Interviewed by Ann Hertzler and Jeannie Gordon
I’m not called by my first name because…you don’t remember the famous black boxer we had, Joe Lewis. I went through high school and always down here, as Ryder. As soon as I got in the military, they go by your first name, middle initial, so Joseph R. Lewis becomes Joe Lewis right quick.
When I got out of the military, and spent my career with the Corps of Engineers, that is an Army outfit. When I came back to Wilmington in ’57, it was Joe Lewis at that office. But it was still Ryder Lewis down here. Somebody might call from down here, up at the office and want to speak with Ryder Lewis and they’d say, we don’t have anybody by the name. Or somebody might come from there, down to here, oh well, we have a Joe Lewis who lives at Carolina Beach. I know you all know him. They don’t know him. It took about a year or so before enough people knew…
My grandparents lived down here, on the Lewis side, and bought about 150 acres of land in 1907, or somewhere along there. And the deed says they paid $400 for it and it was in the woods, in the jungle. Right where our house was, was in the woods.
They deeded out quite a bit of it to their different children. But when they died, there was still 30 or 40 acres of it that had not ever been distributed. And furthermore, I’m one of the few people in a big family that was able to go to college and get a good job. But, when I started to work with the Corps as a graduate engineer, in 1952, my annual salary was $3,410 a year!
Hazel came along and did some pretty good damage here and that was in ’54 and I was working in Savannah, Georgia, with the Corps at that point in time. My uncle was an old carpenter and a fisherman, he didn’t have much of anything and his wife was very sick and he tried to sell this place. Tried before and after Hazel and nobody would buy it. I told Uncle Henry, in 1955, I said, “Uncle Henry, I will buy that property from you for what you were asking for it before Hazel came and keep it in the family, if you’ll let me pay you $500 every 6 months plus 6% interest, until I get it paid for.” Well, $500, back in 1955, [was a lot of money] for somebody who didn’t have any money and a sick wife, and he said that would be fine. So he sold it to me. When I made the last payment, he wrote on the deed of trust, “paid in full and satisfied.”
It was just like a jungle. And, I had it surveyed after I started doing a little something here. The original survey called for seven and a half acres. The thing about it was, it went out into the Sound area a hundred or more feet, I couldn’t claim that, so I actually wound up with about six acres or something like that.
The old shopping center down here, coming from 421 all the way to St. Joseph’s Street belonged to two aunts. One of the aunts had the old, original Lewis home and she had no income. She was an old maid and the county was giving her something like $30 a month and putting a lease on the property. So I told Aunt Rose that I’ll buy that place, I’ll take your house, and I’ll pay off that lease and I’ll put lights, electricity in the house, which they didn’t have, and I’ll take care of you as long as you live if you’ll deed this property to me. Well, she trusted me enough, she did it. So that was about 8 acres.
The other aunt, she had 8 or 9 acres on out to the highway. I got hers in a similar way. I bought it. And, that’s the way I got started in getting some of the Lewis property. Then they were getting close to building that bridge up here and they moved the highway over some and they got on Lewis property. A good bit of it was on undivided property. So they wanted the Lewis family to come up with one person to deal with the state. Well, all my old uncles and aunts and my old cousins agreed that I should be the one to represent them. So I did.
By the way, I was the only one among my uncles and aunts, and cousins that had a good job. Back in those days. And I was paying property taxes each year on the undivided portions of the estate. After we settled with the state, then a few of my uncles that were left, they said that somebody ought to be in charge of this undivided part of the property anyway. Because a good bit of it was behind somebody else. Anyway, it wound up that all my uncles and aunts and cousins, except 3 cousins, agreed that … Well, I made a proposal to each one of them, and they agreed, except 3 held out on me, and that put me at about 30 or 40 more acres.
Property tax went up and I finally told those three, I said that the time has come for you to buy, to sell, or let’s divide it. I’m not going to pay property tax on the undivided Lewis estate anymore unless I have the title to it. So they said let’s divide it. I said OK. I’ll have it surveyed and have a map drawn. You can pay your portion of that. They agreed to that. After I had the map drawn, I turned the map over to them and I said OK, you tell me how to divide it. And the thing about it was there were about 14 acres down at this area, mostly behind somebody else, and then it was split completely and then it was another 15 acres in between people.
I gave the town a little over 10 acres of land, that most of it was classified as wet land, and I thought they were going to make a park area. But they wound up, it’s only a 100 ft. on the highway and goes back 400 ft., over 10 acres, donated it.
That area is where they put those ugly ponds out there on the highway. I didn’t give it to them for that, either. The mayor at that point in time, Ray Rothrock, he was interested in having another possible site for a well, on the east side of 421. And that’s another reason why I went ahead and donated it.