Coasting on its laurels

 In 2015-06

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Even as the season’s first tropical storm rages ashore, the city of Southport projects a lively welcome and sunny charm. “This is a great place to wait out the storm,” says a cheerful Mary Strickland as a pair of dripping daytrippers find shelter at the North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport, moments after a sudden burst of high wind and rain sends shoppers on the town’s busy main drag scurrying for cover. “We have an interesting history and lots of colorful stories to tell.”

Strickland, the museum’s director, has lived a good portion of Southport’s modern history. She and her late husband, Don McHose, arrived in town in 1967, refugees from New Brunswick, N.J., where Don’s family owned clay mines used to supply the ceramic industry. The couple were familiar with Southport from a relative who’d been stationed at Fort Caswell (before the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina bought the property in 1949) and thought it might be a good place to rear their 8-year-old son and escape the urban rat race — a safe harbor, you might say, in the storm.

“At that time, this place was a sleepy fishing village full of charming bungalows and but one café: Mack’s on the waterfront. There were no stoplights anywhere in the county. Don was in love with it right away. But coming from my job in New York City, it was a big adjustment — or so I thought. I think we were the first Yankees in town. We agreed to give it a year to see if we could fit in.”

Fit in they did. They bought a place on the river and took up the mellow rhythm of the Cape Fear fishing town. Not long after they arrived, the McHoses opened a scuba-diving shop (that soon led to discovery of a booty-laden 19th century ship out by Frying Pan Shoals) and helped build the town’s first airport. “People welcomed us with open arms,” says Strickland, who is remarried to the town’s building inspector. “We quickly learned that’s the Southport way. Newcomers fall in love with the friendliness and charm of the town and wonder what it’s like to actually live here. The truth is, despite the various ups and downs in its colorful history, you don’t change Southport. It changes you.”

Not bad for a town that began life as a place meant to keep out certain types. In 1745, aiming to keep Atlantic pirates and Spanish privateers out of the Cape Fear and protect a young town upriver called Wilmington, the British Colonial governor authorized construction of the state’s first military garrison, Fort Johnston, on bluffs overlooking a strategic point where the river feeds into the open sea. In 1792, the village that grew up around the fort was named Smithville in honor of former Gov. Benjamin Smith, who saw action in the Revolutionary War and served in the General Assembly.

Nearly a century later, having survived and prospered through half a dozen hurricanes and even an earthquake, Smithville’s naturally protected harbor made it a haven for shrimpers and commercial fishermen, giving rise to a massive Fisheries Products Co. processing factory at Sunny Point north of town that shipped 20,000 fish a day. In 1887, a railway company’s ambitious scheme to transform the town into a thriving port rivaling Norfolk, Va., and Charleston, S.C., led town fathers to petition the legislature for the right to rename the town Southport, a thinly veiled effort to identify it as the leading “Port of the South.”

The grand scheme failed, but the name survived, and fishing and marine services remained the source of the little town’s livelihood until Hurricane Hazel wiped out the local industry in October 1954, destroying scores of wharves and more than 100 fishing boats as the town took a direct hit. Local shrimpers and fishermen eventually got back on their feet just in time for the local menhaden and shrimp populations to begin a long vanishing act, taking most of the commercial fishermen with them. A triple whammy to the economy came when the Brunswick County Commission decided to bolt 15 miles northwest for new digs in Bolivia in 1977, taking a host of administrative and courthouse jobs with them.

The sprawling Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point (the Army’s primary deep-water port and nation’s largest shipper of ammunition) and Duke Energy’s Brunswick Nuclear Plant, built in 1975, provided a strong base of employment. But what spared pretty Southport from genteel decline, most agree, is what you see today on the town’s visibly thriving streets: gift shops, clothing stores, crowded seafood joints and distinctive chef-owned restaurants that cater to an upmarket vacation crowd.

A different kind of nautical-themed economy now dominates, fueled by the timeless beauty of distinctive double-galleried cottages either being restored or sold for eye-popping sums, inviting tourists or travelers waiting for their ferry over to Bald Head Island down narrow village lanes that were not so long ago made of crushed oyster shells. The town’s sea-cured history and civilized pace are its modern meal ticket, inspiring an invasion of second-home owners that began about two decades ago. Save for a brief spell when empty storefronts reappeared on Southport’s main drag during the Great Recession, the little town of 3,060 has benefited from being a poster boy for the state’s surging tourism numbers.

Six miles west of town, the gated St. James Plantation is a symbol of this upwardly mobile economy, home to four signature golf courses and 4,000 residents who overwhelmingly hail from other places. Many serve as volunteers all over town. “We’d be lost without them,” says Strickland, whose museum is staffed by more than 60 such relative newcomers and is about to embark on a 2,500-square-foot expansion. Last year, more than 50,000 people visited the admission-free museum to check out its oddly engaging history, a lively sea shanty that includes pirates, Nazis, natural disasters and a famous fisherman named Elias “Nehi” Gore, 7-foot-8 and so strong he was paid the salary of two fishermen.

“The physical beauty and small-town charm we’ve maintained has really been the difference in challenging times,” notes Ed Harper, a second-generation newspaper publisher of the award-winning The State Port Pilot. “There may only be one shrimp boat and only a small bit of commercial fishing working in the harbor nowadays, but the yacht basin is crowded with fishing charters, private yachts and sailboats. On any given summer day, the streets are full of people who love to come here just to soak up the atmosphere. Everyone feels at home in Southport. Even the tourists seem to get that.”

Count Hollywood among the admirers, which explains why more than 30 different movies and a clutch of recent TV productions have provided the town international exposure, including 2013’s Safe Haven, based on the Nicholas Sparks novel, which shot scenes all over town and even built a general store that was cinematically “torched” during the town’s annual Fourth of July fireworks show.

Enjoying a cool libation on the outdoor deck at the Fishy-Fishy Cafe on the waterfront where half a dozen shrimp houses once called home, newcomers John and Charlotte Riordan are simply the latest to find Southport’s laid-back charm and unexpected rise to celluloid stardom irresistible.

Not long after retiring and moving from up north to a new residential community just out-side of town, they strolled along the Riverwalk into a scene being set up for Safe Haven and soon found themselves working as extras in various scenes, including the Fourth of July dance at the Southport Community Center.

“It was like dancing with the stars,” says Charlotte, who has gone on with John to appear as an extra in Revolution, Under the Dome, Sleepy Hollow and several more cable and network TV programs filmed in town. (Sleepy Hollow producers announced in January that they will stop filming the Fox show in North Carolina and will move production to Georgia.) She’s also begun faithfully attending town meetings for a proposed makeover of Waterfront Park.

“This place is paradise,” insists John, who, in another life, worked as a federal auditor. “What’s not to love here?” A beguiling question perhaps best answered by a woman with a long view of history. “There’s only one road in and one main road out of town,” says Strickland with a wry smile. “Come another Hurricane Hazel, that could be a real problem for everybody.”

 

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