Woodrow Wilson & Wilmington: Blessed Be The Tie That Binds

BY Susan Taylor Block

“Among those who have served this country as presidents there have been some able men and a few noble ones. But to none others would both these titles apply so aptly as to Woodrow Wilson. For it would seem that God had especially fitted him to meet the circumstances under which he was to serve and like Queen Esther he had ‘come to the kingdom for such a time as this.’”
— Benjamin Franklin Hall (1842-1934) a friend of Woodrow Wilson and a charter homeowner at Wrightsville Beach (305 S. Lumina Ave.)


Young Man About Town

Though Wilmington played host to several U.S. presidents Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) is the only commander in chief to have called the port city “home.” His two World War I-era presidential terms are well-documented but much has been forgotten of his time and influence in Wilmington. Though his residency was brief and over two different periods he absorbed the city’s beauty and romance and established close ties with several Wilmingtonians that he kept throughout his life.

Wilson also changed the riverfront landscape by steering generous federal funds straight to North Water Street. It was money beautifully spent for the result was the stunning U.S. Custom House one of Wilmington’s most photogenic landmarks.

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was the son of Janet Woodrow and Dr. Joseph R. Wilson who was minister of Wilmington’s First Presbyterian Church from 1874 to 1885.

Known then as Tommy Wilson was 17 when he first moved to Wilmington after completing one full year at Davidson College a small but fine Presbyterian school near Charlotte. He had returned home to repair his frail health and study for his future schooling at Princeton which was considered a substantially more difficult college than Davidson.

When he arrived in Wilmington in late 1874 his parents were living temporarily at 401 S. Front St. the home of Elizabeth and Charles Robinson just across the street from the Governor Dudley Mansion while a new church manse was being constructed at 317 Orange St. Tommy lived at 401 S. Front St. for several months.

Tommy Wilson’s chief interests were science and politics. He read voraciously on both subjects a cherished activity in itself since he suffered from dyslexia. Tommy took lessons in Greek and Latin from Mrs. Joseph R. Russell of Wilmington the first person known to have predicted he would be president. The Rev. Wilson a perpetual scholar also tutored his son. The subjects ranged from religion to secular literature. Dr. Wilson who was known for the “charm of his English ” groomed his son as a wordsmith. These father-son lessons often took place during long leisurely strolls through downtown Wilmington and became a favorite sight to others.

Dr. Joseph Wilson who would eventually become professor of pastoral and evangelical theology and sacred rhetoric at Columbia Theological Seminary was known as one of Wilmington’s most learned and eloquent ministers. His powerful intellect and warm personality galvanized his congregation and had long lasting effects through the philanthropy and mission work he encouraged. The power of his personality also made him something of a local celebrity. So naturally Tommy even more than most “preacher’s kids ” was much-watched.

What locals saw was a bookish slightly awkward young man who was devoted to his parents and smitten with life on the river — particularly large freighters that steamed up and down the Cape Fear River. Tommy Wilson’s friends were members of the Bellamy Kenan Sprunt McQueen Hicks Hall Taylor MacRae and Robinson families. At the time most of them were members of First Presbyterian but today the majority are Episcopalians.

But Wilson was solidly Presbyterian and by all accounts shaped by things he learned and experienced within the 1861 church building at Third and Orange streets where he always accompanied his mother. Designed by noted architect Samuel Sloan who also drew plans for First Baptist Church the interior of First Presbyterian featured six supporting dark oak pillars and a slave gallery. The building burned on New Year’s Eve 1925 replaced by the Gothic Revival structure that still stands.

Author William Allen White visited Wilmington in 1926 to interview those who had known Tommy Wilson. “The old people of Third Street remember the young man walking sedately into church on Sunday morning with his mother upon his arm ” said White. “He was almost but not quite an exemplary youth.” Apparently however Wilson’s only known “sin” in town was mischief. He delighted in telling harmless tales on his father and playing a practical joke or two on his best friends.

However the joke was on Tommy Wilson one day when he rode his brand-new bicycle down Nun Street and straight into the Cape Fear River. Wilson either failed to brake or his brakes failed during his steep descent down the block that is now bordered to the north by the Governor Dudley Mansion and Governor’s Landing and to the north by the Pilot House restaurant.

The bicycle was not only the first one in Wilmington but the entire state. “He rode it with calm indifference to the astonishment caused by the then-unique method of locomotion ” said North Carolina newspaperman Josephus Daniels who would serve as Secretary of the Navy during Wilson’s administration. Tales of Wilson pedaling the new-fangled contraption through town inspired a caricature that may have been drawn by architect Kenneth McKenzie Murchison James Sprunt’s brother-in-law.

Tommy Wilson’s love of water and watercraft made Wilmington a delightful temporary home. He went swimming at the foot of Dock Street and took long walks along the waterfront stopping to interview sailors who were present in droves during those busy times on the Cape Fear River. Cotton exporter James Sprunt 10 years Wilson’s senior arranged for Tommy to board huge freighters at Champion Compress and return from the cape with river pilots. Wilson wrote short stories while in town that were filled with the colors sounds characters and happenings on the Cape Fear but sadly he destroyed them all.

Wilson & the Bellamy Family

Like his mother Tommy Wilson kept most of his peers at arm’s length but he did forge a close friendship with John D. Bellamy Jr. who lived in the Bellamy Mansion at the time. They were the same age and both were preparing for college. They were mutual fans of several authors especially Walter Scott. Both men also shared an interest in politics as well. Bellamy would go on to become a U.S. Congressman.

“It was their habit to take books and go out in the pine woods and read — sometimes aloud to one another sometimes sprawling on their backs flipping the pages chasing the story ” wrote author William Allen White who interviewed John D. Bellamy Jr. in the early 1920s at the Bellamy Mansion. “The young men boated and swam on the Cape Fear River roved the woods tramped over the hills and talked the tall talk of youth.”

Like teenage young men today Wilson and Bellamy spent a lot of time in each other’s houses — and the future president thoroughly enjoyed being in the antebellum Bellamy Mansion at 503 Market St. The magnolia grandiflora of local architecture the pillared house has been a landmark for almost 150 years. Today it is a sparsely furnished house museum but in the 1870s it was still new by mansion standards — and fully occupied. The interior matched the exterior in grandeur. The parlors were furnished and appointed in fine Victorian pieces luxurious rugs gilded Florentine cornices and velvet draperies. The children’s floor featured its own stage.

More importantly for restless youth the Bellamy Mansion included a dandy of a place to hang out: the belvedere. Not only could Tommy and John see the city they could talk about the Civil War days when the cupola was used as a lookout. Born in 1856 Wilson had experienced some of the horrors of the war as a child both in Augusta Ga. and in Reconstruction-era Columbia S.C. a city charred by Gen. William Sherman. John Bellamy refuged inland with most of his family during the war then returned to the destruction occupying Union soldiers left on his home and city.

The Bellamys’ importance to the Wilsons became clear one night in 1875 when Janet Wilson lay near death from typhoid fever. Various women of the church had been serving as private duty nurses in the manse until that night when the disease seemed to be winning its battle. Tommy went to the Bellamy Mansion and asked if a member of the family could “sit up” with his mother through the night. Miss Ellen Bellamy John Jr.’s sister volunteered and she and Tommy nursed Mrs. Wilson until morning. Mrs. Wilson survived typhoid fever but would die in 1888. It was a hard loss for Tommy Wilson who was both unusually close to her and so similar in nature. It seems fitting that Wilson would later in 1914 be the president who would proclaim Mother’s Day an official national observance.

Shaping his Future

After Tommy Wilson went to Princeton he attended law school at the University of Virginia. It was there that he dropped the name Tommy and became Woodrow. Not only was it his beloved mother’s maiden name but it was catchy. He shared his marketing thoughts with Robert Bridges “I find I need a trademark … Thomas W. Wilson lacks something. Woodrow Wilson sticks in the mind.” However Wilson honored the name Tommy with Wilmington friends several years later even reintroduced himself to Alexander Sprunt as “Tommy.”

Woodrow’s studies were again interrupted by health problems and he returned to Wilmington to live with his parents for several months where he recuperated and read and then graduated from the University of Virginia Law School in 1881. He practiced law briefly before becoming a teacher and author. He received his Ph.D. in 1885 from Johns Hopkins University. In 1890 he took over the chair of jurisprudence at Princeton University.

Twelve years later in 1902 Wilson was named president of Princeton. A number of Wilmingtonians enrolled in Princeton during Wilson’s time there including J. Laurence Sprunt Arthur Bluethenthal Empie Latimer and Herbert Latimer.

In 1906 during Wilson’s university administration the Princeton Glee Club visited Wilmington on Christmas Day. It arrived by train shortly after lunch and was kept busy until nearly dawn performing and being entertained by Wilson family friends. Glee club members stayed at the elegant Orton Hotel on North Front Street just a short distance from the home of Mr. and Mrs. James Sprunt at 400 S. Front St. where they were served “supper.” At 8 p.m. the men gave a concert at the Academy of Music (Thalian Hall) then journeyed to Airlie where Mr. and Mrs. Pembroke Jones hosted a lavish ball at their “country home.” Woodrow Wilson who sang in the Johns Hopkins Glee Club was not present on that trip but was a guest in the Sprunt home several times during his Princeton career.

Taking Hold of the Golden Cord

The fascination Tommy Wilson showed for politics while in Wilmington grew throughout his life. So did his knowledge through reading teaching and authorship. In 1909 he began his personal political march — one that would put him in history books worldwide. Woodrow Wilson was elected governor of New Jersey. Then in 1912 he won the Democratic presidential nomination.

The news sent shudders of excitement through Wilmington. James Sprunt immediately offered Wilson Orton Plantation for a brief vacation before he waged his tough campaign against primarily William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt. “It is a tempting idea ” wrote Wilson to Sprunt about the old plantation his father frequented during his years in Wilmington. “Before the letter came however we made all our arrangements to go to Bermuda.” When Wilson won the race most Wilmingtonians cheered and those who had stayed in touch with him through the years didn’t let up.

James Sprunt at various times British vice-consul and German Consul never tired of suggesting North Carolinians to Wilson for jobs of political importance and reminding him of Wilmington’s love for the Wilson family. With fierce loyalty Sprunt known for his calm reserve railed at writers for the New York Herald when they criticized Wilson. Sprunt and Wilson would correspond until at least 1921. In 1919 Woodrow Wilson wrote to Sprunt “Old-time friendships grow dearer rather than dimmer.”

During Wilson’s first term as U.S. president Wilmington received a spectacular gift from the federal government. The 1916 Custom House on North Water Street is beautiful and grand beyond proportion for a city Wilmington’s size. It’s hard to think President Wilson wasn’t looking out for old friends in Wilmington and honoring the waterfront he learned to love. B.F. Keith Collector of Customs spearheaded the project. His successor Col. Walker Taylor a prominent member of First Presbyterian Church oversaw its completion.

Following Wilson’s death on February 3 1924 a memorial service was held at city hall. It was orchestrated by the president’s old friends: James Sprunt B.F. Hall Henry C. McQueen John Allan Taylor John D. Bellamy Jr. and Hugh MacRae. Before a standing-room-only crowd John D. Bellamy Jr. remembered his studious young friend as someone who reveled in the smell of the woods and liked to “loll on the riverbank reading some famous classic.” Others remembered his love of ships and the joy he gleaned from his short trips on the Cape Fear River.

But Wilson’s death was at least as painful to another local: David Bryant a black man who was the beloved butler to Woodrow Wilson’s father and a cherished friend of the president. Bryant was invited to all of Wilson’s inaugurations and visited the president in the White House on other occasions. The president enjoyed reminiscing with Bryant about Dr. and Mrs. Wilson and the times he spent in Wilmington as a young man.

After Wilson died Mr. Bryant wrote a consoling letter to his widow in which he mentioned his last meetings with the president. “The president so often referred to the happy days spent at the corner of Fourth and Orange streets and commented on the lovable disposition and charm of Alexander Sprunt and his sons and of Mr. R.W. Hicks ” wrote Bryant.

Local memorials to President Wilson include two Woodrow Wilson American Legion huts both now razed. The first one sat on Chestnut Street behind the former U.S. Post Office. A later hut built about 1941 sat on Princess Street behind Thalian Hall. Another marker this one at First Presbyterian Church commemorated a crepe myrtle tree Janet Woodrow Wilson planted in 1880.

Sources: Mudd Library Princeton University; Perkins Library Duke University; author’s interviews with John Hall (1977); First Presbyterian Church archives; Lower Cape Fear Historical Society; New Hanover County Public Library; Josephus Daniels; William Allen White; Louis T. Moore; Tony P. Wrenn.