It’s midafternoon and plenty hot. Teenage girls in bikinis saunter along Goldston’s Pier as toddlers with water wings splash below. Two girls stroll by holding Styrofoam cups, stabbing the slushy contents with plastic spoons. They walk up to the pavilion, where dings and beeps drift through the arcade, past the Dairy Queen, and into our imagination.
This is a classic summertime beach scene, down to the happy sounds of a carousel. There it is, outside the pavilion, an Allan Herschell merry-go-round built in 1947 with steeds made not of metal or fiberglass but hand-carved wood. Even with the boardwalk, hot dogs and french fries at Goldston’s Sandwich Shop, and the shops filled with wonderfully garish T-shirts, this beach isn’t The Beach, less than 60 miles east. For generations of southeastern North Carolinians, it’s like the pool at an oceanfront hotel. Why be satisfied with one body of water, when you can have two?
At this beach, the water is free of salt and jellyfish. Most of it is clear as a fountain, covering a little more than 2.5 square miles and reaching a depth of 12 feet. White Lake is technically not a lake but a Carolina bay marketed as the “Nation’s Safest Beach.” The sandy lake floor slopes gently, making no sudden drops, and there are no undercurrents that will drag you away or marine critters that will take a bite out of you. The last alligator, for what it’s worth, was spotted and killed in 1956.
Surrounding the water is the town of White Lake, which has about 800 year-round residents but swells to 10,000 people on any given summer weekend. Dawn Maynard, executive director of the Elizabethtown-White Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, says 200,000 people visit the lake throughout the summer. It’s an economic dynamo in Bladen County, where the biggest employer is the giant Smithfield Foods slaughterhouse in Tar Heel and the largest moneymaker is agriculture. In a state that ranks sixth nationally in blueberry production, Bladen ranks first among the 100 counties. All the summer lake lovers are a boon for mom-and-pop businesses in Elizabethtown, the county seat 7 miles away.
The lakeshore is ringed by cypress trees festooned with Spanish moss, and the town is chockablock with campgrounds, single-wide trailers, motels, cottages and houses. The median home value is $100,000, according to Berkshire Hathaway Home Services. One full-time lake dweller is Cathy Faircloth Kinlaw, who wrote White Lake: A Historical Tour of the Nation’s Safest Beach, published last year. “There were so many amazing things coming from this small community, someone needed to write it down,” she says.
But most of the lake lovers are vacationers like Nicole Roberts, visiting with her husband, Matthew, and their two children: Madelyn, 8, and Nicholas, 3. “I’ve been coming here my whole life,” she says. “My parents came here. My grandparents met here.” The Roberts family lives in Chesapeake, Va., 20 minutes from the Atlantic, but prefers to spend vacations each summer at White Lake. “There are less crowds, and the water’s beautiful,” Matthew says. “It’s just right.”
Unlike most lakes used for recreation in North Carolina, White Lake isn’t the product of engineering but of underground springs. It’s one of thousands of egg-shaped depressions found from Delaware to central Florida known as Carolina bays (named for all the bay trees that tend to grow within them). Bladen County has the highest concentration of these curiosities, more than 1,200. Some, like White Lake, are filled with water; others are peat bogs studded with cypresses.
Popular belief long held that these bays were formed by meteorites pelting the East Coast, but scientists discredit that theory, largely because nobody has ever found celestial matter in the soil. The most accepted explanation is that, at the end ofthe last ice age, wind and water scoured the barren landscape, digging out depressions in the earth.
The first commercial development on White Lake began in 1901 with Melvin’s Beach, opened by Ralph Preston Melvin, featuring a dance floor, hotel and bathhouses. Pretty soon, other motels bloomed along the lakeshore, and by the 1920s, a sightseeing boat called The Lady of the Lake began cruising across the water. Other tour vessels followed in its wake, including glass-bottom boats and a paddlewheel showboat. Kinlaw figures the crowds reached their zenith in the early 1970s, back when White Lake hosted the North Carolina Blueberry Festival. “White Lake was the busiest it’s ever been,” she says. That’s also about the time the White Lake Ski Heels formed as a club. And wow, could they put on a show. Barefoot skiing. Acrobatic skiing. Jumping-over-a-ramp skiing. Girls-standing-on-the-backs-of-guys skiing. Before disbanding in the mid-1980s, eight local skiers went on to join elite show teams at Disney World, SeaWorld and Cypress Gardens.
Goldston’s Beach, the lake’s most iconic park, traces its roots to 1921 when H.P. Goldston, a businessman from Chatham County, visited White Lake. He bought a piece of real estate called Sandrock Beach and put his name on it. He built a dance floor over the water, a motel, restaurant and bingo stand. In 1930, the first amusement rides appeared next door at Crystal Beach but eventually moved to Goldston’s,which today is owned by White Lake Mayor Goldston Womble’s family.
An hour’s drive away, the coast is crowded with luxurious, four-story oceanfront houses, but White Lake has dared to think small and stay sensibly shabby, as any place built on water, sand and sunshine should be.
“There’s not a lot to do at White Lake,” Kinlaw says. “There are no malls, no major restaurants, there’s no movie theater. There’s not even a coffee shop.”
But changes have flowed in. On the west side of the lake is White Lake Water Park, with its Double Turbo Twister Slide, Sinking Submarine, Frog Slide and lazy river. Until this past March, when voters passed a measure, White Lake was dry. “I think the fact that beer and wine passed for sale in the town is indicative of a younger population coming in that would probably like to see more amenities,” Kinlaw says.
She wouldn’t mind a few changes herself — but only a few. For example, a classy lakefront restaurant would be nice, but space along the lake is at a premium. It seems every square inch is already claimed. “I don’t think people in general want to see White Lake evolve into a mecca like Myrtle Beach,” she says. “And I do think who we are right now has its great appeal.”
The kids who grow up to bring their own kids and then their grandkids are the bread and butter of White Lake’s economy. They’re the soul of this place, creating a circle as unbroken as the lake’s oval shoreline. “They will book the same cottage and will come the same time of year, every year,” Kinlaw says. “That is a pattern we see all the time.”
Stroll across the street from Goldston’s and sit down with Sandra Latham, who has just finished a BLT sandwich at the Ski Burger. “My mom and dad brought me here when I was 3 or 4 years old,” she says. She lives in Advance, near Winston-Salem, and brings her 14-year-old son, Hunter, to White Lake to spend every summer.
Go next door to the Small Town ice cream stand, order a strawberry cheesecake milkshake and look out toward the lake. You’ll see bright floats on the water, legs dangling off the pier and boats pulling kneeboards. Drinking in this summertime scene, a one-word description can’t help but come to mind: Classic.
Bryan Mims is a Raleigh-based writer and broadcast journalist who enjoys eastern North Carolina’s rivers as a canoeist and kayaker.