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Topsail Island, NC

Barnacle Bills

I CAN’T REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME I SAW THE OCEAN, felt the salt breeze or rode across the old pontoon bridge that once served as the only entryway to Topsail Island, my lifelong home. But I do recall a unique childhood, growing up on an island dotted with white concrete towers, testaments to its history as a Navy testing ground. These monuments to the past rose from the dunes long before Topsail developed into the vacation spot it is today. As a child, I knew them only as places to play and dream of the future.

As the island developed, the towers blended into the landscape. Their origin and purpose have been preserved at the Missiles and More Museum, located in the historic Assembly Building, providing an intimate look at the island in its infancy as the site of the U.S. Navy’s top secret Operation Bumblebee. Just after World War II, more than 500 military and civilian technicians and scientists descended on Topsail Island. Eight concrete towers were erected as observation points to track early ramjet missile experiments. The “flying stovepipes,” as they were known, were a forerunner of today’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the knowledge gained by these experiments played a supporting role in the development of modern jet technology. My family’s connection to Topsail Island was forged sometime before 1950, when a man visited my parents’ country store in Nash County. His description of the island convinced my dad to see Topsail for himself. Based on his advice, my granddaddy built an oceanfront cottage and garage apartment on the island in 1950.

Swing Bridge

It wasn’t long before my daddy decided to build a small store with an icecrushing machine on the causeway, at the present site of The Fishing village. At Coastal Ice and Seafood Company, he sold bagged ice, as well as bait and tackle. He supplemented his income with an oyster, shrimp and fish route. I can remember my mother heading hundreds of pounds of shrimp and my daddy dressing box after box of fish. He delivered quality products throughout the inland regions and sang the praises of Topsail wherever he went. People lived all along the island, with a small concentration of homes in the Topsail Beach—New Topsail, as we knew it back then—and Surf City areas.

Bygone TopsailMy older brother, Doug, started his trek to school each day with the few other island children by taking the bus across the pontoon bridge to Hampstead. Everyone knew just about everyone else. There is a certain bond that comes from living in a place slightly removed from the mainland. Even peaceful islands must sometimes face the wrath of nature, but the terrible destruction wrought by Hurricane Hazel in October 1954 was not enough to dampen the spirit of the hearty inhabitants of Topsail. The island’s residents banded together, worked through the problems caused by the storm and made plans for the future. Our store was flooded, but it could be cleaned. Our home and even the oceanfront cottage survived. Our will had been tested, and we, and most of our neighbors, remained on the island. We developed Topsail into a place people can enjoy, striking a balance between the needs of the families who live here year-round and offering opportunities for others to visit and share the quality of life that has been developed on the island over the years.

In 1963, my daddy became a shareholder and manager of Paradise Fishing Pier, changing an unproductive money pit into a profitable investment. We all worked hard doing whatever we could to help. My mother started her day at the beauty shop she owned and finished it working at the pier. Paradise Pier was about eight miles north of our home in Surf City, and the only way to get there was along an ocean-side road that flooded often. Once you got there, the only way off the island was to return the same way you came. This undoubtedly was a main reason the area remained so remote. That situation was to change, however.

When the traffic engineers began counting the number of vehicles traveling onto the island, we made sure to remind our customers to mention to them that they were headed to Paradise Pier. Before long, a new bridge connected the north end of the island to the mainland. My daddy’s reputation grew and so did our business. After the owners of Barnacle Bills Pier failed to convince him to be their new manager, they offered to let him buy it. When we took over in December 1966, it seemed like an enormous operation, with two restaurants and a tackle shop, in addition to the pier itself. I remember my daddy telling my younger brother, Dan, and I that it was going to take all of us to make it work. He was right. Doug came home from college at Atlantic Christian—now Barton College—and transferred to Wilmington so he could finish school and work at the pier. My mother gave up her beauty shop, and Dan and I did all we could. The men did live fishing and weather reports that were broadcast on radio all over the country, and we sent pictures of notable catches to all the newspapers. As the business grew, an increasing number of people chose to visit Topsail. Change is inevitable, even for a peaceful North Carolina island. The homes built in the island’s early years were mostly small, one-story affairs, with walls and even ceilings of knotty pine. These days, however, most of the houses are three or even four stories tall, with all the elements of the finest luxury homes.

The pontoon bridge has long since been replaced by a swing bridge, now a popular site for local gatherings such as fish frys and picnics. A stoplight has been installed at the island’s main intersection. The Topsail Island Fishing Club, founded early on, now hosts its annual Roundup, a highly anticipated event. Many fishing charters operate out of Topsail, and other water sports are gaining popularity.

Art Gallery, Topsail. NC

The local surfing culture is booming, and kayaking—both in the sound and on the ocean—is fast becoming a popular activity for tourists and locals alike. The Dolphin Dip also draws a crowd. Once upon a time, fewer than 1,000 people inhabited the island, even in the summer. This past New Year’s Day, in the dead of winter, Topsail hosted more than 1,000 people for an annual dive into the frigid ocean. The proceeds help pay for hospice care for the terminally ill. Over the years, Topsail’s character has been fashioned by the people who live on the island, as well as by those in the surrounding areas of Sneads Ferry, Holly Ridge and Hampstead. They enjoy the slower pace that defines their way of life, happily explaining to visitors that they are “on island time.”

Sunrise, Topsail,NC

For all the changes, Topsail Island is still one of the most peaceful places on earth. Its sunsets are still quite spectacular, and its sunrises over the ocean are just as beautiful as they ever were. And, more than 50 years later, the oceanfront cottage my granddaddy built still stands. That house has weathered many storms, but it remains, as do the island’s residents, surrounded by both old and new.


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