Reflections from the Kindred Spirit!

From Frank Nesmith – His History of Sunset Beach!

(Frank has been enjoying Sunset Beach and Bird Island for over 50 years. His knowledge of the history and natural environment of the area is exceptional. He was a founding member of the Bird Island Preservation Society, and the First Steward to offer guided walks of the island. His passion for the protection and preservation of Bird Island continues to inspire all of us. Thank you, Frank! )

I recall the first time I set foot on Sunset Beach; it was in the summer of 1954. At that time it was not named Sunset Beach, the maps showed it to be Bald Beach, I suppose because of the tall sand dunes. I came with John Dorman and Kenneth Ray, neighbors in Tabor City, for a day of fishing. I remember that Kenneth said that any car on the way for fishing with poles sticking out of the rear window should have the right-of-way over all other traffic.

We put the boat in the water at Bonaparte’s Landing, at the time at the end of the road. Then we boated east to Salt Boiler Creek then up to a spot where the western most ocean front house now sits on Sunset Beach.

We then tied up the boat and walked over the dunes to the strand and then east to where an old boiler from the wreckage of a blockade runner from the Civil War had run aground and burned. (The Vesta) It could only be seen at mid to low tide. We swam out and climbed up on this old Civil War relic for a few fish, Sheepshead, and fiddler crab for bait. At the time I was still smoking and had my cigarettes in a jar, but my matches got wet so I had to chew two without smoke. By the way a carton cost $2.50 in those days.

At the time I did not know that this would by my home in 21 years. I tell this story to show the changes that have taken place since that day of fishing. No bridge to the island, now a ½ mile long high rise bridge, no road from Bonaparte’s Landing and Seaside Landing. Not a single house on the island and now maybe 1500 buildings. And heaven only knows how many houses are within 10 minutes from the beach. And from that day Mad Inlet over night moved about 1 mile to the west, and then in 40 years moved back to the east 1 mile, and then it closed.

A few years later…..

I can recall soon after I built my house on the mainland in 1958 I took my little dinghy that I had built over to the island on the car. I guess that there were 5 or 6 houses on the island at this time. No road was paved after you passed The Food Lion. I turned to the west down to Mad Inlet in Main Street, unloaded the dinghy to cross over to Bird Island. Just picture yourself today looking from the end of present Main Street and nothing but beach sand for a mile with no marsh grass and just a little beach grass. After Hurricane Hazel the very high tides would over wash this area for about 3 or 4 years. I do not recall if the bridge from Sunset to Bird Island had been built on this day. I plundered around the island for a while and ran into two young men, I think they were from Fort Bragg and were in the Army. One of them had a dead loggerhead turtle that was partly eaten by the crabs. They had gotten over Mad Inlet at low tide, and it was now high tide. They told me that they had been all around the whole island and could not find another way off the island. So I guess that the bridge to Bird Island had not been completed at this early time. I recalled this because I have an image in my mind of one guy in the front of this 2 man dinghy, me pulling on the oars in the middle, and one in the rear pulling the dead turtle in the water so it would not sink this little boat. So I can say that one day I rescued two soldiers in distress.

I tell this story to help me picture this great expanse in front of me with only sand at low tide and water on full moon spring tides as I look to the west from the west end of Main Street. You could not see any high rise condos at North Myrtle Beach, also no houses behind me. The first houses on the beach were built to the east of the pier. Oh, how great to wake at night to have these memories.

Where did the Kindred Spirit Mailbox come from?

I moved down here in ’75. I had a lady friend then, and she and I put up a mailbox on a sandbar between Sunset and Ocean Isle. You could walk to it from Ocean Isle but you needed a boat to get to it from Sunset across Tubbs Inlet. Eventually Tubbs Inlet washed away the little island. I decided a good place to put the mailbox was on the state line between NC and SC on Bird Island, not really knowing where the state line was then. And it’s been there ever since. The lady decided to put some journals in there and let people put whatever thoughts they had down in the journals.

That actually really turned out to be a bonus for us when the development project of Bird Island started, because just about everyone who wrote in the journals said how nice it was to have a place like this on a deserted beach and they hoped it would never be developed. It really helped when the NC Heritage Trust Foundation folks had an event here and were all able to take home a Kindred Spirit mailbox journal. That sure helped because they eventually kicked in about a million dollars to buy the island.

This picture was taken in the late 1970's on 'Ile de Claudia', an island in Tubbs Inlet between Sunset Beach and Ocean Isle Beach. The box has been replaced often but the post remains the same. Soon after this photo was taken the island washed away and I put it up on Bird island.

What’s that ol’ engine near the jetty Frank?

About 20 years ago a good size shrimp boat washed up at this spot and just sat there for about a month. I was told that the Coast Guard told the owners that they would have to remove the old boat. Well, one Saturday morning I looked out that way from home and saw a big smoke. So I jumped in my boat (Spartina) with Spartina (my dog) and headed toward the fire. I found the grounded shrimp boat afire from stem to stern. All that was left was the engine, the metal trawling gear, and the wooded part of the boat in the sand. Orders obeyed.

A friend of mine from Nashville, TN wanted the propeller so with shovel and bucket we dug and bailed until we were able to get it with one blade gone and shrimp net wound around it. So we guessed what happened.

This story does not deserve telling except for a good lesson we get about the movement of sand on the beach. The sand moves toward the east along the beach and up toward the sand dunes in summer with the SW winds. In winter the sand moves to the west and moves out into the ocean with the NE winds. So unlike the beach with no jetty the sand covers the old engine in the winter time, and uncovers it in summer time. As a rule out on the open strand things get covered with sand in summer and uncovered in winter.

Frank and his nature walks:

I recall soon after BIPS was started I was giving walks to Bird Island when the tide was low in the early part of the day so that we could walk over Mad Inlet, and that it was not too hot to make the trip. Mad Inlet, when low tide was in the middle of the day, was too hot for the old man to make the walk to the jetty and back.

At that time Mad Inlet was eroding the primary dunes on Bird Island, and in doing so the sea oats were being undermined, caving in and dying on the beach. I thought that it would be a good idea to pick up these plants and transplant them on the dunes that were growing on the Sunset Beach side of the inlet. This must have been early June because the sea oats were heavy with new seed.

We had a good group this day, surely over a hundred were on hand. I suggested that on the way back from the walk that the farmers in the party pick up some of the uprooted plants and plant them to help rebuild the dunes that had be washed down by Mad Inlet. On the way back a number of the folks picked up the plants from the beach, also some of the plants that were beginning to erode on the face of the scarf. I then looked around to see Mr. Reese Poag with a big newsreel camera photographing the whole event.

Well the next I heard of the walk that day was at the next NC Coastal Resources Commission meeting and found that I had made it to the big screen. The walk was shown and I was accused of telling the people on the walk to dig up the sea oats on Bird Island and plant them on Sunset Beach!

On the growth of beach grass:

Start your walk at access walkway between house number 1616 and 1702, the third access before the end of East Main Street. When you get to the beach you will see a line of plants angling away from the dune to the east. Follow that line and you will see beach grass beginning to grow. It is just a few inches tall but a lot of it. I had called it american beach grass, but I was incorrect it is panic grass. The grass is in a line about two inches apart, just where the nodules are on a root of panic grass. Continue on the walk to the east and when you get to the last access walkway you are about 200 feet in front of the dune. At the Palm Cove observation platform you will be about 250 feet from the primary dune and still see the new grass sprouting.. From there you begin angling back toward the dune line. There you see the primary dune being eroded and that is where the panic grass is coming from. You will see the nodules on the fresh roots and are about 2 inches apart. Where Tubbs Inlet is eating the dune reminds me of Robert E. Lee outflanking U. S. Grant 150 years ago.

If a storm does not uproot the new grass this year and next, a new dune will form on this new line.

However, on the east, Tubbs Inlet may begin to cut into this new dune and begin a replay of the erosion that occurred in the early 1960's when it almost ate up Al Wells house at 1004 East Main St.. Then all of the new and old dunes will be outflanked by Tubbs Inlet.

I suggest that you walk this line the next time you are here, and see mother nature work her mysteries.

Got ready for my morning walk, and it occurred to me that this is the second week in June, and this is when the sea oats begin to start to bloom and seed. In a few weeks they will be up and heavy.

We do not have as many Sea Oats as we did long ago before the beach towns started planting American Beach Grass. Note the lack of sea oats to the east of 40th St. walkway, and great sea oats to the west, The reason, after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 the town planted American Beach grass in help rebuild the dunes, This grass being seaward took over the primary dune and left the sea oats on the back dunes,

The state of North Carolina had a nursery to furnish this grass to stabilize the dunes where the erosion was occluding (it was easier to propagate than Sea Oats). Well it has spread and outdone the Sea Oats, and even though Sunset Beach did not need to plant it, we had a lot washed down from Ocean Isle and covered the front of the dunes. I think that its roots grow deeper and will end up outdoing the new grass.

More about the Mailbox and the Dunes:

This photo was taken by Bill Hunt in 1976. I have enlarged it, and to my surprise it tells me something about the change in the beach front on Bird Island in the past 37 years.

Twenty two years before this photo was taken this spot of land was on the west side of Little River, still in North Carolina but beyond Little River on Waitus Island. The water you see in the background was the main channel of LR inlet. After Hurricane Hazel the inlet moved over into SC about one mile to the west with no sand dunes for about 2 miles. In those 22 years the sand dunes here had not grown very tall. The mail box was on top of the primary dune, overlooking the ocean, and the marsh behind it.

In the year 1983 the jetty was completed to stabilize LR inlet. The dunes have grown so now in 2013 the flagpole is located on top of this spot, with the mail box about 35 feet nearer the ocean, with no view of the marsh behind it.

It is rude to disagree with an old timer.

The story of Frank and the Sand Dollar!

I had an old car that you could drive on the strand in the winter of 1975. It was an Oldsmobile 98 I bought for $300. I took the doors off and named it the Sand Dollar. On the weekends I’d take anyone who wanted for a ride in it at low tide. You could drive across the inlet.

The lady who helped me with the Kindred Spirit mailbox brought her mother and daddy down one time and I took them for a ride. Daddy didn’t think much of it so we left him at Bill Hunt’s house which was oceanfront at that time. So she and her mother and I went over to Bird Island, got out and walked around. Then we got back in the car, I cranked it up and it wouldn’t crank. I said oh...., the battery is dead. I’m afraid it’s the end of the Sand Dollar. We’ll never get it back in time. If we don’t get it back before the tide comes in, the water will get into it. I decided I’d walk back fast and get up with Bill and get his battery from his boat and my jumper cables. I was walking down the beach and here comes an airplane down the beach, lands and picks me up. So he flew me back to Bill Hunt’s, I jumped out and ran across the dunes to get the cables and battery from his boat. Then went back and got into the airplane After we landed the plane, I got the battery out and hooked it up. The car still wouldn't crank then the guy said,' hey - that car has automatic transmission. You got to put it in park to crank it!' I got into the car. The ladies got back in. Several cars were parked on the other side of the inlet waiting to see if I would make it back. I did and they all blew their horns! Then the plane comes by flying overhead - every one blew their horns again!

But that’s not the end of the story! Five or six years later Bill Hunt was having a beer down in Myrtle Beach and was talking with a guy – who turned out to be the pilot! And he told Bill the rest of the story! That there was nothing wrong with the battery after all! Bill couldn't wait to get back to Sunset Beach and tell the end of the story.

And what happened to the Sand Dollar Frank? I knew spring was coming, and the beach access would close. I knew I couldn't get much for the car especially with the doors off. Bill and I and 2 little boys and Bill’s dog came along and we took it down to the island to get rid of it. Now the statute of limitations is over for littering I expect –because we did some serious littering that day. I pulled in forward into the dunes so I could back it into the water. The gas tank was pretty empty. We kept backing back and forth until it didn't move. Then I popped the hood and took the battery out. Bill asked what I was getting the battery for. So I said, well, I didn't have a battery so I got your battery today. That was a Wednesday because I had Wednesday afternoons off back then.

The next Saturday we were going to have a memorial service with all the people who’d had a ride in the Sand Dollar. Everyone who went for a ride would sign their name with a magic marker I had. But we didn't find it! Never saw any trace of it again. But every once in a while when I walk on Bird Island I’ll see some shrimper with his nets hung up and cussing about the old car out there - the Sand Dollar! (And so the Sand Dollar became Bird Island’s first artificial reef!)

To be continued.....we hope!

A few Notes:

Hazel - Oct 14, 1954 then moved East to 40th St. about 1 mile overnight.

Mannon Gore had completed the bridge in early 1958. No access to Bald Beach (Sunset Beach) prior to that. Mr. Mannon Gore named the beach Sunset Beach since the sun set in the Atlantic Ocean around the Winter Solstice.

Tubbs Inlet was always there except when closed one Wednesday afternoon in 1966 or 1967, then opened 10 days later about 8 tenths of a mile to the east. So today the Williamson Family owns a little ocean frontage on the east end of the island of Sunset Beach.

The burned bridge to Bird Island shows intact on the Dec. 1969 aerial photo, but is gone on the aerial of Feb. 1972.

Since you start the beach walk at 40th street, you may want to tell the folks why the sea oats grow to the west of that walkway, and are not growing to the east - About 25 years ago the state of NC started a beach grass nursery for dune rebuilding and gave the towns on the coast free to help the beach front dunes. The sea oats were hard to propagate, so they used American Beach Grass instead. Well as the sand and the new grass washed away, it came down to Sunset Beach and started to grow on our beach front dunes.

In June, 2014, CBS News did a special report on the Kindred Spirit and Frank:

The Kindred Spirit Mailbox Collects Secrets!