Mile High Milestone

Dedication of Mile High Swinging Bridge, Sept. 2, 1952

Grandfather Mountain’s Mile High Swinging Bridge was dedicated 56 years ago on September 2, 1952 by then-Governor William B. Umstead (pictured above at the ceremony at center, with his daughter, WBT Radio announcer Grady Cole on the left, and Hugh Morton on the right).

The bridge was one of several projects Morton took on during the early years of his oversight of Grandfather, designed to turn it into (according to the slogan he coined) “Carolina’s TOP scenic attraction.”

An Oct. 1, 1978 article about Morton from the Greensboro Daily News recounts the following:

The swinging bridge was one of two options when Morton decided to get visitors from the gift shop-museum parking lot to the rocky overlook. “We had to have some way to get them across, and we could either have a stationary bridge or a swinging bridge,” he said. “We decided the swinging bridge would be more fun, and would make a good conversation piece.” Some 30 percent of women visitors, and a smaller percentage of males, however, think it best not to cross the bridge.

Crossing the bridge is one thing (speaking as a “woman visitor” who has done it, in 95-mph winds, even!); building it is entirely another, as you can see in the picture below. This is NOT a job I would have taken on.

Construction of Mile High Swinging Bridge, 1952

The Mile High Swinging Bridge proved not just a promotional boon for Morton, but a photographic one as well. He took many beautiful images of the bridge over the years—enveloped in mist, framed by vivid fall leaves or blooming rhododendrons, encased in rime ice. I find the (cropped) image below particularly “striking.”

Mile High Swinging Bridge in lightning storm, circa 1950s

Highway 17

A couple of weeks ago, I went to spend a few leisurely days with my family at Sunset Beach, NC. The idea, of course, was to get away from it all—little did I realize that when one’s job centers around Hugh Morton, it’s impossible to drive on North Carolina’s highways without being constantly reminded of work! Highway 17 near Wilmington is especially bad. Nearly every road sign I saw reminded me of Morton—Castle Hayne, St. Helena, Holden Beach, Orton Plantation, the State Ports, and of course the USS North Carolina, which we drove right by (twice!) . . .
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The image below shows (I believe) Morton’s wife Julia and a little girl (maybe their daughter Catherine) in a field of daffodils at Castle Haynes (over time, it seems, the “S” has been dropped from the place name). Morton took many a portrait in these highly photogenic flower fields.

Julia and Catherine [?] Morton in daffodil field at Castle Hayne[s], NC, circa early 1960s

The story of Castle Hayne(s) and St. Helena is a fascinating one: Hugh MacRae, Morton’s grandfather, founded these two experimental colonies around the turn of the 20th century, with the goal of attracting European immigrants to introduce their systems of intensive agriculture to the Southeast. In a March 1934 article from The State magazine, MacRae is quoted as saying, “I feel sure that we have got to rebuild our economic structure beginning at the base, which means a reshaping of rural life.”

Hugh MacRae with calf, probably at Invershiel farm in Pender County, NC, circa 1940s

Farm families from countries including Greece, Russia, Italy, Holland, Germany, Poland, and Hungary transplanted themselves to New Hanover and Pender counties to begin new lives, and many proved highly successful. From the March 10, 1934 The State article: “While the cancerous depression was eating the core out of farming financially and otherwise all over the United States, these colonies were teeming with prosperity in comparison.” (Note: anyone interested in learning more about MacRae’s experiment and similar settlements should track down the following article: “A Reconnaissance of Some Cultural-Agricultural Islands in the South,” by Walter M. Kollmorgen, Economic Geography Vol. 17, No. 4, Oct. 1941, pp. 409-430.)

While the Hugh Morton image below is labeled simply “Dutch Girls,” I feel certain it was taken at Castle Hayne, sometime during the 1940s:

“Dutch Girls,” probably at Castle Hayne agricultural settlement, circa 1940s

I’m less certain about the following Morton image, which is one of a batch of negatives I found in an envelope labeled “Estonians.” It shows what I assume is a group of immigrants or visitors from Estonia, taken probably on the Wilmington waterfront during the 1940s. Were these people coming to settle at MacRae’s colonies? I have no idea. (If it helps anyone with identification, a building in the background reads either “Maffitt…” or “Haffitt…”).

“Estonians,” Wilmington, NC waterfront [?], circa 1940s

Later articles from The State (from the 8/11/1945 and 11/16/1957 issues), reinforce the notion that this particular experiment proved beneficial to the region’s economy. I don’t know much about what’s going on in St. Helena and Castle Hayne these days, other than what I learned from a recent article in the Wilmington Star News about the possible closure of the Castle Hayne Horticultural Crops Research Station. Can anyone help bring us up to date?

You see how easy it is to get caught up in just one of the roadside locations along Highway 17. Perhaps I’ll explore others in future posts.

Who Am I?–North Carolina Azalea Festival Edition

Azalea blossomsWilmington’s 61st annual North Carolina Azalea Festival kicks off next week (April 9-13). Hugh Morton played an integral role in the event’s founding: while only in his twenties, he was selected to serve as president of the inaugural festival in 1948. (A letter from Morton on the festival’s website explains that when he missed a committee meeting, they responded by electing him president). As Susan Taylor Block writes in “Clan MacRae,” an article in the 4/2007 issue of Wrightsville Beach magazine, Morton deserves credit not only for Wilmington’s Azalea Festival, but also many of its azalea plants:

Morton had worked diligently since 1946 to make the 1948 Azalea Festival debut a success. He encouraged Wilmingtonians to plant azaleas, persuaded the local government to plant an additional 175,000 azaleas at Greenfield Lake and recruited garden clubs to transplant azaleas from their own private gardens to public spaces. Morton encouraged the festival fathers to be careful stewards of the event’s ticket take, seek out quality in celebrity guests and make the azalea itself the guest of honor. He knew that if the first festival ended up in the red, it would be the last.

North Carolina Azalea Festival negatives in the Morton collection are numerous and mostly in good shape, but not well-documented. The early years of the festival (from 1948 to about 1958) are best represented, but little identifying information is provided other than the year (if that). Fortunately, we have at least one good source to work from—historian Block’s 2004 book Belles & Blooms, heavily illustrated by Morton’s photos. Block’s time line will help us pin down some of the major details, like who was queen in what year, what celebrities attended, etc.

In the meantime, though, we’re asking you to help us put names to faces in some of these early shots.

Unidentified celebrities at the Azalea Festival, Wilmington, NC, ca. early 1950s
Judging from the enormous fur coat and all the cameras pointed at them, I’m guessing that these people are famous. But who are they?

Azalea Festival group at the airport, Wilmington, NC, 1950
The image above was taken at the 1950 Azalea Festival. I can’t read any of the name tags, but I do see that the man on the far right (in the headdress) has a program from “Unto These Hills” (an outdoor drama performed at Cherokee, North Carolina) in his pocket.

Grady Cole (L) and unidentified woman holding up an X-ray, Wilmington, NC, ca. early 1950s
The man in this photo is Grady Cole, talk radio celebrity with WBT Radio in Charlotte, North Carolina (and frequent Morton photo subject in the early 1950s). But who is the woman—and is she the same woman from the previous photo? Most importantly, why are they holding up what looks like an x-ray of somebody’s spine?!

Fire at Tweetsie

Tweetsie Railroad, 1959

The first thing I heard this morning was the announcer on my clock-radio saying that the building housing the museum and gift shop at Tweetsie Railroad had been destroyed in a fire over the weekend. This awful news gives me a pang of sad nostalgia, as I grew up within earshot of the Tweetsie whistle—close enough that we could stand on our deck and watch the fireworks on the 4th of July. We went to Tweetsie pretty often (I specifically remember performing an excellent Ghostbusters-themed routine at the Palace Saloon with my tap dance class). The smell of railroad tar always reminds me of those childhood visits.

The good news is that only one building was lost; the bad news is that it was one of the original depot buildings, and contained pieces of irreplaceable memorabilia including railroad timetables and lanterns, photographs, and the boots, saddle, Stetson, holster, and shirt worn by singing cowboy Fred Kirby during his 30-year career portraying Tweetsie’s marshal. The Morton images below show Kirby in 1959, his first year in the role.

Fred Kirby as the Tweetsie Marshal, with other actors, July 1959

In the image below, the boy at center (in the tube socks) is Jim Morton, Hugh Morton’s son.

Fred Kirby as the Tweetsie Marshal posing with boys including Jim Morton, July 1959

This last image, a cropped version of the original, shows Hugh Morton posing with Kirby (in his trademark red shirt with white fringe) at Grandfather Mountain in about 1963. The photographer is unknown.

Hugh Morton and Fred Kirby at Grandfather Mountain, ca. 1963.

A “giant” of NC tourism

Hugh Morton’s energetic promotion of travel and tourism in the Southern Appalachians is well known. This High Country Press article provides Spencer Robbins’ first-hand perspective on Morton’s tourism work, which included helping found both the Southern Highlands Attractions Association and the High Country Host. (Please note: the Goodman article reflects personal perceptions of events, and contains at least one inaccuracy when it states that Morton considered a run for governor in the mid-1980s; it was in 1971 that Morton announced his candidacy for the 1972 election, but he dropped out before the primary.)

Morton’s boosterism is definitely reflected in the images he produced. In addition to the hundreds (thousands?) of shots in the collection taken of, on, or around Grandfather Mountain, there are numerous photos of other attractions including outdoor dramas, lighthouses and other coastal landmarks, the Barter Theatre in Virginia, Georgia’s Rock City, The Blowing Rock, Tweetsie Railroad, and the wonderful Land of Oz on Beech Mountain. (Some of these will be featured in a later blog posts, so stay tuned!)

But here’s one we just can’t figure out. This splotchy negative appears to show a re-creation of the giant’s house from the Jack and the Beanstalk story, shown with a real-life boy to provide perspective. The calendar on the wall reads, “Jack & Co. We Grow ‘Em Big! Dealer in Beanstalks at Magic Mt. Blvd. Pho.: Fe Fi Fo Fum.” The date on the calendar (oddly) is “Augustus 1063,” a month which apparently had 33 days. I know the J & B tale is old, but that old?

Part of my fascination with this image is that it seems vaguely familiar, as if I might have visited this place as a kid. Help me out—do you know why, where, when, or of whom this picture was taken?

Jack and the Beanstalk