[The History Center’s newest exhibit commemorating the Centennial of the United States entry into World War One opens this April. It includes the uniform of Claude R. Pfaff, generously loaned to us by member, Gerri Cohen]
Claude Pfaff was born in September of 1892, in Pfafftown, Forsyth County, North Carolina. Of Moravian heritage, he spent his formative years playing in the Bethania Moravian Band. After attending Bethania High School, he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Class of 1918), during which he taught school at Mount Tabor as part of his matriculation.
On April 6, 1917, the United States formally entered World War I. Pfaff, like most young men due to graduate that spring, knew that he was likely to be drafted into the American military as soon as he was no longer a student. When the University offered to waive all final exams for anyone who volunteered for military service, he joined the United States Army.
Pfaff was sent to Camp Jackson, a major training and staging base established in 1917 near Columbia, South Carolina. Here, battalions were formed before being sent to join the fight in France.
As band Sergeant assigned to the 156th Depot Brigade, Pfaff played bugle for military ceremonial occasions as well as morale-lifting events at locations such as the large base hospital, the Red Cross Convalescent Home, the YMCA Hostess House, and the Liberty Theater, which seated 3,600 soldiers.
On September 26, he was transferred to Camp Sevier, Greenville, South Carolina, and in October, Pfaff was commissioned out of the ranks to Lieutenant.
With the armistice signed on November 11, 1918 the military quickly demobilized and Pfaff was honorably discharged on November 30, 1918 as a Second Lieutenant. Pfaff returned to civilian life, working first for the Colonial Motor Company and then as a salesman for the Realty Bond Company in Winston-Salem. He married Atha Wolff of Tobaccoville, NC, in June of 1919, and they had two sons, Harry and Bob, and one daughter, Geraldine. In later years Claude Pfaff worked as a retail coal dealer and then a dairy farmer before retiring to spend most of his time in Carolina Beach, fishing for king mackerel off the Fisherman’s Steel Pier.
In the 1920s, when Pfaff was working for the Realty Bond Real Estate Company, the firm often sent its salesmen on vacation to Carolina Beach so that they would come back and tell their customers how wonderful the beach was – and, hopefully, sell more lots at Carolina Beach.
Throughout his years in Winston-Salem he most enjoyed coming down to Carolina Beach for the fall fishing season. His daughter, Gerri, says that Ellis Freeman “taught him how to fish and Ellis’s wife, Annie, taught Atha how to cook what he caught.”
In 1927, the grand Carolina Beach Hotel stood where the elementary school is today. Claude and Atha, who happened to be staying across the street one evening, sat on the porch and watched waiters mysteriously bring linens, silverware, and other valuables out of the hotel. The next night, as mysteriously, it burned to the ground.
Gerri remembers that as soon as her school was out the family made the trip on Highway 421 from Winston to the beach and stayed the whole summer, until just before school began again in September.
Often during WWII, the Pfaff family ended up sharing the small cottage with a family of strangers. Because of the shortage of housing in the Wilmington area, property owners were required to rent out their houses in order to provide the families of the enlisted men due to ship out soon a week at the beach before they were separated. Only office space was exempt, so Atha designated one room an office.
In the 1960s, Claude and Atha retired from the dairy farm and spent from early spring to late fall at the cottage. Daughter Gerri says her father practically lived on the Fisherman Steel Pier, coming home only when his wife demanded he eat, and sleep at home.
In those years, he became a member of the Carolina Beach Presbyterian Church and an active member in the life of the local community, often sitting on the benches of the boardwalk and people-watching while Atha played bingo. Claude died in November of 1983, and Atha in September of 1986.
Gerri Cohen, their last surviving child, currently lives in Wilmington, but still uses the cottage in the summer, sharing it with an extended family of children, grandchildren and cousins. A member of the Federal Point Historic Preservation Society, she found out we were hoping to do an exhibit commemorating World War I and generously offered to lend us her father’s uniform for display.
To this day, many of Claude Pfaff’s descendants vacation at Carolina Beach, coming from such diverse residences as New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Florida.