"This creek has been here for eons," Margaret Hummel says from the front porch of her Hewletts Creek home. "It’s interesting to think that centuries ago, Indians came up and down this creek in their dugout canoes. It’s just hard to imagine. It was probably here when the pirates were here, when the discoverers came."
The rambling two-story house on the water, built in 1880 with reclaimed shipwreck timbers scavenged from nearby Masonboro Island, was a playground for the Robert Drane Jewett family. Jewett, Margaret’s grandfather, brought his family from Winston-Salem to Wilmington to spend their summers.
Margaret, just a toddler when her grandfather passed away, retells her family’s history like it was passed down from one generation to the next, as a collective memory, like an heirloom sampler, embroidered with details, some faded, some richly textured.
"The children could run barefoot and go in the creek, and they could sail boats and go over to the beach," Margaret remembers. "My mother was born in 1898, and her mother had more and more children until there were five."
Reminiscent of the Pender County home of Margaret’s ancestor, Alexander Lillington, a Revolutionary War general who led the Patriot militia at the Battle of Moore’s Creek, the typical coastal Carolina I-house is planned around a center hall flanked by two bays, one for a formal parlor, the other for a formal dining room and kitchen. Five windows across the upper story represent two front bedrooms, two rear bedrooms and a window over the upper stair hall. By the time Jewett moved into it permanently in 1923, the home had enjoyed a full lifetime.
Then a widower with failing eyesight, Dr. Jewett, a retiring eye, ear, nose and throat specialist, rolled the house back from the creek bank on logs — pulled by one horse — into a grove of pine trees. To the front sound-side entrance, he added the broad, one-story front porch and half columns that span the width of the house.
Inside to the left of the foyer, he took down a wall separating the dining room and the kitchen to create one large open parlor, adding French doors to the porch and a fireplace in the room that is now a living area and den. To the opposite parlor, now the dining room, he built a two-story addition on the back of the house for a large cook-in and eat-in kitchen downstairs and an additional bedroom upstairs.
Jewett’s eldest daughter, Frances Jewett, cared for him until she married William G. Head after the couple met in the ocean at Lumina Pavilion. They reared their three children, Billy, Jane and Margaret, here, in Margaret’s girlhood home since her birth in 1936. "My father agreed to move into this house here with her so that she could still look after Papa," Margaret says. "We called him Papa."
Hidden from the main road, down a meandering lane to the waterside, the house sits on the north side of Hewletts Creek. The undulating lawn tumbles to the water’s edge, where the landing is marked by rakish live oak trees, gnarled by wind and time. The house weathered such epic storms as the Hurricane of 1899, Hurricane Hazel in 1954 and Hurricane Fran in 1996, when the old-growth pine canopy was devastated. However, a hand hewn treehouse built by Margaret’s first husband, Tom Shannon, for his granddaughter, survived intact. The unblemished yard is now ringed by majestic pecan trees, magnolia grandiflora and a crape myrtle tree transplanted from the old Lillington place.
Sheltered in the winter from nor’east blows, the occupants have always relished the prevailing southwest breeze cooled by the creek waters during the summer months. When the water recedes at low tide, the oyster mounds surface and the unmistakable scent of tidewater, that fruity blend of fecund mud and sulfur, drifts onshore.
"If you grew up on the sound, you love the low tide. I like it. I guess people who haven’t lived all their lives here, aren’t really sounders. To me it’s just all a part of nature and the cycle of the tides. Growing up here was wonderful that way because I got to understand the tides and the phases of the moon, directions of the wind, and all of those things that just permeated our lives," Margaret says. "We would have all these windows open and we would get that sound breeze, and it would blow right through, front to back, and we never suffered from the heat."
"Do you hear the sound of the wind in the pine?" Margaret wonders. "It’s a sound like none other. It’ll lull you if you want to get in that hammock, it will lull you right to sleep. This is why people came down here. They’d flop on the glider and they would just go into a stupor."
Shrimp Creole was a favorite house dish, but it was her mother’s deviled crabs that would send everyone into a swoon. "It was fresh crabmeat for one thing. We would go down there and catch a basket full of crabs. We had Lucy, who was our cook, who would pick them, which Mother just wouldn’t do. She would take the meat after it had been picked out … and she would save the shells. It was a very simple recipe, not a lot of filling — mayonnaise, Worchestershire and white bread broken up, a little lemon juice maybe. It was tossed very lightly … with bread crumbs on the top. I’ve never tasted anything so good," Margaret recalls.
Some years younger than her two siblings, she spent her early childhood years entertaining herself — making doll clothes out of scraps and collecting shells.
"I would go down there to the water and there was a place where I could get clay and I made little pots," she remembers.
Inside the foyer lined with bookshelves is a small bowl filled with Margaret’s treasures, a cache of Native American pottery shards and chipped china. The Indian pottery was discovered by Shannon, at a secret location on the creek. The large clay pieces, imprinted on the outside by the impressions of woven grass mats, are charred on the inside where the pot was literally fired over an open flame until hardened. The plate chips found in the loamy roadbed are from another era, the Civil War, when many soldiers discarded the blue and white porcelain dishes they brought with them from home. Confederate soldiers decamped near this site, where a causeway bridge crossed Hewletts Creek to an old military road that wound around Masonboro and Myrtle Grove sounds en route to Fort Fisher.
When she was old enough, Margaret was taken by her mother and dropped off at the Carolina Yacht Club on Wrightsville Beach, one of the oldest active yacht clubs in the nation, established in 1853. Accompanied by a cousin, author Anne Russell, the girls were growing into womanhood.
"We were just getting to the age when we would date," Margaret says. She met her husband, Bill Hummel, at the yacht club in 1950, the summer she was 15 years old.
"It was so innocent … just a hand-holding thing," she says. Together, the couple swam in the ocean, walked the shoreline, waded across Mason Inlet, played ping-pong in the clubhouse and attended dances on Thursday nights. Her mother made her party dresses, including one that was a puffy blue organdy with a daisy scooped neckline.
"Bill was my little childhood sweetheart that summer. Just one summer, but I never forgot him; and he came to see me when he heard I was a widow," Margaret says. She and Tom Shannon, married for 35 years, spent their last 14 together in the sound house. Three years after Shannon passed away, Margaret and Bill Hummel were married.
The Hummels, now stewards of the property, opened their home to the producers of Dawson’s Creek, the popular WB television, series in 1997. Like the early explorers, scouts traveled up the creek by boat, to find a perfect location to represent Dawson’s house and dressed the set to suggest that the home was on Cape Cod. "They had to really angle the cameras so as not to show the magnolia trees," Margaret says. "We loved being around it and learned a lot about how movies are made. We just had fun."
Since the series ended nearly five years ago, the Hummels have been surprised by the number of pilgrims who attempt to find the setting, some successfully. One couple even asked to be engaged on the dock. "We got out a bottle of champagne and just celebrated," Margaret says, adding that as recently as last Labor Day, their yard was used as the backdrop for a wedding, after the bride begged permission in an impassioned five-page letter. Margaret welcomes the intrusion.
As she sits on the porch in a cushioned wicker armchair reminiscing, she thumbs through the pages of her cousin Anne’s book, Wilmington: A Pictorial History. Little green lizards dart in and out of the dense green smilax vine, draped like a veil across the screened porch, blocking the sun from her eyes.
The vine, she said, is part of her past too. "We’ve always had it. The other thing we’ve always had is little green lizards. They just come in and out of the porch … I think they know us because their generations go way back too."