along the waters edge. Abandoned wooden rowboats would periodically wash ashore down near Bowdens Landing. The Smith kids and their neighbors, the McCrarys, would climb aboard their Plymouth ship as pilgrims and sail across the Intracoastal Waterway to dredge island where they would spend the day digging quahogs and littleneck clams out of the mud with their bare toes.
Grandmother Jean Smith Holman wrote of her days growing up on the sound in an article published in Wilmingtons Sunday Star News on Sunday, September 8, 1985.
We would row across the newly dredged Intracoastal Waterway, where the fresh white sand provided the perfect spot for camping. There we cooked fat pigfish and croakers caught right from Bowdens Cut. There was nothing more delicious than those fish and corn on the cob boiled in the clean, clear salt water.
My Great Aunt Nancy remembers watching the fancy cars drive by on their way to the newly built luxurious Pembroke Jones estate as she and her sister Jean combed the waters edge at low tide, catching fat blue crabs and then steaming them and picking the meat to sell by the pound to add a little extra to the family income.
My Great Grandmother Nettie wrote: Life on the sound all these years made the children happy and independent. The water was their natural habitat, and when my relatives from upstate came to visit us, they wondered if my children had web feet. One day they were the Swiss Family Robinson, coming ashore in my washtub, the next, with pick and shovel they were pirates digging for treasure; in cool weather they were pioneers, with ax and frying pan, bacon and beans, off to the woods to clear the land and build a log house.
Oyster Roasts were another cool-weather tradition celebrating the outdoors and bounty of the sea. My Grandmother Jean wrote that the oyster roasts began their tradition back in her fathers dairy.
In my youth, a cook-out meant an oyster roast. We had one fireplace on our waterfront that we used in the warm falls, but the best ones were down at the dairy. The oysters were put in big milk cans and cooked by a hose of steam ´┐Ż the same steam used to sterilize milk bottles.
My Grandmother Jean Smith Holman and her husband Joseph Wright Holman moved just down the street as newlyweds, to the Heinzberger house, on the corner of Summer Rest Road and Blue Street. My mother Brook Holman Smith and her siblings Wright, Jane and Lucy were the next generation to grow up in this special neighborhood. Brook tells of a childhood spending lazy summer afternoons on the waterfront in the summer house´ -- a gazebo with bench seats and a hammock, reading her favorite book, the air sweet with honeysuckle and salt marsh and the wail of the drawbridge siren reminding her of passing hours and boats skimming through on their way to their next port.
The Holman kids also lived an outdoor life filled with adventure and ingenuity. There were fig trees and wild blackberries and huckleberries, perfect for eating straight from the vine or for bringing home for preserves and cobblers. Wild asparagus made great soup in the wintertime. Fire pits were dug in the woods near the then abandoned Pembroke Jones estate to cook potatoes and fry bologna and tell ghost stories. Hurricanes would deposit gifts from beyond on the waters edge. Water skis and rafts were enjoyed by their newfound owners and could be used to continue the never-ending search for buried treasure.
My mother remembers the men floundering during the early morning hours before dawn, and waking up to the smell of that flounder frying in the skillet, along with a big pot of simmering grits for breakfast. Often dinner was also caught in the sea, and Brooks favorite errand was to be given 20 cents to walk across Wrightsville Avenue to Faircloths at the drawbridge and bring back a brown paper bag filled with French fries and hushpuppies to serve as a side dish. Maybe a few fries were enjoyed on the walk home, but there was always plenty for the big family to share alongside the supper of deviled crabs or steamed shrimp.
This neighborhood has provided important resources to supplement family incomes and also to teach lessons about modern day terms like sustainability and eating locally. Both my grandmother Jean and her sister Nancy helped add to the family income by crabbing. My Great Grandmother Nettie tells the story of the night of Nancys high school commencement. My Grandmother Jean was supposed to come downstairs in a special dress the family had saved money to buy her. When she was not ready on time, someone spied Jean down on the waterfront in shirt and shorts, feet bare, crabbing, because someone had given her an order for a pound of crabmeat.
My uncles and cousins spent decades oystering, and what wasnt sold or given to friends as gifts became the main attraction in the famous family oyster roasts that have been happening in dairies and garage rooms and backyards for generation after generation on Summer Rest Road. All my life I was taught to only take the biggest crabs and fish that were caught -- we always threw back the young ones to try for again the next summer.
Not only did many generations feed their families with the bounties of the sea, but also from the abundant gardens planted in yards, gardens filled with tomatoes, lettuce, string beans, cucumbers and watermelons. Grandmother Jeans famous zinnias often decorated the sanctuary of Wrightsville Beach United Methodist Church. The Bowden family nearby raised chickens and my mother Brook fondly remembers waking up on Easter mornings to find little tiny live purple and blue and pink dyed chicks peeping up at her.
No matter the generation and changing times, the beauty and magic of Summer Rest Road touches all those who spend time there. My great grandmother wrote, When I retire I will come out here (the front porch) more often. I will place my chair over the plank on the floor that needs mending, and I will look over the shingleless top of the summer house on the waterfront to the far spread of the tide, flooding toward the line where it meets the beach. The beauty of it will seep into my soul, and the vastness of it will remind me of the greatness of God.
As a child I watched that same tide from the upstairs window. At the time, the homes had no air conditioning, and looking back, I realized opening those windows opened me up to a world of sensation and imagination. I would have never known the pleasure of a cool bath after a hot day of crabbing or the feeling of the bedsheets at night when a waterfront breeze picks them off your skin. I would have never heard the rush of the nightly symphonies of the cicadas, smelled the decay of a dead low tide or the sweet smokiness of a backyard compost fire. My imagination ran wilder there than back home in the big city. The woods and the water brought out the explorer in me, something manicured lawns dont naturally encourage.
Summer Rest Road has changed quite a bit since then. Gone are the untouched woods, the occasional cow or chicken, and the rustic summer cottages. They have been replaced by beautiful modern homes, lush lawns and dozens of docks built to withstand hurricanes and house sophisticated boats. The land where the Pembroke Jones estate was is now part of the Landfall community, the space where the Babies Hospital once was will soon become highrise condos.
However, the memories and stories of the past are still squarely put, no modern progress or saltwater can fade them or rust them away. My family still lives in the Summer Rest Road neighborhood, and many of the family traditions like crabbing at low tide, tending gardens and hosting oyster roasts are carried on by the younger generations. The landscape may be ever changing, but the magic and the rest you find in this quiet neighborhood is something that once found, is never lost.