by Susan Taylor Block
Though the waterfront portion of Airlie Road is home to only a few fortunate families, the beauty and drama of it causes most of us to make it our own. Majestic live oaks and a stretch of gloriously undeveloped land; rare perspectives on the sound and beach make a drive down Airlie Road a visually intoxicating experience. Add to that a seductive curve in the road that’s been famous for at least a century for luring distracted or brazen drivers into its clutch— and you have delicious delight with an edge.
Variously known through time by many names, including Coast Turnpike, Wilmington Turnpike, and the Wrightsville Turnpike, it has always been a glistening draw. Its ancient and colonial history includes seasonal habitation by Native Americans, a royal land grant in 1735 from George II, the brief residency of a Royal Governor, and a handful of early owners who had both keen real estate instincts and a desire for breezy summer residences far from the sweltering city limits we now know as Wilmington’s Historic District.
As early as 1815, the future Airlie Road and the much larger community already had its own name: Wrightsville. The boundaries ran from the sound virtually to the southern edge of Landfall, beyond MacCumber Terrace, and to Bradley Creek. The name Wrightsville, which probably began as a nickname, came quite naturally. In 1800, Judge Joshua Grainger Wright had purchased a whopping 320 acres of land in the area. Later, Wrightsville must have seemed the easiest thing to name a neighboring beach.
Judge Wright’s wife, Susan Bradley Wright, called the land Mount Lebanon because it was peppered with cedar trees. After the judge’s death in 1811, his son, Dr. Thomas Henry Wright, inherited the portion south of the Airlie Road curve. It is now, for the most part, incorporated into Bradley Creek Estates and Airlie Gardens. Another son, William Augustus Wright, received 190 acres on the north side of the curve. William Wright was a prominent attorney, bank president, and counsel for the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. It was William Wright who divided Airlie Road into “strips” of land that stretched westward to present day Wrightsville Avenue. In 1882, a newspaper writer pronounced the lane, “a beautiful village.”
William Wright called the 38-acre tract he retained “Gabriel’s Landing,” a name coined in Colonial times when Gov. Gabriel Johnston owned the land. There were at least two large two-story houses on the land, each with double porches. The one known eyewitness account of Wright’s house stated that he had an exceptional library of handsome old books, many of them written in French. Gabriel’s Landing remained in the William Wright family until 1929 when Frank Beane of Augusta purchased the property. Beane’s descendants still inhabit the house he built there in 1934.
In the late 1800s, the name Airlie Road began to replace the various turnpike names, but it would take decades for it to be completely accepted. The name Airlie came from Pembroke Jones’s ancestral Scottish home. Like heavy bookends, the Jones properties, Airlie Gardens and Pembroke Park (now Landfall), helped hold together a good percentage of Wrightsville’s economy for at least fifty years.
Probably long before, but by at least 1903, Wrightsville had its own post office that Mrs. L C. Hall, postmistress, operated out of her home on the southern side of Wrightsville Avenue, near Airlie Road. Subsequent post offices were located in other homes, with the last one being in a small office that was part of the Tidewater Power Company substation building. Though encouraged to address letters to Wrightsville Sound to distinguish it from Wrightsville Beach, most correspondents simply wrote “Wrightsville.” The single name is still used by Wrightsville natives like Lossie Dizor Gardell, who grew up near Burke Road, and Marie Ashworth, whose family lived on Airlie Road.
Wrightsville had its own telephone office too, located on Wrightsville Avenue, just east of Burke Road. For decades, sound and beach calls had to go through an operator rather than direct-dial. By simply dialing 8, from Wilmington, the caller reached the little telephone office. The operators worked at a switchboard, responding to each glowing light by plugging in and answering, “Wrightsville.” Lossie Gardell, who would work at the station in later years, recalls an experience her aunt, Maxine Dizor, had just before the big storm of February 12,1933. Ship chandler and beloved character C. D. Maffitt, tied his boat up to a nearby dock and phoned the station. Miss Dizor took the call from Maffitt, who happened to call all the operators “Wrightsville.”
“Wrightsville,” he said to her, “I’m not leaving my boat, ‘cause I have enough rope to hang in there and go just as high as it wants to go.”
C. D. Maffitt, the 59 year-old son of legendary blockade-runner, Capt. John Newland Maffitt, survived the rare winter tempest that stripped a row of oceanfront houses from Wrightsville Beach. And as soon as telephone service was restored, Wrightsville operators were back at their stations hearing numerous storm stories. Though the Wrightsville operators got the scoop on many a story, one that happened in 1941 beat them all. On December 7, they learned from a county official that Pearl Harbor had been bombed just moments before the famous radio announcement aired.
During that period, the yellow-orange beach cars still provided transportation to Wrightsville. Coming from Sea Gate (it’s early spelling) beach cars traveled down Wrightsville Avenue, and then took a jag that followed the short southern leg of pavement just north of St. Andrew’s on-the-Sound. The tracks then led directly to the old trestle over the Intracoastal Waterway. There were several stops in Wrightsville including MacCumber Terrace, Villa View (at Burke Road), and the intersection of Airlie Road.
Tidewater Power owner Hugh MacRae hired Will Rehder Florist to plant and maintain Dorothy Perkins roses at all the trolley stops. In fact, according to long-time Wrightsville Beach resident Katherine Meier Cameron, “There were rose bushes at every telephone poll, and around every trolley stop from the corner of Fifth and Princess streets to the trestle. Once you were on the beach, the Dorothy Perkins roses started again and went to Lumina.”
From the Airlie Road stop to the famous curve, the Wrightsville Turnpike was, and is, a remarkable collection of places and stories. Native Wilmingtonians of a certain age remember Faircloth’s Oyster Roast, once located where the Bridge Tender now sits. It was a place where the scent of richly fried seafood could render thoughts of dietary restraint null and void. And it was also a place of unusual architecture for, either by accident or humorous design, the slant of the floors mimicked the list of a boat on a choppy sea. Mae Faircloth King, the restaurant’s proprieter from 1954 until it closed in 1979, recalls customers asking, “Are these floors just like this — or am I drunk?”
Across the street, roughly where the Waterway Inn and the Fisherman’s Wife gift store sit today, there once was a large inn surrounded by guest cottages, oyster roasts, and a pavilion. Confederate Navy veteran Edward Wilson Manning established the hotel in 1878 as Pine Grove, but renamed it Atlantic View. Manning hosted horse races and firework shows on special occasions, and routinely provided live music for dining atmosphere and for dances in the pavilion.
Manning owned enough land at “Manning’s Point” to run a farm that supplied food for his “home-like hotel.” To the culinary delight of his summer guests, Capt. Manning cultivated asparagus and other vegetables. He also planted 1,100 peach trees and 20,000 strawberry plants on the western side of the land. Cows delivered fresh milk and fishermen from Wrightsville and Onslow County sold him plenty of entrees, fresh from the ocean via London’s Channel.
On at least one occasion, Manning himself helped bring in the fish. On September 27, 1882, he assisted Frank Canady and his Wrightsville fishing boat crew when they hauled in “upwards of 12 thousand of the largest and finest kind of mullets.” Doubtless, Manning’s personable ways also helped draw tourists to Wrightsville. His connections included old navy buddies from his days as chief engineer of several Confederate ships; family and friends from his hometown of Portsmouth, Virginia; and numerous contacts at the University of North Carolina. Manning’s uncle was Professor John Manning, congressman and former head of the law school for whom a building was named posthumously, in 1921.
John Hanby purchased Atlantic View following the death of E. W. Manning, in 1900. The Hanby Hotel survived for many years and is well remembered by the owner’s cousin, John Hanby Debnam. “It was one of those comfortable beach hotels, much like the Kitty Cottage, or the Hanover Inn — any of those that used to sit near Station One.”
The Columbus Weathers house at 1405 Airlie Road also teems with history. Once located at 117 North Third Street, the 16-room dwelling was disassembled in 1929, moved to Airlie Road, and turned into an 8-room house. “There was enough left over,” said Weathers’ granddaughter, Mary McCarl Wilson, “to build a two-car garage.”
An unlikely situation prompted the move. Columbus Weathers, a railroad engineer, was a hospitable fellow who invited lots of folks home for meals. A few tenants also took up residence. His wife, Mary Beall Weathers, was an artist, art teacher, and a very good cook. Word got out and the crowd grew. Eventually matters got way out of hand and Mrs. Weathers and another cook decided to turn the situation into a business.
“During World War I, my grandmother was feeding 150 people a day,” said Mrs. Wilson, who with her husband Mac, currently occupies the house. “She finally got tired of all the work involved and decided to move the house to Airlie Road. The remaining tenants didn’t want to move in with anyone else, so she took them to Airlie as well. I know because I had to sleep on the sofa.”
Gray Gables is another remarkable Airlie property. Early owner William A. Cumming, another Civil War veteran, constructed the Wilmington and Coast Turnpike for William A. Wright. Subsequent owner Charles Manly Stedman, husband of Wright’s niece, Catherine deRosset Wright, purchased the property after Cumming’s brief ownership. Stedman was an outstanding attorney and orator who served as Lt. Governor of North Carolina from 1885-1889, and as a U.S. Congressman from 1911 until his death in 1930. He called his estate Stedman Park and used it as a summer home where he entertained a “Who’s Who” of the American Southeast.
A new era began for the property when local lumber merchant Oscar Pearsall purchased it in the 1890s. Pearsall coined the name “Gray Gables.” His daughter, Annie W. Pearsall, was a beloved member of the Wrightsville community who took special interest in the land’s natural beauty. In 1939 she reported that the giant old live oak in her back garden was 20 1/2 feet in circumference, with a branch spread of 202 feet.
Her son, Martin Pearsall, also occupied the house. He was an art lover, camellia aficionado, and a witty conversationalist. He was a constant fixture at parties hosted at Airlie and Pembroke Park.
By 1969, Gray Gables was a popular restaurant, operated by Sarah and B. C. Hedgpeth. The restaurant, housed in the old Stedman home, burned in 1982. Subsequently, the tract that had been honed down from 12 to 9 acres was subdivided and sold.
The Edgewater subdivision was the 20-acre summer estate of Charles S. Ellis, a naval store merchant whose chief business, by 1877, was in Georgia where he was president of Savannah Naval Stores. His seasonal residency on the turnpike brought the first known signs of commercial enterprise. On June 1, 1876, he announced, “Fish, oysters, crabs, guest boats, games, and bathing houses. Hacks leave Sutherland’s Stables regularly.” Ellis charged one dollar for a round trip from downtown Wilmington, but was willing to take installments with “moderate” interest.
In 1889, Charles Ellis began building a “handsome dwelling house” on the old property. Ellis’s house serves as the keystone of the Edgewater property today, but was moved and modified by millworks owner Morrison Divine, who purchased the property in 1904, for $3,000. Divine also added the tree house, awnings, and the name “Edgewater.” In 1927, the house served as a temporary home for Babies’ Hospital after the building on Wrightsville Avenue burned, May 29. About 1966. Edgewater owner John C. Drewry added the gateway eagles, lead treasures Drewry purchased from an English estate.
Following Morrison Divine, subsequent owners, in addition to John C. Drewry, include nationally known author Boyden Sparks; oil dealer Laurens Wright; and orthopedic surgeon and Asian art collector Donald D. Getz, M.D.
And this takes us back to where we started: Gabriel’s Landing and Wilmington’s most famous curve. There’s a book’s worth of information out there about Airlie Road, but knowing even a wee bit about its rich history makes the drive even dreamier.
(COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH MAGAZINE, SEPTEMBER 2006.)