Shortly after the military abandoned its guided missile-testing program on Topsail Island in the late 1940s, people hoping to own a piece of tranquility by the sea got their chance.
TOPSAIL BEACH — Shortly after the military abandoned its guided missile-testing program on Topsail Island in the late 1940s, people hoping to own a piece of tranquility by the sea got their chance.
Bobby Humphrey recalls his father’s eagerness to move the family from Wilmington to the island. In addition to concrete observation towers, a few of which still stand today, the U.S. Navy left enough infrastructure behind to make the island more inhabitable.
The Humphreys built one of the first houses on the southern end of the island, where they lived year-round beginning in 1952.
Winters on the island brought isolation. Few families lived in their beach cottages during the winter. Humphrey was a young boy at the time, and finding other children his age to play with was slim pickings.
He looked forward to summer, which inevitably drew larger crowds and childhood friends.
"We explored the woods and cut trails through the bushes," Humphrey said. "When I got older we’d go flounder gigging and try to sell the fish to make enough money for gas money to go water-skiing."
He remembers playing in a vacated building supply business, now the historic Assembly Building where the town hosted its 50th birthday celebration Tuesday night.
Much has changed in the decades since Topsail Beach incorporated in 1963.
Houses mostly obstruct any view of the ocean from N.C. 50 running through the heart of the town. Only one of two oceanfront piers remains standing, stretching into the Atlantic where fishermen gather to enjoy their favorite pastime.
The Florida Apartments, two-bedroom efficiencies popular among visiting fishermen because they were affordable, are long gone. The town’s first skating rink, housed in a domed-roof building, no longer stands.
Some of the original cottages remain intact along the oceanfront. They’ve been modified, no longer topped by the flat roofs their original owners chose for economical reasons.
Humphrey was a teenager when he started noticing changes in the town.
"There was just a house here and a house there," he said. "We had to go to Wilmington about once a week to get groceries. It was lean pickings. The IGA in Surf City wasn’t there when I was a child. But then it started picking up. We didn’t have a big population swell. Even then just about all of the businesses depended on tourism."
Doris Jenkins remembers accessing the island by boat before a pontoon bridge provided a link to the mainland. She often visited the north end with her grandparents before the military took the island.
"When they put the swing bridge in Surf City, everything started building up," Jenkins said. "The beach was only a summer resort up until about 1975. It really took on a lot of building after that."
Mail and gossip
Jenkins, postmaster of the town’s sole post office for 50 years, remembers her husband, Joseph Jenkins, giving teenage hitchhikers from Sneads Ferry rides to and from the old skating rink by the Jolly Roger Inn & Pier.
"You always looked forward to summer," Jenkins said. "Back then we had a good supply of people in the summertime. We’ve always had good crowds in the summer."
That rink was eventually closed and, in 1964, the Jenkinses built a skating rink above the post office. It’s open seven days a week from 7-10 p.m. from mid-March through Labor Day weekend.
Early on the post office became the unofficial meeting place for residents.
"That was the gossip place," Jenkins said. "That’s still the gossip place."
Luanna Bowen was one of the residents who would gather at the post office to chat.
When she moved to Topsail Beach in the early 1970s the town’s only sound-side pier was her closest neighbor.
"It was just really quiet at that time," she said. "I loved it. If anybody was going down to Surf City to get groceries, you’d call your neighbor and ask if they needed anything because you were going."
Topsail Beach may look different 50 years after its incorporation, she said, but some things never change.
"Once you’ve been here a long time it’s still the same good feeling," Bowen said.