A few weeks ago I sat down with Jim Bunch, a longtime Outer Banks resident and author of A SHADOW IN THE SEA. Jim was one of the first people to introduce surfing to the Outer Banks (long before it was ever called "The Outer Banks"), and here he tells the story of those early days, and of the first surf club in Kitty Hawk. Many thanks to Keith Newsome for providing the archival images and setting everything up.
As far back as I can remember, I spent my summers in the ocean. I can't even recall learning how to swim. It just seemed I always knew how.
My grandfather, J. H. Wilkins, and his daughter-- Lillian Hunter -- had bought some oceanfront property in Kitty Hawk back in 1937. Land was cheap then, and grandpa bought about a mile of it for a dollar a foot. Lillian built a cottage there, about a mile south of the present day Kitty Hawk Pier, and everybody in the family would come down in the summertime.
I was born in 1943 in Elizabeth City. Back then the bridge from the mainland was made out of wood, pretty scary to drive on, especially if the wind was blowing hard. Before we crossed, my grandpa would stop the car and have everyone roll the windows down, so we could escape if the car ran off the bridge.
It was a pretty tight-knit world; we all knew each other and all the kids palled around together. At the end of every summer we would board up the houses and everything would shut down until the next summer. Nobody stayed year-round back then.
As we got older, some buddies and I started exploring the nearshore beach wrecks. These ranged from old sailing ships to larger vessels that had grounded during storms. From there we ventured into skin-diving -- what they call free-diving nowadays. Since we spent the whole summer there, we could pick those days when the water was the clearest to do our exploring.
When it was time for college I decided I wanted to go someplace where I could dive and enjoy the beach year-round, so in 1961 I packed up and headed for the University of Miami. That's where I learned to surf. I spent most days hanging out at First Street in Miami Beach, learning from guys like Jack Murphy and Allen Kuen. I switched to all night classes so I could surf all day.
That summer I came home with my board and started surfing at the Kitty Hawk Pier. I was the only one out there, and nobody there had never seen a guy surfing before, so it was kind of exciting. Pretty soon some of the local guys decided they wanted to give it a try. Mike Hayman I remember bought a board that summer, and Frank Weeks, Earl Jackson, Jerry Davis, Bruce Shepherd -- it wasn't long before there'd be three or four of us out there every day. We all had summer jobs, but you know the deal. If the waves were good, the job would just have to wait.
I went back to Miami for school that fall, surfed all winter down there, then came back the next summer, and things had picked up a little bit. Most days there'd be like fifteen or twenty guys in the water. Guys down from Virginia Beach, too. And then the next summer, there were like fifty. That's when it started becoming a problem. That's when they posted those big signs, "no surfing within 350 feet of the pier". There was a lot of contention between the surfers and the guy that owned the pier. It would get pretty nasty sometimes.
That third summer -- that was the summer of '64 -- a beautiful sandbar had formed a little ways south of the pier, and so a lot of us started surfing down there. There was this guy Shel Ward, whom everybody called the Gov'ner, or the Gov, who had a an old motel building down there that he called "The Gov's In". He didn't have a sign up or anything, but he'd rent you a room for 20 bucks or so a night. Most of the time he just lay back in his hammock in front of the place and read the newspaper all day long. Once he saw that surfing was getting popular, he bought all these surfboards and started renting them out. He and Bill Anderson of Anderson's store had a little thing going -- Bill let the Gov put his boards out in front of the store, and they'd split the profits.
Well, it got to the point where there were too many people parking and surfing there, so the the Gov decided to start a surf club. He had these special license plates made, and you had to pay dues, which I think were like ten bucks, and he'd give you one of the plates, and then you would be a member of the Gov'ner's Surf Club. Really it just meant you could park at Bill Anderson's store and surf in front of Bill's land. But if you didn't pay the dues and get the license plate, then you couldn't park there, and you couldn't surf there.
Well, there was a crew of boys from Manteo and Wanchese who'd been coming up every day, and they didn't want to pay the money, so they ended up parking at a lady's house across the street. Her name was Miss Kitty. Miss Kitty was paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, and she just really liked watching the surfers. She'd sit out there on her back deck and watch the guys all day long. So she was happy to let the boys park at her place. So the Wanchese boys kind of had a little club of their own, over at Miss Kitty's. She was particularly fond of Larry Holmes, this kid from Manteo who had a reputation for being the meanest guy on the beach. Well known for his fighting abilities. But he was always real nice to Miss Kitty. Matter of fact he ended up organizing a bunch of us to pitch in and rebuild the end of her deck so she could have a better view of the surf. So we got along fine with those boys.
Well, Bill and the Gov, they weren't too happy about all that. They didn't like the fact that the Wanchese boys were parking for free over at Miss Kitty's. So it became sort of a rivalry. I guess they thought it undermined the club or something to have a bunch of freeloaders parking over there and surfing in the same spot. We didn't really care that much. We were all friends for the most part. But Bill and the Gov, they couldn't stand it.
Me, I was friends with everybody, and sometimes I'd hang out with the boys over at Miss Kitty's. Wasn't any big deal as far as I was concerned.
One day it kinda came to a head, though. Bill came up to me when I was coming out of the water and said, "JB, you can either go with them or you can go with me, but you can't do both."
I said, "Bill, all I want to do is surf. That's all I care about"
He said, "Fine then, you can't park here anymore, and you can't walk across my land to go surf. You can't even walk by my store on the road."
So I parked over at Miss Kitty's the rest of the summer, even though I still had my license plate. I still surfed with the same guys, nothing really changed. I just had to give my money to somebody else if I wanted a soda from Anderson's.
Bill and I ran into each other at a local bar near the end of the summer and had a bit of a laugh about it. All was forgiven. He wasn't one to hold a grudge, and neither was I.
The following year, the sandbar went away, and we all moved back to surfing the Kitty Hawk Pier.
So that was pretty much the end of it. The rise and fall of the Gov'ner's Surf Club. I reckon we were the first surf club on the Outer Banks.
It was a good time; it really was.