ORAL HISTORY – Pearl Winner Fountain – ‘Growing Up in Carolina Beach’

Interviewed and edited by Robin Robertson

Family. That’s what Pearl Winner Fountain remembers most when she thinks about growing up at Carolina Beach. That’s understandable considering her family and her roots in this area. Pearl, who now lives in Wilmington, is one of Captain Carl Winner’s six children. Being the oldest, she helped raise her younger brothers and helped her father with his many business enterprises.

One of her duties included closing her father’s businesses at night, especially if he was off on a trip. After closing, she would take the moneybag from the arcade and restaurant and walk home by herself all the way over to Fourth Avenue. That was a time when people left doors unlocked and she never felt afraid. Of course, when she was around nineteen, she learned she had been even safer than she realized. One night she was sitting at the Winner ticket booth. It was a slow night and a couple of policemen were sitting and talking with her. She was surprised when one commented that she really shouldn’t walk home like that with the money. Naturally, she questioned how he knew and that was when she found out that they had been following her home every night, keeping an eye on her. For her, that was one of the benefits of living in a small area; it meant “everybody looked out for everybody.”    

Pearl also helped out at her dad’s fishing business. He actually started the party boat business at Carolina Beach, building his own boats in the beginning. Pearl remembers her father often saying, “If you can’t build a house, you don’t deserve to live in it.” She explained that’s how he felt about his boats: if he couldn’t build them, he didn’t deserve to use one to make a living. He was an enterprising man, as well. He kept several boats offshore, using smaller boats to ferry fishermen out to the larger boats. After the war, he began using amphibian “ducks,” bringing them up to the south end of the boardwalk where passengers would step right onto the duck for the ride out to the boats.

As a child during World War II,
Pearl recalls their windows painted black
and seeing action off on the skyline at night.

Pearl, wearing a white captain’s hat, could be found at the ticket office there on the boardwalk. Often, she opened up at 4:30 or 5 o’clock in the morning and would still be there at midnight.

That’s actually how her courtship with her future husband, Jim Fountain, began. Jim fondly recalls the time when they were around twelve years old and he would sit with her on the bench on the boardwalk, watching the moon rise over the ocean. Pearl is quick to point out that the reason he was sitting with her so late was that she was working at the ticket office and he would sit and keep her company.

For her, that was one of the benefits of living in a small area;
it meant “everybody looked out for everybody.”

Being at the ticket office also put her in a great position to observe all the action. She laughingly describes it being “like going to the circus” with “wall to wall people” on the weekends. Families would come out to enjoy the amusement park, the arcade, bingo, or just sit on the benches overlooking the ocean and watch other people walk by. There was also plenty of food. Pearl remembers the corn on the cob, served on a stick and slathered with butter, or her favorite, Britt’s doughnuts with a scoop of ice cream for breakfast. She also ate lots of hot dogs from Cliff Smith’s Landmark; in fact, she ate so many of them back then that she doesn’t eat hot dogs to this day.

Pearl’s long hours kept her busy, so busy that she didn’t actually date until she was nineteen. Although she was working all the time, she did meet a lot of people and kept up with some of them for years. She still gets Christmas cards from some of them. She admits that some people might not have found it as much fun as she did, but for her it was pleasant: “You think back what people paid to go to the beach and enjoy all that, and I had it day in and day out. Even if I was working, I could observe it. Families would go to the restaurant and eat, and then the would just parade up and down the boardwalk, eating cotton candy, popcorn, snowballs, salt water taffy. It was the good old days. Very family. And I got to know a lot of people that way…from all walks of life. Farmers, people from up North on their way to Florida would stop in and end up coming back and buying, settling down here. You know it was just a good family place.” She emphasized that while some may claim it was a “roustabout” that it wasn’t. Even with all the military, she never saw much trouble.

Families would come out to enjoy the amusement park, the arcade, bingo, or
just sit on the benches overlooking the ocean and watch other people walk by.

Life became a bit darker during the war. As a child during World War II, Pearl recalls their windows painted black and seeing action off on the skyline at night. It didn’t really affect her activity since she was only a little girl and “just did what Dad said.” War, however, did affect the family. Her mother, like many women during the war, went to work, becoming one of the first female bus drivers in Wilmington. Although the family had six children, her father joined the Merchant Marines, feeling it was his duty.

Also like other families during the war, the Winners rented out rooms in their home. They were fortunate to have a big two-story home, so they converted a couple of rooms to rent out to people working at the shipyard. As well as providing income for them, it helped out those who were from out of town but working in Wilmington. She remembers other sacrifices, including ration coupons for sugar, flour, and gas. However, with six children, they were never short since they received coupons for each one. And if there were extras, they shared, giving them to people who needed them.

Her favorite memories include more that just family. There were many special people she met during her early years at Carolina Beach. One of those people is Hannah Block, a well-known figure in New Hanover County. Mrs. Block helped organize the first Miss North Carolina Pageant in 1947 and used her show business experience to coach young ladies for pageants. One of those she coached was Pearl. Pearl laughingly recalls Hannah approaching her about the Miss Wilmington pageant. Pearl didn’t feel that it was her thing, but Mrs. Block succeeded in convincing her to represent Carolina Beach. Mrs. Block did more that just coach Pearl; she took her under her wing, having Pearl stay at her home, taking her shopping for a wardrobe to take to Raleigh for the state pageant, and traveling with her on the train to Atlanta for the Miss Southern Belle pageant, where Pearl represented North Carolina.

Eventually Pearl went off to school and worked for a couple of years with the CIA. She married the guy from her childhood at Carolina Beach and traveled with him while he was in the Air Force. She and Jim settled down in Wilmington in the 1960’s and still make this area their home.