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Little Fayetteville

HOLDEN BEACH – Some weeks back, I met the wife of Fayetteville Mayor Tony Chavonne for the first time.

Funny thing is we were at least 100 miles from Fayetteville. Joanne Chavonne and I shook hands at the corner of Ocean Boulevard and Fayetteville Street, no less.

They don’t call this seaside town “Little Fayetteville” for nothing.

In fact, Fayetteville is said to have the largest representation of any city with families that own second homes at Holden. At most recent count, the town sent water bills to 158 Fayetteville addresses. With roughly 2,000 homes at Holden, that puts Fayetteville around 8 percent.

That’s the allure of Holden.

This quiet family beach boasts many more houses than motels. The most active nightlife comes from the loggerhead turtles laying their eggs beneath the moonlight. And a time when beer was banned from store shelves is a fairly recent memory.

The North Carolina shore, only a short drive from Fayetteville, has always been a draw when the days are long, and the city bakes through a sweltering summer. Many a preacher has described their “up and down” congregations come June through August; parishioners are either up in the mountains or down at the beach. They go to Sunset or Ocean Isle, Wrightsville or Cherry Grove.

But Holden holds a special place in many hearts.

“I couldn’t imagine not having a house at Holden Beach,” Margaret Hedgecoe told me. As a child, her father ran a funeral home in Tabor City, but the family spent many summers at Holden. In those days, most of the cottages lacked two important things: air conditioning and telephones. If there was a death back in Tabor City, someone drove from the funeral home and took the two-car ferry to deliver the news in person.

Pictures of the old house, long ago swallowed by the sea, and the two-car ferry hang on the Hedgecoes’ wall. Their new house sits with a view of three bodies of water – the ocean, Lockwood’s Folly River and the Intracoastal Waterway.

When their children were small, Eddie and Jean Pridgen shared a tiny beach shack with another Fayetteville family. The house was mishmash – not a single window matched another – but they loved it. “It’s an old-fashioned beach,” Jean Pridgen says. Now, the Pridgens bring their children and grandchildren to a house overlooking the marsh.

Dana and Nancy Haithcock bought a house at Holden without ever spending a night on the island. And for awhile, their next-door neighbors in Holden were their next-door neighbors in Fayetteville, too. Now, the Haithcocks count about six Fayetteville families on their street alone. Every Labor Day, the Haithcocks help organize a block party. Jon Warren cooks a pig with neighbors bringing sides. They invite the entire street – even those folks not from Fayetteville.

“This is Little Fayetteville,” Harold Kidd said, and then he laughed. “If I happen to run out of money, I can always get a ride home.”

Harold and Marian Kidd, like many other Fayetteville families, built a house on the waterway. It’s an ever-changing view. You can tell the season by which way the Yankees cruise – south in the winters and north in the summers. If they’re not out on the porch or the dock, the Kidds take their own boat out for deep-sea fishing.

“I’m hooked on Holden Beach,” Harold said.

He’s not the only one. No one is quite sure why Holden is so popular among Fayetteville families. Sometimes, they come and go without seeing each other. But they often barbecue together, hitch rides together, even worship together. A Baptist may never slip into a Presbyterian pew back in Fayetteville, but at Holden Beach, families find themselves holding hymnals side by side. Pastors of all denominational stripes rotate through the pulpit at the ecumenical chapel in the heart of Holden. On a recent Sunday, worshippers poured out of the sanctuary and into the sunny afternoon. Among them were quite a few Fayettevillians including local celebrities like Jack Britt, the long-time educator and namesake for the high school near Hope Mills.

The chapel is one of the first things people tell you about Holden. The second is a quick geography lesson. Holden Beach runs east-west, not north-south. It means that the sun sets and rises at either end of the island, where the most spectacular views can be found at dawn and dusk.

I imagine it’s the view once held by Benjamin Holden as he turned his cows out to pasture and, years later, by a few brave souls when Hurricane Hazel bore down in 1954. The storm destroyed all but 12 of the 300 cottages.

The history of Holden Beach stretches back before the American Revolution when early settlers seeking land near Lockwood’s Folly River paid a mere 50 shillings to Royal Governor Arthur Dobbs for 100 acres of prime coastal real estate. In 1756, Benjamin Holden bought four mainland tracts and the island between his plantation and the ocean. He used the island for fishing and cattle grazing.

His grandson, John Holden, opened a commercial fishery on the island and was the first to subdivide beach property in Brunswick County. He also built the first Holden Beach bridge though it was later destroyed during construction of the Intracoastal Waterway. He negotiated with the state for a public ferry but never lived to see it begin operation in 1934. The ferry eventually gave way to another bridge, then another, until the North Carolina Department of Transportation built the huge curved high-rise steel and concrete bridge that is Holden’s signature today.

The Holdens continued to develop the island, and the family is still closely linked seven generations later.

Alan Holden is a direct descendant of Benjamin Holden. He owns a real estate company here and is mayor of Holden Beach. But he happens to know quite a bit about Fayetteville. He commuted to school at Methodist University for four years. And he has a simple theory for why Holden is so popular. “It’s geography, primarily,” he said. “If you leave Fayetteville, this is just about the closest beach. In fact, we are the closest. But really, the real reason is, Holden Beach is so much better.”

Today, there are about 2,000 homes surrounding the nine-mile stretch of beach between Myrtle Beach and Wilmington. But it remains a peaceful getaway.

Folks say it’s a best-kept secret. But obviously someone couldn’t keep it from Fayetteville.