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War, hurricanes helped shape Brunswick County history

In the midst of Brunswick County's beginnings, there was a sign of the end for its namesake.

A little more than 10 years after the creation of the county in 1764, Brunswick Town was brought to the brink of ruin by the British.

If it had survived the onslaught of war, as well as political turmoil, Wilmington might have had competition for Southeastern North Carolina's "Port City" title.

But it wasn't meant to be. And the demise of the early settlement was one among many key events that shaped Brunswick County's history.

Here's a look at a few of them.

Revolution: Town torched

Jim McKee, historic interpreter for the Brunswick Town State Historic Site, said the burning of the town in 1776 was orchestrated by the British Capt. John Collett during the American Revolution. Many say when the town was burned, the flames jumped to St. Philip's Church, but McKee thinks that fire also was deliberately set.

"If you look at the construction of the church, it had a slate roof and was well shuttered. The windows were well made, there weren't many buildings nearby and there would have been no flames to jump toward it.... A flame had to be introduced into the church for it to burn."

McKee said, "Collett was despised by the people when he was a British commander of Fort Johnston from 1767 until 1775. The people hated him, and he the hated people. They called him a 'pert audacious little scoundrel.'"

It was that hatred that McKee thinks fueled Collett's burning of the town and church.

Soon after its demise at the hands of the British, the General Assembly revoked the town's charter.

By 1781, a few people still lived in the area. But what once housed the political center of Southeastern North Carolina held little but ruin and a seaport. Up the river, Wilmington was thriving.

Civil War: Taking forts

In the early morning hours of Jan. 10, 1861, the Cape Fear Minutemen marched on Southport's Fort Johnston and Oak Island's Fort Caswell to take the strongholds in the Confederacy's name. The Civil War would not break out until months later.

Both forts were manned by one military enlistee each. Fort Caswell was a garrison held by Sgt. Frederick Dardingkiller. Fort Johnston was overseen by Sgt. James Reilly.

"They demanded of them to surrender the keys to the fort and the magazine," McKee said. "They were both outnumbered, and the militia were going to take the forts, so they had no choice but to surrender. In the end, both agreed to surrender to the militia if they would give them a receipt for the keys."

A day later, the governor told the militia to return the keys because North Carolina had not seceded, and both men gave the receipts back.

Three months later, when the Civil War broke out, the receipts-for-keys swaps were repeated.

After, Reilly went on to fight in almost every major battle in the Civil War, and Fort Caswell became renowned as one of the most powerful forts the Confederacy held.

Getting current

It's hard to imagine living in a time when electricity didn't aid everyday tasks.

For Brunswick County, that situation came to an end 75 years ago – in 1939– when Brunswick Electric Membership Corp. formed.

The creation of electric cooperatives, nonprofit utility corporations owned by their members, came with the Rural Electrification Administration Act in 1935.

The act enabled local governments to obtain loans for the creation of the co-ops.

In Brunswick County, the first lines were energized in December 1939 and in Columbus County during the early part of 1940. The construction of the lines began with 138 miles - 113 in Brunswick and 25 in Columbus County – and served 588 members in both counties. "Getting current," as it was called, dramatically changed the lives of residents in the rural county, though it took years for some areas to get electricity.

Amber Fulford, who wrote an account of her great-grandmother's experience before and after electricity arrived, said in an essay, "Her early life sounded like something out of a 'Little House on the Prairie' book."

Residents cleaned clothes on washboards, did nighttime tasks by lamplight and stored 100-pound ice blocks underground.

Today Brunswick Electric has 6,485 miles of line serving more than 86,000 meters throughout Brunswick and Columbus counties, as well as parts of Bladen and Robeson counties.

Riding out the storm

Recent data shows Americans are less fearful of female-named storms.

The tempest named Hurricane Hazel should be a reminder that storms don't care what you name them. Hazel developed in 1954 into a Category 4 monstrosity and wreaked havoc in the Caribbean, along the East Coast and even into Canada.

In Southeastern North Carolina, Hazel decimated the area, and Brunswick County was one of the hardest hit. In Long Beach, only five of the 357 buildings on the island were left standing. Wind gusts reached upwards of 140 mph at the Coast Guard Station Oak Island.

Herbert "Midget" Varnum, 81, rode out the storm in a shrimp boat at the mouth of the Elizabeth River with his captain and the boat owner's son.

Their anchor broke during the ordeal, Varnum said, and it took everything they had to keep the boat from sinking.

"Our whole thought was trying to stay afloat," Varnum said.

Varnum was about 19 years old, and his more experienced captain did most of the navigating.

"You take a man that knows boats, and he can do wonders with one in a bad time," Varnum said.

At the time, it was one of the scariest experiences he'd ever had. After, however, Varnum said they had a good laugh.

"It was all right. We enjoyed it after it was all over with."

But the devastation from the storm still sticks with Varnum.

"Most all the piers along the waterfront were gone," he said. "There was a whole mess of fish houses and four or five companies lost it all."

Governmental shift

Southport stood as the county's governmental seat for more than 150 years. After the fall of Brunswick Town to fire, political pressure and an exodus of residents, the seat was moved to Smithville, which was later renamed Southport.

By the 1970s, it was a city that had grown and thrived in part because of its lawyers and daily visitors for court and official business.

But in 1978 the county decided to relocate the seat to a backwoods swamp just outside Bolivia. While the new complex went up in an area that was bare of most things, it was geographically central.

The move helped unite the county, but it was a blow to Southport.

Mary Stillwell, with the N.C. Maritime Museum, shifted gears from her role at the museum to recall what the move did to the area.

With an ailing fishing industry, the town was left with little to support its economy.

"Southport declined. We lost bed and breakfasts," Stillwell said. "Businesses closed."

Residents knew they needed to do something, and leaders worked to find offerings that would snag motorists going to and from the state ferry to Fort Fisher.

It's how the tourism industry began for the town, Stillwell said. The museum was started, historic sites were promoted, arts and gift shops sprang up ... and the town was revitalized.

Now, tourists flock to see the historic town and take a peek at sites where numerous movies have been filmed.

"They have a reason to stop now," Stillwell said. "And tourism is at the center of it."

Coming June 23: From the top of Old Baldy to the bottom of a boiling spring, some manmade and natural landmarks immediately come to mind when you think of Brunswick County and its history. We'll write about some of them in the next segment of our Brunswick County history series. But you're invited to tell about your favorites. Please email your story – including your name and phone number, in case there are questions – to Brunsco250@gmail.com

Join the conversation and share your voice.

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