End of an Era
BY Katie Dickens
Jane Cunningham has said goodbye to Figure Eight Island after 42 years.
“I’ve got to tell you I’m probably just about the last original homeowner still here ” she says reflecting on her years in her home tucked away along one of the island’s inlets off the Intracoastal Waterway.
She and her late husband Ray purchased three lots more or less on a whim after visiting friends on the island in 1973. They built their house and moved in 1974. They spent the next four decades splitting time between their home in Charlotte and their beach retreat.
“There were probably about 30 houses here total when we bought the land so I’ve really seen it grow over the years ” she says.
The number of homes on the island has swelled to more than 450 a testament to the allure of its serenity and privacy.
Cunningham has moved to Charlotte to live in a retirement home full time but spent the summer and early fall of 2016 living on the island still swimming off her dock and soaking up her final days in the house.
She fondly remembers times of laughter spent in the sun with her two daughters and two grandchildren and weekends with friends. There were even encounters with Hollywood stars who retreated to the island over the years. Andy Griffith was for a time the Cunninghams’ next-door neighbor.
“We would see him out on his porch rehearsing his lines for ‘Matlock’ back in the day ” says Susan Owen one of Ray and Jane’s daughters. “It was fun to watch him rehearse his lines and move his hands all around.”
Cunningham recalls how her friends also named Griffith used to live near Andy Griffith who chose not to label the mailbox at his house.
“He liked to be left alone and we all respected that ” she says.
One day painters arrived at the wrong Griffith home. Her friends saved their house from an unwanted paint job just in time.
She remembers hearing that whenever Paul Newman used to scope out houses on the island to rent his ultimate test was checking the fridge to see if the house was stocked with his namesake salad dressing.
The Cunninghams’ time on the island wasn’t all run-ins with glamorous celebrities but there were plenty of other fun times.
“It was a place they loved to entertain family and friends ” Owen says. “We loved playing bocce ball in the front yard. We biked a lot. We swam we waterskied. Dad had a brown wooden disk he could stand on behind the boat. He got to where he could put a chair on it. The brown disk would sink and all we would see was a man sitting on a chair being pulled behind a boat.”
The Cunninghams spent many holidays on Figure Eight including one memorable Halloween when the island was still sparsely populated and residents weren’t expecting children asking for candy.
“There weren’t many houses back then for trick-or-treating ” Owen says. “I got a Coke pickles a piece of pizza. That was one of the most random Halloweens. I’ll never forget that one.”
Cunningham remembers her fair share of weathering dangerous seasonal storms.
“Some hurricanes we’ve had really seemed to make a beeline for Figure Eight ” she says.
One in particular threatened to cause serious damage to her precious home.
“One year my husband and I arrived at 3 p.m. and a sign said ‘You must evacuate the island by 4 p.m. ‘ so we ended up staying ” she says. “We mopped up water from the floor for hours and I’m so glad we stayed because there could’ve been really serious water damage.”
The home is full of displays of Cunningham’s knack for creativity and her one-of-a-kind art pieces created over the years.
“I love North Carolina shells — they are such a treasure. I used to collect them and I made a few shell mirrors ” she says remembering how her crafting and collecting hobbies began at the beach.
She fashioned the headboards in her house covering many of them using a stitching technique called trapunto to outline the pattern of shells to make them appear three-dimensional.
She has painted everything from lamps to her own clothes covering up stains with floral designs. She takes household items and gives them a new purpose. Chair backs have been fashioned into mirrors. Her hand-painted piano keys have been displayed at Queens University in Charlotte.
“Some of her friends would do skits for her birthday ” Owen says. “One of the lines was ‘Secondhand Jane Secondhand Jane she could take anything old and make it new again.'”
Some of her art is featured at Tickled Pink in Lumina Station. She hopes to sell her works in Charlotte shops and donate her redesigned furniture and handcrafted belongings to local thrift stores.
She recalls how much her husband who died in October 2015 used to love to windsurf. Years ago when a few young boys asked if they could windsurf off the Cunninghams’ dock her husband agreed but only if they would let him have a turn.
She smiles as she tells the story.
“He walked straight down to the water still in his work clothes rolled up his sleeves and took off ” she says.
Cunningham says she’ll miss her waterfront home with a beautiful view overlooking the sound.
“I’m sad to say goodbye. I loved doing things like collecting shells and swimming in the lagoon. But I never did windsurf ” she laughs.