Virginia Williamson (93) Remembers Ocean Isle Beach
Virginia Williamson recalls the early days of developing Ocean Isle Beach with her husband, Odell.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Genie Leigh Photography
When the Coca-Cola deliveryman handed 17-year-old Virginia Cox a little note across the counter at her uncle’s country store in Hickman’s Crossroads, she wasn’t sure what to make of it. “It was a note from Odell Williamson,” she says. “He wanted to meet me.”
It was 1939 and Odell, then 19, had recently opened a general store nearby.
“Well, I cancelled the first date,” Virginia says with a laugh. “Odell cancelled the second, but the third try was the charm.” The two were married a year later.
Now 93, she looks out at the Atlantic from her home in Ocean Isle Beach and reflects on that moment with joy. “It has been a truly long and good life,” she says.
Born to Olin and Martha Cox in Loris, S.C., Virginia came into the world on a wing and a prayer. “Momma went into labor early and my 15-year old sister Lula had to deliver me!” she says. There was no doctor in the area, and her father was away working. “That’s why I am here,” she says. “There were so many people praying for me.”
The sixth of eight children, Virginia graduated high school at 16 and attended Marlborough Business School in Bennettsville before she moved to Hickman’s Crossroads. Marriage was the furthest thing from her plans, but when she met Odell, her fate was sealed.
In the first year of their marriage, Odell’s mother passed away and the young couple cared for two of his younger brothers for six months. Then World War II broke out and Odell joined the Army, training as a pilot. “He went overseas and flew reconnaissance missions in enemy territory,” Virginia says. The Allies used his reports to bomb enemy locations.
Virginia moved to Wilmington with Odell’s sister and worked at the shipyard offices. “Every night we wrote letters to our husbands,” she recalls. “I would look over and she was tearing up, then my eyes would water.” They wrote hundreds of letters through the duration of the war. Seventy years later she still has 30 of those of those letters that were returned unopened.
Shortly after Odell returned from Europe, the couple opened a car dealership in Shallotte. On the weekends they would fly around the area in his second-hand plane, looking for property to develop. “Flying in that little canvas-covered plane will sure teach you to pray,” she says.
It was from the air that Odell and Virginia dreamed of developing the little unnamed island that had been created in 1934 when the Intracoastal Waterway was carved through southeastern Brunswick County. Back then, the hidden gem was home to Hale Beach, Gause Beach and Little Beach.
“It was so isolated, there even used to be a honky tonk out there in Prohibition years,” Virginia says. “Back when you could drive right over to the ocean before the waterway was cut through.”
Those development dreams were put on hold when, in 1947, Odell decided to run for an open seat in the state legislature. “It was a close fight,” Virginia says. “He went out to the fields and shook hands with nearly everyone.” He won and served in the state House of Representatives for six nonconsecutive terms. Virginia took on the role of a politician’s wife. “Folks always wanted to visit the beach, and often we had to entertain at a moment’s notice,” she recalls.
Lucky for the Williamsons, Odell flew his plane to work, cutting travel time back and forth to Raleigh. “He would fly out on Monday mornings and leave Fridays at noon to return home,” she says. During the week, she would handle the business and then she would greet him at the door on Friday with everything she had taken care of during the week.
“One of Odell’s first pet projects was bringing a bridge to Holden Beach,” Virginia recalls. He decided if the bridge came to Holden Beach, he would buy the old ferry and then buy the little undeveloped island just west of it. “Holden Beach got the bridge, but Odell didn’t get the ferry,” she says. “But we decided to buy the island anyway.”
The Williamsons discovered that another Brunswick County native, Manon Gore, also was interested in developing the island, so the Williamsons and the Gores teamed up. After purchasing much of the property, they all agreed the island needed a new name. “I thought Ocean Isle Beach was such a pretty name,” Virginia says.
For the next four years, the Williamsons and Gores prepared the island for development. In 1950 they built a four-car ferry, and Odell added a landing strip on the east end of the island. The ferry remained, but the airstrip did not. “We had to abandon that idea,” Virginia says. “The cross winds were too rough.” Odell bought some land and built the airstrip less than a mile from the island. The Ocean Isle Beach Airport is there today.
Next, the couple bought large swaths of land between the island and U.S. Highway 17. “Odell decided we needed a direct road from the highway to the center of the island,” Virginia says. “He cleared much of that strip himself.” It took several years to build. Still known affectionately to locals as “Four-Mile Road,” Ocean Isle Beach Road remains the most direct route onto the island from U.S. 17.
By 1953 the island was plotted and divided and ready for auction. “We had people from all over the state come to buy the lots,” Virginia says. More than 1,000 people attended the opening sale, and 125 lots were sold, with Gore and Williamson financing the sales.
In a devastating turn of events, just one year later, Hurricane Hazel swept away 39 of the 41 houses and cottages on the island.
Odell and Virginia were in Shallotte with their children, LaDane and DeCarol, during the hurricane. It was October, and LaDane had already started school.
The day after the storm, Odell and dozens of locals scoured the shoreline along the mainland for survivors. “The strange thing is, no one was afraid of that storm,” Virginia remembers. “Odell talked with the fishermen and they didn’t think it would be that serious.”
It turned out to be very serious. Odell’s sister, Madeline Register, and her husband, Sherman, perished along with their young son, Buddy. Daughter Sonya was pulled from the watery debris barely alive. Madeline’s body was the only one never recovered. The Williamsons welcomed their niece Sonya into their home.
“It was overwhelming,” Virginia says. “The loss of life had a huge impact on us.”
The tragedy required that the developers start over. The four-car ferry was repaired and the lots and roads cleared once more, but the Williamson-Gore partnership ended. “Odell decided to go forward, and so we did,” Virginia says. “And I am so glad we did because today Ocean Isle Beach is exactly the way Odell and I dreamed it would be.”
The work was endless, sometimes spanning 12-hour days for weeks on end. “Moving sand, rebuilding the roads took long hours,” Virginia says. “And there wasn’t a phone around.” Telephone service didn’t reach the island until 1956.
Odell built the first fishing pier on the island in 1957 and built the offices for their company Ocean Isle Beach Realty across the street. To make room for a parking lot at the pier, he moved an old duplex to a new lot and converted it to a private, four-bedroom oceanfront cottage, where Virginia spends her time to this day.
The history of the Town of Ocean Isle Beach is the history of the Williamson family. It was incorporated in 1959 with Odell as the first mayor. “And what progress we were making,” Virginia recalls. “That year, the state built a swing bride to replace our old ferry.”
The family moved to the island permanently in 1964, when they built a contemporary brick home. Virginia served as mayor from 1969 to 1973. “Living in a small town, everyone had to take a turn serving the community one way or another,” she says. “Our daughter LaDane replaced me and served from 1973 to 1987.”
The Williamsons continued to develop the area, adding golf courses, a hotel and a restaurant to their portfolio. At the same time, they shared their success with the extended community. They sponsored a Vietnamese refugee family after that war; donated the land for the Museum of Coastal Carolina and Seaside United Methodist Church; funded scholarships to Campbell University; provided a $500,000 endowment to Virginia Williamson Elementary School; and donated $500,000 to Brunswick Community College for a new auditorium. In 1991 Odell built a nondenominational chapel in honor of Virginia. Weekly beach services are held each Sunday.
“Granddaddy and Grandmomma were true philanthropists,” says Marnie Williamson, the couple’s oldest granddaughter. “When she heard that there was a need for a mental health facility in our county, Grandmomma donated the land and money to build Coastal Horizon Center. She also provided the funds for one year of operating costs.”
Virginia is still active in the chapel and the real estate business. She attends weekly Bible study at the chapel and goes into the office every Thursday. She attributes her longevity to the man upstairs. “I am here because of a lot of prayer,” she says, pointing one finger to the sky. “Prayer has also gotten me through two wars. When Odell was in World War II and when our son, DeCarol, was in Vietnam.”
Her favorite restaurant, of course, is The Isles, a family business that Marnie manages. DeCarol and LaDane may manage The Islander Inn, Ocean Isle Beach Realty and the Pearl Golf Course now, but Virginia is still involved. “I don’t think a major decision has ever been made that they did not run past Grandmomma first,” Marnie says. And the matriarch of Ocean Isle Beach would not have it any other way.
A grandmother of 10 and great grandmother of 16, she recalls her experiences with delight. “It was a lot of work, work, work — and it still is,” she says. “But there was nothing in this area until Odell started working on it.”