Monday, May 02, 2005

New England in the South

This is the lead of an article that appeared first in The Nashville Tennessean. My parents live in this community, a great little place that like most such places if growing way too fast - visit while you can.

SOUTHPORT, N.C. - American flags snap in the sea breeze at the front of foursquare houses, discreetly marked with plaques naming the captains and merchants who built them two centuries ago. Columned porches offer a view of sailing yachts and fishing boats plying between the harbor and the islands.
But the trees shading those porches are live oaks, and the flag that unfurls its red and blue fields beside the Stars and Stripes is the banner of the Old North State.
Southport, a harbor village at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, has charmed visitors for decades with its New England ambience, and recently has bloomed as a retirement center and arts colony. The location is perfect – 30 miles from the cultural center of Wilmington, 65 miles from the nightlife of Myrtle Beach, S.C. - and only a few miles by water or land from your pick of clean, uncrowded beaches.
The Spanish touched ground here in the 16th century, but settlers didn’t make their mark until the early 1700s. The town of Southport was chartered in 1792 – as Smithville – and began celebrating the nation’s independence each July 4 starting in 1795. Today, it hosts the state’s official Fourth of July Festival, and earns its red-and-white stripes.
“If you ever wanted to see a Fourth of July done Norman Rockwell style, Southport is it,” said Karen Sphar, executive vice president of the Southport Oak Island Chamber of Commerce. “Red, white and blue – you gotta wear it – there’s a lot of patriotic spirit here.”
A naturalization ceremony welcomes new citizens, reminding us of the enduring lure of our democracy. And the city breaks out an old-time parade “with queens and Shriners and people’s dogs from the neighborhood wearing red, white and blue,” Sphar said.
This town likes its festivals – an azalea festival in the spring, fishing tournaments, a Christmas festival featuring a regatta of lighted watercraft, and the annual Art in the Park
On a sunny April afternoon, area artists set up shop in The Grove of Franklin Square Park. Visitors strolled among banks of bright azaleas and bright watercolors, or paused to taste water from the old well that, legend has it, will ensure their return. Penny Prettyman was among the artists gathered at the steps of the Franklin Square Gallery, a former schoolhouse that’s home for a cooperative of some 150 artists. (Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday hours June, July and August). She and the other officers chimed in one after the other to promote their gallery, and with good reason – beautiful seascapes and depictions of the town line the walls, but also collage, abstracts, practical and art ceramics and sculpture.
This is the largest but by no means the only gallery. As in New England towns, you will find artists painting the crab traps and pelicans of the fishing fleet, or creating watercolors in Waterfront Park – where you might be entertained by a conga drummer setting a tropical beat.
That park is one of the distinctive features of Southport, with its free municipal fishing pier, whittler’s bench and green-painted porch swings. The ones in the shade of Bay Street oaks are highly regarded by locals and visitors alike.
From the waterfront, walk up Howe Street to enjoy the small-town experience of browsing at local shops, from ones offering smoked seafood or kitchen gadgets or beach fashions to some of the many antique stores. One of more interesting shops is the Dosher Flea Market in a tall red-brick building on Moore Street. This well-run charity operation supports equipment purchases for Dosher Memorial Hospital - a public hospital supported by a tax on local residents.
Howe Street continues as Route 211, past carefully restored cottages that now house professional offices and out to the busy intersection with Long Beach Road that takes you out to Oak Island. Southport is the commercial hub for much of Brunswick County, which extends the full width of the “South Coast” from the mouth of the Cape Fear River to the Little River between the Carolinas. Seaward is string of barrier islands with broad sand beaches and a traditional “summer place” sensibility.

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