Beach Town in a Forest

Beach Town in a Forest
Beach Town in a Forest, Pine Knoll Shores located in Carteret County on North Carolina's Crysal Coast. Photo compliments of Bill Flexman and Dave Prutzman

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Conversation at Willis Seafood

A good way to get information about early days on Bogue Banks is to talk with people whose ancestors were here. We are fortunate to be able to talk with several generations of Salter Path’s residents. One of those conversations took place at Willis Seafood Market in Salter Path on November 7, 2014.

As it was in 2015. Original had been rebuilt after a fire.

Initially, Beverly Strickland, Alberta Willis Smith (Beverly's mother) and Beverly’s Aunt June Smith Willis were present to talk about early days on Bogue Banks, Alice Hoffman and the Roosevelts. I recorded the conversation and spoke most directly to Alberta. June and Beverly were sitting behind the counter; Alberta was sitting next to me on the customer side of the counter. June left early. Later, after I had turned off the recorder, Vesta and Wade Willis arrived and joined the conversation. They presented two new perspectives on topics we were discussing.

Alberta Willis Smith on left. Wade and Vesta Willis on right

All present, except Vesta, had lived in Salter Path all their lives.[i] They had ancestors who were among the 23 named in “The Judgment,” in which Alice Hoffman gave up ownership of, what they said, was one mile of her property. Alberta was the oldest present and said she was 77. Vesta and Wade, who entered the conversation later, were 73 and 75 respectively. June may have been somewhat younger and seemed to remember less. (It was difficult to follow what those behind the counter were saying, especially since there was overlapping talk.)

When I asked Alberta how her family came to Salter Path, she said her granddaddy and daddy came from the mainland to fish and settled here. They used the path Riley Salter had made and called it Salter’s Path. That’s how the village got its name. Others came after the 1899 hurricane drove them from Shakleford Banks. (Alberta at this point and several times later said all of this is in books already. It’s in Jack Dudley’s book. I said I knew that book, but was interested in her perspective.)

When I asked if they used horses to pull nets when fishing on the beach, a task they now use tractors for, she said that they had no horses on the island. The men did it all by hand.

At top is a vintage photo of how the men of Salter Path fished from the ocean. Photo from Salter Path History Museum website. Below men from Salter Path, following the traditions of their ancestors, use stop nets to fish for mullet from the beach in the fall of 2011. Photo from Lonnie Webster’s YouTube video.[ii]

Alberta proceeded to tell me she recalled when there were no roads here, just some narrow paths through the maritime forest. She remembered how dark it used to be outside at night and put her hand up to her face, suggesting she couldn’t see further than her hand.[iii] She recalled her family’s getting electricity when she was about ten years old, which would have been around 1947. Vesta later recalled that Alberta’s daddy wired others’ homes as well, and Wade recalled helping him and getting some good shocks doing so. Beverly added that Ervin Smith had the first telephone, and she thought her family was the first to have indoor plumbing.

Alberta said that mostly they grew their own crops, had everything homegrown and natural. They also kept cattle and pigs. And, of course, they fished. June recalled that her daddy had a store. Later, Vesta said David John Willis had the first grocery store, and it was hard when people were hungry and didn’t have money. He couldn’t give too much away, or he wouldn’t be able to afford to replenish his stock.

Alberta did not remember anything about John Royall, but said her grandfather would have known about him, and she knew he had owned land on the island. In fact, she said he had bought four acres of island property, but did not specify where.

When I later asked about the Aibonito people, who came through the Intracoastal Waterway to fish and hunt here, she had never heard of them and said there were no roads, so we didn’t have any way of knowing.

She did, of course, know about Alice Hoffman. She knew people who worked for Alice and said 20 or more worked for her. She had everything done for her, and only those people who either worked for her or were invited could go on her property. Alberta was invited one time to sing with the church choir. She said Mrs. Hoffman was feeble and was in bed but so enjoyed the choir she donated $500 to the church.

Alberta remembered what she thought was a wooden bridge leading up to Alice Hoffman’s house. She wondered if it was still there, and I said there are remnants of a wooden walkway in the back of the current house, leading toward the sound.

When Wade Willis came in, he recalled seeing Salter Path people who worked for Alice on a dock on the sound, and sometimes Alice would sit there. He was crabbing in the area and would see her.

Wade feeding an egret that has been coming to the seafood market for over 15 years. Wade calls the egret “Charlie” and feeds it shrimp and flounder several times a day. Photo by Elise Bray.

Alberta said Alice was a very private person and never recalled her coming to the village, but did know that Alice and Gabby spoke French to one another, so no one understood them.

Alberta thought Alice was from France and thought her husband must have been from New York. When I explained Alice was from New York as well, Alberta asked how Alice got to France. I said as a young woman she travelled to Europe with friends and then rented a place in France.

Alberta and Beverly wondered why Alice Hoffman came here. Alberta, rather proudly, said I heard she went to Beaufort first and didn’t like it there. I briefly summarized the story as Alice told it in her autobiography, emphasizing her love of nature and how she seemed to fall in love with the island on first sight. I then said I thought the breakout of World War I also played a role in Alice’s decision to buy property here. France was becoming a battleground, and she wanted a place she thought would be safe from enemy bombs.

Alberta recalled Alice loved flowers and trees and did not want any trees cut down, and she felt the Roosevelts honored her wishes and Pine Knoll Shores still does today. Later, someone said as part of “The Judgment” giving the people of Salter Path rights to their property, Alice designated an area west of Salter Path in what is now Indian Beach where they could cut trees for firewood.

They said Alice went to court to keep animals belonging to the people of Salter Path from trampling her property. This led to a discussion of “The Judgment” giving 23 people of Salter Path and their descendants one mile of property. Alberta said she had a copy of “The Judgment” at home, a judge had signed it and it was notarized. She said the terms of the agreement included restrictions on their animals running loose and specified they had to keep their animals penned up. The latter detail was an issue in an earlier suit.

"The Judgment" and "subsequent transactions" in which the Roosevelts transferred deeds to Salter Path Property as summarized in State of North Carolina, Plaintiff v. Donald Willis and Telena Gay Willis, Defendants. This case was based on the 1923 Salter Path Judgment and on 1979 court actions.[iv]

I detected no animosity toward Alice, but the mood changed when I began to ask about the Roosevelts. No one present seemed to have any direct contact with the Roosevelts, but Alberta seemed to blame them for the county’s seizure of the Salter Path property. She said that act and what followed was illegal and repeated this statement several times. In fact, she said, when the court was handing out deeds to the original 23 owners and their heirs, her daddy refused to go to Beaufort to get a deed since he insisted he already owned his property.

Beverly and June suggested that because there were deeds, people could sell their property and could borrow money to make improvements. The other side of it was that they now had to pay taxes on the property.

When I said I believed the county seized the property because Alice Hoffman was not paying taxes, Alberta said Alice’s money was stolen from her and suggested the Roosevelts were at fault. Beverly added that Alice’s wishes as expressed in her will were not followed either. Again, I sensed the blame was on the Roosevelts.

Without arguing the point, I tried to explain briefly that Alice had lost her money. I didn’t go so far as to say that sadly Alice, in her will, was giving people property she no longer owned and money she no longer had. I did, however, suggest the Roosevelts stepped in before Alice died and set up a trust to save her property here. I added that I was pleased to get a local perspective on these subjects.

A lengthy discussion of “The Judgment” ensued, and Vesta presented a very different perspective. She said five men were selected to represent the community and work with the lawyers: Wayne Thompson, James Wesley Smith, Stephen Guthrie, Eugene Willis and Charlie Smith. Unfortunately, she felt they did a better job representing their own best interests than they did representing the best interests of the community. She described some of the prime properties, including 600 feet of oceanfront land they got deeds to and, in some cases, sold or put trailers on for monetary gain. For instance, John Wesley sold to Wayne Thompson.

Vesta did not think getting deeds to the property was a bad thing. The problem was the way it was done. Vesta did not put any blame on the Roosevelts and just shook her head when Alberta repeated her daddy’s perspective as she recalled it.

When I changed the subject and asked about Alice’s Teahouse. No one present seemed to have any knowledge of it, but, then, they did recall oceanfront fishing camps with one named Red Bird, another Blue Bird and another down the beach closer to Alice’s house, called the Teahouse. The other two were tents, but the teahouse was a wooden structure. The men would camp out when the fish were running, and the women would go there to cook and wash the men's clothes. But, no one knew what had happened to the Teahouse.

On the porch of the Teahouse from Phyllis Gentry's Salter Path Album 

When I told the story I had heard about it washing up during a hurricane and being brought to Salter Path. They had never heard that story and had no idea where it would be. I thought fishing nets were kept in it. They said Hedden’s house is where the nets were kept. They thought a hurricane must have destroyed the Teahouse.

We ended the conversation at this point. I thanked them for talking so frankly with me. They also recommended we talk with Connie Willis since her mom worked for Alice Hoffman, and after Alice died, Gabby gave Connie’s mom some of Ms. Hoffman’s household belongings.

Author: Phyllis Makuck

Note: Vesta Willis proofread this transcript on November 10, 2014, and made some corrections and additions to the story. See notes below.

[i] Vesta Willis later explained that she was a Guthrie and grew up in Swansboro even though she did have ancestors who were from Salter Path. She did not come to Salter Path until 1957. She also said that some who lived here all of their lives were born with the aid of midwives on the island, but Wade Willis was born in Morehead City in the hospital.

[ii] and Lonnie Webster documents Salter Path tradition of fishing from the beach.

[iii]Vesta explained that treetops overlapped and created a thick canopy, and the briars were also thick. She heard stories about the maritime forest being so thick that when walking through it, you could not see the sky. This explanation led to a story about how children used to swing on the briars over the treetops. There were high ridges, one was known as Yellow Hill and another as Second Hill. Wade and Lynn remembered swinging on a rope from those hills and jumping in the water. Vesta said when doing this Wade and his friends were naked. She said Yellow Hill was where St. Francis by the Sea Church was built. She recalled that a young girl, not from Salter Path, tried swinging on the rope, fell and died. After that, the rope was cut.

Briar swinging memories led to a story about how strong and athletic Wade was. He played baseball with a local group. He became a renowned pitcher, who could throw a ball so fast base runners did not have much of a chance. The Baltimore Orioles were in town to play an exhibition game and saw Wade and his friends playing. They tried in vain to recruit Wade and Jerry Pittman, but neither Wade nor Jerry wanted to leave Salter Path. Vesta explained that for Wade, baseball was play. It was not work, not something you did for money. Fishing was work.

[iv] State v. Willis, Case Law, No. COA03-681.
Decided: April 6, 2004