Wilmington’s Feast of Pirates

BY Susan Taylor Block

The Feast of Pirates was celebrated for three days every August from 1927 through 1929. As was hoped it was a tourist boom one that put Wilmington on the national “festival map.” Promoters actually claimed the local event would challenge New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. It was a nice thought but if a celebration built around a religious holiday could turn naughty how much more so could one turn when based on characters dedicated to plundering self-indulgence and a system of justice symbolized by a plank?

The first couple of years were promising. If only we could locate film made by two Hollywood studios of the 1928 Feast of Pirates with its montage of times places and people. At least 28 000 people witnessed the re-enactment of George Washington’s 1791 entry into Wilmington and his acceptance of a heavy ornate Key to the City a gift from Col. Walker Taylor who purchased the key in Paris. The proper presidential ceremony was followed closely by the arrival of Blackbeard an especially nasty pirate. Cannons firing and at least one boat ablaze the buccaneer and his crew landed at the foot of Market Street beat back a mock militia and marched to city hall. There they captured local officials and ordered three days of mindless merriment. As the gruesome flag of piracy was hoisted over city hall George and Martha sat stiffly in their gilded carriage grown men dressed in heavy costumes sweltered and young children drew toy swords and tried to affect a buccaneer’s scowl.

Rounding out the long weekend — and adding to the anachronistic mix — were loudspeakers transmitting live coverage of Alfred Smith’s acceptance speech for the Democratic presidential nomination street dances — one of which debuted a new version of the shag! — a three-ring circus at Lumina Pavilion Banks Channel and Cape Fear River flotillas and contests at the Oceanic Hotel and Lumina Pavillion.

The 1928 feast gained the attention of our sister state. One jealous South Carolinian wrote to The News-Dispatch: “We have done some investigating and are unable to trace a single first class pirate into your territory. We cannot imagine one bringing his ship up the muddy marsh-lined Cape Fear and making your homely river a place of abode — especially with the bays inlets and rivers of South Carolina in the offing.”

In the end it wasn’t our nay-saying rivals that doomed the Feast of Pirates. And it certainly wasn’t the spirit of Captain Kidd of Money Island fame or Stede Bonnet the only pirate known to have sailed into the mouth of the Cape Fear. It was just plain ole bottled spirits. Despite the fact that the entire nation was in the clench of Prohibition people found ways to drink. Denying legal alcohol sales simply fueled bootleggers’ fires many of which burned in eastern North Carolina. One local notable readied for the feast by stocking up on whiskey in Williamston a place said to produce the Chivas Regal of North Carolina moonshine.

During the Feast of Pirates in 1929 excessive alcohol consumption led committee members and embarrassed city officials to consider canceling plans for any future festivals. Though there was little trouble at the beach in the aftermath downtown Wilmington looked like Mayberry’s Otis and hundreds of his buddies had paid a visit.

“There were people lying down on the curbs at night drunk as hell ” said 93-year old David Harriss a Feast of Pirates official in a 2000 interview. “It would have lasted a long time if they could have controlled it but they couldn’t.” Even if things hadn’t gotten out of hand the Feast of Pirates might have ended anyway: Two months after the 1929 festival the Great Depression raised its own dark flag.

But how did such a dizzying extravaganza occur in Wilmington during the sleepy no-tech days of the 1920s? The Feast of Pirates actually had a predecessor in 1915 and 1916 known as the Feast of the Lanterns. The brainchild of developer Hugh MacRae (1865-1951) this early festival took place mostly at Wrightsville Beach and featured hundreds of lantern decorations as well as beauty queens who wore crowns made of electric lights. Though most of the illumination came from candles and torches the Feast of Lanterns lighted boat parades were probably Wrightsville Beach’s first flotillas.

MacRae owner of the Tidewater Power Company Lumina Pavilion the Oceanic Hotel and the streetcar system was a genius of promotion who excelled in using electric lights to dazzle nocturnal beachgoers. His efforts helped draw 5 000 tourists to the 1916 event. In 1927 Hugh MacRae agreed to pay a hefty share of the cost after Wilmington drycleaner Pat O’Crowley came up with the idea of the Feast of Pirates. In addition to general finances MacRae made plans to provide a decorated pirate ship studded with electric lights that would debut in the Feast of Pirates parade before traveling by rail to Lumina where it became a popular exhibit.

Intrepid Wilmington Chamber of Commerce director Louis T. Moore (1885-1961) could hardly have been happier and used his network of press and political contacts across North Carolina to promote the upcoming event. Someone perhaps a railroad car artist created a fetching logo that found its way onto badges banners and tire covers. Soon a motorcade was on its way across the state and what a sight it must have been as it wound its way along bumpy two-lane roads with costumed swashbucklers often at the wheel.

Bruce B. Cameron Jr. known best today for his startling philanthropy accompanied his father in the motorcade. “I was about 10 or 11 years old ” said Cameron during a 2007 interview. “We drove from Wilmington to Lake Lure at Chimney Rock. Lake Lure is a man-made lake and it was a new attraction then. We stayed in a hotel that had just been completed.”

“The Feast of Pirates motorcade was a big deal at the time ” Cameron continued. “It consisted of 15 to 20 cars. I remember Mr. W. D. MacMillan also made the trip. It seemed like we had a flat tire about every 10 miles. We traveled with three spares in the car. The roads were bad then and there was no bridge over the Pee Dee River so we all took the ferry.”

“Louis T. Moore was the main fellow ” said Cameron. “He did more for local projects like that than anyone ever has. In addition to running the chamber of commerce he was a historian writer and photographer. Mr. Moore was very well known throughout the state. People thought well of him and he generated a lot of support for the Feast of Pirates.”

Back at home Louis T. Moore engaged Wilmington clothier and designer Beulah Meier to create elaborate costumes for many of the Feast of Pirates participants including brightly colored ballet tutus for husband Richard Meier and friend Walter Yopp a beloved 300-pound undertaker who along with Meier performed a wildly popular comedic dance during the Feast of Pirates Rotary Humbug Circus at Lumina Pavillion. Efird’s and Belk-Williams department stores both located in the 200 block of North Front Street also stocked mass-produced costumes for the festival.

Louis T. Moore’s influence showed most in the historical content of the festivals. Among other things he orchestrated the detail-laden re-enactment of George Washington’s entry into Wilmington organized the historic costumes contests and helped recruit volunteers to manage the 55-unit parade. Moore O’Crowley and McKean Maffitt engaged talent and man-hours from many local businesses including the Atlantic Coast Line. Headquartered in Wilmington the railroad was Wilmington’s largest business.

One of Moore’s fellow history enthusiasts future author Lewis Philip Hall worked long hours after the feast of 1927 to develop a new dance for the next event. Perhaps it was his Wilmington answer to the Charleston but unlike the Charleston this dance would endure in diluted form to become the state dance of both North and South Carolina. According to Katherine Meier Cameron daughter of Beulah and Richard Cameron Hall invented the shag. “My parents were ballroom dancers and they taught Lewis to dance ” said Cameron. “That winter he and Julia Seigler (Boatwright) worked on the steps of the new dance but it was Elizabeth Bogan who became his main dance partner once the shag debuted.”

Lewis Hall incorporated existing steps mostly gleaned from African-American dances into the new craze. But the boogie he introduced was very different from today’s shag. “The dance Lewis invented was similar but much much more difficult ” said Katherine Meier a former professional dancer. “Also Lewis’s dance could work well with music of almost any tempo — even very fast numbers.” Lewis Hall showed off his favorite dance during the downtown North Third Street dance of 1928 however rain cut that event short. But the following night Lewis and his buddies danced from midnight until 4 a.m. at Lumina.

The surnames of many of the Feast of Pirates participants are still known to us today. The 1927 pirate crew was commanded by Clarence Dudley Maffitt son of the famous Civil War blockade-running hero Capt. John Newland Maffitt. Feast of Pirates beauty queens included Emma Bellamy Williamson who would be one of the last private owners of the Bellamy Mansion; Elizabeth Hoggard daughter of Dr. John T. Hoggard and future wife of David Harriss; and Virginia Bellamy future bride of Peter Browne Ruffin. Judge John J. Burney served as coachman for George and Martha Washington and New York banker Isaac B. Grainger was a festival director. Dr. H. L. Keith John Bright Hill and Wilbur D. Jones rode horseback in colonial dress. Future Episcopal bishop the Rev. Thomas H. Wright delivered an invocation for the 1928 Feast. All must have been at least a bit abashed at the way things turned out.

But the Feast of Pirates was a big success in other ways. It galvanized the city to promote itself with exuberance and delight. The festival introduced thousands of visitors to the wonders of downtown Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach. Word of mouth traveled so fast and far that one New York state resident sent a letter to the chamber of commerce requesting a “Feester Parrots” tire cover. Places like Lumina and the Oceanic became annual vacation destinations for many Feast of Pirates “alumni.” And colorful memories were created that are still vivid today.

It would be 19 years before Wilmington would launch another powerhouse festival. Though envisioned in 1934 the Depression and World War II froze plans for the N. C. Azalea Festival until 1948 but it is an entirely different story historically. Grand glorious and beautiful as it is it can never match the edgy creative quirkiness of the original Feast of Pirates celebrations. Wilmington’s personalized salute to the Roaring Twenties could only have happened in the context of its time.

Acknowledgments: Author’s interviews with Peggy M. Perdew; Bruce B. Cameron Jr.; Katherine M. Cameron; John J. Burney; the late David Harriss. McKean Maffitt Collection; Bill Reaves Collection (NHC Public Library); David Lewis; Beverly Tetterton and Joseph Sheppard (New Hanover County Public Library); Sue Miller (Cape Fear Museum).