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Historic beach celebrates 60 years

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by Suzanne Ulbrich, Jacksonville Daily News

oceancitybeachFor Kenneth Chestnut this weekend’s celebration is proof that the legacy of Ocean City Beach continues on.

“Seeing that the vision my father had is still alive today, that his legacy that (Ocean City Beach) will continue to be a place for families to come and enjoy the beach, to have a quiet and peaceful family oriented beach, that’s the most important part about this weekend’s events for me,” Chestnut said, as he traveled to the event from his home in Atlanta.

Beginning today through Labor Day the community will mark its 60th anniversary through many activities and events.

The community of Ocean City Beach, established in 1949 after Wilmington attorney Edger Yow purchased a large tract of land on Topsail Island, is one of the oldest black beach-front communities in the area.

Yow’s goal in establishing an oceanfront community was to provide an opportunity for blacks to own beachfront homes when attitudes made it difficult to do so.

He formed an interracial corporation, partnering with prominent black Wilmington professionals Dr. Samuel Gray and Wade, Robert, Betram and Louise Chestnut. The corporation carved out a one and a quarter mile tract to establish a black resort area under the management of Ocean City Developers.

Wade Chestnut, Kenneth Chestnut’s father and a part of the family’s automotive business at the time, took on the task of managing the project full time.

Though the family maintained a residence in Wilmington and he attended school there, Kenneth Chestnut said weekends and summers were spent in Ocean City. He continues to spend vacation time there.

“I was 3 years old when mom and dad came to Topsail at the invitation of Yow, so I basically grew up there, and my dad devoted all his time to developing Ocean City,” he said.

Hurricane Hazel negatively affected development for a while, but in time the community grew. The Ocean City Pier and Ocean City Motel followed.

Ocean City Beach became a part of North Topsail Beach through incorporation.

The Episcopal Diocese of East Carolina built Camp Oceanside for black children, Kenneth Chestnut said.

“In 1957 developers donated a parcel of land and the Episcopal Diocese of East Carolina built a church, named after my father — the Wade H. Chestnut Memorial Chapel. And a fellowship hall, now used as a community building, was built,” he said.  “The dormitories are no longer there, and the camp was moved to Camp Trinity. Hurricane Fran took out many of the homes and the pier and hotel, but the chapel and community building (and our cottage) are still there.”

Linda Upperman Smith, a second-generation resident, has experienced the changes. She fondly recalls the sense of community she always felt during her youth after her parents built a house in Ocean City in 1954.

“Our house was the eighth house built,” she said. “In our peak we had 125 homes here, but we lost a number of homes in Hurricane Fran … Many of the current property owners are descendents of the original property owners. You would go house to house, you would be fed and other parents would look after the children — it was a nice safe community.”

She said the extended sense of community exists today.

“Now the Village of Stump Sound is behind us, and some of the second generation has sold, so the community has become more diverse … We have a very strong citizen’s council and we reach out to everybody who purchases property in the area,” she said.

The Ocean Beach Citizens Council holds annual events, like beach picnics in the summer and fall fish fries. The gathering this weekend is expected to be one of the largest of all the events, said Evester Baily, a property owner and one of the organizers of the celebration.

“This will bring the old group together — for a reunion of sorts — and the new group together,” he said. “We’re excited about having these groups together and embracing the old values.”

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Written by Symphony

September 5, 2009 at 1:02 am

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