by Susan Taylor Block
During World War II, Wilmington, North Carolina was a crowded place. The Wilmington Shipyard, officers’ training school at Camp Davis, and the general influx of military men who were just passing through caused a population explosion. In relative terms, there’s never been anything like it, before or since. The county grew from a population of about 43,000, to an estimated 100,000. The shipyard alone employed so many people it took 4,395 cars and numerous buses to transport them daily. Workers turned out 213 Liberty- and Victory-Class ships from 1942 until 1946, but the influx began earlier when workmen transformed the old Liberty Shipyard into an 84-acre first fleet factory.
Whether employed or not, many wives moved to Wilmington with their husbands, increasing the housing problem. By 1942, the city was 3,000 housing units short, but new construction added 1,700 dwellings. “By the end of 1943, Wilmington landlords had offered 28,191 places for rent, and 20,000 had been registered by February 1945.” said Wilmington World War II expert, Wilbur Jones. The most noticeable architectural changes were made to the Greenfield Lake area and to Sunset Park, developed in the teens as a streetcar suburb, and changed by additions.
Despite the addition of 4,000 mobile homes, a rather new invention, there still was not enough room for everyone. From the beginning, government officials had called on locals to rent homes, or merely rooms, to those in need of a place to stay. If the homeowner added kitchen privileges, that was a big bonus in those days. Wilmington had few restaurants at the time, and an hour-long wait in line was normal.
Because Patriotism was full-blown during World War II, those who chose to take on roomers were a varied lot, ranging from rich to poor. The Sprunt family, descendants of Alexander Sprunt, the great cotton merchant, leased a commodious house at Shandy Hall to such a crowd of officers that they found it necessary to number each room. Dr. and Mrs. Charles Graham rented a floor of their guest house on Forest Hills Drive to an officer. Miss Sue McQueen and the Emerson family rented an apartment at 318 South Front Street, to poet and journalist Ulrich Troubetzkoy while her husband, Serge, trained at Camp Davis.
Wrightsville Beach, though almost entirely a summer place in those days, had a sprinkling of wartime tenants. Ulrich Troubetzkoy first rented a room at the Ocean Terrace before moving to Wilmington, but being the only resident of the hotel, was uncomfortable; too much space and not enough people, plus winter was approaching and the hotel was not heated.
Richard and Beulah Meier, year-round Wrightsville Beach residents, altered a separate rental house to accommodate as many wartime tenants as possible. ”Mother and Daddy rented to the military, and to shipyard workers,” said the Meier’s daughter, Katherine Meier Cameron, in 2011. “The shipyard workers we got to know were mostly from rural areas, and all except one had perfect manners. They were hard workers, and said they made more money working there than they had ever seen before.”
“A Greensboro resident built three oceanfront houses in the 750 block of South Lumina Avenue at the same time Camp Davis was being built,” continued Mrs. Cameron. “All three houses were rented to officers during the war.”
Back in Wilmington, Jane Smith Rehder and daughter, Johanna, rented rooms in their home, at 1535 Magnolia Place, to two officers named Harry and Ward. Downtown, budding artist Claude Howell, and his mother gave up a bedroom in their home on the 4th floor of the Carolina Apartments.
“Housing is so short in Wilmington, wrote Howell, on October 28, 1943, “that nearly everyone has taken in roomers. We have had a succession of army wives and war workers in our bedroom. For the most part they have been quite nice.”
A Specific Case
For homeowners who were going through a financial pinch, the opportunity to rent rooms added needed income to Patriotic satisfaction. My grandmother, Flossie Hill Stone (1890-1984), was widowed six months prior to Pearl Harbor Day, and, at age 51, and had begun selling Avon products to more comfortably support herself and my 13 year-old Mother, Betty. Though renting rooms would be costly in terms of personal space, the extra money helped her save enough to send Mother to Women’s College (UNCG), after the war. The house numbers have been changed through the years, but the six-room home she and my grandfather built in 1927 was located Sunset Park, on northern side of Northern Boulevard, just where Van Buren street intersects. It was only a five-minute drive to the shipyard – and not a bad walk, either. She began to formulate a plan that would boost her budget and yet still give her the feeling she was doing something for the sake of national “Defense,” as she called it.
Before Granddaddy died, they employed a maid 5 1/2 days a week who had her own detached bedroom and bath just behind the main house. Nana decided to attach the extra room to the rest of the house and make that into a bedroom that she and my Mother would share. Then she turned her own bedroom, Mother’s room, and a guest room into rental bedrooms. It took some time and she had to do everything by the government’s rules, but she was a perfectionist and when she was finished with the work, her house was declared a “first class” wartime rental.
Suddenly, the house was filled with people. It must have felt in some modest way like a scene out of “Dr. Zhivago.” Some were short-term rentals by military men, and others were long-term shipyard employees. The house was split, too between single men and couples. The service men came from all parts of the country. It was the first time my Mother had ever heard a Boston accent, and when a Bostonian told her he was going outside to “re-park his car,” she had no idea what he was saying.
Never having had an affection for cooking, Nana was quite content to turn over kitchen privileges to her tenants. War rations were in effect, and sometimes everyone worked together to make the most of what they could buy. The dining room was officially owners’ territory, but some of the tenants were so entertaining and pleasant that they became fast friends – and dinner mates. Mother and Nana’s favorites were two couples with whom they stayed in touch for decades: LeVerne F. and Maxine Dunsmoor, of Waterloo, Iowa; and Harry and Blanch Carr, of Cleves, Ohio. Another favorite was a young man from the country named Curtis, who had wonderful manners and a helpful attitude.
My grandmother, who had held good, mostly supervisory jobs before she married, had no trouble managing her tenants when they went astray. Inebriated guests were banished politely. Those who stayed out late for no good reason were warned – and those who were habitually sloppy were admonished. She recorded offenses, too: “Stole all coathangers in the closet,” she wrote about one man.
Growing up, I heard the names of their favorites, and I met a few of the tenants when I was young, but it was not until last year when I read their letters to one another that I really came to understand the closeness Mother and Nana enjoyed with the two couples. They continued to exchange news of their families and friends for years after they had actually seen each other. It was a sweet, unexpected result of Nana’s and Mother’s experience with Wilmington’s World War II-style house invasion.
 Ralph Scott, The Wilmington Shipyard: Welding Fleet for Victory in World War II. Charleston, 2007.
 Ibid. Wilbur Jones, A Sentimental Journey. Shippensburg, 2002. Wilbur Jones, The Journey Continues. Shippensburg, 2005.
 Author’s interviews with Betty Baird Rusher and Jean McKoy Graham, December 31, 2010. Author’s interviews with Ulrich Troubetzkoy, 1997.
 Ulrich Troubetzkoy, “For Better or for Worse.” University of Chicago Magazine, #37, December 1944. Author’s interviews with Ulrich Troubetzkoy, 1997.
 Author’s interview with Katherine Meier Cameron, January 1, 2011.
 Claude Howell Journals. Copyright: Cameron Art Museum, Wilmington, NC.
 Government papers, Hill-Taylor Collection.
Copyright 2011, Susan Taylor Block.