Tuesdays With Nippy and Sue

BY Gretchen Nash

The Wrightsville Beach Museum is appropriately housed in the Myers Cottage built in 1907 complete with weathered siding a front porch with rocking chairs from which to watch passersby and a screened-in back porch to escape the mosquitoes on a summer evening. The interior of the Museum looks like Mrs. Myers just stepped out to catch the 30-minute trolley ride to Wilmington in the 1930s. The walls are lined with old black and white photographs of men and women in bathing costumes and elegantly dressed dancers at the Lumina Pavilion. Its rooms full of memorabilia and exhibits tell the story of life in the good old days.

But whats a good story without good storytellers? Enter beach residents Nippy MacDonald and Sue Bridge who volunteer every Tuesday afternoon at the museum to give visitors not only a tour of the museum but a chance to hear living history. These lively genteel women both in their 80s have been friends for more than 50 years. One Tuesday afternoon I sat with Nippy and Sue on the back porch of the museum pretending that the drone of car engines was the rumble of trolley cars listening to their stories of Wrightsville Beach.

In 1950 Sue Bridge and her husband Albert moved here from the Piedmont area of North Carolina and built their home on 814 S. Lumina. Like many Wilmington families in the 1940s and 50s the Bridges were a summertime beach family. They spent their summers at Wrightsville but lived inland where Albert worked and the children attended school in Onslow County.

The new arrivals were soon greeted by one of the worst hurricanes in history to hit Wrightsville Beach. On October 15 1954 Hurricane Hazel scored a double-header by striking the coast on a full moon high tide. The first floor of the Bridges new home was inundated with three feet of ocean water. “This was our first experience ” says Sue of the hurricane. “We had never been through a storm before not anything like this.”

Nippys first memory of Wrightsville Beach was as a six-year-old visiting her grandparents in the summer of 1932. Nippys grandparents who lived at 546 S. Lumina were some of the first year-round residents at Wrightsville Beach. “My dad brought us up on a train and dropped us off and went on his way. I thought I had been deserted! But we had such a wonderful time that summer that we didnt want to go home after that.”

Nippy and her brother returned to the beach every summer to repeat that first golden summer at Wrightsville. “We had little tiny boats and we rowed. And wed get boats and go over and mess around in the marshes ” says Nippy of her summers in the 30s and 40s. “My grandparents wouldnt worry about us. We all swam. There wasnt that much boat traffic on the sound back in those days. Everything Ive learned Ive learned here fishing crabbing all that kind of thing. It was a wonderful education.”

When Nippys grandfather bought a 36-foot cabin cruiser brother and sister spent their Sundays learning about boats and tides while cruising the waters around Wrightsville. “Everybody would take a turn at the wheel ” she says. “We learned how to fish and bait. It was a lifestyle. And I wanted the same thing for my children.”

So in 1954 Nippy and her husband bought the house next door 545 S. Lumina and lived Nippys dream of an endless summer at the beach. During World War II the South Lumina house called Breezeland had been converted to furnished apartments for men who worked at the shipyards. Nippy who still lives in her home and rents out two apartments upstairs still has some of the solid oak furniture from the 1940s that was sold with the house. “Its 50 years of history ” she says.

For Nippy and Sue the beach was an idyllic setting in which to raise their children. Life was slow neighbors were friendly there were empty lots for afternoon baseball games and always there was the lure of water and sand. “Every morning I took my girls to the beach ” says Sue of her summertime routine. “I think the good salt air and the salt water kept them well. Our water at Wrightsville Beach is healing. It is very healing.”

“When my boys were younger before they were teenagers ” says Nippy “the greatest thing in those days was (gathering) all the kids after supper. Everybody would get together and take their children and walk down to the pier down to Crystal Pier. At that time they were fishing for sharks. And if they got one ohhh my goodness!”

She recounts an August evening when a teenage boy from Seagate hooked a big shark. “He started fighting it about 7 or 8 oclock at night and finally about 11 oclock I told [my children] they had to go home. Oh no no they said. Well about midnight I got them to bed. My cousin was here from Chicago and she stayed out all night. I got up about 5 oclock in the morning and she still wasnt back so I got dressed and went out and looked and they were pulling it in down by the jetties. It was while the jetties were still there. And they were pulling that big shark in. He was the biggest thing! That was a monster! It took all these men. They pulled him right up on the beach. And those kids they had the best time!”

“Its not something that happens every day ” Sue agrees.

Besides strolling to the beach on summer nights the women remember the front porch as a place for gathering and socializing. “Oh you had to have a rocking chair ” says Sue. “It wasnt a porch if it didnt have a rocking chair.”

From her grandparents front porch in the 30s and 40s young Nippy marveled at the men and women in their elegant dancing clothes and counted the street cars traveling to the Lumina Pavilion. The Lumina a 12 500-square-foot public pavilion that opened in 1905 played a big part in everyones lives at the beach. It was a hub of activity with a shooting gallery snack shop and huge dance floor. At one time it even housed a skating rink.

Sue arrived at Wrightsville in 1950 and remembers the men with their “little flasks” on their way to Lumina. “And they said some of the women were brazen enough to join them!” said Sue laughing at how the times have changed.

During their weekly museum tours on Tuesdays the women describe the Great Fire of 1934 which burned the northern end of Wrightsville Beach including 100 homes and the Oceanic Hotel. Nippy explains how it all began. “It was an old cottage they called the Kitty Cottage. What I heard as a young person was that it possibly could have been started by a malfunctioning refrigerator in this place. Well the winds were blowing and they were blowing from the south fortunately for us that lived on the south end and it just moved on up and took over 100 cottages to the tune they said of a million dollars. Well a million dollars nowadays wouldnt buy doodly! If you can visualize over a hundred cottages a million dollars and now one house is more than a million!” says Nippy raising her hands in disbelief. “One piece of land not even a house on the oceanfront is a million dollars!”

Like every good storyteller Nippy adds a local twist to the story. During the Great Fire her uncle was young and unattached she says. Since the town didnt have a fire department in the 1930s every available young man including her uncle and another young man named Earl Gray was asked to help save what they could from the burning houses. The young heroes were told to check the Oceanic Hotel.

“But anyway ” Nippy says giving a quick wink to identify the good part “they go in and they yell The fires got one corner! Get out of there! So theyre coming along and Earl sees this coin-operated telephone and gets all the cash out of it! And as far as [her uncle] knew Earl Gray was the only one who made any money out of the fire of 34!”

Opportunism wasnt the providence of young Earl Gray alone. Nippys uncle showed Nippy and her brother a clever trick of his own at Lumina. In addition to dancing to the Big Bands in the early 1900s Lumina erected a movie screen that stood 50 feet out in the ocean. Mens watch chains would snag on the movie seats emptying the mens pockets of loose change. When her uncle pointed out this extraordinary circumstance Nippy and her brother were delighted to run among the empty seats every week in search of treasure.

The times have certainly changed but for these two storytellers the charm of Wrightsville Beach remains constant. “I tell you I think there are mountain people and I think there are beach people ” says Nippy. “And Im just a beach person.”

“I am too ” says Sue. “I love the beauty of the mountains but dont let me stay there to live. Im very happy in my home. I dont have to go anywhere.”