By Elaine Henson
Our Society lost longtime member and part time Carolina Beach resident on November 9, 2020. Gil was a prominent citizen of Wilmington and was retired Chief Judge of the 5th Judicial District.
He is known for his innovative work programs for juvenile offenders that later expanded to include adults convicted of minor crimes. Programs modeled on his Community Service Work Program later were instituted nationwide and internationally.
He was the recipient of many honors including the Governor’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the Star-News Lifetime Achievement Award and the News and Observer’s Tarheel of the Week among other others.
Gil is best known to us for his lifelong love of Carolina Beach that began in early childhood for him and his seven brothers and sisters. The Burnetts lived in Burgaw and would take day trips to the beach and visit family in addition to spending at least two summer weeks in a rented cottage.
In 1936, his parents, John Henry and Ruth Deaton Burnett, built their own family cottage on 410 Carolina Beach Avenue North. From then on, the family would load up their Packard automobile after school was out for the summer and stay until after Labor Day when school started again. They would often take two cars, one with the family and dogs and the other with clothes, food, his mother’s sewing machine and whatever else they could find room for.
The Burnett cottage was a large two-story house right on the ocean and about 3 blocks from the boardwalk, or downtown as they called it in those days.
The 1936, cottage had two bedrooms downstairs and four upstairs to accommodate eight children and occasional guests. It had a very large, shady porch facing the ocean which they considered the front.
The back door was the one you entered from the street. The kitchen was small by today’s standards, but living and dining rooms were large and inviting. The house was destroyed by Hurricane Hazel in 1954, but the family rebuilt with six bedrooms upstairs for a total of eight. It is one of the houses on the beach with a plaque from FPHPS.
John Henry Burnett was an attorney and worked for the U.S. Government. Although he sometimes traveled, his summer office was in a corner of the cottage’s parental bedroom and so he was able to work from the beach. His wife, Ruth, was busy with homemaking and the many children. Her sewing skills made her “best dressed” along with her six daughters. She also sewed window treatments, pillows and other accessories for the cottage. (She once sewed a canvas sail for Gilbert’s row boat when he tried to convert it to his first sailboat.) Both parents were very involved in their children’s lives and their friends.
It was Mr. Burnett who decided that young Gilbert could profit from some early business training and set him up with a snowball stand on a lot he owned on the boardwalk. Gilbert’s Snowball Stand opened on the boardwalk around 1941 when he was 15 years old.
His father had a simple stand built with a beach umbrella overhead for shade. Gil’s mother made the syrup in flavors of grape and cherry. It was contained in five-gallon jugs installed upside down over two spigots, one for each flavor. They purchased V shaped paper cups which were filled with crushed ice and then topped with the flavored syrup of your choice. In those days, an ice man named Charlie would deliver big blocks of ice to businesses on the boardwalk.
The ice at the Snowball Stand had to be chipped off and put through a hand powered ice crusher which was labor intensive. The stand was hugely successful and later expanded into an open-air building. Gil’s younger brother, Julian, recalls one Fourth of July when they made $104 selling snowballs for 5 cents apiece. (In today’s dollars $104 would be $1,818.00) That was over 2,000 snowballs made and sold that day.
The stand was one of the stops on our Boardwalk History Tour which we hope to resume when it is safe. Gil was very proud to be on our tour and helped with the planning. We will miss him!