Appreciating History In Wilmington, NC by Bonnie and Bill Neely

Wilmington, NC, one of the best destination travel cities in the Carolinas, offers something for everyone. Since the late 1700’s ships have made their way to this port where the wide Cape Fear River provided safe harbor from the Atlantic pirates. In the early 1900’s the city was the train and river boat stop for holiday travelers seeking the lovely, yellow sand beaches of the Carolina coast.But it was not until the 1980’s that Wilmington decided to revive its historic area and form a Visitor and Tourism Bureau to create a place newcomers would not want to leave.

Bob Jenkins, who has always lived in Wilmington, is the one to orient you to the wonders of history and revival in this beautiful city. Since 1985 he has enthusiastically led two-hour Adventure Walking Tours of Wilmington twice daily at 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. from the Boardwalk at the intersection of Water and Market Streets. The tours are daily from April 1 to November 1, and you don’t want to visit Wilmington without taking his tour! He was for many years an interior decorator in the city and became deeply involved in the restoration and promoting of Wilmington as a destination city when the National Historic Preservation Society in the 1970’s selected 200 blocks for the National Register.

One of the first things the city did was to plant many trees and build a pleasant boardwalk all along the boat docks, with benches and explanation boards outlining the importance of the 200 mile long river which graces the city, meeting the salt waters of the Atlantic and creating an estuary here. This area is a natural nursery for numerous forms of sealife, fish, oysters, crabs, shrimp, and a place several species from the ocean come to spawn.
With over 97 different varieties of birds making this their home, the area is perfect for nature lovers, fishermen, and ornithologists.

Just across the Cape Fear River on a tributary is the final resting place of the USS North Carolina, an iron clad battleship from World War II. From the bustling tourism information stand at Water and Market Street a river taxi departs regularly, taking passingers easily across for the ship tours for $4 roundtrip. Several times a day for $10 visitors can have a 45 minute ride on the beautiful river on this taxi also. The permanent home of the Coast Guard Ship Defiance is here and it is often seen in dock and sometimes can be toured. The waterfront is always the scene of many activities which are interesting to watch. This area has always been active since 13 years before the Plymouth Rock settlers.
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Along the water front you’ll find narrated trolley tours, horse and carriage tours, and horse trolley tours, as well as Henrietta III River Boat excursions which can include lunch, dinner, or parties. While most places you visit now have just malls with the same chain stores and restaurants, Wilmington has created most unique shopping and dining experiences along the waterfront. One group of wonderful shops and galleries is within the Old Cotton Exchange Building.
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Of course, restaurants feature yummy old Southern dishes you’ll want to try (with grits,) and local seafood, including she-crab, and Carolina blue crab. Local artisans and crafts people are numerous, so the items for sale in shops are truly special reminders of your say here. There were so many wonderful restaurants, many with bars, we could not possibly name our favorite, but everything we tasted was delicious and the service, presentation, and atmosphere lovely.
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As our excellent guide Bob explained, the marvelous renovation of the historic area downtown has come about with one important philosophy: to create a place people of all ages want to live and work and play, with good Southern manners and courtesy. There are unusual arrangements in which apartments for elderly are paired with apartments for students who are willing to be the gophers for those who cannot get out alone. What a marvelous idea!

Within each of the historic buildings used for business, the old brick walls are preserved and feature unique art by local artists.
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The rule throughout the years of historic restoration and preservation has been, “Don’t tear it down. Don’t change its character. Use the space creatively.” Many shops, restaurants, bars, and other unique places have developed and thrived under this philosophy, making Wilmington a city you want to visit and linger for as long as possible. An excellent example of unique use of an historic place is the old livery stables which have been turned into adorable efficiency apartments with beautiful courtyard where horses once walked.
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Another LIvery Stables had been used before the restoration as a working garage. Now it has been restored to incredibly beautiful garden space for an architectural firm. Throughout the downtown historic area the shops are on the first floor and the living space of apartments and condos is above the shops. Once a bargain, these are becoming more and more expensive as the demand is huge and the waiting list is two years long. Other cities attempting revival and restoration should use Wilmington’s success and beauty as an example.
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Numerous historic homes have been restored to their original beauty, as the exteriors must be kept true. Several of the enormous mansions from plantation days are open for visitors, most being closed on Mondays. Many are with period or original furnishings. Several churches in Wilmington are among the oldest in the United States. St. James Anglican Church is the oldest here, dating to 1790.

Wilmington is the birthplace and original home of a number of famous people. These include President Woodrow Wilson, news comentator David Brinkley, architects Henry Bacon, who designed the Lincoln Memorial in DC. Michael Jordan grew up here, but he did not score enough to make the high school basketball team!
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You will certainly want to tour the Poplar Grove Plantation about 10 miles north of the historic downtown on US 17 business. The mansion was built in 1850 after a fire destroyed the original one which was two and a half miles farther back beside the intercoastal waterway. The home, in which the Joseph Foy family lived for six generations, is beautiful with all of its original furnishings, photos, and what-nots. The costumed guide, Vicki Blacet, is delightful in her witty historical accounts. This tour was more informative and fun than any historic home we have visited in other places.
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The out buildings of the originally 640 acre plantation are available to tour also. There are costumed people in many of the buildings demonstrating the work that the building housed in slave days. You will see Kevin Lawrie Sr. make a wrought iron piece while you watch in his large blacksmith shop, where the coal fire is fanned by a bellows to 2,000 degrees Farenheit to turn the iron red hot for bending and hammering. In the basket weaving shop you’ll watch many different kinds of baskets being made, each shape for a different use on the plantation.
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In the weaving building you’ll see B.J. Ryan demonstrating carding and spinning wool or cotton. There are examples of skeins of yarn dyed with various natural dyes. Volunteers such as Evelyn Bleiweis will show you how weaving is done on two different kinds of looms. It is fascinating for adults and children. You’ll come away with appreciation for the comparatively easy way of life we live in the twenty first century.

Bob explained with many maps and photos that Wilmington is about twenty miles from the ocean where entering the narrows between islands was treacherous for ships. The many shifting shoals, which are underwater islands of sand, and the varying depths of the water due to the tides make it necessary for ships to be escorted by a local pilot who knows the conditions that prevail and can avoid shipwreck. Be sure to see the map of all the hundreds of shipwrecks that have happened along the coast of North Carolina since it was first discovered.

Bob varies his tour monologue and interaction with each group he leads, keying on their special interests, whether it is historic restoration, churches, architecture, horticulture, ornithology, ship history, people, shopping, cuisine, or whatever is your interest. Of all the tour guides we have had through the years as travel writers, he is one of the best! He is funny, well informed, enthusiastic, and he loves his city and seems to know every crevice of it. His memory and stamina will amaze and exhaust you! Be sure to take his walking tour of this lovely historic city.