by Susan Taylor Block
The Dram Tree (center), once located west of the Sunset Park area, drew its name from the tradition of sailors taking a dram of rum there, either to celebrate their passage through the tricky shoals of Cape Fear or to steady their nerves as they headed for open seas. In Colonial days, the tree became a political boundary, perhaps “The Division,” when rivalry raged between Newton (later Wilmington) and Brunswick Town. Newton boatmen refused to carry produce any closer to Brunswick than the Dram Tree.
More than a century later, the Dram Tree was used as a buoy during nineteenth-century sailing races when members of the Carolina Yacht Club took temporary leave of Wrightsville Beach and Wrightsville Sound to compete with others who were battling river water currents and utilizing the primitive aerodynamics of the day.
In 1909, the tree was a star attraction when President William Howard Taft visited Wilmington. The lovable, corpulent Commander-in-Chief nodded off at other times during his sightseeing river voyage aboard the U. S. Revenue Cutter Seminole, but came to full alert when confronted with the natural wonder of seeing a stately, dignified tree living in such an unlikely habitat. The Dram Tree had “presence.”
Left alone, the Cape Fear River’s cypress trees did just fine. Vintage deeds attest to their assumed longevity. For instance, a land description included in a Kidder family document executed in 1905, states, “Beginning at a large cypress tree standing on the River bank a short distance below the sawmill….”
There was public outcry in 1918 when the Carolina Shipyard was built near the Dram Tree. World War I Shipyard officials went to great pains to preserve it, but many other fine trees were felled along the river’s banks during that time. In 1929, tree lover Louis T. Moore, elated still that the Dram Tree survived shipyard construction, reported it “now stands well into the river, 50-75 feet from its companions.”
“Trees form an interesting and informative study of community and state life. This is so, especially, when when they are associated with traditions or facts which furnish an historical atmosphere,” said Moore in his book, Stories Old and New of the Cape Fear Region.
In the same way that historian Moore ushered most of Wilmington’s roadside markers into existence, its too bad he couldn’t have instigated a bank-side marker to alert the public to the tree’s significance, A workman who knew no better destroyed it during the 1940s. A “bald cypress” gavel belonging to Wilmington’s Cape Fear Garden Club, and one duplicate, both carved in 1934 from a branch snagged from the Dram Tree, are all that remain.
For years, I’ve wondered when the name was coined, and who said it first. Recently, I was surprised when I happened upon these words: “General Cornwallis, sailing up the river to Wilmington, during the Revolution, stopped the ship opposite the tree, gave his men a pep talk and a dram of drum, and gave the tree its name.” That account was recorded as coming from the Star News, in 1946, and for a few seconds, it had a good ring to it, but General Cornwallis traveled to Wilmington from Guilford County, NC. So, that doesn’t work.
So, what do we do with information that it was a boundary before that time? Was it already known as the Dram Tree then, or was it just the most noticeable tree of the upriver voyage?
The name is more memorable and pretty, than, say, “Rum Tree.” Did a jaunty sailor coin it while looking forward to his next toddy? Did a weary ship’s captain, fresh from navigating the Cape of Fear, eye the cypress as the outer limits of his patience? Could there have been other dram trees in other lands with which they were familiar?
Like “Dram Tree,” certain terms concerning alcohol do seem to stick and often bring a smile. Consider the much quoted historic Carolinas phrase, “It’s a long time between drinks.” Then there’s, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere,” and W. C. Fields’ droll saying, “I never met a drink I didn’t like.” The list goes on and on. And the newspaper carried it further with the Dram Tree, offering a “A bottle of 1812 Napolean to the person,” who could identify exactly where it stood.
A retired lighthouse attendant named W. J. Mintz probably was the first person to notice the tree’s disappearance. Mr. Mintz began lighting kerosene river lamps in 1886, and was still navigating the river when the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company expanded their operation. The Dram Tree stood 250-300 yards north of the Number 9 shipway one day, and soon after, it was gone.
To see more Louis T. Moore panoramic photos of the Cape Fear River, visit http://louistmoore.com/114-2/