Even as the season's first tropical storm rages ashore, the city of Southport projects a lively welcome and sunny charm. "This is a great place to wait out the storm," says a cheerful Mary Strickland as a pair of dripping daytrippers find shelter at the North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport, moments after a sudden burst of high wind and rain sends shoppers on the town's busy main drag scurrying for cover. "We have an interesting history and lots of colorful stories to tell."
Strickland, the museum's director, has lived a good portion of Southport's modern history. She and her late husband, Don McHose, arrived in town in 1967, refugees from New Brunswick, N.J., where Don's family owned clay mines used to supply the ceramic industry. The couple were familiar with Southport from a relative who'd been stationed at Fort Caswell (before the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina bought the property in 1949) and thought it might be a good place to rear their 8-year-old son and escape the urban rat race--a safe harbor, you might say, in the storm.
"At that time, this place was a sleepy fishing village full of charming bungalows and but one cafe: Mack's on the waterfront. There were no stoplights anywhere in the county. Don was in love with it right away. But coming from my job in New York City, it was a big adjustment --or so I thought. I think we were the first Yankees in town. We agreed to give it a year to see if we could fit in."
Fit in they did. They bought a place on the river and took up the mellow rhythm of the Cape Fear fishing town. Not long after they arrived, the McHoses opened a scuba-diving shop (that soon led to discovery of a booty-laden 19th century ship out by Frying Pan Shoals) and helped build the town's first airport. "People welcomed us with open arms," says Strickland, who is remarried to the town's building inspector. "We quickly learned that's the Southport way. Newcomers fall in love with the friendliness and charm of the town and wonder what it's like to actually live here. The truth is, despite the various ups and downs in its colorful history, you don't change Southport. It changes you."
Not bad for a town that began life as a place meant to keep out certain types. In 1745, aiming to keep Atlantic pirates and Spanish privateers out of the Cape Fear and protect a young town upriver called Wilmington, the British Colonial governor authorized construction of the state's first military garrison, Fort Johnston, on...