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Interview with Eugene Tomlinson, April 11, 1995 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Title:
Interview with Eugene Tomlinson, April 11, 1995
Date:
April 11, 1995
Description:
Eugene Tomlinson first experienced Southport as a summer resident in 1938 at the age of 14, returning as a permanent resident in 1952. He was elected mayor in 1957 and held the office on and off until retiring in 1983. Tomlinson discusses the integration of the schools, Dosher Hospital, his work on the Coastal Resources Commission, and possibilities for the future. He also tells stories about local characters including Pappy Stubbs, Ira Evans, Ed Pancoast, Dolly Evans, Dexter Clemons, and Pierce Horn, among others.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Tomlinson, Eugene Interviewer: Date of Interview: 4/11/1995 Series: Southport Length 59 minutes

Tomlinson: What year was I born?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Tomlinson: That's telling secrets; 1924. When I was fourteen years old...

Interviewer: This is for the record.

Tomlinson: Yeah, for fourteen years- when I was fourteen, two of my aunts that kind of helped raised two cousins and me decided they wanted a place at the coast and they heard some lots were being sold on a- some place called uh... Oak Island, Long Beach. It was near Southport. So they came down in April of that year and bought several oceanfront lots for $200 apiece and they contracted with a Baptist preacher who did building on the side and he built the first livable house on the oceanfront of Long Beach for $840, a turnkey job.

Interviewer: Good grief.

Tomlinson: And we moved in in July of 1938, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. All I had ever seen before was the muddy Cape Fear River and maybe an annual trip to picnic at White Lake. And here was all that great, big, beautiful ocean out there and fifty or sixty shrimp boats on a clear day and the waterway and the creek down on the end of Long Beach and just we could roam at will. And some of the characters over there kind of took the three of us boys under tow. R.A. Evans and old Mr. Boss Man Bob and the Swain brothers and they- we just had a ball down there that- that first summer.

Interviewer: Where was her house?

Tomlinson: It was right west of where the present gazebos are.

Interviewer: Okay.

Tomlinson: That was right about the center of activities. There was our house on the waterfront. And Mr. Middleton had built the pavilion, and on Saturday nights he had a dance band come up from Charleston and the folks from Southport would come out in their evening clothes and have big dances there. It was almost like the Lumina over on Wrightsville Beach. We had great times there.

Interviewer: But how many people were actually living on Long Beach in those days?

Tomlinson: That- that first summer there wasn't but about ten or twelve of us over there. But it- it was an unusual experience. And coming into Southport, I thought that Southport was one of the most beautiful places I'd ever seen. Oh, the filling station portico stuck right out into the middle of the street where there was just about room to get between 'em and the oak trees out the way you had to dodge around the oak trees. And we had such a great time coming over and uh...meeting the folks in Southport. We always thought they took advantage of us as we were rich upstate beach dwellers, but [laughs].

Interviewer: Still do that though.

Tomlinson: I don't think that was actually so. But we- we had some good times back then. I loved Southport so much that in later years when I was at the Naval Academy, the only A+ I ever got on an English theme I wrote a hypothetical story about Sunday in Southport. When I got that paper back here, it was an A+ on the top of it and the lieutenant who was our professor wrote, "What a sentimental slob. You must really love that place."

Interviewer: Do you still have a copy of that?

Tomlinson: I've- I've still got it somewhere around here. The only A+ I ever [laughs] made on a theme.

Interviewer: Geez, so if you ever turn that up, we'll publish it and we'll put it in the historical society newsletter.

Tomlinson: Well, I'm not sure everything actually took place that I put in there, but I--

Interviewer: Well that's alright. That's wonderful. So when you go down here at fourteen, you came into high school in Southport?

Tomlinson: No, we just were summer residents there.

Interviewer: Oh, summers, okay.

Tomlinson: Uhm...my wife and I moved back here in 1952 and have been permanent residents ever since.

Interviewer: Okay.

Tomlinson: And then the good people of Southport saw fit to elect me mayor the first time in 1957. And we've seen lots of changes over the years, all of brought about by good members of the board of aldermen. Mary Mcose [ph?] Strickland, who was one of the most loyal and devoted members of the board and conscientious in her responsibility to the people.

Interviewer: Well, she said you were her favorite mayor.

Tomlinson: Well then we'll pat each other on the back, mutual admiration society.

Interviewer: Well back up a little bit, when you started coming down in 1938, I guess when the War started, the summer business was pretty much over, was it?

Tomlinson: No, no.

Interviewer: Did you still come down here in the summer?

Tomlinson: We still came and used the blackout screens on the windows. I think I've only missed one summer and that was the summer of 1944, and I was off on an old cruiser down off the coast of South America somewhere. I didn't get here that summer.

Interviewer: Okay. When did you go to the Naval Academy?

Tomlinson: In 1942.

Interviewer: Was that an accelerated class?

Tomlinson: Yup. It was accelerated, but I wasn't. [Laughs] So- so instead of three years, it took me four years. I didn't do too well in chemistry and math my first year there. I was one of these uh... "illiterate Southern boys" who had not- been brought up not knowing what a slide rule was [laughs] and different things like that.

Interviewer: So you were in the Navy after?

Tomlinson: I was a classmate with Jimmy Carter, President of the United States.

Interviewer: Okay.

Tomlinson: And he really was, as all the accounts say, smart beyond his years. For a- for another poor Southern boy, he was brilliant. He rarely ever opened a textbook unless it was to help a classmate out. He really was superb in his mental capabilities and straight as an arrow.

Interviewer: So you did the Navy tour and then came back to Southport then?

Tomlinson: Went- went to work for Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company and then I heard about they were gonna build an Army base on the river and I'd always uh.. I'd made up my mind Southport and Brunswick County were gonna be home. So I came down here and made good friends with the man who was buying the real estate for the Army. And he introduced me to the then district engineer over in Wilmington, and they hired me and I was the first engineer hired for the Sunny Point project.

Interviewer: Oh, okay.

Tomlinson: That was in August of 1952 and I stayed at Sunny Point then until 1981. I retired. I was the director of engineering out there during that period of time in addition to being mayor in Southport off and on.

Interviewer: Yeah. Well, that's right. The mayor is not full-time. So you were involved in acquiring the land for Sunny Point or more in design?

Tomlinson: No, in- in the construction.

Interviewer: Okay.

Tomlinson: We actually began the construction of the access railroad leading into the terminal along about in uh...October of '52. And Mr. Kazow [ph?], who was the mute reporter for the state board ___________, would sit down in front of the office every afternoon waiting for me to come to the post office and corner me to find out what the latest developments were. We had some uh... soil borings to take place and we brought some big drilling rigs in from the Savannah district and you saw them going down the main street. So that afternoon he stopped me and he wanted to know in his broken speech what those drill rigs have got to do. And I said, "Oh, Mr. Kazow, we believe there may be oil under that land out there and we're drilling for it and if we hit oil, we're gonna give up the idea of building a terminal." He just looked at me and said, "Well, you can go to hell," [laughs] because Sunny Point was his personal project. That was his baby.

Interviewer: That's wonderful. Did you live in the house you're in now up on Moore Street when you first came?

Tomlinson: No, no, we lived about two blocks on out in a little house and then when the family began to expand, we had to build where we are now.

Interviewer: Okay. So you came closer into town?

Tomlinson: Yeah. Yeah, about two blocks. I wanted to be in the center of things.

Interviewer: How long have you been in the house you're in now?

Tomlinson: Since uh...May of- and I know this, the August of 1955. We started building it in May of '55.

Interviewer: Well, let's see what we've got here. Back up, elect you mayor, that would be what, 1957 was the first time?

Tomlinson: 1957 was the first time.

Interviewer: Okay.

Tomlinson: And I never will forget I ran against the incumbent mayor and the past incumbent and beat both of them. And uh...I thought I was pretty smart because I could beat two professionals. So two years later, the past incumbent turned around and he beat me and I got highly miffed that the people of Southport didn't recognize my unparalleled capabilities to be mayor of this town. And I really got bent on out of shape about it. And I mean, Paul Mason used to have a radio shop and shoe shop around the corner here beyond what used to be Harrelson's store. And I was in there one afternoon and the man's wife who beat me came in--and we had always been good friends--and I didn't give her the time of day. I- I was ugly. I have to admit I was ugly. And she took her walking stick and she cracked me [laughs] across- right- right here. It smarted. And she says, "You look at me, young man. You look at me." And I says, [laughs] "Yes, ma'am." She says, "Now two years ago you beat my husband in a fair race and a month ago he beat you in a fair race." She says, "Now, I know you better than this. You straighten up and act like the man you're supposed to be." I said, "Yes, ma'am."

Interviewer 2: A lesson to learn.

Tomlinson: And that was the turning around and uh... sh- she gave me some words of wisdom.

Interviewer 2: Certainly did.

Tomlinson: And I think I probably did by that and we were the best friends until the day she died.

Interviewer: That's great.

Interviewer 2: It's hard to lose.

Tomlinson: And uh...let's see. I didn't run again in 1961, which would have been against him because he wasn't in good health and I didn't want to be a party to a race against him. So in 1963 I did run and uh...I- I ran then and didn't get elected until 1971. I dropped out. And I came back in [clears throat] 1973 to help uh...fight the state, the federal government, and the county over the hospital and I was mayor then from '73 until '80 [coughs] excuse me, until '81. [Crew talk]

Interviewer: Okay, you were talking about fighting the county and the federal government and everybody. Tell us a little bit about what that was about.

Tomlinson: Well, there were political interests in the county that I think wanted to see everything centered around what they were gonna call New Town Brunswick County, I guess it was. And they prevailed upon the representative at the time to introduce a local bill to move the county seat and to put the control of Dosher Hospital under a county-elected board of trustees. And that group of trustees immediately voted to turn Dosher into a trauma center, and they were gonna build a new hospital out in the middle of the country. So uh...there was a lot of political maneuvering that went on about that. We hired an attorney from Wilmington to come down and he talked to us and he said, "Well, I might as well tell you fellows," this was the board of aldermen, he says, "The federal government's against you, the state of North Carolina's against you, the county's against you. The only people you've got on your side is God." We said, "Well, we'll believe that. Uh.. we'll go with that majority." He said, "All right, so we'll go from that perspective."

And one of the lawyers in his firm found an obscure general statute that had never been used before in this state that allowed for a township to vote on and have its own hospital. And in 1973 and '74, in that era, you- if you remember, there was a tax revolt all across the country. Well, we got the county commissioners to put this on the ballot for a vote and in Smithville Township ninety-four percent of the people voted to tax themselves to support a local hospital, which I thought was a crowning achievement for the people of this township. There were some great folks here, especially the little ladies in the white tennis shoes, the hospital volunteers as they called themselves. They really got out and rallied the people. We got a great turnout and the vote was magnanimous.

And uh...the hospital we see, it was needed, but the unique thing about it is we never fought against the other hospital. We never questioned the need of another hospital in Brunswick County, we just questioned the location of where they put it. And I think they see now it should have been the other side of Shallotte, where it would be a greater access to the people in the Calabash, Carolina shore, Sunset, Ocean Island.

Interviewer: But where the people are, the hospital's in the wrong place.

Tomlinson: Sure.

Interviewer: That's right, yeah. Well, that's right. You know, Dosher's a wonderful place and it doesn't feel like a hospital. You know, some places you go in, it doesn't feel like a hospital.

Tomlinson: It doesn't smell like one either.

Interviewer: No, it sure doesn't. It sure doesn't. Well, you stopped a few times and started again. Were you drafted back into the office or what happened?

Tomlinson: I guess we might say so that folks asked me to run again. And I've enjoyed it. I've never had but one unpleasant moment in all the twenty years. And one of my black friends in the community called me around to his house and he says, "Let me tell you one thing and I don't want you to forget it." He says, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Now get going." [Laughs] So I- I've had some good advice from folks in the community and I- well, maybe I profited with a lot of 'em told me. But when I look back on folks like Dexter Clemons and Miss Dolly Evans and William Jocko Warnett and Mr. Ed Swain, Ephrom Swain, uh.. Charles Rogers. You know, back- I will digress a minute. Back in the early '60s when the Civil Rights Movement was gaining and we were having riots and problems all over the country, we never had the first minute's problem in Southport. Charles Rogers, who was president of the local ILA Union, and I sat down and we made up our minds that uh...white and black men worked together loading the ships at Sunny Point during the Vietnam crisis and those people couldn't work side by side during the day if their kids had been out at night fighting each other on the streets. And he says, "I'll keep my kids on their side of town and you keep yours on your side of town and we won't have any problems." And it worked out just that way.

The day they had the memorial service for Dr. Martin Luther King, the young black teenagers walked down the street under police escort to what was then the old Southport High School auditorium. We had a eulogy service for him. It was well attended by hundreds of white and black people. And of course that was election year, so all the people running for office made certain they were there to be seen [laughs] as a part of it. But uh...there was a good feeling. There's always been a good feeling. Blacks and whites who work side by side on the shrimp boats, the menhaden boats, I think we've got uh...a great integrated community here of people that want to see things maintained on an even keel with progress made.

Interviewer: Well, it goes back to several people told us about the yellow hole, the swimming hole that the kids all used to go in over I guess off the Elizabeth.

Tomlinson: Right, the Elizabeth Road.

Interviewer: Yeah. And that was always the black kids and the white kids together and they'd all go there and skinny-dip together.

Tomlinson: Sure.

Interviewer: That's about as basic as it gets, I guess.

Tomlinson: Just about. [Laughs]

Interviewer: Okay, well Larry wrote down a list of characters here and the first one on here is Pappy Stubbs.

Tomlinson: Oh, my goodness.

Interviewer: You told us a Pappy Stubbs story.

Tomlinson: Well, let's see. During my first term as mayor, a lady mayor of England, Mrs. May Bamber [ph?], came over on a visit to the English war brides and she came to Southport. This was one of her stops. She was gonna visit all of the Southports since she was the mayor of Southport, England.

Interviewer: Oh, okay.

Tomlinson: And we didn't have much back then in 1957 or '58 to show her, but we decided that a scenic walk down around the old yacht basin would be about the best that we could do. So about midway around the yacht basin, who should crawl up out of the marsh but my good friend Pappy Stubbs, with a T-shirt on that exposed his whole navel and most of his midriff and a stub of a cigar sticking out of his mouth. And he got right square in front of the official party and I couldn't do much more out of courtesy than to say, "Mrs. Bamber, this is one of our local citizens, Mr. Earl R. Pappy Stubbs." And he says, "You're that lady mayor from England, aren't you?" "Yes, sir, I am." "Well, I've got a sister that's married to one of you bloody English people." [Laughs} And having been on the stage in England and quite a flamboyant character, she just laughed and took it in her stride and patted him on the back and said it certainly was nice to meet him. Well, I could have dropped through the pavement. [Laughs] Of all times for Pappy to show up. But Pappy was one of those perennial characters that would do anything in the world for you and never meant any harm to anybody and he thought he was being neighborly.

Interviewer: Sure, he was a real person.

Interviewer 2: Well, he was an educated man.

Tomlinson: Oh yes. He was a machinist. He was a top flight machinist from Charlotte, moved down here to retire and I expect he worked harder down here doing things free for people than he ever worked at home in Charlotte for a living.

Interviewer: You're probably right. Let's see. The next one's Ira Evans.

Tomlinson: Well, Ira was one of our mentors over on Long Beach back in the early days. He had an old Model A car that he cut down and made a pickup truck in the back and he hauled our garbage and he also built uh...driveways for people out of clay and shells. I guess it was maybe along in 1953 after we'd moved back down here to live. He and I were sitting on the front steps of a store along the beach after the summer season was over, and he asked me if I knew a certain man who was a prominent Chevrolet dealer upstate. And I told him yes, I did. "Why?" And he said, "Well, the man's a gross crook." [Laughs] I said, "Well, Ira, that's kind of strong language to say about somebody in that position. Well, what did you base that on?" He says, "Well, Mr. So and So contracted me to build him a driveway to his house out of clay and shells." And he said, "I contracted with him, told him I went up there to collect yesterday and I put twelve loads of shell and twelve loads of clay and ten loads of shell." And he said, "He looked at me and he says, 'I'm not gonna pay you but for eight loads of clay and about seven loads of shell.' " I said, "Well, Ira, what did you do?" He says, "Well, I'd knocked him a little bit. I only put four loads of clay and three loads of shell [laughs] in there to begin with, so I took what he offered me and thanked him." But he says, "The man's a crook anyway." [Laughs]

But Ira was another one of those good-hearted people. He- he would do anything in the world for you; salt of the earth. Lived in a little shack over back in the woods in what's now Tranquil Harbor. And we boys used to love to go over there and get Ira to take us fishing or tell us where to go to catch 'em or what bait to use.

Interviewer 2: So you were here during Hurricane Hazel?

Tomlinson: Yes. We lost our year-round home on the beach during Hazel. We- Lee and I had just moved into Southport about six weeks before the storm hit and we'd bought in Southport. We moved back to the beach.

Interviewer: Just in time then.

Tomlinson: Yes, sir.

Interviewer: Ed Pancoast.

Tomlinson: Well, let's see. Mr. Pancoast decided he would go in the antique business when he retired down here, and my wife and I had been talking about an antique business on the side. So he opened up in the spring of uh...1965 and we opened our shop in November of '65. And we got along real well together. We said we would cooperate with each other. And one day, I guess it was along in 1966, a lady just came into the shop one Saturday while I was out there and uh...they said, "Well, that man downtown told us there wasn't any more antique shops around here." Well, that kind of got me miffed again and I went down and accosted Mr. Pancoast and he says, "Well, Gene, those people came in here and spent three hours picking up everything and asking me how much everything cost and then didn't offer to buy a thing and just as an afterthought on the way out said, 'Now, is there another shop here in town?'" And he says, "I told 'em no." I said, "Well, you know, that's not the spirit of cooperation you and I had." He says, "Gene, I told- I knew that your wife had five kids and she didn't need to spend three hours describing everything in her shop to those folks and then have 'em leave." And I said, "Well yeah, I guess. I appreciate that." He was another one that would give you the shirt off of his back if he liked you. But if he didn't like you, keep out of the way. And I'll never forget one story that's told about him. He used to lay on his sofa out on the sidewalk in a T-shirt and he didn't bother to get up and go in with folks unless the spirit moved him. And a very prominent lady from Wilmington came down one day and went in and came back out and says, "Mr. Pancoast, I certainly do like that set of end irons you've got in there. We're building a new house up in the mountains and I believe they will fit just right in our fireplace." She said, "If you will let me, I will take them up there and if they work, I'll send you a check. If they don't, I'll bring them back the next time we come down." And he says, "Hell, lady, this ain't no swap shop. You either buy or leave 'em where they are." [Laughs] And she came out to the shop highly miffed about that old man downtown that didn't talk nice to her.

Interviewer 2: He had a rich vocabulary. Very well known for that. And he was the father of?

Tomlinson: Eleanor Smith, the present owner of the Curiosity Shop. Well, we get along great with Eleanor. She's about the only antique dealer downtown who will tell folks there's another shop out the road.

Interviewer: Okay, let's see. We got Ed Swain on here, Ephrom Swain's father.

Tomlinson: He wa- he was a real fine old gentleman. We used to have our community meetings over in the Brunswick Training School auditorium, and we would always call on Mr. Ed to open the meetings in prayer. And that old gentleman could pray like I'd never heard anything before. He was just a real gentleman. He used to tell me tales about how poor his family was when he was growing up here as a youngster in the Southport area. He said his mama sometimes had just enough flour to make two or three biscuits. And he says after the blessing was said, it was a scramble to who was gonna get the last [laughs] biscuit on the table.

Interviewer: Yeah, we've been trying to get Ephrom to do the video, but he hasn't been well. He's been in and out of the hospital lately, but hopefully we'll get him before he gets worse.

Tomlinson: When I first went to work for the Corps of Engineers in Wilmington, I was living over on Long Beach, and I would ride into Southport and leave the car and then ride with Ephrom to Wilmington, who was an employee of the Corps of Engineers in Wilmington. Uh...Lena Fisher and Harold Aldridge and I would ride with uh...Ephrom to town and back.

Interviewer: Yeah, he ran a motor pool for 'em.

Tomlinson: Yeah, he ran the motor pool. And if there weren't some tall tales told between here and Wilmington and back. I wish you could have taped some of those sessions.

Interviewer: Yeah, well, maybe not [laughs]. William Warnett?

Tomlinson: Well, William was the one that told me when the going gets tough, the tough get going. And he was a- a real believer in people living up to what they profess this.

Interviewer: Yeah. Dolly Evans?

Tomlinson: Oh, my goodness. Miss Dolly ran the uh...country store or general store up here and also had an old Model A Ford that she jacked up out in the back and ran a saw off along. Cut slabs for people, cut firewood for folks. And she made the best brown dogs, I know for a fact. The afternoon we had the eulogy in the high school for the Dr. Martin Luther King [laughs] deal, they had asked me to say a few words. So I got up and spoke about a man being willing to give his life for what he believed in. And of course when the meeting was over, all the politicians lined up out the front in order to shake hands with everybody who had been there, because this was in the spring right before the primary. Jimmy Harper was standing near me and right in the middle of the whole crowd, Miss Dolly, she was missing from this joint out on her finger, came up, walked up the steps, and thumped me in the middle of the chest and says, "Mr. Mayor, you is it. You is it." And when she said that, Jimmy Harper turned to me and he said, "Gene, any one of these men standing there would have given his whole right arm to have Dolly Evans thump 'em in the chest and say 'you is it.' "

Interviewer: That's a pretty good endorsement, isn't it? "You is it."

Tomlinson: She was a- a real genuine sweet lady. I appreciated her.

Interviewer: Her brown dogs recipe has been saved, I understand.

Tomlinson: That's great. That's great.

Interviewer: Dexter Clemons.

Tomlinson: Well, Dexter ran the dry cleaning place and I used to go by there real often and just sit and talk with Dexter. I never will forget that uh...when we brought about the integration of the schools, Dexter told me, he says, "I don't like to see this happen." He said, "I don't think it's gonna be for the betterment of either one of us." He says, "We all get along real good here and I just don't believe this is gonna help either race."

Interviewer: They just shut down their dry cleaners just recently, didn't they?

Tomlinson: Yes, they did. Alonzo and his wife have always been real good friends. I enjoyed going in and talking to them. And uh...there was a good friend of mine who used to be on the board of aldermen, Pierce Horn. He used to have a saying that you keep your hands on the pulse of the people. Well, you get- you- you find out the pulse of people by going and talking to folks like uh...Ephrom Swain and Dolly Evans and Dexter Clemons and- and different ones around the community. You really find out how people are thinking and what they're thinking and what they'd like to see done. It was under our first administration and the first time I was mayor, we had a complete new board of aldermen. That was the first time in Southport that Powell Ville [ph?] Farms had ever been used to do any paving on the other side of town. And I told the fellows on the board, I said, "Look, as long as you're in here we can do what's morally right." Everybody just needed to pay his gasoline taxes and everybody in this community is- is- should have a fair share of improvements that are made to the streets and sidewalks and curb and gutters.

Interviewer 2: Nobody had mentioned Pierce before. Tell about Pierce. He was a wonderful man.

Tomlinson: Well, when we went into operation out at Sunny Point in uh...September or October of 1955, we were doing our railroad maintenance under contract with Atlantic Coastline Railroad. And the Coastline district superintendent said a man named Pierce Horn, with three of his rail crews, had to do our track maintenance. And I immediately saw in Pierce Horn another one of those individuals that if he liked you, he'd do anything in the world for you, but if he didn't like you, just keep out of his way. But he was just as straight as an arrow and if he told you he would do something, he would do it or he'd die trying to get it done for you. He and his wife were two characters. We loved both of 'em. They were- they were just great people to know. And I can close my eyes right now and see them sitting on the front porch of their house down there overlooking the railroad, just sitting there rocking and talking about how beautiful Southport is and- and how glad they were that they had the opportunity to come and live here. We used to kid Pierce a whole lot. He'd put out a net in the fall along before election time over at the beach and he would come around with a- a truckload of spot and he'd go around all over town passing out spot. And he says, "Well, there's a vote in every pot where there's a spot." [Laughs] So- so we accused him of buying the election.

Interviewer 2: And his favorite project was Frying Pan.

Tomlinson: The Frying Pan nightshift, and he never would get over it when I told a reporter from the Star News one time. The ship was kind of leaning over to the westward in the mud because it didn't have enough water for it to sit upright. And this reporter from the Star News came down and asked him what were we going to do about the lightship leaning. And I said that it's not the lightship, the town's not level. [Laughs] And that really irritated Pierce. He says, "You could have told him the truth." And I said, "Well, Pierce, I didn't know what the truth was to tell him."

Interviewer: When did you get out of office, in the '70s?

Tomlinson: No, '83.

Interviewer: '83? Okay. Did you quit on your own?

Tomlinson: Yes, I figured that twenty years was long enough.

Interviewer: That's right. The city doesn't give you a pension for that.

Tomlinson: At that time, I was on the Coastal Resources Commission and I had my hands full, so...

Interviewer: Well. And you retired from Sunny Point when?

Tomlinson: In '81. And then I went to work in the engineering support unit out at the nuclear plant for four and a half years.

Interviewer: Okay. And then tell us about after that you got on the Coastal...

Tomlinson: I've been on the Coastal Resource Commission since '77. I've been on that eighteen years now. I've been Chairman of it since January of '93. Like I do a little marine surveying on the side, work in stained glass, uh...agitate people.

Interviewer: Don't want to run for office again then?

Tomlinson: I won't rule that out.

Interviewer 2: He didn't say he wouldn't.

Tomlinson: I won't rule that out.

Interviewer: Okay. He told us earlier that he needs to be drafted.

Tomlinson: As long as Norman's doing a good job.

Interviewer: Yeah. The last name on the list here is Buddy Brown.

Tomlinson: Well, let's see. Buddy lived in a Southern mansion with corrugated steel sides set on pylon to the eastward of the causeway after you went over the bridge to Long Beach. Buddy and Miss Emma were two fine people. I used to pick her up and take her to church every Sunday morning when I was- went over to church on the beach. And she would tell me a lot of tales about Buddy and different things. And we only had one little girl at the time, and we stopped at Buddy's to- he would save all the soft crab that he got, right? She called him "Buddy Soft Can." So he was Mr. Soft Can to her. And his wife, well, I'd ask her, "Well, where's Buddy now?" She says, "Well, he's gone off down on the island to build him another boat." And he'd save up all the scrap lumber he could find and go off down into the woods with his foot adz and a handsaw and hammer and nails and come back out in a little bit with a sixteen or eighteen-foot skiff to use in the washin' and shrimping. And uh...not a ruler, not anything. I mean, it was almost as bad as Robert Jones drawing house plans on the back of a scrap of wood with a nub of a pencil.

Interviewer: So what happened to all his boats? He probably gave 'em away after he...

Tomlinson: I guess he did. I wish some of 'em could be found because they're...

Interviewer: Yeah, I know. Well, we have got one of his engines, one of his outboards. The museum has that.

Tomlinson: Well, after Hurricane Hazel, he had to move to the island side. It- it wasn't safe out on stilts anymore. His house kind of went with the wind and the waves. And he'd built over right next to what's now Virgil Barnes' sta- filling station there out on the causeway after you go off the bridge.

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewer 2: That was the old bridge?

Tomlinson: Yeah.

Interviewer 2: Well, what do you remember about Southport? How has it changed for you?

Tomlinson: I don't think that Southport has changed all that much. Everything has changed, but nothing's really different.

Interviewer: That's what I'm saying.

Tomlinson: We've got lots of new faces, we've got lots of new houses, we've got new streets, new subdivisions, but the general tempo of the town, the characteristics that made Southport the place I wrote about in my theme is still the same. Because fortunately, the people who come here with Pfizer and Sunny Point and CP and L and who just come here for retirement have assimilated into what we treasure instead of wanting to change Southport to be like where they came from. So we've been able to retain, I think, our slow pace. I think that the friendly nature. I doubt that many people still lock their doors in Southport. It was almost unheard of when we moved into town in 1953 to ever lock the front door of your house even if you went off on a trip because your neighbors would look out for your property. And I think we've still got that sense of neighborliness and goodness.

Interviewer: That's right. I know people who came here to work in CP and L that were go-ahead types all live up Wilmington and drive down here. If they wanted to be in the city, they'd be up there. They didn't try to make this into a city. So that's important. Yeah, that's right.

Tomlinson: Southport is an oasis in the two de- deserts of Wilmington and Myrtle Beach.

Interviewer: You got that right. That's right.

Tomlinson: It's a good place to live. If you want city life, you've got it within an hour's drive in either direction.

Interviewer: Sure.

Interviewer 2: Tell us about your family, your wife and your children.

Tomlinson: Well, let's see. Lee and I both grew up in Fayetteville, but we didn't meet until I met her in 1948 down here on Long Beach. My cousin Carl Watkins and I had bought the pavilion and were running it that summer. We had the square dances every Saturday night. They were- this is a funny thing. I'll digress again.

Interviewer: No, fine. That's what it's all about.

Tomlinson: We decided that a square dance was the way to go if we were gonna make any money, and the only people we knew that played that kind of music was little Homer A. Briarhopper and his band from Charlotte. So we contracted little Homer A. to bring his group down on a Saturday and play a square dance that night for a given sum of money. Well, that was the day that we were having the first primary in May, and I think they stopped at every polling place between Charlotte and Long Beach and had a drink with the boys. [Laughs] When they got to Long Beach, there wa- there was more fiddling around than fiddling going on. And this tall old scrawny fellow that I never had seen before went up to my uncle, who had come up from Florida to help us that summer. He says, "Now if these boys want to make a go of this," he says, "I'll bring a band in here next Saturday night and I'll call the figures and we'll half whatever the gate is." So the next Saturday night about seven-thirty, in came this fellow that looked like he'd just come out of the green swamp and he had his fiddle in a flour sack. And I turned to my cousin, I said, "I don't know that we're better off now than we were with Homer last Saturday." But that group of people started playing and Foster Robbins started calling figures and we packed that place every Saturday night with three hundred and fifty or four hundred people in there square dancing and just had a great time. Met some wonderful people that way.

Interviewer: 'Cause Homer Briarhopper was big time.

Tomlinson: He was big time.

Interviewer: Grand Ole Opry types, at least they were later. I don't know whether they were that far back.

Interviewer 2: Where was your pavilion?

Tomlinson: It's right where the gazeboes are now. They used to run the- WBNS would run a bus over on Saturday night. After Smith rode the bus over. And they, he brought all the kids from Southport over to square dance.

Interviewer: Oh, gosh. But Hazel blew all that away I guess.

Tomlinson: Hazel took all that away, yup.

Interviewer: Got sidetracked off of your family. You were gonna tell us about your family.

Tomlinson: Oh, all right. I- I met Lee that summer. Her dad had bought a place down the beach and we met. And that was in the early spring. We got married in November of '48, and then I went to work for Newton News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company after I got out of the Navy. And our first daughter was born in Newport News along in '51 I guess. Then we moved back down here and the other four had been born in Southport, three boys and another girl. And uh...some of them can't get away from Southport and some of 'em want to keep coming back all the time if they can find anything to do. One lives in Atlanta, one lives up in Belmont, the other side of Charlotte, and one lives over in Wilmington, and the other one lives here in Southport.

Interviewer 2: Tell us their names.

Tomlinson: Well, there's Sally who lives in uh.. she's married to uh...Bryson Jackson. They have one boy, our oldest grandson, he's sixteen. Then uh...Eugene is next. He's a chef out at the Bridge Tender in Wilmington and he's just recently gotten married, married an occupational therapist from New Zealand. And uh...Mary is a beautician and sailor and everything. She lives here in Southport. And Watson, the next boy, is an engineer with Duke Power Company. They live up in Belmont. They have adopted two children, a little boy who's four and a little Korean girl who's two. And then the youngest son, uh...David, works at Wilmington Resources over in Wilmington, the group that's cutting up the Navy ships, and he's their environmental hazard specialist. He has a daughter who lives down in New Orleans. She's eight. So we've got 'em scattered all over.

Interviewer: So that's what, four grandchildren?

Tomlinson: There's five. Four- four grandchildren, five children.

Interviewer: Five children and four grandchildren. Okay, well I got plenty of time.

Tomlinson: They keep grandmamma hopping.

Interviewer 2: And Mary was our 4th of July queen in what year?

Tomlinson: She was Miss North Carolina the 4th of July in uh...goodness the early '70s, around '74, '75, somewhere about there I guess. I don't think we'll ever get her away from Southport. She's a hometown girl.

Interviewer 2: I would like to have you talk about coastal resources and why it's so important right now.

Tomlinson: Well, the Coastal Area Management Act that was passed in 1974 I think was one of the best pieces of legislation, as far as the coast of North Carolina, that ever came through the General Assembly. The General Assembly back at that time even in '74 realized the pressures that were going to build on the twenty coastal counties from the desire of people to get near the water. And that they realized unless some measures were taken to not so much as curtail development, but to keep development headed in the right direction, it'd probably wind up as a northern extension of Myrtle Beach or a southern extension of Virginia Beach, which I don't think anyone in his right mind really wants to see because what we've got on the coast of North Carolina... And I'm not knocking Virginia Beach or Myrtle Beach, if that's the destiny those people want to follow for their economic progress, that's great. But the coast of North Carolina, the economy seems to be tourism and that tourism is based on the desire of people to get into family-oriented type of situations where there's access to the water, where there's unclamoured ocean fronts where uh...we can still have an untrampled good time. I'll put it that way. So the Coastal Resources Commission has tried through its regulations to keep development oriented to that which we can actually sustain. We're working on right now of what the cumulative impact and what the carrying capacity of our barrier islands is. Why build and build and build when people can't get to it and you can't sustain the people once they get there? So uh...I'm hoping, hoping very much we're going to be able to keep North Carolina's coast in a relative pristine situation. Right now our tributaries and our estuary waters and our bays and sounds contribute, I think, over fifty percent of the nursery areas and productive fishing grounds on the entire Atlantic coast. And we see these being gobbled up by people who would bulldoze in the marshes, who would put in bulkheads and fill behind them, who would bulkhead the oceanfront so that we become like New Jersey or Miami Beach.

Interviewer: Yeah, where there's barbed wire fences to keep people from walking up and down the beach.

Tomlinson: Yup.

Interviewer: Well, since today is Earth Day and this is a good subject to raise, let me ask you a question. There's an awful lot of posturing in the newspaper from politicians of all sorts. Are we losing the battle or is there a lot of grandstanding?

Tomlinson: Some of both. For instance, the man who has been named the Chairman of the Environmental Committee in the House is either a developer or a contractor and I understand he has been quoted, at least in north of Virginia and Pilot [ph?], as saying he would like either like to see CAMA weakened or entirely repealed. So we do have some measures. Uh...the present General Assembly is not inclined toward additional funding for environmental protection, at least not in the opening days. And I'm hoping that with Governor Hunt's persuasiveness and the uh...far-reaching coastal agenda that he's presented to the General Assembly that these men will see that the economic viability of the- of eastern I-95 depends primarily on tourism. And if we destroy what we've got, then we've killed the goose and leave the golden egg. Once we overdevelop, once we destroy the marshes, the estuaries, the wetlands, then we've got nothing left to attract people here. They'd just as soon go somewhere else where you've got Ferris wheels and bumper cars.

Interviewer: Sure. And if they want that, there are already places they can go.

Tomlinson: Sure.

Interviewer: They don't need more of that.

Tomlinson: Yeah.

Interviewer: It's hard to sort out the kind of reports you get from a lot of hand wringing. And there was an interesting article in the paper this morning about eco-realism, I think is the term they used. It was interesting.

Tomlinson: But the- the point, and I made it uh...speaking to the Lions Club the other day, we're all in this together: citizens, developers, environmentalists, state regulators, contractors. Everybody's got to get together on this thing and- and push and let the General Assembly know what we want. People can't just sit back and say, "Well, let George do it." You got to contact your representative and make him know what you want him to vote for, what you want the coast to be like. Our land use planning is a roadmap for where we want to go. And we don't dictate to local communities what to put in their land use plan. Every local community is its own autonomous provider. You name your own destiny, but then once you give that to the commission, we want you to live up to it. We want them to put in it what they can actually sustain, what the people of that community want for its future.

Interviewer: Yeah. From the preservation of coast standpoint, Hurricane Hazel was a wonderful thing even now. I mean people lose a lot of money with it, but it certainly does clear away a lot of the schlock, doesn't it?

Tomlinson: It clears the air.

Interviewer: Yes, sir. We wouldn't have the waterfront park here in Southport if it hadn't been for Hazel.

Interviewer: That's correct. What do you think, Mary? Do you want to give him a break here?

Interviewer 2: No, I want to know what you see for Southport in the future.

Tomlinson: What do I see for Southport in the future? Well, that- that's a good one, Mary. Let's see here if I can get my thoughts together on that. I think that uh...if most of us who are here now live another twenty years or could come back twenty years from now, we would see Southport pretty much as it is right now. I don't foresee any overwhelming uh...pressures coming to bear on this particular area that's going to change it that much. I think that by way of uh...development, we're probably going to see light industry like Tritech, things that are environmentally sound, clean. I think we're going to see more of that come in than we are going to see huge industrial complexes. I don't think we'll ever have that surrounding Southport. Most of our devel- developable land has already been built upon so we're not going to see any further great uh...residential construction. I don't see how traffic could get much worse than it is now. I don't know where in the world all the cars come from and go to, but uh... I- I believe that uh.. it'll be pretty much like it is right now. And I think that the- the thing that pleases me is that with the industry that we've got so many of our homegrown young people are finding the opportunity to stay at home rather than having to leave to find a job someplace else and they, as they assume positions of leadership, will tend to keep things as they are rather than let things get out of hand.

Interviewer: Yeah. Sunny Point, from that standpoint, is a nice green island out there because of the blast site, so that's wonderful.

Tomlinson: Sure. I don't think that we will see the hole in the ground dug out here. I don't think that that would be uh...an environmentally acceptable situation for the community. I don't think it's necessary from our standpoint. It may be economically necessary for the company that wants to do it, but uh...I think we've got to take into consideration when these things are approved what's the overall temper of the community? What fits in with the lifestyle? What fits in with the growth projections? And here again we get back to the land use planning. If the county's land use plan had adequately addressed situations like this, they would have the necessary grounds to just say, "No, there's no- there's not gonna be. This doesn't fit the land use planning for the Southport area."

Interviewer: Yeah. Well, I guess I'm very optimistic. I'm glad to hear that. Yeah, that's great.

Tomlinson: I came here because I wanted to be here and when you want to be someplace, then you are more willing to expend your energies to keep it the way you want it to be. My wife quite frequently tells people that when I start talking about things, I tell them the way I wanted them to be rather than sometimes the way they actually were. But I think here in Southport things are going along pretty much the way we wanted them to be. So we don't have to exaggerate when we start talking about it- its past, its present, or its future.

Interviewer: Well, it's like religion. You know, the converts are always the ones that are just really right in there with all the interest. The ones that are born to it are so like, "Eh." That's right. And I think Southport over the years has hugely benefited from people coming in from various places. Like you said, we haven't had the kind of people who want to change it all.

Tomlinson: And what few there have been, I think, have been invited to leave in polite terms.

Interviewer 2: We know where the town gate is.

Tomlinson: Yes.

Interviewer 2: We locked it behind us.

Tomlinson: I made- I made the proposal sometime back to the Coastal Resources Commission that if we really want to do good with the coastal communities, and during the summer the tremendous influx of visitors places a financial burden on these barrier islands as well as Southport. So let's put a toll on all of the bridges leading on and share the money between the state and the local community. And we could put a toll on the two bridges leading into Southport and it would be of great benefit not only to the state, but to the town fathers, an additional source of revenue. And all these people who want to come in and ride down and loop the cedar bench and go back out can leave a dollar in the tollbooth.

Interviewer: That would be wonderful. Do you want to raise the ferry price too? Yeah, we'll get the ferry out there. What the Bald Head ferry costs. Yeah, well Fort Fisher would have something to say about that I guess 'cause a lot of 'em are going the other way. Totally different subject and you probably know Buster, the guy that collects the sightings of cougars, and since you spent a long time out there at Sunny Point, do you reckon what he's saying is true, that there are cougars in the woods out there at Sunny Point?

Tomlinson: I'm sure there are.

Interviewer: Good. Okay.

Tomlinson: You know, back when we were building Sunny Point, Ormond Leggett, our Fire Chief, was alive and had this store down on the front street there and Dan Harrelson, who had the grocery store and is now retired, owned the Robin's Nest. Dan had some peacocks out there and the cougars or the bobcats or the wildcats were getting into his peacocks. So he and Ormond decided that they would trap some bobcats or whatever it was that was disturbing the things and put 'em on display down in the front window of Dan's grocery store. And one Saturday afternoon, and this was right after we had gotten the ABC Store in Southport [laughs] in the late '50s, Ormond brought a shiny black leather suitcase around to Dan's and they got their heads together and coaxed one of these cats into the suitcase and took the- We hadn't closed off the old River Road then. It kind of wound around over Walder's Creek. And they went out there [clears throat] thinking there would be some folks coming into town to the ABC Store later that afternoon. So they went out and put the black suitcase on the side of the rode and drove off down in the woods a little bit to wait and see what happened. And sure enough, in about a half an hour a carload of folks came along who had been down to the ABC Store and they put on brakes and backed up and one of 'em opened the back door and snatched that suitcase in and they just took off like mad. This is a true story.

Interviewer: Was the cat still alive?

Tomlinson: I assume so. An- anyway, Dan and Ormond judiciously followed along a little behind and got to the first curve going around Walder's Creek and the car is out in the marsh with all four doors open [laughs], no sign of the occupants or the cat and only the open suitcase. [Laughs]

Interviewer: Oh, that's wonderful.

Tomlinson: So I expect there are some cougars and bobcats around still.

Interviewer: Yeah, and he's been collecting sightings for a long time. And Sunny Point's supposed to be one of the chief habitats because it's so large and nobody can get in there and bother 'em.

Tomlinson: We used to have foxhunts out at Sunny Point on a periodic basis.

Interviewer: Really?

Tomlinson: Yeah. These- well, we had one CO out there who was a very avid foxhunter. They'd get all the army jeeps round up and he'd invite all the- the hunters to come out there to have breakfast in the cafeteria on Saturday morning. With a great shout and a tally-ho and blowing of the bugle, they'd set off to chase foxes all over the terminal.

Interviewer: In the jeeps?

Tomlinson: In the jeep, yes. So I- one Saturday afternoon along about four o'clock I called out to the water plant to ask the water plant operator on duty how everything was going. And when he picked up the phone, he was about to crack up laughing. And I said, "Hargrove, what's so funny?" He said, "Mr. Gene, I'm standing here looking down at the perimeter road at all the foxes crawling back under the fence coming back on the terminal now that the hunt's over." [Laughs]

Interviewer 2: Do you remember the foxhunts on the beach?

Tomlinson: Yes. My cousin, Carter Watkins, used to fix the chowder in the great big iron pot that uh...they served over there.

Interviewer: Of course, they were a little more civilized. They rode horses for that, right?

Tomlinson: You know, we had an Episcopal rector here one time who was a retired Army chaplain, and he and I got to talking about the Washington area and funny things that had happened in the past. And he said one year when he was on duty at Arlington, they invited him to come out to uh...Vienna, a very fashionable section out there, and give the blessing of the hounds for the opening hunt of the season. And I said, "Well, what happened?" He said, "Well, they never invited me back." And I said, "Well, why?" He says, "Well, I blessed the fox instead of the hound. I thought with that crowd the fox needed some help." [Laughs]

Interviewer: Did they ever catch any foxes over there on Long Beach or just chase 'em?

Tomlinson: I think they probably caught one or two, but there again, I think all of 'em took off and left the island when they heard that crowd coming.

Interviewer: Most of it is just for the fun of the chase.

Tomlinson: Just the fun of the chase.

Interviewer 2: I saw one not long ago cross the road.

Interviewer: A fox?

Interviewer 2: Um hmm.

Interviewer: Good. That's good.

Interviewer 2: Near the golf course.

Tomlinson: My cousin and his wife and Lee and I when we were living on the beach had been into town to the Amuse You Theater one night to see the local cinema that was showing. And going back across the causeway, a fox ran out and hit my cousin's vehicle and slightly broke his neck. So there hadn't been much amusement happening on the beach since the season had ended. So we picked the fox up and took him over to this store where we usually gathered and hung the fox up on the rafters of the front porch, thinking we would cause a little discussion about things. And we went on over to our house and about time we heard all the dogs in the neighborhood barking. Well, this was around eleven thirty at night so my cousin and I thought we'd better go over there and take the fox down and throw him back out in the marsh. So the next morning, the lady who owned the store showed up and here's blood drippings all over the front porch. And here come the neighbors and the deputy sheriff and everybody. And they ascertained that there must have been a awful fight over there and the dogs chased whoever was gonna break in the store off because they all heard the dogs barking and one of 'em must have bit the man 'cause there was blood all over. [Laughs] And we stood there and tried to maintain a straight face through the whole thing of what had happened. [Laughs]

Interviewer 2: Did you ever own up to it?

Tomlinson: No, no. No, not to anything like that.

Interviewer 2: Now it's on tape.

Interviewer: Now it's recorded. Yes, that's right.

Tomlinson: Well, that's enough.

Interviewer: We thank you very much. This is great.

Interviewer 2: Absolutely.

Tomlinson: It's good to think about old times.

Interviewer 2: I appreciate it, Mr. Mayor.

Interviewer: And we'll get you a copy of this so you can show it to all your grandchildren.

Tomlinson: Alright, that'll be great. Thanks a lot.

Interviewer 2: Thank you, Gene.

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