Interviewed by Ann Hertzler and Jeannie Gordon
The Hermit and the Buffer Zone
Fort Fisher Hermit
We’ve been down there [Kure Beach] some times, but we certainly had nothing to do with the Hermit. The Hermit would get a ride to Carolina Beach and go to the grocery store, and he’d be standing out there on the highway, trying to get a ride back. There weren’t many people…I wouldn’t even let him in the back of my truck. That’s how close I was to the Hermit.
The highway used to go out further. There was a big mound on the front of Ft. Fisher that finally got washed away and they had to move the road back to where it is now.
The buffer zone was for Sunny Point. It was where ammunition went in. I think they drew a three-mile limit around it. That’s what they took as the buffer zone. And people that were living on the river, at that point in time, were forced to move out. The old church that we had down there had to go. I think it was around ’57 or the early 60’s.
When I went to work for the Corp in ’52, we’d never heard of an environmentalist. They didn’t even exist. When I first started out we were actually doing construction for the Army in ‘52 in various places. We got into river basin studies and that’s where we were working with river basins. To see where you could build a dam that would be a value as far as retaining flood waters, releasing minimum water during drought periods.
Joseph Ryder Lewis, Jr.
When I came back to Wilmington in ’57, we were doing river basin studies and the Wilmington District, at that time, the Wilmington District was pretty well confined to river basins. Here in NC, the Wilmington District, the lower limit was the Cape Fear River and the upper limit was the Roanoke River, which is right up against the Virginia line. We were evaluating the river basins in that area.
Evaluating the Cape Fear River basin and the Neuse River basin, we finally built two dams that I helped work on.
When I was growing up, it was perfectly proper to dredge and use the dirt to fill in a swamp area. That’s illegal today. So, one of my environmentalist friends referred to me as the Dam Engineer. He said the only thing I wanted to do is build dams. When I retired, I said, well, when we start having water shortages east of the Mississippi River, it’s not because we don’t have water, it’s because we refused to develop reservoir sites to hold flood water.
As I grew up, they built two cottages next to our house and in the summertime, she [mother] did a lot of boarding, too. She’d fix meals for people who were working. So we did a lot of boarding and a lot of renting rooms in the summertime. Then about 1940, there were six cottages built just below us, two on the road, then two, then two, back towards the woods. My parents bought them. At the beginning of the War the tourists weren’t coming down here much so the folks that had them built sold ‘em to us.
Joseph Ryder Lewis, Jr.
When the shipyard started in Wilmington and the military came down here, you couldn’t find a place to live, period. This place was very crowded and so little ole cottages were even rented during the winter. There was a camp down here. A camp down at Ft. Fisher and there was one right back over just beyond Cape Fear Blvd. There was a big one back there. It was just a summer camp. It was there just during the war, let’s put it that way. And after the War, there were a lot of the old barracks that were moved various places and there’s still some old barracks on this island that people live in.
Ethyl-Dow Plant, Kure Beach
After I got out of high school, I worked the summer at the Ethel Dow Plant until about a month before my birthday came along. I got terribly sick one night. My oldest sister took me to James Walker Hospital and they wouldn’t even let me come back home. They said he has an attack of acute appendicitis and we’ve got to take it out. So they took my appendix out.
OK. Well, to volunteer for the Navy, you had to get a physical prior to turning 18.
I had to go to Raleigh to get it. When I got to Raleigh, the doctor said you need to go back home and recuperate from that operation more. So, I had turned 18, shortly thereafter, I had to go sign up for the draft. And it was March of ’45, they drafted me into the Army. I’m about as young a World War II veteran as there is. I was sent to the Pacific. And they put us on a troop ship and sent us to the Pacific.
I graduated from State in ’52, went to work for the Corps of Engineers in Savannah, Georgia, and I went to the Jacksonville District and worked down there for 6 months, Corp of Engineers. I left the Corp and came to Polk Air Force Base and worked there about 2 years. At that time, just my mother and father were in the house and my father was sick. And I was trying to get back, close to Wilmington. I was still single, and it was 1957 before I got back. Was transferred to Wilmington with the Corp of Engineers. And I was single and I stayed right with my parents, to help them.
My dad passed away but my mother was still in the house and I stayed there with her until I fell from grace in 1966 and married a young Vietnam War widow who had 3 little girls. And then that’s when we moved to Pine Valley. I was still working for the Corps during that time. And then we had 2 little girls, and I had a female dog in the back yard and I said, My Lord, change the recipe and with all these girls, we’d better quit.
And so with 5 girls and a female dog, I had to be a benevolent dictator.
When I first started to school, we were living over here on the highway; and there was no school down here.
Joseph Ryder Lewis, Jr.
There had previously been one down there somewhere, close to where Dow Plant used to be. That was before my time.
But it was gone when I came along. Mrs. Hines, I think, she was a teacher over there. That’s the Mrs. Hines of the Senior Center.
My first five years of school I had to ride a school bus to Myrtle Grove. That’s up on the Sound about 5 or 6 miles. When I was getting ready for 6th grade, Carolina Beach was supposed to have a new school built, completed and ready to occupy when I started my 6th grade. But they hadn’t completed it, so we had to go on the Boardwalk to the Old City Hall, with a two-room operation. That was 1937-38, I think. It was a one through six. Two rooms, so in one room was 4, 5 and 6; the other room was 1, 2 and 3. The 7th grade, I was bused to Winter Park Grade School. The 8th grade, I was bused to Tileston in Wilmington.
Carolina Beach School – Class of 1937-1938 Grades 4, 5, 6. [Click for larger image – and student names]
I’ll tell you what, if you got in trouble at school, you could get a ruler on your hand and slap it. The teacher would do that …that was about the easiest thing they punished you with. Back in those days, too, if they found out at home, instead of them getting after the teacher or the school department, you got another one.
One interesting thing was when we were in the 6th grade at that school on the Boardwalk. The boardwalk right in front of that building was wood, wasn’t concrete like it is now, with cracks in it. Well, at break time we would go look down through these cracks and you’d see money down there, quite often. We would get a piece of bubble gum and stick it on a long handle stick and stick it down there to get that money. And then we would go to Mr. Cliff Smith’s store down on the corner and get us an extra snack.
And at that point in time, you could get under the boardwalk on the front. It was hunting money by just walking along the edge of the shore, on the beach. You can’t find coins today, I don’t know why it’s gone, I don’t think there’s much of it there today, but you could go along there and there were coins laying there and you’d just pick ‘em up.
School Bus 1930’s
I wasn’t in basketball or baseball or football. I wasn’t in any of it. And one reason was that you had to ride the school bus to school and up in Wilmington, if you didn’t ride that school bus back home in the afternoon, how would you get home? See, New Hanover High School is in the 14 or 1500 block and we could walk down to 3rd street and it wasn’t too bad to get a ride with some men who lived down here but worked in Wilmington. And they would be coming home and pick you up.
I got along very well in high school. But I graduated in June of ’44, had gone through 12 grades, and I was 17 years old. My birthday is the latter part of October, so see I wouldn’t be 18 until the latter part of October. You had to register for the draft when you turned 18 and you could join the Marine Corp or the Army, but you couldn’t join the Navy after you turned 18. You could up until you turned 18, so I was going to join the Navy just before I turned 18, as a volunteer.
My daddy had the house built from his World War II bonus or something. I think it was a $1000 and that pretty well closed the house in. So I was probably 2 or 3 years old when we actually moved into the house. That was part of the Lewis estate. My grandparents, on the Lewis side, deeded out parcels of land to their various children.
Their main activity was farming or fishing. And right across the street [from the History Center] was the main garden area, up until the middle 50’s or so, and now, when I got hold of it, it was classified as wetlands. Couldn’t do anything on it. But it used to be main farmland over there. Sweet potatoes were very important, a very important crop. Collards, a very important crop. They had watermelon patches, they had soy beans and they had other things for the animals.
Joseph Ryder Lewis, Jr.
Where we were living, out on the highway, was not in the town of Carolina Beach. The town of Carolina Beach started at the first street that goes across from St. Joseph Street. That went up there to that nursing home. That was the northern end of Carolina Beach.
My parents would not allow my brother and I, who was a couple years younger than I am, to go down there and roam around that beach, or to go up on the Boardwalk. That’s when we were young, unless we were escorted. You see, a lot of this stuff that went on, well like, Jimmy Davis and Milton Warwick, who came along later than I did, they were right there in town where they were involved in everything. I was in the country. And we had a big garden out back of our house, pole beans, sweet potatoes, pig pen. We had hogs, milk goats and milk cows and we did have a nanny goat.
The house that my grandparents lived in, I became the owner of it much later, but it was down where that first development is, just this side of the movie theater…Carolina Beach Village, isn’t it? All right, the first house there, as you drive in there, to the left, would have been right on the grounds where my grandparent’s home was. The sound was there, but at low tide you could not float a boat. You could walk out in the mud if you wanted to, but you might be up to your knees or further in the mud. There was no water. Eventually, the first thing that was dredged was a little 80 ft. canal on the other side and the fill dirt from that was used to help build Canal Drive. This was not made into a nice waterway area until about the late 50’s or whenever the town of Carolina Beach had the first berm project, planned on good sand underneath that mud out there. They dredged it out.
I don’t remember when we got power. I was probably 6 or 7 years old, or a little older, when we got electricity along there. We finally got a well with an electric pump on it. But we had the outhouse as long as I was growing up.
We had chickens. I remember one time Mom said, “that old rooster out there is getting after your baby sister, I want you boys, me and my brother, to kill that thing. We’re going to eat him Sunday. Well, we’d killed chickens before, but the way we did it was you had to hold the chicken with his head on a piece of wood and the other would chop his head off. You’d get blood on you and all that kind of stuff. Well, we’d seen some of these older people take one and wring his neck. We decided we were gonna wring his neck. So we did it. But the point was we just swung him around and when we finally turned him loose, he just started wobbling on off. Then we had to go catch him again and kill him the way we normally would have.
You didn’t take a bath every day, and a lot of times, one of the good times to take a bath was when my mother was washing clothes out in the backyard. We had an old iron pot out there, you had fire around it. That’s where you got hot water and that’s where the clothes were put in to clean them. And then you took them out and put them in these tubs for rinsing. Well, a lot of times we got our bath in there.
We had a little ole scooter, we got that for Christmas one time, and that was a big deal, just a little ole tiny two-wheeled scooter that we could ride on the highway—traffic was very, very little.
We did get to swim a little bit in the ocean and my daddy and my brother and I did a lot of floundering. But it was at night. He had a gasoline lantern, and we would go over to the river. There were plenty of places you could go to the river back then, Sugar Loaf was one of them. Just drive right there. And you’d go at low tide and the wind had to be the right way for you to do it. And you’d walk right along the edge of the water. The flounder would be bedded up right in the edge of the water and the only thing you’d see is his eyes. But that’s the way we did our main fishing, and we did a lot of that floundering. You had a gig and you stuck it through ‘em and then you took your hand and put it underneath and brought him up and put him on a string or line and we’d just drag them in the water behind us.
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 for Proposed Ryder Lewis Park
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.
Town of Carolina Beach Property — Proposed Ryder Lewis Park
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.