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Interview with James Harper, January 1, 1990 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with James Harper, January 1, 1990
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January 1, 1990
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Interviewee: Harper, James Interviewer: Date of Interview: 1/1/1990 Series: Southeast North Carolina (SENC) Length

Interviewer: Could you just tell us your name and when you were born.

Harper: My name is James M. Harper Jr. and I was born on August 3, 1911, yesterday was my 78th birthday.

Interviewer: Happy birthday. You weren’t born in the town of Southport, were you?

Harper: No, I was born in Lake County and moved to Southport in 1935, been here ever since.

Interviewer: So how old were you when you came here?

Harper: About 25, I think that’s about right.

Interviewer: What were your first impressions when you got to Southport? Was that the first time you’d ever been to Southport?

Harper: I’d been one other time and I thought it a very unusual place and I found a lot about it that I liked very much and I still do.

Interviewer: Did you have family that lived here?

Harper: No, I was the first member of my family who ever lived in Southport, although there was a very famous character around here named Harper, Captain John Harper who used to run a passenger boat from here to Wilmington. Very often I’ve been sorry I couldn’t claim kin to him because he was so well known.

Interviewer: What brought you to Southport?

Harper: I was working on a newspaper in Clinton and saw an ad in the Observer saying they wanted someone to come to Southport to edit a weekly newspaper and I thought I could do it. I applied for the job and got it and have been here ever since. The weekly newspaper was the State Port Pilot.

Interviewer: So that’s what began your occupation?

Harper: That’s right, no, I had worked on a newspaper prior to that.

Interviewer: Tell me how your occupation began.

Harper: Well when I was in college, Guilford College, I was on the weekly newspaper and liked sports very much and wrote about sports. The fellow who ran the news bureau couldn’t write sports and he got me to help him. The next year when he graduated, they tried somebody else who couldn’t write anything. In about a month, they asked if I would run the news bureau and I did for the next three years.

This was a very unusual experience and very rewarding experience and it surely did lay the groundwork for my being in the newspaper business.

Interviewer: And then you answered the ad?

Harper: Well no, this was during my undergraduate days. When I graduated and the job in Clinton, this was after I got out of school.

Interviewer: So can you tell me about your early days in Southport?

Harper: Southport was so entirely different then from where it is now. The changes have been gradual. If I described some of the things then, you’d think I almost was describing the way they are now. At that time, shrimping was the principle industry down here and you could buy shrimp for a dollar a bushel. Every afternoon people went down to the waterfront and had shrimp. You couldn’t buy a bucket of shrimp this afternoon to save your life and if you could, you couldn’t afford them.

There were menhaden fishing boats down here. Menhaden fishing was a big deal. There hasn’t been a menhaden fish caught down here in the last five years. If anybody had told us in 1935 that there never would be a shrimping industry or never would be a menhaden industry, they wouldn’t have believed them. If they had, they’d think Southport would blow away.

But as a matter of fact, they’re gone and the economic level is certainly better than it was anytime during the year years I lived here.

Interviewer: So what brought about that change?

Harper: They were gradual changes. Perhaps the location of the ammunition depot up at Sunny Point, that was a point of beginning because that give a lot of our people the first permanent paying job they ever had. They’d go to work on Monday and know how much they were going to get Friday. That had a very fine economic impact upon this area.

Later on, of course, there have been Carolina Power and Light and Pfizer, but they’re kind of like Johnny Come Lately additions to the economy of the community. Tourism and development of beach areas has been the thing that really changed the whole entire complexion of not just Southport itself, but Southport, Oak Island, Bald Head Island areas. This is great. It’s been good, it’s been on a high level. The standards have been good by the people that did the development.

Interviewer: So you mentioned the complexion of the county’s change mainly I guess in income and in the way people make a living. What are your impressions?

Harper: As editor of the newspaper, I’ve done everything I could to help bring most of them about. The bad thing early on was that those boys and girls who had an opportunity to go to college, when they graduated had to go somewhere else to make a living. I always thought that was a shame because we were exporting the best product we had.

I always looked forward to the time that boys and girls who were educated and prepared to do something useful in life could stay home and make a living. This is happening. If you want to work now you can find job opportunities in Brunswick County.

Interviewer: So tell me how your job evolved from coming to Southport to your position now.

Harper: Well my position now isn’t much of a position. I’m sort of retired and I have a son who runs our newspaper.

Interviewer: I guess what I’m saying is give me a profile of your career from the time you came here with your involvement with the State Port Pilot.

Harper: Well from 1935 to about 1960, I ran the paper largely by myself except early on, there was a deaf and dumb newspaper man, as a matter of fact the man who started the State Port Pilot. His name was Bill Keziah and he helped me until he died in the early 50’s. During World War II when I was in the Navy, my wife and Mr. Keziah kept the paper going so I’d have a job when I got out and came back home.

Later on I had some people who helped me from time to time, but it was not until my son Ed came home after he graduated from college and became associated with the paper that I really had consecutive ongoing help. Incidentally the paper is a whole lot better than it used to be when I ran it by myself.

Interviewer: Tell me how the paper has evolved?

Harper: Well go back again, Mr. Keziah, he started the paper and called it the State Port Pilot because he thought that the harbor out here was the place where the state port for North Carolina should be located and he took on Wilmington and all the powers that be trying to fight off the railroad people who wanted to keep the state port in Wilmington. Of course you know how that turned out. The state port still is in Wilmington.

Mr. Keziah perceived the idea that if you had a newspaper and it was called the State Port Pilot, that would help kind of tilt the table. It was a very modest undertaking. It was begun during the height of the Depression and that wasn’t a very good time to be able to sell enough ads to pay your printing bills and you do have to pay that bill. That’s how it came that the folks in Whiteville that had been doing his printing simply just accepted a title to the newspaper in payment for the printing.

It was a very modest undertaking when I first came down here and my main concern was I had left a job in Clinton where I was being paid and I didn't know how long this would last, but it’s still going on and as I said, it’s better now than it was then. It evolved to where we had four pages to six pages to eight pages and I think this week we had 32 pages. We had more advertising revenue in this week’s paper than we used to have in a whole year of operation back in the mid-30’s.

Interviewer: So that’s the main way it’s developed. Tell me other ways the paper has evolved along with the city as a community.

Harper: Well nothing, there has not been a single spectacular thing involving the city or the newspaper. I mean we didn't suddenly start splashing color before anybody or hire five bright new young people, although we’ve had some bright young people who have worked for us at various times some of whom have gone on to greater things and we’re real proud of that.

The paper…I remember one of the things when I first came here, I had established the fact that we weren’t going to get out every week. Mr. Keziah had not always been able to get the paper out from the printer every week because he couldn’t pay his bill. I had established the first year or two the fact that we were in fact a 52 time a year operation.

Nobody worries about that anymore. I mean that’s one of the things that’s happened. It didn't happen suddenly. It just happened because we were successful in our continued operation of the paper.

Interviewer: I remember you showed me one particular, speaking of color, one particular article from 1902 that was printed in red. Can you tell me about that?

Harper: Well I learned, when the 4th of July Festival which is big down here, believe me, during the history of various times and increments of history concerning it, I learned that the 4th of July Festival didn't just start down here 25 years ago, but that the celebration of the 4th of July had been a big deal in Southport for a 100 years. I showed you the paper that was printed in red on the week of the 4th of July 1902.

I have found other copies of papers that were printed in the 90’s, 1890, and had a long write-up about the 4th of July. They didn't call it the festival. They just called it the celebration of the birthday of our nation. But that is documented and it’s a hundred years that it’s been going on. Also there are other segments of history which indicate that there had been earlier, even earlier celebrations of the 4th of July here in Southport. Pretty soon after the Declaration of Independence as a matter of fact.

Interviewer: Tell me once again what you think the origins of the 4th of July Festival in Southport are.

Harper: Well one of the early ones that I saw reference to was that a Russian ship was in the harbor and some of our people went out and the Russians probably got them all drunk. They did toasts. By the way, they had two things back then one of which we do not now have and the other one we do. Toasts were big deals. I remember one celebration they spoke of having had over 40 toasts given and they weren’t toasting with grape juice.

Also they were culminated either by firing a barrage from a warship or it would be with fireworks. This was back over a hundred years ago. Now this was not a continuous thing. I’m not trying to tell you that they had them every year since that time because this was not true. But always, since early on, there was an emphasis on the celebration of the 4th of July here in Southport.

Southport seems sort of like a friendly, sleeping, fishing village. Even still it has some of those characteristics, but the impact of the military on the establishment first of all on the city of Southport, the city of Smithville in 1792, it was called Smithville. The principal focal point was Fort Johnson over here. Later on Fort Caswell came into being across the way from the turn of the century up to about 1920. It was a big military operation, coast artillery training. Prior to World War II, it was a big deal.

At that time this was a liberty town for a military operation. Later on of course has been the impact of Sunny Point which has never been predominantly a military operation as such. They always had military leadership, but civilian operations. Those three factors have contributed to the economy among other things of Southport.

Also to get more direct with your question, I suspect that all of these things contributed to the ongoing interest and celebration of the 4th of July.

Interviewer: Interesting; I never thought of that one. Tell me about your time in the Navy during World War II.

Harper: Well I had six brothers, five of them were in the service and I was the eldest and I didn’t want to let all the rest of them go to war and I didn't. This was back when patriotism wasn’t a … people weren’t ashamed to be patriotic. So I joined, I thought the Navy sounded like a good place to be. As long as you were living, you had comforts and some of the pleasures of living and going places too and so I did join the Navy in 1943.

I was in service for the next 30 months during which time my wife and Mr. Keziah ran the paper. That’s something I always appreciated. During my period in service, I went almost everywhere and always had the good fortune to be there right after they just got through having their worst trouble. I felt sometimes almost guilty because I was almost like on a paid vacation. I went to Australia, I went to India and I went to the Philippines, I went to Scotland. I went to Italy and always came home. That was the good part.

Interviewer: Can you describe Southport as a community and how it’s unique?

Harper: I don’t know, it has a distinct flavor. This week I wrote an editorial about a doctor who had lived here a long time and he was an unusual character and my summary was that he had helped add to the flavor of Southport. So many people in their own way have done that sort of thing you can’t say I’ll tell you why cause I can’t.

You mentioned earlier that you had not read Bob Ruark’s Old Man and the Boy. In that book perhaps is as good a summarization of what gave Southport and this immediate area some of its savor, not flavor, but savor is in that book and I recommend it very highly. We have had a succession of characters and I’ll not try to belabor that point. Southport has had much more than its fair share of characters. If I described them to you, you’d think I was making it up.

Mr. Keziah a deaf and dumb newspaperman was one of them and you just don’t think about a deaf man being much of a newspaper person, but he was. I mean he had a national reputation. When he died, Bob Ruark who was then doing a syndicated column, wrote a column about Bill Keziah for national circulation. So we’re not talking just about a hometown nobody.

At the public health office, four people were doing brain surgery and I know he did because I saw some of his patients who survived walking around. During the Depression, the Duke Foundation built this hospital out here I think just to keep him from being involved in criminal practice. I don’t think I’d like to say that on camera, but I heard that the director of the Duke Foundation say that it was Bill, in recognition of the genius of one man, Dr. Arthur Dozier, somebody needs to say that. He was one of these characters.

He was a graduate of Johns Hopkins. He didn't learn how to cut people by cutting fish. He had qualifications, he was a genius.

Interviewer: So one of these characters, tell me again.

Harper: Dr. Arthur Dozier, he was a genius and his genius was recognized by the Duke Foundation who provided the funds with which this hospital was built, this hospital being the Dozier Memorial Hospital here in Southport, was built during the Depression when no hospitals were being built anywhere. They did this because this man was performing delicate operations including brain surgery out of the public health office up here. I always thought they figured they should build this hospital to keep him out of trouble because he just did things that you weren’t supposed to be able to do at that time.

The reason I know he did successful brain surgery is that I used to see some of his patients up and walking around after he performed these operations were performed. He used to do house calls of course and various people in town bragged for years about they used to drive Dr. Dozier to make house calls.

He used to go all the way out to Bolivia which is 18 miles and charged people $2.00 if they had any money. If they didn't, he’d tell them to pay him the next time they were in town.

Interviewer: You mentioned how things have changed in Southport over the years. How have things stayed the same?

Harper: The trees. I think we have two things that are our trademark. The waterfront of course is one, the Cape Fear River with Battery Island across the way and Bald Head over behind that. That’s great and that’s unchanging. It was great when I came here and I get a thrill out of seeing it every morning when I walk out my front door.

Our other trademark are these live oaks. We’re sitting here in this grove of live oaks this morning. We’re losing those. Yesterday one of these big trees for no reason on earth, when it was as still as it was this morning, just parted and half of it fell to the ground. When you looked in it, it had decayed. I’m afraid this is gradually going to happen to more and more of these big trees.

This grove of live oaks here in Franklin Square is distinctive because Franklin Square is distinctive. And this is an area that Governor Benjamin Smith gave the town of Smithville for use for public purposes principally for religious education and recreational activities. Over the years that’s what it’s been used for. The first school of any significance that was in existence here was a combined effort of the people who thought they ought to have schools in Southport or Smithville at that time.

The Masons who were strong pulled their resources and built a building which is over across the park here. It served for generations not only as the home for the Masons, but for the schoolhouse. Incidentally one of the most interesting chapters was that during World War I it was used as an Army Navy club. Now they didn't have USO’s during World War I. This became the Southport forerunner of USO. That building over there was used for it in addition to these other activities.

Incidentally at one time they had a dining hall there and it was the only place in town that more than 20 people could gather and have a meal at the same time. It just was an all purpose building and it’s still standing and still being used for some of these functions. Back behind us is the first schoolhouse that was built just simply as a schoolhouse. It now is the Southport Art Gallery. In other days it has served as a city hall and the Southport library.

These two things are here in this park. Probably the second oldest church building in town is the Methodist church back across the park on the other corner. That has been part of the use of this area. The Baptist church is close to where we are this morning. They have used this southwest corner of the park. So the foresight and wisdom of this man for whom the original town was named has been justified by the fact that some, almost 200 years later the park area is being used for the purpose intended.

One thing more I want to tell you about it, it is surrounded by a stone wall and every stone in it came here by ship as ballast stone because back early on when all shipping on the east coast was from sailing vessels, sailing vessels coming from abroad had to have something to keep them heavy enough to stay in the water so they’d be comfortable to ride in, safe to ride in and when they came in the Cape Fear River, they had to throw the ballast overboard before going up to Brunswick town to load naval stores to go back to whatever port they were sailing for. The stone wall around here is built from ballast stone that came from all over the world.

Interviewer: You mentioned the gazebo.

Harper: There was a gazebo over behind the Masonic Building which was a bandstand. It was very similar to the one we see this morning and it was sort of a center of outdoor entertainment. It was used for various types…we mentioned early on the 4th of July, Lord knows how many 4th of July celebrations have been held in this park and that bandstand as long as it’s been in existence was one of them.

By the way there used to be a bowling alley during this Army Navy club period. They built a bowling alley, must have had about three lanes. Of course when the war was over and the Army was no longer, it was not needed to entertain the troops, they made a gymnasium out of it and that was the only indoor gymnasium in Brunswick County for many years. It was about twice as wide as a sidewalk.

There wasn’t room for the spectators to even see, to come in the door, so they had a balcony and the balcony came out above the court and you couldn’t see what was going on underneath you, but you could see across the court down to either end. Of course back in the fifties I believe it was, they began to provide gymnasiums in other towns and they replaced this one with the brick building over here again in this park. So it’s still being used there for those purposes that was intended.

Interviewer: You’ve written a lot of stories over the years in Southport. Give me one that stands out in your mind.

Harper: Well first let me say, I’m not a great writer. If I had to pinpoint anything that over the years might have been significant, it’s sort of a putdown to say I’m the best obit writer on staff. Mostly because I’ve been here a long time, I know some good things about a lot of people that get overlooked as time goes on. So what I have done if I have done anything significant at all in the newspaper business was to write good and kindly editorials about people who have lived here a long time and who have died.

I remember one time several years ago in one of these western series this woman was running the weekly newspaper at some outpost and somebody came in and offended her. She said, “You better watch out or I’ll never mention you again kindly in print”. I guess my main contribution is that I have mentioned a lot of deceased people kindly in print.

Interviewer: You’ve been here how long?

Harper: 54 years.

Interviewer: What do you think is your best contribution to the community?

Harper: To have kept the newspaper active back in the days when I didn't know how I was going to pay the bills. There were some awfully, just periods when…you see, Southport now was a trading center. There’s water on one side and woods on the other and you were dealing principally with the people who live here. Remember Oak Island is a development over the last 25 or 30 years.

Prior to that the only people on Oak Island were the Coast Guard folks, the folks that ran fish camps in the fall. Normally a town like Southport upstate would have a perimeter of farm people who came to town and bought stuff and the folks who wanted to appeal to them with advertising.

Take Whiteville for instance, this was true of Whiteville. We didn't have that. Honestly if I have made any contribution at all that’s worthwhile it was to help keep this paper running all of those years so it’s still here. I think the newspaper is really good now. I shamelessly say it’s a good newspaper and I must have helped it some by having it here so my son and his help could do a good job. I don’t think they could have started from scratch. If I’ve made any contribution, I guess that’s what it is.

Interviewer: One last question. As Southport developed the main center of commerce was more north in Wilmington. What do you think is the main reason for that?

Harper: I don’t know. It wouldn’t have happened if it had been on my taste. I would rather live here and work down here than to live in Wilmington and have to drive here every day to go to work either at Sunny Point or at CP&L or Pfizer. On the other hand, most of these people came from metropolitan areas. Many came from the north and the theory seems to be that bigger is better.

I don’t agree with that thinking at all. I think the quality of living in Southport is superior to the quality of living in the city of Wilmington. Wilmington is a delightful place. It’s much better than Charlotte for the same reason, because it’s not as large and congested. But believe me I do not understand the thinking of people who find it much more compatible to live in Wilmington than to live here in Southport or in the Southport area. That includes also Oak Island and Bald Head Island.

Interviewer: Well actually the question, what I meant to say was as it developed over the past 200 years or so, why has this …

Harper: I know why, the river. It’s because of the Cape Fear River and shipping. The longer you can keep a shipment aboard a vessel, the cheaper your transportation costs will be and they can carry it 30 miles further inland and there are already railroads built to Wilmington. There just never was a time when they were going to abandon those railroads to come down here to put freight aboard a line and have to carry it 30 miles additional on a more expensive mode of transportation.

There’s no question in my mind that that was the reason. Wilmington has continued to dominate. The Sunny Point installation up here verified Mr. Kezial’s plan that this was a fine place to have a port. The reason we had it is nowhere else were the principle cargo was going to be ammunition. When they got through doing the safeguards and protections at Sunny Point, it’s probably the safest operation being used by the United States anywhere where they handle ammunition. None of us around here feels any concern about the safety involved at Sunny Point.

Interviewer: Well, Mr. Harper, I think that’s it and I apologize for lying to you about how long this would be.

Harper: Well thank you. Oh yeah, I was going to tell you more about how to do your business. Think in terms for introduction panning about a half a dozen or so of the most interesting spots in town which would be the places that the visitors to Southport would want to see.

Interviewer: Go ahead and tell me about that.

Harper: Cemeteries have an appeal to most visitors. This one has a justification for that because on the southwest corner of it, the center path which was erected to the memory of two groups of pilots who had gone out for incoming ships and were shipwrecked. I’ve forgotten the numbers, but there were multiple deaths involved in both instances. Although the bodies were not recovered, their neighbors and friends got together and erected this monument down there in their memory later on, years later probably.

I want to mention the fact that I said that military had had a terrific impact on the development of this community. So did the pilots because the pilots were here before anybody was here except the Indians. Incoming ships had to have somebody who knew about the ships and chose to guide ships if they were going to Brunswick County or if later on they were going to Wilmington.

They used to have this informal situation where the first pilot to get to the ship was the man who brought it in. They’d have almost cutthroat races to see which one could get their first, put the pilot aboard. Back in those days, shipping was by sailboat and instead of having one big ship or three or four a day, they’d maybe have eight or ten ships at one time. So there were a lot of people down here involved in the pilot business.

When they would take them out and put them aboard, somebody had to take them up to Wilmington and put them aboard a ship so they could come back down. So piloting was a big deal and during the Civil War when the blockade runner…you hear an awful lot about blockade running and Wilmington being the port, the pilots for those ships came out of Southport because they were the only ones that knew the channels well enough to bring them in.

A lot of folks don’t know at that time there were to entrances to the Cape Fear River. There’s the one that we use now. Also there was one up on the west side of Fort Fisher which was stopped up with rocks. They call it The Rocks. That used to be the principal interest and that’s why Fort Fisher was there in the first place to protect that from the federal gunboats.

One of the markers for ships coming in there is up here on the Pfizer property and the ferry that comes across from Fort Fisher runs the old blockade runner route. That is probably as interesting a boat ride as there is in North Carolina and they run several times every day.

But the influence of the pilots and the influence of shipping on the livelihood of people in this community has been tremendous. It still is by the way.

Interviewer: Tell me about the cemetery.

Harper: The center path that I was telling you about, other than that, there’s nothing distinctive about the cemetery that I can think of except that some of the graves go back 200-300 years. You’d have to be, I hate to use this word lightly, but graveyard buffs, somebody that loves to visit cemeteries and notice unusual markers, I don’t know that sort of the thing.

Interviewer: Well thank you, Mr. Harper.

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