The Feast of Pirates
by Susan Taylor Block
The Feast of Pirates was celebrated for 3 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 it would challenge New Orleans’s Mardi Gras. Well, if a celebration built around a religious holiday could turn naughty, how much more so, one based on characters dedicated to plundering, self-indulgence and a system of justice symbolized by a plank.
The first couple of years were promising, though. Would that we could locate film made by two Hollywood studios of the1928 Feast of Pirates with its montage of times, places, and people. Most likely, Jimmy McKoy of Wilmington and movie mogul E. V. Richards, Jr. were responsible for the filming. At least 28,000 people witnessed the reenactment 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 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.
To add to the anachronistic confusion, loudspeakers later transmitted live coverage of Alfred Smith’s acceptance speech for the Democratic presidential nomination. Street dances, one of which debuted the a new version of the shag; a 3-ring circus at Lumina; Banks Channel and Cape Fear River flotillas; and contests at the Oceanic Hotel and Lumina rounded out the long weekend.
The 1928 Feast was so successful that it 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, NC, 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, downtown Wilmington looked like Mayberry’s Otis and hundreds of his buddies had paid a visit.
“There were people laying 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 for 2 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 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. The Feast of Lanterns lighted boat parades were probably Wrightsville Beach’s first flotillas.
MacRae, owner of the Tidewater Power Company, Lumina, the Oceanic Hotel, and the streetcar system, was a genius of promotion and knew already the draw of hundreds of electric lights on a darkened beach. His efforts helped draw 5,000 tourists to the 1916 event. In 1927, Hugh MacRae agreed to pay a lion’s 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 ten or eleven 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 ten 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.”
It has been said that Bruce Cameron, Sr. toured for almost five months – a trip that traversed 32 states and 13,500 miles.
“Louis T. Moore was the main fellow,” said Bruce Cameron, Jr. “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 clothier and designer Beulah Meier to create elaborate costumes for many of the participants, including brightly colored ballet tu-tus for husband Richard Meier and friend Walter Yopp, a beloved three-hundred pound undertaker who, along with Meier, performed their comedic dance during the Feast of Pirates Rotary Circus at Lumina. Efird’s and Belk-Williams department stores both located in the 200 block of North Front Street, also stocked mass-produced costumes for the feast.
Louis T. Moore’s influence showed most in the historical content of the festivals. Among other things, he orchestrated the detail -laden reenactment of George Washington’s entry into Wilmington, the historic costumes contests, and helped recruit volunteers. Moore also engaged talent and man-hours from 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 former professional dancer Katherine Meier. “Also, Lewis’s dance could work 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.
The Feast of Pirates was a success in many 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.
“I can remember my costume to this day,” said Peggy Moore Perdew, who was a young girl in the late 1920s. “I had a little wooden sword, painted silver. My sister Florence and I had on knee high boots and little black sateen shorts. It was a lot of fun.”
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.
COPYRIGHT Susan Taylor Block. (This article appeared in the April 2008 issue of Wrightsville Beach Magazine. If you are interested in purchasing a paper copy, please contact their office.)
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).