Hines Seafood: A colorful chapter in Wrightsville Beach history

BY Keith T. Barber

There was a time in the 1920s when a young boy would take a rowboat go shrimping on Bradley Creek and not dare leave his net in the water for more than five seconds. If he did he would find it so full of shrimp he would barely be able to haul it back in the boat.

Luke T. Hines founder of Hines Seafood — a Wrightsville Beach fixture for nearly three decades — was that young boy back in the ’20s. Hines’ son L.T. says his father’s entrepreneurial spirit was evident from an early age. After making his daily catch Luke would boil the shrimp in a family washpot behind the Hines’ home on Oleander Drive.

The seafood business runs deep in the Hines family. “Daddy would take the cooked shrimp they would cook in the washpots go to Wrightsville Beach and he would sell them in little bags for 10 cents a bag three for a quarter on the back of a mule ” says L.T.

The story of Luke and Ruby Hines and their children L.T. Hines and sister Melba Hines Neville evokes a time of innocence and adventure in the rich history of Wrightsville Beach.

Luke Hines operated his first seafood business near the area where Redix currently sits adjacent to the old Coast Guard station. Hines’ second seafood market eventually became the site of the Middle of the Island Restaurant.

L.T. and Melba say their days spent living adjacent to the old Coast Guard station kept life interesting. When the Intracoastal Waterway was dredged to create new land the area behind their home on Causeway Drive was undeveloped marshland which means the ‘Sandman’ would come visit the Hines children on summer nights. “When we were kids there was no air-conditioning and they filled that dirt in there and it blew through the screens at night like talcum powder ” L.T. recalls. “You would wake up in the morning and literally have to wipe your eyes to get the sand out of them.”

Ever the entrepreneur Luke Hines placed his first seafood market in the hands of his business partner in 1951 and hit the road with his family in tow trying to get rich selling ‘waterless cookware ’
a precursor to nonstick pots and pans.

After a tough year of traveling to Orlando Ocala and New Orleans the Hines family returned to the area. Luke sold his share in the first market and opened Hines Seafood at the east end of the current site of the Middle of the Island mixed-use project.

Thus began a glorious time in the lives of the Hines children. Luke Hines gave L.T. his first boat at the tender age of 9 a time when Wrightsville Beach was “a kid’s paradise.”

“Daddy gave me my first boat when I was 9 years old and I sunk it a bunch ” says L.T. “I would take the boat out and ride all day long and you would probably see 10 boats the whole day — that’s how dead it was.

I knew everybody on the beach. I would stop at every person’s house — one of them would give me ice water then I’d go to someone else’s house and they would give me something to eat.”

As a child Melba Hines spent her time playing in the foxholes adjacent to the old Coast Guard station or in the cells of the old Wrightsville Beach jail on Waynick Boulevard or shopping at Newell’s department store.

“Going over there was like going to heaven ” L.T. says of Newell’s which sat at the corner of Causeway Drive and North Lumina Avenue. As a teenager Melba enjoyed roller skating at Lumina Pavilion and going to the Crest Theatre to catch the latest Hollywood release. As a teenager L.T. says he frequently drove his car without a license and would often drive to the end of Johnnie Mercer’s Pier.

“You really had to entertain yourself back then ” L.T. says. “From September to just about June Wrightsville Beach was dead. There was nothing going on. The number of year-round residents back then you could count them on one hand.”

L.T. says his father’s greatest passions were fishing and real estate. “His favorite fish to catch was speckled trout. People would ask him where he caught his trout and he would always say ‘Right in the mouth.’” But it was Luke Hines’ love of real estate that eventually moved the family from the Seagate area to Wrightsville Beach in 1956.

“My dad loved real estate — he never sold a lot of it he just loved to have it ” says L.T. “He bought a commercial building a city block east of the Middle of the Island. We were going to stay in it for three or four months to see how we liked it and we never left. We turned the commercial building into a house.”

L.T. says the only water available at beach cottages was well water and quite often it was very brackish. So Luke made an arrangement with Charlie Fells owner of the Middle of the Island building to tap into Charlie’s well.

“My dad and Charlie were old card-playing buddies fishing buddies. Charlie had to have a very deep well for the Middle of the Island because he needed it for water for cooking and drinks. Daddy [convinced] him into letting us use the water out of his deep well. Then Daddy and I dug a ditch from the fish market all the way to the commercial building and we put plastic pipe rolled it out and that was the water pipe that was used for our water system. We’re probably suffering from some strange disease today (as a result) ” L.T. says laughing.

Luke Hines developed his business philosophy by trial and error. He expanded Hines Seafood to Carolina Beach and built a seafood business on Oleander Drive near the Independence Mall area but the businesses did not fare as well as his Wrightsville Beach location.

L.T. says his father’s business philosophy was simple: “He told me ‘Son always decide to do one thing and do it well. Don’t try to get too big.’”

Kim Neville Woody Luke Hines’ granddaughter says the story of how the Hines came to own the property east of the Middle of the Island provides a glimpse into how land deals were based on a handshake and a person’s good word.

“He bought that where the beer and wine shop and the kayak business is and their A-frame house ” Kim says. “He wanted that and the man he was going to buy it from said he could have all three lots for $1 000. My granddaddy said ‘Can you give me a year to pay it?’ and the man said ‘Yes.’”

After he owned the lot on Seacrest Drive Luke built the A-frame house that sits there to this day.

Luke Hines’ way of doing business is a remnant of a different era says L.T. “It was all done on a handshake. I think the lawyer all he did was draw up the (sale) agreement.”

Until health inspectors required Luke Hines to prepare his seafood on-site the Hines family cooked their shrimp the way they had for generations. “They cooked the shrimp in that big ole washpot ” Melba recalls. “Family members would sit out there and peel those shrimp all day long and drive them over to the fish market and Daddy would sell them.”

Luke built an addition onto the back of his seafood market to accommodate a cooking facility that met modern health standards … but the introduction of deep sea fish spelled the beginning of the end for Hines Seafood.

“When the boats kept going further out toward the Gulf Stream and kept bringing big fish in there we would throw them away ” L.T. says. “Daddy’s fish market did not smell (and the deep sea fish did). He spent a lot of money keeping it smelling nice.”

Melba says her father believed a seafood market should not smell “fishy”: it should smell like the ocean. When Hines’ customers kept requesting deep sea fish — like king mackerel and red snapper — he finally obliged them.

“You couldn’t get Dad to put a king mackerel in that shop. Finally people started asking for it so one day we had a brand new shipment of stuff come in and he said ‘We’re going to steak that king mackerel up and sell it.’ We cut it up and it was an instant success ” L.T. says.

But it was a change that didn’t suit Luke Hines so in 1976 after offering to sell the business to his two children — alas to no avail — Luke Hines sold Hines Seafood thus ending a colorful chapter in the history of Wrightsville Beach. “It was a fantastic business ” Melba says. “I wish I had taken it.”

Melba says her father had to fish to earn his keep as a child but it became his greatest joy and the hallmark of one of the founding families of modern-day Wrightsville Beach.

Fish Market Fried Spots — Luke’s style

2 spot fish per person
1 cup Nabisco cracker meal
1 ½ cup Wesson oil
Salt and pepper
1 large Ziploc bag or paper bag

Clean the fish and remove the heads; leave the tails on. Cut gashes (two or three) across each side of fish. Do not cut through the backbone. Add the oil to a large well-seasoned cast iron frying pan and heat for a few minutes. While the oil heats salt and pepper both sides of the spots. Place the cracker meal in the bag. Put the fish in the bag about two at a time and shake the bag until the fish are coated. When the oil is good and hot (almost smoking) carefully slide the coated fish into pan. Do not crowd the fish in the pan. Cook the fish until golden brown on the first side; then carefully turn the fish and brown the other side. Remove the fish from the pan and drain on paper towels or a brown grocery bag. Continue frying fish until all are cooked. Serve immediately.

Good accompaniments include fries and slaw stewed potatoes with onions big hominy pork-n-beans hush puppies or cornbread … and if you’re from the South a steamy bowl of cream grits.