Lees Cut Adventures
BY Chris Russell
Eight- and nine-year-old boys waking before dawn and piloting skiffs to Pembroke (now Landfall) to hunt for duck and marsh hens. Getting caught by low tide and not getting home until 3 a.m. Using your neighbor’s dock and walking across their yard to the beach. Fishermen keeping an eye out for your children. All of this describes the Lees Cut community in the 1970s and ’80s.
Lees Cut is the first body of water and neighborhood to the left across the Heide Trask Drawbridge from the mainland onto Wrightsville and Harbor Island. Now full of high-end houses it was once home to families who water-skied jumped off docks for a swim shrimped right off the pier and rowed skiffs to adventure.
“I guess we didn’t realize how incredibly perfect it was at the time ? a Huckleberry Finn lifestyle is a good adjective ” says Dr. Ben Smith who grew up on Pelican Drive with his two brothers Walter and Sam. “Lees Cut was a fishing community. Growing up down there we knew everybody. We’d go skiing flounder gigging. We’d wake up in the morning and be gone the entire day.”
It was a unique time. It is hard to imagine children in skiffs navigating today’s busy water much less with hunting rifles in their hull and without cell phones or any means of communication.
“That body of water unified us whether it was summertime or winter ” recalls Haywood Newkirk now president of The Clontz Newkirk Real Estate Group.
Like most of the kids growing up on the water Brett Knowles had access to a boat at an early age. His grandpa bought an old 16-20 foot Thunderbird which he likened to a tank.
“I knew every cut and cranny where every sandbar was I knew what fish were nibbling at your feet in certain areas. I’ve had an intimate knowledge of the area for over 40 years ” says Knowles now a realtor with Coldwell Banker.
He says the water was wider then and a boat could go full speed.
“We were skiers. It was big in the ’70s and that was our lifestyle ” says Knowles who later became a part of the Cape Fear Ski Team and competed in tournaments. “We would ski behind the house where my grandparents could watch us from the porch. My dad and grandfather vehemently fought the no-wake zone with Wrightsville Beach council members because my grandparents wanted us to have the ability to ski.”
Donna Merritt Starling recalls the endless days of swimming floating skiing hydro sliding getting around on her Earth Cruiser bike and enjoying regular breakfasts at Middle of the Island.
“We would go across the wake and see who could get the highest and do flips ” she says of hydro sliding which can be done kneeling sitting or standing.
Like the boys of Lees Cut she also began her love of boating at an early age.
“My dad built my first boat when I was 5. I saw him building it and he said it was a sleigh for Santa ” she laughs.
The Merritts are one of the few families from the ’70s still living on Lees Cut. Her father Mike Merritt built Atlantic Marine and was recently inducted into the Wrightsville Beach Waterman Hall of Fame.
Howard Coupland now vice president of brokerage with Cape Fear Commercial Real Estate recalls the freedom children and teens had on Lees Cut.
“Looking back it was like a dream I can’t believe how lucky we were ” he says. “I had a small duck boat at about age 8 that I drove by myself. It was very liberating to be able to get on the water and go all around Wrightsville Beach channels and marsh banks. It was exhilarating. You felt mature and a lot older. And if you messed up it was your fault.”
Coupland recalls getting up at 5:30 a.m. to be the first on the water to ski when it was slick like glass.
“We’d scrounge through couches to get change to buy a couple of gallons of boat gas then we were ready for the weekend ” he says. “We lived by bicycle and boat.”
The Coupland family owned a fishing cabin on Pelican Drive. It was a little house about 10 by 20 feet that had windows and electricity but no running water. It was labeled the Sugar Shack. All the neighborhood kids remember it as a hang out.
“We used to spend the night playing poker cards all kinds of stuff ” says Walter Smith. “We’d spend the night there get up early to ski and then go on to school.”
Living on the water meant a variety of opportunities other pre-teens and teens of the time might not have had. Before they were old enough to drive Lees Cut kids could boat to work or even pick up dates.
“I used to drive my boat to work ” Ben Smith recalls. “At 12 years old I worked on a charter boat as a second mate. I became first mate at 12 also; the other guy drank and got fired. I worked all through high school.”
Knowles remembers the fun of meeting tourist girls and “dating” before they were old enough to drive cars.
“Girls would come down with families on vacation tourist girls and we were the hit out there ” he says. “We could pick them up with a boat and take them to the Pizza Hut.”
Affordable Real Estate
The price of Harbor Island real estate is one of the most significant changes to the Lees Cut area in the last 50 years.
Back when the Newkirk boys moved with their mother Loretta Clontz to Channel Walk the single mother was able to afford one of the nicest condos on the island at about $44 000.
Clontz says Channel Walk was a fabulous place to live and her sons loved it.
“I had an unobstructed view of the waterway for years until new condos were built ” she says. “I’m sure I couldn’t afford to live in Channel Walk now.”
Coupland says his parents bought lot No. 64 Pelican Drive (the fishing hut called the Sugar Shack) in 1980 because of the dock.
“It was a four-boat floating dock and party area. They got it for $32 500 ” he says. “The last sale of the property with a house on it now was for $3.6 million.”
Walter Smith recalls hearing his father Ben Smith Sr. say a developer asked him if he wanted to buy another lot on Pelican Drive because he “had to get rid of them.” The developer wanted $2 500.
Knowles said his family wanted to hold on to his grandparents’ house but they had to sell during the recession years of 2008-09.
“It was my dream to take that house as my own but we had built a new house in town ” he says. “It was like losing a family member.”
Who’s Watching the Kids?
While it was a great period of independence for youth in Lees Cut it was also a time when parents and grandparents and other adults were keeping an eye on all the kids in the neighborhood.
“Their parents were just as much our parents ” Starling says of the adults at Lees Cut. “If anybody’s dad saw me on the waterway jumping waves my daddy would know about it. There was a sense of camaraderie. We (kids) took care of each other and what the adults said went. There was no back talking no questioning not even much cussing back then. It was a different world where you rode your bike to and from school.”
“Parents kept an eye on each other’s kids ” he says. “They could look down the dock and see where their boys and girls were.”
Walter Smith adds that they also had Mabel a woman hired as a maid by one family but who was much more.
“Back in the ’70s [Mabel] watched after us if no one was around. She had all discipline authority given to her — and it was used ” he says with a laugh. “She was a well-respected lady and yes she gave us spankings.”
Coupland said the fear of spankings helped keep the kids in line.
“Threat of the belt was in the back of our minds and made us not do stupid stuff ” he recalls. “Corporal punishment is gone. I think that contributes to a decline in (children) learning a sense of responsibility or respect.”
To illustrate a difference between then and now Newkirk tells of attending an open house at his daughter’s school. He pointed out room after room where he’d been given a spanking. His daughter didn’t understand and said “You mean Grandma came down to school and spanked you?” He explained to her that each teacher had the authority to administer spankings.
Watching over the Lees Cut kids wasn’t just about discipline though. There was also plenty of warmth friendship and encouragement much of it from the “grandparent sets” in the neighborhood like Jack and Hen Knowles.
They built a home on Pelican Drive in 1969 which housed four generations at times and was the headquarters for celebrations and casual conversations for family and friends. Their grandson Brett refers to their home as his oasis.
“Everybody knew Jack and Hen ” he says. “Their legacy was what we call the four Fs: family friends food and fun. That’s what their house meant to us. Every holiday birthday or special event it was always held on their pier.”
Even many years after they all grew up Knowles would stop by and find his college friends now in their 30s or 40s having a visit with his grandparents.
“It was that type of place where everybody would stop in ” he says.
A Little Mischief
Brett Knowles says the neighbors took a lot of ownership in Lees Cut and looked out for each other. He laughs when telling how they would watch out for the “bad kids” who would try to throw spray up on the piers or ride too fast and too close.
“We’d save up our watermelon rinds and launch them at their boats when they went by ” Knowles says. “There’s probably acres and acres of watermelon rinds at the end of my grandparents’ pier.”
Ben Smith recalls only getting in a little bit of trouble.
“We had occasional run-ins with the law ” he says. “Maybe we’d be going too fast in a wake zone and have a little cat-and-mouse chase with the Coast Guard but we could lose them in the marsh or sometimes the lights wouldn’t work properly (on a boat) so they would blue-light you. They never could catch us. It was playful fun.”
Avoiding trouble at the old Pembroke estate was also part of that fun. It had been an opulent estate owned by Wilmington industrialist Pembroke Jones but the grand hunting lodge had burned down and the grounds suffered from neglect and disrepair.
“We would get up early before the sun came up and load up the duck boat with guns and a couple of decoys ” Newkirk says. “There were a couple of ponds just over the rise on the waterway. We’d run our duck boat up into Pembroke and run up the bank. We’d get 10 or 15 minutes of duck hunting before the caretaker would chase us off. We’d run back down to Lees Cut laughing the whole way.”
Walter Smith recalls being on the tail end of all the fun his big brothers would help instigate.
“We would ride around in Jeeps through the mud with friends ” he says. “There wasn’t really anything there maybe an old fireplace still standing. We weren’t supposed to be on that property but we were until an old caretaker would show up. He would try to catch us but he never did.”
Ben Smith remembers a time they had gone duck hunting and no one tied off the boat. He had to swim about 100 yards in the icy water to get it. Another time they got caught by low tide and had to sleep in the boat until the tide came in staying out until 3 or 4 a.m. Smith said his dad Ben Smith Sr. had taught them not to panic. He himself would hunt no matter what the weather stormy or nice.
Newkirk rattled off some of the family names that were part of the neighborhood in the 1970s.
“Knowles Plott Coupland Earp Bullard Smith Morgan and Kelly families; all those kids grew up in the area. They’re businessmen doctors vets successful in real estate and they’re all still here ” Newkirk says.
Though few of the ’70s gang live on Lees Cut many have stayed or returned to the area.
“We are trying to preserve the home-beach feeling. We still want to feel like it is not a vacation island it is still our home ” Starling says. “I think everybody does a great job of preserving that and it is probably why we have a lot of tourists absorb the home feeling. They try to rent the same houses and we get to know them and call them by their first names.”
Still the cost of real estate and crowded waterways contribute to the loss of the homey feel of the ’70s neighborhood when many houses had vacant lots on either side.
“I think Wrightsville Beach has seen more change since 1990 the last 25 years than in the previous 100 ” Newkirk says. “My dad grew up here on the waters just like I did. We had so many identical experiences – kids on boats everybody on the water. My children however won’t have most of those experiences because of the way things have changed. They have a great life that 99 percent of the people on this planet would be glad to have. I’m happy my wife and I can give them the life we have but there is something about the innocence and freedom (of the 1970s) that my kids won’t be able to have.”
America as a whole is also different now.
“Nowadays you can’t let your kids get out of the driveway ” Ben Smith says. “It is a different world we live in. Life was a different pace a slower pace back then. And the waterways were not so crowded.”
Another thing that has changed since the ’70s is water safety.
“About 90 percent of the people on the water were local people who grew up on the boats and understood tide wind how to back a boat rules of road waves and inlets ” Newkirk says. “Today that has changed substantially. As I operate a boat on these waters less than half know how to handle a boat correctly and safely.”