Hurricane Hazel – October 15, 1954

whale of a beachBy: Betty Jo Dingler

[Betty Jo’s daughter, Susan, submitted this essay to the History Center.  If you have any family stories or essays, we would LOVE  to have them to add to our Oral History Collection.]

.

My family and I remember Hurricane Hazel well.  A severe hurricane had not hit the North Carolina coast since the early 1940’s.  We had a lot of close calls, but they always veered away or managed to miss us.  In October, 1954, when we heard that a hurricane named “Hazel” was headed toward the southern US Coast, no one seemed too concerned – it would turn and go north or out to sea, or so we thought.  How very wrong we were.

Meteorologists did not have the technology for tracking hurricanes in 1954 as we have now in 1995.  Radio and newspapers hazelwere our main source of information.  There were only a few tv’s.  Our local tv station had recently opened and was only on the air about six hours a day.  Not everyone had a phone or car either.

On October 14, 1954, when it was determined that the hurricane was fast approaching the southeastern NC coast, volunteers went door to door notifying residents to evacuate immediately or seek safe shelter.

Herman and I lived at 235 Atlanta Avenue, across from the lake and only three blocks from the ocean.  Mama and Daddy’s house was at Fourth and Columbia Avenue, also near the lake.  Delores and Tiny lived across the street from us.  Shirley and Jerry lived in an apartment on Raleigh Avenue.  We were all affected in a great way.

hazel-cb-boardwalk-with-landmarkMama had stopped by our house about 7 PM to tell us she heard on their tv that the hurricane was headed directly toward us and that people should start to seek safe shelter.  Herman just laughed and said he wasn’t worried about it, it would probably miss us, as usual.

The wind and rain wasn’t too bad so we went to bed at our usual time.  We were awakened about midnight by a volunteer fireman telling us that the hurricane was fast approaching us and residents were urged to evacuate immediately.  We dressed very quickly and left with the fireman, we did not have a car.  There was no time to pack anything.

I was worried about Mama and Daddy, but I was told they had been notified and were leaving.  Mama told me later about stopping by our house to get us and the first thing she noticed when she went in was Herman’s pajamas beside the bed where he had stepped out of them rather hurriedly.  She always got a chuckle out of that. I was taken to stay with Herman’s mother on Wilson Avenue.  He joined the other volunteers in alerting people to evacuate.  I slept very little that night.  I could not believe winds could be that strong, but that little house remained intact during the entire storm.

The hurricane struck on high tide and full moon.  The winds were up to 140 miles per hour, but the water caused the greatest hazel11-half-house-cut-in-two-at-cbdamage.  When I looked out the window the next morning, the water from the yacht basin was half way up Wilson Avenue.

Shirley and a lot of others were staying in the Baptist church not far away.  She said the first floor or basement was completely under water.

We were able to see the flames from a house that burned down to the water because firemen were unable to get to it due to the deep water. The draw bridge across Snow’s Cut became stuck about 2 AM.  No one was able to leave the area then.  People took shelter then wherever they could find a safe place.

The ocean cut an inlet across Highway 421 to the lake.  The sea water went as far back as Fifth Street, one block beyond the school.  A lot of people had taken refuge in the school.  They had to get on the stage in the auditorium when the water came inside.

Some people also stayed on the third floor of Bame’s Hotel.  They probably thought it was the safest shelter they could find.  They were not able to see much that happened until daybreak.  The power and phones were out and few people had transistor radios.  We did not know what was happening or how bad it really was until it was over.

Mama, Daddy, Delores, Peggy and Brenda had stayed at the train station in Wilmington.  Almost everyone was able to get back to the beach soon after the storm had passed.  Herman and I went to check on our house late in the afternoon.  The water was still waist deep in our yard.

Our house was built six feet off the ground on pilings.  The water line inside had been three feet deep.  The doors had blown open and furniture was turned over.  Some of our things had been washed out of the house.  The first thing I noticed after we climbed inside was our two cats and our dog, “Bullet,” on the sofa that had turned over.  I’m sure they could have told a horrifying tale had they been able to talk.

hazel8-homes-teeters-on-beachThe house and everything in it was a wreck, but at least it was still there.  So many houses had washed away completely.  Three houses had been swept into the lake and remained there until they were torn down.  When we left, with a few muddy clothes and possessions, we each took a cat.

When we got outside in deep water both cats went berserk, got away from us and took off swimming.  I really did cry then.  Herman was laughing and kept saying “Look at ‘em swim, look at ‘em swim”.  They came back a few days later after the water went down. “Bullet” didn’t present any problem getting him to the car.

Delores and Tiny’s house, across the street, had washed back off the foundation about six feet and was sitting rather lop-sided.  (The only two pictures of Hurricane Hazel’s destruction.)  Mama and Daddy’s house had 18 inches of water inside but no major damage.  The picture albums were kept on the bottom shelf of the closet and most of the pictures were ruined.

That is one reason these few pictures on our early years are so precious.  The entire beach was devastated.  It was the worst sight I have ever seen.  It would take an entire book to describe it.  As I think on it, I am amazed that there were no casualties or serious injuries.  Everyone always had a great respect for hurricanes after “Hazel”.

I was six months pregnant with Toni at the time and our few baby clothes were completely ruined.  A bassinet and a crib had washed up on our yard and we didn’t have either.  Most people, including us, received aid from the Red Cross. The clean-up, repairing and rebuilding took a long, long time, but, eventually, everything got back to normal.

That was the first of many hurricanes that I rode out during the fifties and sixties.

More Memories – Howard Hewett

by Howard Hewett

Howard Hewett

Howard Hewett

Being Staked Out on the Beach  

When I was very young, no more than two or three, my mother was a “Fisher Woman” extraordinaire. Mother and Clara Danner loved to surf fish on the beach in front of the house for blues, trout and Virginia mullets.

The problem that arose was what to do with the new kid on the block. Mother’s solution was to tie a rope around my ankle and connect it to a stake so I could play at the water’s edge; occasionally, I was washed back and forth by wave action. I know this story is true because I heard it from several relatives later in life. Today, they’d probably arrest a mother for child endangerment; although, the treatment had no ill effect on me.  Mother’s solution resulted in creating a water bug. Being around water was part of my developmental process and fostered my appreciation and love for the Atlantic Ocean. I became an excellent swimmer and could work magic with my belly board.

Pig for a Pet

After my father Curtis’ death in 1995, a photo surfaced of my Dad and his pet pig. A description on the back confirmed that he not only had a pet pig, but he had named it. That Dad had a pig does shed light on the fact that in later years we were also allowed to have a pet pig.  This occurred sometime before the Army closed the base.

Pig as a PetNow this was not an ordinary pig. Our pig thought he was a dog. He was put in a pen at night, but during the day he would follow us around. Being a city girl, mother was a little embarrassed when the pig would follow us down the road when she went visiting the neighbors. She would tell us to make the pig go home.

The service guys from Fort Fisher would pass by in their Army jeeps and would honk their horns, hoot and holler and bang on the doors. To mother’s chagrin, some would “oink, oink” at us as they drove by.

This story did not have a happy ending for the pig. Mother survived all the embarrassment, but unfortunately, the pig got too large to handle and, of course, he eventually ended up on the dinner table. Those experiences were all part of growing up.

Remembrances after the Army departed

After the war some of the barracks and buildings were sold as surplus. Some of these became beach homes at Kure and Wilmington beaches and some were used in place.

I recall that one of the warehouses was taken over by a seafood processing plant. My grandmother worked there while it was open. Their specialty was devil crabs. I remember the boiling vats along with the distinctive odor of crabs and spices. The picking and processing room was a screened-in porch. Since there was no air conditioning, the product was moved to refrigeration as quickly as possible.

The Baptist Assembly

The Baptist Seaside Assembly took up residence in some of the buildings left by the Army, which became the summer headquarters for the North Carolina State Baptist Convention in 1948. They used some of the buildings and barracks for an administration building, assembly hall and dormitories. I was quite familiar with the facilities.

My step-grandfather, J. N. Todd, was the caretaker of the buildings for a short time while the Baptist Assembly was active at Fort Fisher. I stayed a number of nights with him and my grandmother. It was one spooky place at night for a 10-year-old. An opportunity to see the hospital morgue at one time did not help control my young imagination.

The Joys of Growing Up

One of the pleasures I recall in the late forties was when Uncle Crawford Lewis gave my cousin Joe Hewett a set of soap derby wheels.

We made a two-seat cart that required one to steer with his feet and one to act as a brake-man. Our first project was to add a mast and a sail to the cart. The best condition for this adventure was when the wind was blowing out of the northeast.  Highway 421 ran south and was a two lane narrow road which did not allow for Hewett Kidsany tacking. With a strong wind, it was a wild ride down south. On some occasions, our cart would start coming apart due to the stress and we would have to abort the run. There were several design changes before we could make a complete run.

With all the terrain being relatively flat on Federal Point, it was hard to find a good incline. My step-grandfather saved the day by allowing us to use the cinder block corridor that ran from the old Army hospital to the Baptist Assembly’s Administration building and assembly hall, which was approximately 100 yards away. The corridor was approximately eight feet wide and ten feet in height. It was basically a concrete cinder block structure with the windows missing. The original windows were spaced about every twenty feet.

As best as I can recall, the slope of the corridor was approximately two feet every 100 yards. This was a perfect place to use our cart especially for a couple of flatlanders. Traveling down this corridor while gaining speed with the sunlight filtering through the window gave a couple of 10-year-olds the illusion of traveling at a high rate of speed. We would spend hours riding our cart down the corridor. But, all good things must come to an end. As I described earlier, the administration building was at the end of our run so it was imperative that our brakes worked properly. When, as one might have predicted, our braking mechanism failed, we ended up going through a set of double doors into the Assembly Hall. The impact of the door did cause us to stop before hitting the exterior wall on the other side of the room. We were fortunate that the double doors did not have a center post. But, nevertheless, we had several cuts and bruises. This ended our favorite escapade down the corridor. We were admonished by my step-grandfather and were required to help with the repairs.

Money in the Sand at Fort Fisher

I am sure this event took place before 1952. The military was using some parts of Fort Fisher acreage for training again. The timing suggests that the activity may have been in preparation for or in response to the Korean War. Most of the World War II barracks had been sold to private citizens for homes and commercial offices so the Army set up temporary structures for barracks that had three-foot walls with canvas tent structures mounted on top. The floors were compact red dirt that was hauled in from somewhere in North Carolina.

I recall seeing these tent barracks many times over a period of a couple of years. Dad had a contract with the Army that gave him the rights to mess hall garbage. We would pick up the garbage every second day after the evening mess and would haul several 55-gallon drums to the pigpens on the River Farm. I have no remembrance of the number of pigs raised and or the numbers sold commercially, but I think Dad did well during this period.  I do remember going to the stockyard in Wilmington on more than one occasion.

When the Army left and things returned to normal, Dad, Grandmother and I were out one day looking for blackberries or wild peaches. We came across the location of the tent barracks and to our surprise, there was money setting on a little red dirty pedestal. Every time it rained more coins were washed to the surface. The denominations were varied in quantity but there were quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. Our take may have been as much as a dollar to a dollar and a half at first. What developed over the next several months was a routine that became a family outing.

This speaks well of how easy it was to entertain a family in early 1950’s. After a good rain, we would load up the old beach buggy (a stripped-down 1938 Ford frame with exposed engine, radiator and firewall/windshield with wood deck designed to carry nets and a small boat) and head out to search for money left behind. Our take varied on each outing, but we found enough money to make the event like a big treasure hunt.

We finally stopped going when our reward and excitement of the search dwindled. I recall Dad would say, “Well, we found enough money to purchase a loaf of bread.”  In retrospect, I think you could buy a loaf of bread for 12 cents in those days, so on average our take was not very much, but the outing was what it was all about.

Providing for the Family

As noted in earlier writings, the family fished, farmed and raised livestock. Dad always had pigs that the family would slaughter and butcher on cold fall days.

This yearly event was a family affair with all hands on deck. Uncle Crawford Lewis and my Dad were the primary orchestrators of the slaughter and did all of the heavy lifting.

bowlAfter the pigs were shot in the head and their throats slit, the pigs were hung in a nearby large oak to allow proper bleeding.  From there they were placed in scalding water in a vat until the hair could be scraped off. The pig was removed to a workbench to complete the cleaning process. Sometimes more than one trip to the vat of scalding hot water was necessary.

Once the pigskin was almost pure white, it was hung again to remove the internal organs. The pigs were allowed to cool to the daily ambient temperature. If the weather was cold enough, the butchering process could take several days. The meat was either salted down and placed in boxes to cure or smoked in a smokehouse. A portion was made into sausage.

One of the by-products was “crackling,” a fried fat that was added to corn beard which gave the bread a bacon taste. Lye was added to the oil from the fat. This became grandmother’s laundry soap.

Oral History: Remembrances of Life on Federal Point, 1940 -1959 (Part 2 of 2)

by:  Howard Hewett,  Jones Creek, TX – October, 2015   (Part 2 of 2)     (Read Part 1)

Cape Fear Lighthouse 1903-1958 Bald Head Island

Cape Fear Lighthouse 1903-1958 Bald Head Island

Winter Time Camping

In 1951, my scout troop, along with our scout master, Chevis Faircloth, liked to use the abandoned ammunition bunkers in the winter as one of our camping locations. I remember it well because on one occasion a yellow jacket bit my ring finger just in front of my new scout ring. Before I could get the ring off, my finger swelled to the point that I could not remove it. It was good the Chevis had a pair of side cutters.  It is reported that someone known as the Fort Fisher Hermit lived in one of the bunkers for 17 years from 1955 to 1972.

Another one of our favorite camping spots in the winter was Silver Lake.  My friend Jimmy Collier’s dad was in real estate. At the time, he had purchased the lake and the land around it. You could get to it by a dirt road. Jimmy’s dad had poured a concrete slab and had built a fireplace a hundred or so yards off from the lake. This made a good camping spot.

I recall Jimmy and I frying chicken on an open fire in the fireplace. We decided to it would be great if we made some milk gravy. I think we had too much oil so we continue to add flour and milk resulting in a semi-brown mixture. It was definitely a learning experience. Our final product was more like glue than gravy, but the chicken was good.

Summertime Camping on Bald Head Island

From time to time, there were camping trips on Bald Head Island. Our scout leader Chevis Faircloth would organize the trip and someone with a large boat would take us to the south side of Corncake Inlet and put us ashore.

Cape Fear Lighthouse - 1914

Cape Fear Lighthouse – 1914

With our camping gear of fishing poles, some staples, very little clothing and jungle hammocks, we hiked about five miles to the general location of the wrought iron and steel frame lighthouse. We set up camp in dense grove of live oaks within 100 yards or so of the lighthouse because, as I can best recall, there was a source of water there. The grove of oaks was thick enough to enable all of us to hang our hammocks. All of our hammocks were surplus purchased at the Army surplus store at Carolina Beach. They were referred to a “jungle hammocks.” I assume most of them were surplus from the Pacific theater.

The hammock could be used with a spreader – two 30” sticks cut from the brush to hold the hammock open – or without the sticks, which allowed the canvas bottom to come up around you. This was all right when it the weather was cool, but on hot summer nights, I preferred the stick spreaders. Attached to the bottom canvas was a four-wall mosquito net.

Once in the hammock, you would zip yourself in, which was needed because of the abundance of mosquitoes on Bald Head Island. Attached to the top of the netting was a tarp like material, which acted as a tent.  It had eight lines that connected to the corners and sides of the tarp. The lines on the ends could be attached above the rope that was holding up the hammock and the other six could be attached to low hanging branches to form a tent over your hammock. This provided good shelter when it rained.

Because of the heavy population of hogs that roamed the island, it was not unusual to have hogs visit the camp at night; it was good to be sleeping above ground. Some nights when it got too hot in the oak grove, we would slip out to the beach and lay at the edge of the water on our back and watch the stars between the flashes of light from the lighthouse. There always seem to be a sea breeze on the point in the direction of Frying-Pan shoals.

We basically had the island to ourselves, other than the wildlife and occasional Coastguard men, the island had no human inhabitants. Our days were spent fishing and exploring.

There was an old lighthouse that stood on the riverside of the island, which as the time was just called “Old Bald Head Lighthouse.” It was covered in a jungle of grape vines and was a little on the spooky side. At this writing, it is referred as “Old Baldy.” On some trips when the grapes were ripe, everyone got their fill of grapes, and, of course, purple hands.

Hurricane Hazel

Hewett North Carolina HomeI was 15 years old when Hurricane Hazel hit the Carolina coast.  Our house exterior was covered in what’s called 105 siding.  Dad had decided to cover it with asbestos shingles, which was a very popular siding. The project was not completed. So the morning the storm hit, we were outside trying to secure the unfinished siding by nailing strips of wood at the top of the last course of shingles.

I recall my mother coming to the window and saying “Curtis, waves are coming over the sand dunes up toward Kure Beach.” Dad quickly gathered up the Hewett-Lewis clan with some provisions and headed through the back roads of Kure Beach to the Ethyl Dow Office complex which was a strong concrete/brick structure and relatively high off the river.

Dad was Ethyl Dow’s supervisor for the facility at that time. Most of the employees who lived on the Atlantic brought their families to the plant along with those who had no place to go. I do not recall how many folks were there, but families were assigned offices as their personal areas. Dad’s office was a nice-sized one with a desk and a drafting table. The drafting table became my bed. The plant lunchroom became gathering place for coffee and a place to visit.

The main concern was to stay away from exterior windows. I remember a couple of things during the height of the storm. While standing in a protected doorway, I saw a heavy piece of corrugated siding come off one of the buildings and fly through the air. It hit a telephone pole and snapped in two. Later in the day, I saw the export dock float off its pilings.

During a lull in the storm, I was allowed to ride with my Dad and others to the building referred as to the seawater intake. Dad wanted to check for flooding in the pump building. Waves were extremely high and were actively breaking in the intake basin and crashing against the outer wall of the building. Needless to say, we did not stay long. By the time we returned to the office building, the wind had started to pick back up.

I do not recall how long we sheltered at the plant, but it was less than 48 hours. When the storm passed, we returned home and observed devastation all around us. Our home was intact, but houses up and down the beach were gone.  Our beloved sand dunes, in front of our house, no longer existed. There was about 5-6 inches of sand covering the yard and debris from houses everywhere. Recovery and getting back to some normalcy took many weeks.

My dad, Howard Curtis Hewett, Sr., and I have had many discussions over the years about what saved our house. It could have been we were just lucky that the debris in the wave action never reached the house.

Hardpan showing after Hurricane Hazel, 1954.

Hardpan showing after Hurricane Hazel, 1954.

The other mitigating factor that may have contributed to the house’s longevity is the geologic formation in front of the house that dad called “hardpan.”

The material appeared to be a mixture of compacted very black sand-clay substance that had a lot of wood in the composition. Rubbing it would turn your hands black.  I do not know how thick the formation was but during some of the Nor’easters or Northeasters, I was aware of as much as four foot of the formation exposed. This formation was three to four foot under the sand.

After Hurricane Hazel, as the Corp of Engineer were pushing sand around on the beach, Dad had several confrontations with them about damaging the hardpan. There should not be any argument about Dad’s position in that the house has been sitting on the Atlantic Ocean for 77 years as of 2015.

Memorable Fishing Trip After Hurricane Hazel

There was a lot of beach damage during Hurricane Hazel. Our beloved beach hill was completely gone. In the weeks that followed, there were many hours of clean-up and repairs.  One weekend, as a reprieve from all the work, Dad suggested we launch the boat in front of the house and travel down to the blockade wrenches out from Fort Fisher.

This particular day the surf was pounding the bar about 35 yards from the beach with 8 to 10 foot breakers. The waves were running across the bar and emptying in a slough that was approximately 15 yards wide. There was very little wave action on the beach side of the slough.  Because of the distance from the house to the blockade-runner wrecks, we attached our 9.9-horse Johnson motor to the boat.

This was a motor that was purchased from surplus, but was in fairly good running condition. It had a large exposed fly-wheel and required a starter rope to start. After all the preparations were completed, we slipped the boat into the water. I was in the stern seated on a 5-gallon bucket operating the motor and Dad was sitting on the middle bench. We ran down the slough under minimum power as Dad watched for a lull in the breakers.

When the opportunity came, Dad said, “Let’s take her to sea.” Having a history with seafaring people, Dad used this term quite often. He used it to make a lot of things active around the water. Another term for putting on the brakes was “throw out the anchor.”

Anyway, we were on plane before we got out of the slough and we were racing across the bar. As we approached the breakers our motor sputtered and quit. Even with a herculean effort the motor would not restart.

We survived the first wave, but the second broke directly into the boat. The force of the wave pushed us back toward the beach, but we did not turn over. Our boat was full of water up to the gunnels. Dad and I jumped out onto the bar and found we were still in four feet of water. The force of the wave was so powerful that it washed Dad’s wallet out of his back pocket. Dad spotted it floating away, but was able to retrieve it by quick action on his part. The slough was somewhat deeper and it was a struggle to get the boat back to the beach.  We later repaired the motor, but we never used it in that application again.

Federal Point Mosquitoes

The mosquitoes that inhabited Federal Point were as vicious as mosquitoes anywhere. The best example that I can relate took place in 1959 while I was a sophomore at Texas Lutheran College. I went back to North Carolina to spend the summer with my grandmother.

Howard Hewett

Howard Hewett

During this summer, I worked for the Bame family. My best friend Howard Knox’s father was married to a daughter of the owner of Bame’s holdings. The holdings consisted of a hotel, three full-service gas stations (one station also served as a grocery store), a building supply store and Barbara Boat Sales.

That summer I worked at two of the stations and helped transport building supplies from Wilmington’s rail-head to Carolina Beach when needed. Because Howard Knox and I grew up together starting in first grade and continuing at Sun Set Park and New Hanover High School, we were paired on the same work shift so we could have our free time together.

To promote the boat sales, we were allowed to take the demonstration boat out water-skiing on our days off. You could ski almost all day on a 5-gallon tank of gas and we did not have to buy the gas. But, thinking back, you could buy a gallon of gas for about the same price as a loaf of bread. Both were less than 20 cents.

We were allowed to use the station’s Jeep after hours so we would often check out all the lovers’ parking spots for people who were stuck in sand, which was not unusual and it was a good way to pick up some extra cash.

Over the years of reading and listening to early narratives of Federal Point, most stories contained stories of mosquitoes.  One quote that has always stood out to me is the appraisal by Cpl. Theodore “Ted” Litwin, 445th AAA Battalion, Camp Davis at Fort Fisher. He stated, “Hell hole! The biggest joke we had going were ‘combat mosquitoes’ that were at the airport.  They pumped 50 gallons of gas in them before they found out it was a mosquito.”

My story just adds to the mosquito lore.

One particular night when the mosquitoes were extremely viscous, Howard Knox and I were checking all the lovers’ parking spots south of the gates at Fort Fisher. We came across a couple’s car that was buried to the axle and the mosquitoes were eating the occupants alive. They did not want to wait for us to pull them out; instead, they wanted us to take them back to Carolina Beach as quickly as possible. We put them in the back of Jeep delivered them to their beach cottage.

Upon arrival, the guy gave us his keys and handed us each a $50 dollar bill to retrieve the car. When a guy pays $100 in 1959 to get away from Federal Point’s mosquitoes, it put some perspective on the comments of the soldiers in the early days of Fort Fisher.

Read Part 1:  Remembrances of Fort Fisher

[Additional resources]
John Moseley – Presents: Fort Fisher in World War II
The Hewett Homes in Fort Fisher, NC – FPHPS -Slide show

Read all Howard Hewett’s Oral History postings on FPHPS


[All photos provided by Howard Hewett – Click any image for more detail]

Backyard Beach Hill before Hazel 1952-53

The Beach Hill in front of Hewett home prior to Hurricane Hazel 1952-53

 

Hardpan sitill showing after Hazel

General location of our front yard beach hill after Hurricane Hazel 1954.  Showing hardpan & some tree stumps.

Definition of Hardpan:
(härd’pān’)

A hard, usually clay-rich layer of soil lying at or just below the ground surface, in which soil particles are cemented together by silica, iron oxide, calcium carbonate, or organic matter that has precipitated from water percolating through the soil.

Hardpan does not soften when exposed to water. Also called caliche.

 

 

Bulldozers pushing sand to form a beach hill. The power pole was behind beach hill prior to Hazel.

Bulldozers pushing sand to form a beach hill. The power pole was behind beach hill prior to Hazel.

Looking north toward the Danner Home (at David Rd); south of the Kure Beach City Limits.

Looking north toward the Danner Home (at Davis Rd); south of the Kure Beach city limits.

Hazel - Looking towards Kure Beach

Hazel -Toward Kure Beach City Limits

Hazel - South Kure City Limits

Hazel – South of Kure Beach city limits

Oral History: Remembrances of Life on Federal Point, 1940 -1959

by:  Howard Hewett,  Jones Creek, TX – October, 2015 – (Part 1 of 2)

Howard Hewett

Howard Hewett

[In this article, I combined several short stories that were originally intended for my grandchildren in my ‘Howard’s Ramblings’ series.]

Fort Fisher during World War II

The Fort Fisher area was used as a military training base during World War II.

The main highway in the area was U.S. 421. The Hewett house was located on the Atlantic side of the road, one block north of the Fort Fisher Gates. (see photos)

The highway ran maybe 75 yards parallel to sand dunes on the ocean side until it reached the historic ruins of Fort Fisher. At this point (currently The Riggins), the road curved out closer to the Atlantic and was located east of the old civil war main battery and then crossed in front of the Civil War Memorial. From there the road ran south to Federal Point ending at the Buchanan Battery.

In early 1941, the Army started anti-aircraft training along the beach and down on the sandy flats by the bay. The arriving trainees were faced with the some harsh conditions on Federal Point, as were those who were in Fort Fisher’s original Civil War garrison. A member of the 558th AAA Battalion stated the area was “a forlorn spit of sand and scrub growth pinched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River; a quagmire of sand, sand, and more sand. It was strictly a no-nonsense place designed to put grit and fire in the bowels and brains of its trainees. They had to learn to coexist with the ubiquitous sand and mosquitoes to survive on Federal Point.” I will share a story later about our Federal Point mosquitoes.

There were barracks, mess halls, recreational facilities, warehouses, radio and meteorological stations, a post exchange, photo lab, outdoor theater, guardhouse, an administration building and infirmary. Passageways made of cinder block and concrete connected some of these buildings while boardwalks connected others. By the time training operations ceased in 1944, the base covered an area of several hundred acres and had grown to include an 80-seat cafeteria, a 350-bed hospital and a dental clinic.

My early remembrances are just snapshots of what I actually saw during 1941-1944 because I was only two to five years old; what I recall are just flashes of events. Of course, there was evidence of the army being there long after they left the area.

Gun Emplacements Along the Beach
Starting just in front of our house and running south along the beach almost to the historical grounds of Old Fort Fisher were gun emplacements.

I later read that most were 40-millimeter automatic cannons and 50-caliber machine guns. I recall that some of the gun bunkers were quite large. There were at least three large guns between our house and the two large houses just south of the gates. (Reference: Federation Point Historical Preservation Society, Oral History, Earl Page-Part 3, “Blue Top Cottages”)

Actually, there was a 50-caliber machine gun nest just outside of our yard and a 40-millimeter anti-aircraft battery with a searchlight within 30 yards of the edge of our yard on the south side. Thinking back on it now, it seem strange to me why the gun emplacements were located outside of the gates and they were located so close to our residence.

I do not remember how long the 50-caliber gun emplacement was located in the edge of the yard. I do have some recollection of the noise and the searchlights at night.  The searchlights were used to help locate the targets. There were also blackouts from time to time.  I never asked Dad about how he was able to sleep in the early days of shift work at Ethyl Dow.

Target sleeves on long cables were towed up and down the beach by airplanes for the gunners to develop their gunnery skills.   South of Old Historical Fort Fisher was a target range for gunnery practice on stationery and well as moving ground targets.  This mechanized target range enabled gunners to receive versatility training and learn to be effective against tanks and other armored vehicles.

After the Army left, there was evidence that the target sleds were pulled across the target range by a cable hooked to pulleys so a bulldozer could pull the target from a safe distance. The targets were rigged so it could be pulled both ways. The mechanized target range was located slightly north of the training facilities’ ammunition bunkers and the “Rocks” were located a little farther south of the bunkers.

Being Staked Out on the Beach  

When I was very young, no more the two or three, my mother was a “Fisher Woman” extraordinaire. Mother and Clara Danner loved to surf fish on the beach in front of the house for blues, trout and Virginia mullets.

The problem that arose was what to do with the new kid on the block. Mother’s solution was to tie a rope around my ankle and connect it to a stake so I could play at the water’s edge; occasionally, I was washed back and forth by wave action. I know this story is true because I heard it from several relatives later in life. Today, they’d probably arrest a mother for child endangerment; although the treatment had no ill effect on me.  Mother’s solution resulted in creating a water bug. Being around water was part of my developmental process and fostered my appreciation and love for the Atlantic Ocean. I became an excellent swimmer and could work magic with my belly board.

Pig for a Pet

Dad and his pet pig “Poli” Dec. 26, 1932

Dad and his pet pig “Poli”
Dec. 26, 1932

After my father Curtis’ death in 1995, a photo surfaced of my dad and his pet pig. A description on the back confirmed that he not only had a pet pig, but he had named it. That Dad had a pig does shed light on the fact that in later years we were also allowed to have a pet pig.  This occurred sometime before the Army closed the base.

Now this was not an ordinary pig; our pig thought he was a dog. He was put in a pen at night, but during the day he would follow us around. Being a city girl, mother was a little embarrassed when the pig would follow us down road when she went visiting the neighbors. She would tell us to make the pig go home.

The service guys from Fort Fisher would pass by in their Army jeeps and would honk their horns, hoot and holler and bang on the doors. To mother’s chagrin, some would “oink, oink” at us as they drove by.

This story did not have a happy ending for the pig. Mother survived all the embarrassment, but unfortunately the pig got too large to handle and, of course, he eventually ended up on the dinner table. Those experiences were all part of growing up.

Remembrances after the Army departed
After the war some of the barracks and buildings were sold as surplus. Some of these became beach homes at Kure and Wilmington beaches and some were used in place.

I recall that one of the warehouses was taken over by a seafood processing plant. My grandmother worked there while it was open. Their specialty was devil crabs. I remember the boiling vats along with the distinctive odor of crabs and spices. The picking and processing room was a screened-in porch. Since there was no air conditioning, the product was moved to refrigeration as quickly as possible.

The Baptist Assembly
The Baptist Seaside Assembly took up residence in some of the buildings left by the Army, which became the summer headquarters for the North Carolina State Baptist Convention in 1948. They used some of the buildings and barracks for an administration building, assembly hall and dormitories. I was quite familiar with the facilities.

My step-grandfather, J. N. Todd, was the caretaker of the buildings for a short time while the Baptist Assembly was active at Fort Fisher. I stayed a number of nights with him and my grandmother. It was one spooky place at night for a 10-year-old. An opportunity to see the hospital morgue at one time did not help control my young imagination.

The Joys of Growing Up
Farmall.Tom-Punk-Jackie-Codo BoysOne of the pleasures I recall in the late forties was when Uncle Crawford Lewis gave my cousin Joe Hewett a set of soap derby wheels.

We made a two-seat cart that required one to steer with his feet and one to act a brake-man. Our first project was to add a mast and a sail to the cart. The best condition for this adventure was when the wind was blowing out of the northeast.  Highway 421 ran south and was a two lane narrow road, which did not allow for any tacking. With a strong wind, it was a wild ride down south. On some occasions, our cart would start coming apart due to the stress and we would have to abort the run. There were several designs changes before we could make a complete run.

With all the terrain being relatively flat on Federal Point, it was hard to find a good incline. My step-grandfather saved the day by allowing us to use the cinder block corridor that ran from the old Army hospital to the Baptist Assembly’s Administration building and assembly hall, which was approximately 100 yards away. The corridor was approximately eight feet wide and ten feet in height. It was basically a concrete cinder block structure with the windows missing. The original windows were spaced about every twenty feet.

As best as I can recall, the slope of the corridor was approximately two feet in 100 yards. This was a perfect place to use our cart especially for a couple of flatlanders. Traveling down this corridor while gaining speed with the sunlight filtering through the window gave a couple of 10-year-olds the illusion of traveling at a high rate of speed. We would spend hours riding our cart down the corridor. But, all good things must come to an end. As I described earlier, the administration building was at the end of our run so it was imperative that our brakes worked properly. When, as one might have predicted, our braking mechanism failed, we ended up going through a set of double doors into the Assembly Hall. The impact of the door did cause us to stop before hitting the exterior wall on the other side of the room. We were fortunate that the double doors did not have a center post. But, nevertheless, we had several cuts and bruises. This ended our favorite escapade down the corridor. We were admonished by my step-grandfather and were required to help with the repairs.

Money in the Sand at Fort Fisher

I am sure this event took place before 1952. The military was using some parts of Fort Fisher acreage for training again. The timing suggests that the activity may have been in preparation for or in response to the Korean War. Most of the World War II barracks had been sold to private citizens for homes and commercial offices so the Army set up temporary structures for barracks that had three-foot walls with canvas tent structures mounted on top. The floors were compact red dirt that was hauled in from somewhere in North Carolina.

I recall seeing these tent barracks many times over a period of a couple of years. Dad had a contract with the Army that gave him the rights to mess hall garbage. We would pick up the garbage every second day after the evening mess and would haul several 55-gallon drums to the pigpens on the River Farm. I have no remembrance of the number of pigs raised and or the numbers sold commercially, but I think Dad did well during this period.  I do remember going to the stockyard in Wilmington on more than one occasion.

When the Army left and things returned to normal, Dad, Grandmother and I were out one day looking for blackberries or wild peaches. We came across the location of the tent barracks and to our surprise, there was money setting on a little red dirty pedestal. Every time it rained more coins were washed to the surface. The denominations were varied in quantity but there were quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. Our take may have been as much as dollar to dollar and a half at first. What developed over the next several months was a routine that became a family outing.

This speaks well of how easy it was to entertain a family in early 1950’s. After a good rain, we would load up the old beach buggy (a stripped-down 1938 Ford frame with exposed engine, radiator and firewall/windshield with wood deck designed to carry nets and a small boat) and head out to search for money left behind. Our take varied on each outing, but we found enough money to make the event like a big treasure hunt.

We finally stopped going when our reward and excitement of the search dwindled. I recall Dad would say, “Well, we found enough money to purchase a loaf of bread.”  In retrospect, I think you could buy loaf of bread for 12 cents in those days, so on average our take was not very much, but the outing was what is was all about.

Providing for the Family

Sugar Cane Boiling Pot

Sugar cane vat comparable to one used during the Hewett’s fall hog killing.

As noted in earlier writings, the family fished, farmed and raised livestock. Dad always had pigs that the family would slaughter and butcher on cold fall days.

This yearly event was a family affair with all hands on deck. Uncle Crawford Lewis and my Dad were the primary orchestrators of the slaughter and did all of the heavy lifting.

After the pigs were shot in the head and their throats slit, the pigs were hung in a nearby large oak to allow proper bleeding.  From there they were placed in scalding water in a vat until the hair could be scraped off. The pig was removed to a workbench to complete the cleaning process. Sometimes more than one trip to the vat of scalding hot water was necessary.

Once the pigskin was almost pure white, it was hung again to remove the internal organs. The pigs were allowed to cool to the daily ambient temperature. If the weather was cold enough, the butchering process could take several days. The meat was either salted down and placed in box to cure or smoked in a smokehouse. A portion was made into sausage.

One of the by-products was “crackling,” a fried fat that was added to corn beard which gave the bread a bacon taste. Lye was added to the oil from the fat. This became grandmother’s laundry soap.

Read … Part 2

 

Seafood on Federal Point – 1948-1956 (part 3)

Oral History
by:  Howard Hewett,  Jones Creek, TX – July, 2015 – Part 7.3

Howard Hewett

Howard Hewett

Shrimping on the Cape Fear River
Some of my fondest memories are of late afternoon trips to the river. Dad had purchased some fairly good shrimp nets on one of our trips to Holden Beach in Brunswick County. With the panels from the net he made a seine net with lead on the bottom rope and corks on the top and two staffs on each end. It is hard to say how long it was, but my guess it was approximately four feet high and 150 feet long.

We would load the whole family, along with those who happened to be visiting on the flat-bed trailer pulled by our Cub Cadet Tractor and head over to the river using Davis Road.

The Davis’ river front property (current Davis Road) was adjacent to the Hewett’s river front property. Living on a beach with the Atlantic at our door, we had a lot of summer visitors. Visitors who wanted to help would split up into two groups with Dad (Howard Curtis Hewett Sr.) manning the staff closest to the shore.

Dad was the director of operations and I was in charge of the other end. We would pull the net out into the river until it was approximately 3-1/2 feet deep. Then we would pull the net parallel to the shore for 50 yards or so; finally, we headed for the shore.

The key was to have both staffs arrive at the same time. This process would yield (depending on the conditions) anywhere from a 2-1/2 to a 5-gallon bucket of shrimp. On lean days more pulls were required. Sometimes the Cape Fear River had such an abundance of shrimp that only a short-haul was necessary to fill a 5-gallon bucket.

On one occasion, I remember a small wave from a ship going down the channel caused shrimp to jump up on the shore, but I only recall seeing that once. By suppertime, we had shrimp peeled and ready for the frying pan.

An eight-foot long sink that was purchased from the surplus sold at the closing of the Ft Fisher Army base after the war enhanced processing the shrimp. I recall it being a four-person process consisting of a couple of peelers, a person to devein, and a quality control inspector.

The inspector was usually my grandmother because she was noted for her food preparation quality control. When it came to seafood, Grandmother’s seafood preparation techniques put her in a league of her own.

I have a special memory about Grandmother Roebuck (Meme) on one of the trips to the river. It was one of those times that we did not have a big group so Meme wanted to help on my end.

Actually, I think she just wanted to get out in the water to cool off. On our second pull, we had moved farther down the beach than normal. This area of the beach had more of a muddy bottom than the usual sandy bottom.

As we started to shore, Meme got bogged down to her knees in the shallow water. To help her, I had to drop the staff. After getting her legs back on the surface of the bottom, she still could not stand up so I rolled her out of the area until she could stand up. Of course, she was laughing all the way.

Now leaving the staff did not make my “no-nonsense” dad happy and I can’t write what he said to me but Meme sat down on the beach and roared with laughter. The more dad fussed with me, the more her laughter increased. To this day I have a hard time not smiling when I think about that afternoon at the river.

Fishing
There was an abundance of fish, but the variety depended on the time of year. The fall mullet run provided the family fish for a good part of the year. It was the only seafood that we salted down for short-term storage. When needed, the mullet was removed and soaked in fresh water until most of the brine was removed. Regardless of the soaking, the fish was always on the salty side.

The surf provided trout, blue fish, some flounder, croakers and Virginia mullet. Offshore there was an abundance of black bass around the wrecks of the blockade runners.

Clam Diggers: Mr Todd, Danny Orr, Addie Jane, Mrs Orr

Clam Diggers: Mr Todd, Danny Orr, Addie Jane, Mrs Orr

The most prolific flounder fisherman of the family was my Uncle Crawford Lewis. Dad may have been a close second. Their method was to pull a small skiff with a rope tied to their waist along the shallow waters of the bays.

Their gigging tools consisted of a three-prong pitchfork and a gas lantern. With one hand holding the lantern and the pitch fork in the other, they would gig a flounder, set the lantern down on the bow of the skiff and in one fluid motion flip the flounder in the boat without actually reaching down into the water. The quantity was not what floundering was all about. Quality and size were more important. They would be looking for large flounders around 4-5 pounds.

Just enough for three families to have baked flounder and sometimes maybe a little fried fish. If the moon and the tide were right, it seemed like they would go every night. This might seem strange, but there was no television back in those days so when it got dark, it was time to go floundering. Providing food for a growing family was paramount. The favorite way to prepare the flounder was to bake the whole flounder in a roasting pot with onions and potatoes.

I think it is important to say that regardless of the abundance of seafood, we only took what we needed.

 

Seafood on Federal Point – 1948-1956 (part 2)

Oral History
by:  Howard Hewett,  Jones Creek, TX – July, 2015 – Part 7.5

[Mark your calendar now! Howard will be visiting from Texas and will present a program on his memories of Federal Point On Monday November 2, here at the History Center at 7:30 pm.]

Howard Hewett

Howard Hewett

Acquiring seafood on Federal Point was a family affair. On a falling tide or low tide we would head for the bays located just south of where we lived at 833 S. Fort Fisher Blvd.

Clamming
Our family believed that what we called the upper bay was a clamming paradise. The upper bay was east of the Fort Fisher munition bunkers.

When the tide was out, the large sand flats would yield clams about the size of a small to medium fist. Our tools of the trade were four-prong rakes. You did not have to rake very deep – usually less than an inch. A bubble hole would sometimes indicate the presence of a clam.

The resulting designs in the sand from the raking process were quite similar to

Clamming Rake

                          Clamming Rake

“Karesansui” as in Japanese Zen garden art.  I assure you that at the time, I did not have any idea what a Zen garden was.

The only way our family prepared clams was by making clam chowder. You could go to the bays and get a “mess” of clams and have clam chowder for dinner. Chicken soup was a well-known combatant for the common cold, but  in our family clam chowder was used exclusively.

Oysters for Dinner

There were two methods of oystering that we used. The favorite and most productive was chipping oysters off the rocks with a homemade chipping hammer. With approximately three miles of rocks, there were ample surfaces for oysters to grow. Most of the oysters grew on the bay side of The Rocks. The accessibility to The Rocks was made available by a concrete cap that was installed in the 1930’s by the Corps of Engineers (Jackson, 1995). The farther you walked out on the rocks, the availability and quality of oysters increased.

Prior to moving to Texas in 1956, we went oystering on The Rocks for the last time. On this trip, we came off the rock with four bushels of oysters. Dad and I each carried the inside handles of two bushels while Grandmother and my brother, Tom Hewett carried the outside handles. We had to stop from time to time to rest, but we were able to make it to the trailer.

The reason I share this particular event is that Grandmother had been claiming her hip had been hurting for a couple of weeks. A couple weeks after the oystering trip we found out she was suffering from a broken hip. My Grandmother, Addie Lewis Hewett Todd, was around 70 years old at that time; it could be said that she was cut from some very good cloth – one tough pioneer Grandmother. Grandmother lived to be 96 years old.

The other oystering method required a boat and a clam basket device that had long handles. Mechanically the mechanism was similar to a post-hole digger. However, instead of two shovel devices there were two baskets that opened and closed with the movement of the handles. I would refer to them as long-handle tongs. This method required positioning the boat over an oyster bed that was maybe two to three feet under the water. You could locate these beds at low tide so at high tide we could position the boat over the top of the bed. This method was more of a hit and miss operation because you could not see exactly what you were doing and you brought up a lot of mud and shells.

North Carolina Oyster Roast

We had a fire pit made of brick that had a metal plate over the pit. Oysters were placed on the plate with the oyster’s mouth pointing down; joints were in an upward position. Wet burlap bags were placed over the oysters. A fire was started in the pit and when the metal plate became hot a little water was poured over the burlap to get the process started. As steam was created, the oysters would open up their mouths resulting in the liquid inside draining down on the plate which converted to more steam. Dad would monitor the oysters and would enhance the steam process by adding more water as needed. He always liked to see a lot of steam. Within a short time all of the oysters would be opened and very tender.                                                                                                              

Oystering Knives

Oystering Knives

The oysters were then brought to the table. If you wanted to eat, each individual had to shuck his or her own oysters. When we had guests that were not familiar with the methods of shucking oysters, someone in the family would get them started; most folks were able to quickly get a feel for the process and could be left alone.

The shucked oysters went into a cup containing each individual’s favorite sauce mixture. Our family was partial to a melted butter, heated ketchup and vinegar mixture with a little hot sauce. Crackling cornbread was the family’s favorite accompaniment to be eaten along with the oysters.

 

Seafood on Federal Point – 1948-1956 (part 1)

Oral History
by:  Howard Hewett,  Jones Creek, TX – July, 2015 – Part 7

Background

Howard Hewett

Howard Hewett

Some of the following background information is from my recollection of the events as I grew up on Federal Point between 1939 and 1956, and what my father, Howard Curtis Hewett Sr, and my grandmother, Addie Jane Lewis Hewett, related to me. Other background information is from research and is so noted.

A major portion of our seafood came out of the bays south of where we lived in Fort Fisher.  But first, it is important to understand how those bays were formed.

A major Atlantic storm in 1761 opened an inlet that crossed the peninsula south of the current Fort Fisher monument. The New Inlet had a major impact on the main channel or ‘Bald Head’ channel of the Cape Fear River resulting in the significant decrease in depth.

By 1839, sand, silt and forming shoals from the New Inlet threatened the southerly approach to the river from the Bald Head channel. There were concerns that the Bald Head channel would not be available to shipping coming into the river from the southerly approach. The alternate route would force shipping to go out around ‘Frying Pan Shoals’ and enter the river through the New Inlet. This added to their passage time into Wilmington.

Northerly shipping traffic could enter the New Inlet, which avoided the treacherous Frying Pan Shoals located 29 southeast of Smith Island.

New Inlet as recorded in Civil War mapping records, 1864 (Cowles, Davis, Perry, & Kirkley)[Enlarge]

New Inlet as recorded in Civil War mapping records, 1864
(Cowles, Davis, Perry, & Kirkley)
[Enlarge]

In 1870 funds were appropriated to close the New Inlet and other breaches that occurred as a result of storms and gales. The land mass was a narrow strip of sandy beach with very low swampland on the river side. The map above is an excellent representation of the topography of Federal Point in 1864. By observing the map, one can see what a formidable task the closing of the New Inlet and breaches were.

In 1871, another storm further deepened the New Inlet. Actual construction work to close the New Inlet took place from 1870 to 1891. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were the overseers of the rock dam project.

They sank wooden cribbing and then added stones to bring the dam to sea level. Asst. Engineer Henry Bacon suggested that they add heavy granite capstones to bring the structure to two feet above sea level.

In 1877, a storm opened a breach between Smith Island, commonly called ‘Bald Head’ and Zeke’s Island which Civil War Military Maps recorded as ‘Zeeks Island’ (see the map right).

From 1881-1891, a dam similar in construction to the one built between Buchanan Battery to Zeke’s Island dam was built from Zeke’s Island to Smith Island.

When all the construction was completed, the upper section from the Buchanan Battery to Zeke’s Island was approximately 5,300 feet. The Swash Defense Dam from Zeke’s Island to Smith’s Island was 12,800 feet. The total distance of the project was over three miles (Reaves, 2011).

In 1891, the New Inlet was declared officially closed (Jackson, 1995). This rock dam is known by the locals as “The Rocks.” With the closing, tidal basins formed between The Rocks and the Atlantic. For our family, these bays became a plentiful source of shellfish.

During the time that I was growing up on Federal Point, there was the existence of another inlet south of the original New Inlet. We called it “Corncake Inlet.” I do not know exactly when Corncake Inlet opened, but it was a much smaller inlet. I do recall that Corncake Inlet would be wider and deeper depending on storm activity. Corncake Inlet was the source for fresh seawater for the bays.

My best recollection from stories told by my dad is that a schooner carrying corn went aground on a shoal while entering the inlet and remained there for a several days. These schooners were called corn-crackers because of their cargoes. I always wondered if that is how the inlet received its name. I assume it was opened before The Rocks were completed, but these breaches opened and closed depending on storm activity.

Dad liked to take our boat up toward the Corncake Inlet to fish for sheepshead at a place that he referred to as the “cribbing.” As I can best remember, it was east of the rock dam, basically located in the direction of Corncake Inlet. I believe that the cribbing was the remains of a temporary cofferdam that controlled some of the water flowing through the inlet into the river during the rock dam construction. I based this on the heavy flow of water traveling through this cut when we were fishing at this location.

However, after completing some research, I discovered another possibility. The cribbing may have been the remains of a stone dike cribbing built in 1853 by Captain Daniel P. Woodbury (Rayburn, 1984). What I recall seeing was mainly a wooden structure at water level. There could have been stones under the water.

[More next month about shrimping, clamming and oyster roasts. And mark your calendar now! Howard will be visiting from Texas and will present a program on his memories of Federal Point On Monday November 2, here at the History Center at 7:30 pm.]

Susie Burnett Jones Remembers

[Editor:  8/6/15 – August, 2015 Wrightsville Magazine featured: ‘Gilbert’s Sno-balls by Gil Burnett as told by Henry Burnett. 

“Let’s go back 70-some years to the Great Depression.  Let’s go to 1937. Carolina Beach.  I was 12 years old, and I was a carnival boy.”

It’s a great article about surviving on the Carolina Beach boardwalk.]

~~~~~~~

In Feb, 2014, we ran an excerpt from John Hook’s interview of Jim Hannah.  In reply Susie Burnett Jones has sent the following:

My father, John Henry Burnett of Burgaw, began investing in Carolina Beach in 1911; and in 1936 he built a six-bedroom cottage at 404 Carolina Beach Ave, North.

Until World War II the beach had two distinct groups of people: the summer folks and the year round residents, of which there were very few. At that time those living at the beach year round included business owners and their employees, commercial fishermen (the Freemans and the Winners) and those associated with the church and the elementary school. We were summer folks, and, like many others, moved to the beach in May of every year and returned home in late August. Of course, many rented houses or rooms, usually for two weeks, as we did before building our cottage.

Ocean Plaza - 1940s

Click

In the 1930’s downtown Carolina Beach, referred to as “the boardwalk,” was an entertainment mecca for young people throughout the Piedmont and Eastern North Carolina.

Cliff Smith’s Green Lantern, and the Carolina Moon next door, were known throughout the state as the “places to be” for young dancers and “wannabes.” The Big Apple, the Little Apple and the Jitterbug kept their wooden floors red-hot every summer night.

There was little or no crime. High school and college boys were allowed to “thumb” down by their parents, sleeping anywhere they could. All was well.

On Sept. 19, 1940 the boardwalk burned to the ground. The original pavilion and good solid beach-front hang-outs were replaced by small, poorly constructed buildings.

Pearl Harbor brought the end of an era. Soldiers and sailors from around the world now crowded the boardwalk mingling with shipyard workers, military police, summer visitors and permanent residents. Beer was bought and sold in every nook and cranny. The war changed the atmosphere of our wonderful family beach, where formerly beer had been only mildly visible after dark.

After the war Mr. Gene Reynolds from Greensboro built the Ocean Plaza building on a location where he owned outside bowling alleys. The new building was modern and glamorous. Mr. Reynolds’s objective was to re-create a more sophisticated beach environment. The restaurant was on the ground floor. The second floor was a ballroom with several sets of French doors opening onto a long balcony over-looking the boardwalk. The third floor was a penthouse apartment for the use of the manager. During the time that the Ocean Plaza was under construction, I was away in college.

In the early spring of 1949 I heard that the Ocean Plaza ballroom had a new manager, a radio personality from Wallace, John (?). He was auditioning for a vocalist to sing with the band he had hired for the summer, that was made up of musicians from the Duke Ambassadors and the Stormy Weathers of UNC.

'Stormy Weather' at Ocean Plaza

Click for Larger Image

The band would be called Stormy Weathers because the Weathers brothers, Jimmy on piano and Bynum on bass, were the leaders.

I had planned to spend the summer at Daddy’s house at the beach and having sung with several bands, decided to audition for the Ocean Plaza job. I knew that Daddy would keep an eye on me whatever I did.

I owned a wire recorder for recording and critiquing my singing, so I sent a spool with recordings for my songs to John. Shortly thereafter he called me to come to the beach for an interview. He lived on the third floor penthouse of the Ocean Plaza, and had a relatively new wife from Waccamaw. Their living room was furnished with glamorous white sectional sofas. His wife was lovely and refined. He told me that he wanted to hire a vocalist with whom she would be compatible.

Competing with Wrightsville Beach for summer vacationers and college kids, John’s goal was to make the Ocean Plaza ballroom a sophisticated club in which men would wear coats and ties or dinner jackets and women would wear cocktail dresses. All employees would be music students recruited by his wife’s brother, David Grey, a music major from UNC.

Everyone hired was musical … the waiters, bartenders, ticket handlers, etc. Waiters would take turns coming up to the mike to sing. I was the vocalist and the only girl. The job was tailor-made for summer fun and meaningful summer work. Everything went like clockwork. We were all happy college kids and most of us hung out all day on the beach in front of the Burnett cottage under Daddy’s supervision, and were surrounded by music at night. Utopia!

About a week after opening we were booked to be guests on John’s radio show in Wallace. Jimmy Weathers, who was slow and easy-going, was driving one of three cars full of musicians. We got started late and almost missed the 2 p.m. broadcast, running into the station just before the red “on the air” light came on. I don’t remember the program, except that one of the songs I sang was “Zippity Doo Dah.”

Late Saturday on the second week of our employment the boys in the band went up to the penthouse to receive their checks. No one was there. The next day it became apparent that John had skipped town with his wife. No one knew why, or anything about their whereabouts. It’s still a mystery.

What a dilemma. We all huddled on Sunday afternoon. No one wanted to leave the beach, but there was no money to keep the Ocean Plaza operating. After agonizing for hours some decided to leave. The rest of us determined that we would take over the Ocean Plaza Ballroom and run it ourselves for the rest of the summer.

There were eight in the band, four singing waiters, a bartender, a box office person and me. We served only soft drinks and grilled cheese sandwiches. I was the vocalist and also managed the business. From our receipts we first paid the rent and our few bills and then divided the balance among ourselves. Everything was in cash. We were successful.

Bop City featuring, Jimmy Cavallo, was across the boardwalk, its entrance about 50 feet from the front door of the Ocean Plaza. The two very different types of music came together like cymbals. … Jimmy Cavallo’s saxophone on “How High the Moon” and the Stormy Weathers “You’re Just too Marvelous” with the full band. Bobby Haas and a couple of others played at both places. Tommy Teabeaux and his trombone came by the Ocean Plaza one night and joined the Stormy Weathers for several numbers.

The ballroom closed at midnight when we would lock the door and jam for another hour. Daddy kept a close eye on us all, and in August we all went back to our respective schools, leaving the pinnacle season in the Ocean Plaza ballroom’s history. Every person involved says to this day that it was the greatest summer of their lives.

When the Moon Stood Still

Click: Book Description

PS:   Milton Bliss, a singing waiter, became head of the Music Department at NC State. Jimmy Weathers became a professional pianist in Atlanta, and on one occasion was complimented on his playing by Frank Sinatra. Bynum Weathers got his PhD and became a teacher and composer. I went to New York where I performed in and sang two solos in the off-Broadway musical “Dakota.”

 [Want to read more of Susie’s stories about the “good old days?” Our gift shop has copies of her book When the Moon Stood Still for sale. Published in 2003 it is $25.00 and we only have a few copies left.]

 

 

Oral History: Abundant Seafood on Federal Point – 1948-1956

 by:  Howard HewettJones Creek, TX – July, 2015 – Part 7

Background
Some of the following background information is from my recollection of the events as I grew up on Federal Point between 1939 and 1956, and what my father, Howard Curtis Hewett Sr, and my grandmother, Addie Jane Lewis Hewett, related to me. Other background information is from research and is so noted.

A major portion of our seafood came out of the bays south of where we lived in Fort Fisher.  But first, it is important to understand how those bays were formed.

A major Atlantic storm in 1761 opened an inlet that crossed the peninsula south of the current Fort Fisher monument. The New Inlet had a major impact on the main channel or ‘Bald Head’ channel of the Cape Fear River resulting in the significant decrease in depth.

By 1839, sand, silt and forming shoals from the New Inlet threatened the southerly approach to the river from the Bald Head channel. There were concerns that the Bald Head channel would not be available to shipping coming into the river from the southerly approach. The alternate route would force shipping to go out around ‘Frying Pan Shoals’ and enter the river through the New Inlet. This added to their passage time into Wilmington.

Northerly shipping traffic could enter the New Inlet, which avoided the treacherous Frying Pan Shoals, located 29 southeast of Smith Island.

New Inlet as recorded in Civil War mapping records, 1864 (Cowles, Davis, Perry, & In 1871, Kirkley, 1895)

New Inlet as recorded in Civil War mapping records, 1864
(Cowles, Davis, Perry, & Kirkley, 1895)

In 1870 funds were appropriated to close the New Inlet and other breaches that occurred as a result of storms and gales. The land mass was a narrow strip of sandy beach with very low swampland on the river side. The map above is an excellent representation of the topography of Federal Point in 1864. By observing the map, one can see what a formidable task the closing of the New Inlet and breaches were.

In 1871, another storm further deepened the New Inlet. Actual construction work to close the New Inlet took place from 1870 to 1891. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were the overseers of the rock dam project.

They sank wooden cribbing and then added stones to bring the dam to sea level. Asst. Engineer Henry Bacon suggested that they add heavy granite capstones to bring the structure to two feet above sea level.

In 1877, a storm opened a breach between Smith Island, commonly called ‘Bald Head’ and Zeke’s Island which Civil War Military Maps recorded as ‘Zeeks Island’ (see the map above).

From 1881-1891, a dam similar in construction to the one built between Buchanan Battery to Zeke’s Island dam was built from Zeke’s Island to Smith Island.

When all the construction was completed, the upper section from the Buchanan Battery to Zeke’s Island was approximately 5,300 feet. The Swash Defense Dam from Zeke’s Island to Smith’s Island was 12,800 feet. The total distance of the project was over three miles (Reaves, 2011).

In 1891, the New Inlet was declared officially closed (Jackson, 1995). This rock dam is known by the locals as “The Rocks.” With the closing, tidal basins formed between The Rocks and the Atlantic. For our family, these bays became a plentiful source of shellfish.

During the time that I was growing up on Federal Point, there was the existence of another inlet south of the original New Inlet. We called it “Corncake Inlet.” I do not know exactly when Corncake Inlet opened, but it was a much smaller inlet. I do recall that Corncake Inlet would be wider and deeper depending on storm activity. Corncake Inlet was the source for fresh seawater for the bays.

My best recollection from stories told by my dad is that a schooner carrying corn went aground on a shoal while entering the inlet and remained there for a several days. These schooners were called corn-crackers because of their cargoes. I always wondered if that is how the inlet received its name. I assume it was opened before The Rocks were completed, but these breaches opened and closed depending on storm activity.

Dad liked to take our boat up toward the Corncake Inlet to fish for sheepshead at a place that he referred to as the “cribbing.” As I can best remember, it was east of the rock dam, basically located in the direction of Corncake Inlet. I believe that the cribbing was the remains of a temporary cofferdam that controlled some of the water flowing through the inlet into the river during the rock dam construction. I based this on the heavy flow of water traveling through this cut when we were fishing at this location.

However, after completing some research, I discovered another possibility. The cribbing may have been the remains of a stone dike cribbing built in 1853 by Captain Daniel P. Woodbury (Rayburn, 1984). What I recall seeing was mainly a wooden structure at water level. There could have been stones under the water.

Seafood on Federal Point
Acquiring seafood on Federal Point was a family affair. On a falling tide or low tide, we would head for the bays located just south of where we lived at 833 S. Fort Fisher Blvd (images).

Clamming
Our family believed that what we called the upper bay was a clamming paradise. The upper bay was east of the Fort Fisher munition bunkers.

Clamming Rake

Clamming Rake

When the tide was out, the large sand flats would yield clams about the size of a small to medium fist. Our tools of the trade were four-prong rakes. You did not have to rake very deep – usually less than an inch. A bubble hole would sometimes indicate the presence of a clam.

The resulting designs in the sand from the raking process were quiet similar to “Karesansui” as in Japanese Zen garden art.  I assure you that at the time, I did not have any idea what a Zen garden was.

The only way our family prepared clams was by making clam chowder. You could go to the bays and get a “mess” of clams and have clam chowder for dinner. Chicken soup was a well-known combatant for the common cold, but in our family clam chowder was used exclusively.

Oysters for Dinner
There were two methods of oystering that we used. The favorite and most productive was chipping oysters off the rocks with a homemade chipping hammer. With approximately three miles of rocks, there were ample surfaces for oysters to grow. Most of the oysters grew on the bay side of the “Rocks.” The accessibility to the rocks was made available by a concrete cap that was installed in the 1930’s by the Corps of Engineers (Jackson, 1995). The farther you walked out on the rocks, the availability and quality of oysters increased.

Prior to moving to Texas in 1956, we went oystering on the Rocks for the last time. On this trip, we came off the rock with four bushels of oysters. Dad and I each carried the inside handles of two bushels while Grandmother and my brother Tom Hewett carried the outside handles. We had to stop from time to time to rest, but we were able to make it to the trailer.

The reason I share this particular event is that Grandmother had been claiming her hip had been hurting for a couple of weeks. A couple weeks after the oystering trip we found out she was suffering from a broken hip. My grandmother, Addie Lewis Hewett Todd, was around 70 years old at that time; it could be said that she was cut from some very good cloth – one tough pioneer grandmother. Grandmother lived to be 96 years old.

The other oystering method required a boat and a clam basket device that had long handles. Mechanically the mechanism was similar to a post-hole digger. However, instead of two shovel devices there were two baskets that opened and closed with the movement of the handles. I would refer to them as long-handle tongs. This method required positioning the boat over an oyster bed that was maybe two to three feet under the water. You could locate these beds at low tide so at high tide we could position the boat over the top of the bed. This method was more of a hit and miss operation because you could not see exactly what you were doing and you brought up a lot of mud and shells.

North Carolina Oyster Roast
We had a fire pit made of brick that had a metal plate over the pit. Oysters were placed on the plate with the oyster’s mouth pointing down; joints were in an upward position. Wet burlap bags were placed over the oysters. A fire was started in the pit and when the metal plate became hot a little water was poured over the burlap to get the process started. As steam was created, the oysters would open up their mouths resulting in the liquid inside draining down on the plate, which converted to more steam. Dad would monitor the oysters and would enhance the steam process by adding more water as needed. He always liked to see a lot of steam. Within a short time all of the oysters would be opened and very tender.

Oystering Knives

Oystering Knives

The oysters were then brought to the table. If wanted you wanted to eat, each individual had to shuck his or her own oysters. When we had guests that were not familiar with the methods of shucking oysters, someone in the family would get them started; most folks were able to quickly get a feel for the process and could be left alone.

The shucked oysters went into a cup containing each individual’s favorite sauce mixture. Our family was partial to a melted butter, heated ketchup and vinegar mixture with a little hot sauce. Crackling cornbread was the family’s favorite accompaniment to be eaten along with the oysters.

Shrimping on the Cape Fear River
Some of my fondest memories are of late afternoon trips to the river. Dad had purchased some fairly good shrimp nets on one of our trips to Holden Beach in Brunswick County. With the panels from the net he made a seine net with lead on the bottom rope and corks on the top and two staffs on each end. It is hard to say how long it was, but my guess it was approximately four feet high and 150 feet long. We would load the whole family, along with those who happened to be visiting on the flat-bed trailer pulled by our Cub Cadet Tractor and head over to the river using Davis Road.

The Davis’ river front property was adjacent to the Hewett’s river front property. Living on a beach with the Atlantic at our door, we had a lot of summer visitors. Visitors who wanted to help would split up into two groups with Dad (Howard Curtis Hewett Sr.) manning the staff closest to the shore. Dad was the director of operations and I was in charge of the other end. We would pull the net out into the river until it was approximately 3-1/2 feet deep. Then we would pull the net parallel to the shore for 50 yards or so; finally, we headed for the shore.

The key was to have both staffs arrive at the same time. This process would yield (depending on the conditions) anywhere from a 2-1/2 to a 5-gallon bucket of shrimp. On lean days more pulls were required. Sometimes the Cape Fear River had such an abundance of shrimp that only a short-haul was necessary to fill a 5-gallon bucket.

On one occasion, I remember a small wave from a ship going down the channel causing shrimp to jump up on the shore, but I only recall seeing that once. By suppertime, we had shrimp peeled and ready for the frying pan.

An eight-foot long sink that was purchased from the surplus sold at the closing of the Army base after the war enhanced processing the shrimp. I recall it being a four-person process consisting of a couple of peelers, a person to devein, and a quality control inspector. The inspector was usually my grandmother because she was noted for her food preparation quality control. When it came to seafood, Grandmother’s seafood preparation techniques put her in a league of her own.

I have a special memory about Grandmother Roebuck (Meme) on one of the trips to the river. It was one of those times that we did not have a big group so Meme wanted to help on my end. Actually, I think she just wanted to get out in the water to cool off. On our second pull, we had moved farther down the beach than normal. This area of the beach had more of a muddy bottom than the usual sandy bottom.

As we started to shore, Meme got bogged down to her knees in the shallow water. To help her, I had to drop the staff. After getting her legs back on the surface of the bottom, she still could not stand up so I rolled her out of the area until she could stand up. Of course, she was laughing all the way. Now leaving the staff did not make my “no-nonsense” dad happy and I can’t write what he said to me but Meme sat down on the beach and roared with laughter. The more dad fussed with me, the more her laughter increased. To this day I have a hard time not smiling when I think about that afternoon at the river.

Fishing
There was an abundance of fish, but the variety depended on the time of year. The fall mullet run provided the family fish for a good part of the year. It was the only seafood that we salted down for short-term storage. When needed, the mullet was removed and soaked in fresh water until most of the brine was removed. Regardless of the soaking, the fish was always on the salty side.

The surf provided trout, blue fish, some flounder, croakers and Virginia mullet. Offshore there was an abundance of black bass around the wrecks of the blockade runners.

Hewett Family - Clam Diggers: Mr Todd, Danny Orr, Addie Jane, Mrs Orr

Clam Diggers: Mr Todd, Danny Orr, Addie Jane, Mrs Orr

The most prolific flounder fisherman of the family was my Uncle Crawford Lewis. Dad may have been a close second. Their method was to pull a small skiff with a rope tied to their waist along the shallow waters of the bays.

Their gigging tools consisted of a three-prong pitchfork and a gas lantern. With one hand holding the lantern and the pitch fork in the other, they would gig a flounder, set the lantern down on the bow of the skiff and in one fluid motion flip the flounder in the boat without actually reaching down into the water. The quantity was not what floundering was all about. Quality and size were more important. They would be looking for large flounders around 4-5 pounds.

Just enough for three families to have baked flounder and sometimes maybe a little fried fish. If the moon and the tide were right, it seemed like they would go every night. This might seem strange, but there was no television back in those days so when it got dark, it was time to go floundering. Providing food for a growing family was paramount. The favorite way to prepare the flounder was to bake the whole flounder in a roasting pot with onions and potatoes.

I think it is important to say that regardless of the abundance of seafood, we only took what we needed.

 

References
Davis G. B., Perry, L. J., & Kirkley, J. W. Compiled by Cowles, C. D. (1983). The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War. New York, NY: Fairfax Press.

Hewett, H.C. (2014). Fishing off Fort Fisher in a Small Boat in 1940s and 50s. Oral History, Federal Point Historical Preservation Society.

Jackson, S. (1995). The Closing of New Inlet (The Rocks) 1870-1881 … and the Swash Defense Dam 1881-1891.

Rayburn, R. H. (1984). One of the Finest Rivers in the South: Corps of Engineers Improvements on the Cape Fear River below Wilmington, 1870-1881. Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, Inc., Volume 27, Number 2, May, 1984.

Rayburn, R.H. (1985). One of the Finest Rivers in the South: Corps of Engineers Improvements on the Cape Fear River below Wilmington, 1881-1891. Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, Inc., Volume 28, Number 2, February, 1985.

Reaves, Bill. (2011). Federal Point Chronology 1725-1994. New Hanover Public Library & Federal Point Historic Preservation Society. Wilmington, NC. (Compiled by Bill Reaves from Wilmington newspapers articles.)

Howard Hewett

Howard Hewett

Oral History – Rachel Bame

Interviewed on Aug 30, 2006 by Jeannie Gordon and Ann Hertzler

After the original wooden Bames Hotel burned down in September 1940, we rebuilt it with a brick one.

Later, and after so many of the family died or moved away, the oldest son George died. George was managing the hotel because the other two boys had the grocery store and the service station.

When George passed away, my husband Ernest, and his brother had their own businesses and they just couldn’t manage the hotel; they didn’t want to mess with the hotel.

So they leased the hotel to a minister and his wife, the man had retired. My husband, it was after his brother died, and the other brother didn’t want to worry with it.

But when my husband went in and saw the condition the hotel was in, he said it would ruin the name, so he had it [the second Bame Hotel] torn down. And that’s where the Marriott Hotel is located today – on that property. It had just gone down.

Bame Collection - slides color #2Hurricane Hazel. It really took my husband’s business – the Gulf station and the appliances.

During Hurricane Hazel, he stayed down at the business, I was living at the corner of Hamlet Avenue at the time. I wondered if he doesn’t come home…. During the height of the hurricane the ocean and the canal were almost ready to meet. And it did eventually.

And he was trying to save the appliances. He had just put in a car load of GE appliances. And they stayed down there and tried to save those appliances until it just got hopeless. The building was almost demolished. That’s another reason they had to get rid of the hotel – so much water came in. All that area just flooded something awful.

I think I mentioned the banker’s wife – we were playing bridge and heard the report that the hurricane was coming and she left.   Later, when I heard she had lost everything, we left our home on Hamlet and went up to the brick house on Cape Fear. When my friends on Canal Drive lost everything, we went up and dug clothes out of the mud. I took them home and washed them. That was a sad, sad time.

I had a dear friend who was one of the supervisors in the school system that lived on the southern extension at Carolina Beach. Had a nice home. And do you know after the hurricane Hazel, we found her buffet on the school lot. Everything was gone.

The original builder of Echo Farms had a beautiful home on the southern extension – a nd he loved the beach.  He was getting on up in age. Do you know during the hurricane he went into a shower stall, he wouldn’t leave. His home and everything was destroyed and he was left in the shower still alive. Now that was an experience that not any of us will ever forget.

snows_cut_1964Snow’s Cut Bridge. Well I do know that they were responsible for us having the bridge. My husband and Mayor Alsbrook from Wilmington and some of the county commissioners made a couple of trips to Washington. They really worked to get that bridge because that draw bridge was a handicap.

And at that time, a lot more small yachts were coming into this area. Which is good. We needed that bridge. They were very interested in getting that done and they worked with the state.

Churches. There wasn’t much social. The churches – the Baptist church and the Methodist church and the Deck House used to be the Presbyterian Church. It was a very active church. The churches, we had good groups. When we built the brick church, the Methodist church, the women of the church worked so hard to help finance that building. We used to have conventions on the beach. Oh the biggest group of people would come to the beach. And our women of the church would serve meals to make money to help build that church. We would serve sometime 200 people, we did work hard.

The Library: Let me mention one thing that was important to me at that time. We had a Women’s Club which was, you’ve File0001heard of Sorosis in Wilmington? The Sorosis helped to organize the women’s club and that’s when we built our first little library on Carolina Beach. Our Women’s Club was responsible for that little library. It was where it is now.

It was a little wooden framed building that the town let us use and we worked on it. And the Wilmington Library came in and helped us.

That was in the late ‘50s. It was strictly volunteers. We did have one elderly member of the Women’s Club, Mrs. Flogger. She was wonderful. And she volunteered her time – full time at the library. And that was a good thing. We got the books through the Wilmington library. It was affiliated. That was a good thing that we had for the beach. We needed that badly. And I did volunteer work there during the time.