Within County Lines
Sprawling between metropolitan Wilmington and the Myrtle Beach Grand Strand, Brunswick County offers a dizzying array of recreational, business and cultural opportunities. Individual in their character, the county’s 19 municipalities welcome newcomers from all over the country, making this consistently one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States. Still, the population is small, only 131,000 in a land mass that’s among the largest in the state.
The county was formed in 1764 but was settled many years before. Many natives descend from those early pioneers, who were Scottish, Irish, English and French. The first county seat was Brunswick Town on the west bank of the Cape Fear River near present-day Southport. It was founded by Maurice Moore, son of Governor James Moore. In 1779 the county seat was moved to Lockwood Folly and in 1808 to Smithville (Southport), where it remained for 167 years before it was moved to its present location in Bolivia.
As the region has grown, newcomers have brought with them diversity in language, culture and religion that is reflected in increasing use of the Spanish language and restaurants boasting Italian and Asian cuisine and Jamaican specialties along with traditional seafood dishes. Worshipers can choose from interdenominational services on the beach strand, Buddhist ceremonies at their temple in the community of Supply or traditional observances at numerous Protestant and Catholic churches. Novant Health, New Hanover Regional Medical Center and Dosher Memorial Hospital as well as many specialty groups have full-service healthcare facilities in the county.
SO MUCH TO SEE AND DO
Perhaps the greatest reason of all to be in Brunswick County is the lifestyle. Thirty golf courses are in the environs and another 70-plus are within a few minutes’ drive. Fishing, sailing, shelling, horseback riding, surfing, water skiing, birding, pickleball, antique collecting and beach walking are other favorite pastimes.
Nature’s glory may be one of the most exciting attractions in the county. Along the coast and inland rivers, estuaries and swamps, the region’s wildlife is thriving. From brown pelicans to songbirds to bald eagles, the birds tell a story of ecological preservation combined with human development. Four species of endangered sea turtles – loggerhead, green sea turtle, leatherback and the extremely rare Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle – have been laying their eggs on Brunswick’s shores for thousands of years. Hatchlings emerge 50 to 85 days later, providing a thrilling silent show as they find their way to the sea under the full moon.
Outdoor enthusiasts may want to trek into the Green Swamp Preserve, a 15,000-acre Nature Conservancy preserve located northwest of Supply. Known for its dense vegetation and wildlife, the swamp is home to endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, black bears and bobcats. The vast array of plant life includes 14 species of carnivorous plants, including Venus flytraps, which grow only in this part of the world. Before attempting to go into the Green Swamp, contact The Nature Conservancy for a map and ask about local guides.
Life here isn’t all fun and games, however. The county boasts five business and industrial development parks and a strong economic development community working tirelessly to bring new businesses and jobs. Students in the region enjoy modern classroom and athletic facilities from pre-school through college.
Beginning with licensed childcare facilities, educational opportunities continue through the public and private secondary schools. Post-secondary education is available through Brunswick Community College
(BCC), which awards associate degrees, certificates and diplomas. Programs include aquaculture, basic law enforcement, business, medical professions and a college transfer program. Also on the BCC campus is the 1,500-seat Odell Williamson Auditorium, which hosts concerts, touring Broadway shows, local events and more.
Many Brunswick County locations have been backdrops for television and film. Locals often have the opportunity to perform as extras in these productions, which bring an added dimension to the county’s economic growth.
While the county has many small unincorporated communities with curious names, such as Ash, Half Hell, Longwood, Red Bug, etc., it has 19 incorporated towns, each with a distinctive flair and personality.
TOWNS TIED TO THE RIVERS & WATERWAY
BELVILLE – Once a tiny community in the northeastern section of the county, Belville is a rapidly growing town. Part of the town’s vision includes incorporation of its Brunswick River waterfront as a recreational and educational center on 150 acres that were once part of 280-acre Belville Plantation owned by the family of Daniel Lindsay Russell, who served as government of North Carolina from 1897 to 1901. This riverfront area includes a public boat ramp, picnic facilities, walking trails, shoreline fishing and a playground. You can also buy fresh seafood from Thursday to Sunday compliments of SeaView Crab Company. They have an open air location there to serve locals and visitors alike. Incorporated in 1977, the Town of Belville includes more than 3,000 acres. The town center includes several small businesses as well as shopping centers, real estate, golf courses and other businesses.
SHALLOTTE – The commercial hub of the region, and one of the earliest areas settled, Shallotte grew on the banks of the Shallotte River and incorporated in 1899. River pilots navigated the winding river from the ocean into the center of town in the early 1800s, bringing food and supplies to settlers from miles around. Strategically located on U.S. Highway 17, which runs from Maine to Florida, Shallotte serves as the trade center for surrounding communities and beaches. Shallotte has a variety
of fine shops, supermarkets, shopping centers, a microbrewery, professional offices and restaurants. National hotel chains have facilities along Highway 17 bypass in Shallotte. The town also has aggressive plans to develop its waterfront. Free concerts are held on Thursdays in downtown’s Mulberry Park, which also hosts a farmer’s market on Saturdays in the summer.
ST. JAMES – Begun in the 1980s as a private subdivision off N.C. Highway 211, the town of St. James was incorporated in 1999. Built along the Intracoastal Waterway and near Lockwood Folly River, the town has welcomed more than 4,500 residents from around the country. Their dedication to their community is visible in their award-winning service club and several other organizations that provide many hours of volunteer service to the community and to causes dear to residents. St. James features four golf courses, a full-service marina, tennis courts, swimming pools and a beach club on Oak Island.
SOUTHPORT – Southport’s position at the mouth of the Cape Fear River where it flows into the Atlantic made it a logical choice for pre-colonial settlers. A few miles upriver, Brunswick Town and Fort Anderson were founded in 1726 and burned by the British in 1776. These ruins are vital to the state’s archeological history.
Long ago, the town of Southport became a favored stop for steamboat and schooner captains ferrying goods between Wilmington and the Atlantic Ocean, as well as for wealthy Wilmingtonians seeking a rest from city life. Today, the riverfront boasts Victorian-era homes along with antiques shops, art galleries, restaurants, ancient oak trees and more modern structures such as Dosher Memorial Hospital, a four-bay fire station and numerous commercial centers.
A stop at the Whittler’s Bench on the Southport riverfront allows visitors to view Bald Head Island, the Atlantic merging with the Cape Fear and the Intracoastal Waterway. The region’s maritime history is explained at the Southport Maritime Museum on Howe Street; visitors should also stop by the Old Brunswick County Jail and Old Smithville Burying Ground. A short ferry ride from here is Fort Fisher State Park, the last stronghold of the Confederacy. The fort was instrumental in protecting the port of Wilmington. It was the largest earthwork fort in the South active during the Civil War.
At the ferry landing, you’ll see Price Lighthouse, the last of a string of squat brick sentinels constructed between 1845 and 1851 from Wilmington to the mouth of the Cape Fear River. During the Civil War, Confederate troops used the lighthouse to communicate with officers at Fort Fisher. It was closed in 1867.
Southport’s notable charms have made it the backdrop for many film projects, including Nicholas Sparks’ Safe Haven. Tours of local film locations are available.
Southport hosts the state’s official Fourth of July Celebration and parade each year. Displaying their sense of humor, residents string together the name of four prominent streets, three named for Colonial figures — Lord, Howe, Dry, I Am. We’ll likely never know the origin, but it’s fun to speculate.
VARNAMTOWN – Tied to Lockwood Folly River, Varnamtown is north of Shallotte on State Road 1245. Roland Varnum, who was likely of Scottish or Irish descent, came to the area from Maine as a cabin boy on
a ship in the early 1800s. Many of the local residents, both Varnum and Varnam, are his descendants. The fishing village, only .97 square miles in size, incorporated in 1988, but it retains its charm with homes and businesses shaded by giant live oaks, many near the docks where shrimp boats moor between runs or for maintenance. The importance of the river is celebrated each November at Dixon Chapel United Methodist Church when a thousand or so of their best friends and neighbors show up for a serious oyster roast. To join in, bring a good appetite and your own oyster knife.
CALABASH – The southernmost river town is Calabash, originally part of the 48,000-acre grant to Proprietor Landgrave Thomas Smith dated May 13, 1691. Its position on the river and near the Atlantic made it a natural site for Clinton Morris’s oyster roast, the first Calabash restaurant, which opened in a crude shed with a sawdust floor in 1935. Today it is a tourist area, with an abundance of fine restaurants, shops and nearby golf courses. It is home to about 1,800 residents. Summer brings concerts to the town park on Tuesday evenings from 6 until 8:30.
Now known as the Seafood Capital of the World, Calabash has an auspicious history of Revolutionary War involvement and presidential visits. During the Revolution, Isaac Marion, older brother of legendary General Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion, lived in the 1760s-era Boundary House, so known because it sat on what is now the North Carolina-South Carolina state line. George Washington is said to have spent the night nearby at the Vereen family home. General Benjamin Smith, tenth governor of North Carolina, was wounded in a gentlemen’s duel with his cousin in Calabash.
CAROLINA SHORES – Adjoining Calabash, Carolina Shores began as a retirement subdivision but incorporated as a separate town in 1998. This golf community of about 1,500 residents combines an 18-hole golf course, one of the early ones in the area, with patio homes and condominiums. The residents, primarily retirees, are very active in the community.
Miles of wide-strand Atlantic Ocean shoreline make the Brunswick County beaches a true paradise for residents and visitors. Known for their cleanliness and family-friendly atmosphere, the beaches’ long-time residents welcome thousands of visitors each year.
BALD HEAD ISLAND – The state’s oldest remaining lighthouse, Old Baldy, is open for tours on Bald Head Island. Built in 1817, the 90-foot brick structure helped guide ships safely to the mouth of the Cape Fear River until 1935, when it was replaced by a new light at Caswell Beach. Some 100 steps and a wooden ladder lead to the top and a spectacular view of the island, Atlantic Ocean and Cape Fear River.
Bald Head Island sits at the mouth of the Cape Fear River where it joins the Atlantic Ocean. Accessible by private ferry from Southport, the village was incorporated in 1985. Its pristine beaches, maritime forest, dune ridge and marsh make it a desirable year-round home for about 200 people and respite for visitors who often fly in to Cape Fear Regional Airport on Oak Island to stay on the island. Amenities include a golf course, a marina, restaurants and shops. Accommodations include cottages as well as bed and breakfast inns. The 12,000-acre island, which includes an 800-acre maritime forest with freshwater lagoons, is being developed with a 15 percent maximum capacity. You can explore the island by bike or golf cart; no cars are allowed.
CASWELL BEACH – Across the Cape Fear River from Bald Head is Caswell Beach, a quiet town of about 300 year-round residents situated on the eastern tip of Long Island. A wide selection of condos and single-family homes are available to vacationers. Its intentionally limited commercial district includes Oak Island Golf and Country Club.
Incorporated in 1975, the town takes its name from Fort Caswell, which was built in 1826 and seized in 1861 by Confederate troops, who held it until 1865. The fort was used in the Spanish American War, World War I and World War II. It now belongs to the N.C. Baptist Assembly, which uses the site as a conference and retreat center. Another attraction of the town is the Oak Island Lighthouse. Activated on May 15, 1958, it is the most brilliant in the nation and second in the world with standard candle-power of 1,400,000 and the capacity of 14,000,000 to 20,000,000 candle-power when needed.
OAK ISLAND – Boasting 70-plus public beach accesses, Oak Island also offers access to the Intracoastal Waterway and Davis Canal for fishing, kayaking and birding. The town has a municipal golf course and several parks and ballfields. Its thriving commercial district includes restaurants, service businesses, real estate sales and rentals and marinas.
The town of Oak Island was created with the 1999 merger of Yaupon Beach (named for the native yaupon tree) and Long Beach (named for its expansive beach strand). Like others in the county, its south-facing orientation allows spectacular sunsets over the ocean.
The town limits include a commercial district on the mainland approach to the Oak Island Bridge. Some 8,000 year-round residents welcome about 35,000 summertime visitors.
HOLDEN BEACH – Trailing west across the Lockwood Folly Inlet is Holden Beach, where development began in the 1930s by the Holden family. The Holden family ownership dates to 1756, when Benjamin Holden acquired 100 acres extending from Lockwood Folly Inlet to Bacon Inlet for 50 shillings. The area was a commercial fishing center in the 1920s. The first subdivision map identifying it as Holden Beach Resort was drawn in 1924 by John Holden Jr., the fourth generation to hold the entire property.
Today, the Holden family remains prominent in development and government of this family-oriented beach. An elevated two-lane bridge was completed in 1988. Visitors can rent beach cottages, condominiums or motel rooms. The beach’s permanent residents share their celebration of living on the sea through two festivals, A Day at the Docks in March and Festival by the Sea in October. Boat building continues on the mainland side, where shrimping and fishing boats bring their catch to the docks. A fishing pier, fish houses and several charter boats operate in the town. Numerous beach access points are available, including those designated for older and disabled people.
OCEAN ISLE BEACH – Ocean Isle Beach came to life in the early 1950s when a local youth freshly returned from World War II purchased the island. From the beginning, Odell Williamson’s plans were for Ocean Isle to be a quiet family beach. He identified a centralized commercial district that would serve the residents and visitors and planned the remaining portion of the 8-mile-long island to be strictly residential. From its early fish-camp days with access by ferry, the island has grown to incorporate public tennis courts, miniature golf, boat docks, a children’s playground, specialty shops, the Museum of Coastal Carolina, an inter-denominational chapel and full-service fishing pier. The island’s annual Fourth of July parade and party is a favorite for residents and visitors. It is also home to the North Carolina Oyster Festival each October. An airport town park and shopping are on the mainland. Access is by a modern elevated bridge named in honor of Williamson, who served several terms in the North Carolina House of Representatives. Each summer, the town presents free concerts on Friday evenings from 6:30 to 8 pm beside town hall. Bring a chair and your dancing shoes.
SUNSET BEACH – Like other Brunswick County beaches, Sunset Beach was developed over several decades by local residents with a long history in the area. Father and son Mannon and Ed Gore laid out the first lots on the beach. Their influence is still felt in the beauty of the small island community accessible by high-rise bridge from the mainland near Sea Trail golf community, which is also part of the incorporated town. Residents and visitors enjoy a public boat ramp, programs at the Ingram Planetarium, a variety of restaurants and shops. The southernmost inhabited island in North Carolina, 3-mile-long Sunset Beach was incorporated in 1963. Government offices and more residents are situated on the mainland side, which includes golf courses, restaurants and additional accommodations. Perhaps one of Sunset’s greatest charms is that it provides the only land access (at extreme low tide) to North Carolina’s southernmost undeveloped barrier island, Bird Island.
BOLIVIA – The seat of government in Brunswick County, Bolivia is believed to have been named for the South American country from which crates of guano were shipped through this town to other towns. A post office has been in operation here since 1892. Settlement by immigrants of European ancestry, mostly farmers and timber men, began here in the early 19th century.
Incorporated in 1911, the town became home to the county government complex in 1977. Just outside the incorporated area is the campus of Brunswick Community College and Brunswick Early College High School.
SANDY CREEK – A small community approximately 12.5 miles west of Wilmington, Sandy Creek was incorporated in 1988. Situated on 1.3 square miles of land, the town supports approximately 400 people committed to retaining the small hometown feeling they enjoy.
LELAND – Another of Brunswick County’s historically small communities, Leland has been bursting at the seams for several years. With the influx of newcomers to masterfully developed golf course communities, the accompanying commercial centers have followed. Incorporated in 1989, the town has large shopping centers with national and regional brand stores, professional offices and restaurants. Economic development continues to be at the forefront, and the town’s economic development group has embraced history, culture and the arts to move it forward. The Leland Cultural Arts Center is a showpiece. Nationally affiliated WWAY-TV (ABC) recently moved its headquarters to Leland.
NAVASSA – Located on the west convergence of the Brunswick and Cape Fear rivers is Navassa, incorporated in 1977. Navassa first saw life in 1869 when a railroad was built across the Cape fear from Wilmington to the town’s current site. The line helped to connect Wilmington to Charlotte and the interior of South Carolina. Industrious Wilmington merchants secured a deal to ship turpentine products to the West Indies and return with the rail cars loaded with guano (a natural fertilizer). They built the Navassa Guano Factory in 1869.
The village that sprung up around the factory was named Navassa by the U.S. Postal Service in 1885. At its heyday, the business employed more than 4,000 workers. The village has seen hard economic times but is on the rebound with recent announcements of new industries moving to the area. The town has a well-trained police department and volunteer fire/rescue department.
NORTHWEST – Incorporated as Brunswick County’s 18th town in 1993, Northwest has about 750 residents and is managed by a mayor, city clerk and five council members, a fire station and police department. Its name is a simple reference to its location in northwestern Brunswick County. The primarily agricultural community adjoins Columbus County and measures 6.04 square miles.
BOILING SPRING LAKES – Named for the more than 50 natural and manmade lakes in the town, Boiling Spring Lakes was incorporated in 1961. In addition to a small commercial center, the town enjoys a golf course and
a disc golf course. Although parts of the Boiling Spring Lakes are still recovering from Hurricane Florence, residents can enjoy its many walking trails, parks and playgrounds. Annual events include Spring Fling at the Lake, a golf tournament, 9/11 Memorial Bike Run, a fall festival and Christmas activities. BSL, as it’s known, has an incorporated area of 23.3 square miles (16,000 acres) centered along N.C. Highway 87. Approximately 6,800 residents live in the town limits.