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Holden Beach, NC - Island In The Sun

By Valerie Robertson

Holden Beach just might be the perfect getaway: quaint cottages on a wide beach and a strong historic focus on family fun. The climate is gentle, the pace of life slow and the water calm, making this little island ideal for a quiet family vacation or as a permanent home.

Shane Holden, the seventh generation of the Holden family, characterizes it as laid-back.

"No high-rises, no big hotels-strictly family beach houses that people rent," he says. "They come here to get away from the glamour and the lights and the neon."

Beach scene at one of Holden Beach's shorelinesAt eight miles, Holden Beach is the longest, and also the largest, of the three South Brunswick Islands. There are few commercial establishments on the island itself, but not far away are the shops and museums of Wilmington to the northeast, entertainment options in Myrtle Beach to the southwest, services in nearby Shallotte and seafood restaurants in all directions. Unlike some of its glitzier counterparts, the island has managed to accommodate waves of real estate development without surrendering its relaxed, family feel.

Though Holden Beach has seen dramatic growth in recent years, residents are committed to saving the serenity of their island. Home sizes are limited, generous setbacks on dune lots are mandatory and buildings cannot exceed 35 feet in height. And it doesn't hurt that descendants of one of the island's three original families have a vested interest in keeping it unspoiled for their own families. Approximately 1,000 year-round residents call the island home today, but that wasn't always the case.

Holden Beach - Family Builds Island History

Before modern-day amenities made living on Holden Beach year-round attractive -or even possible- Holden Beach wasn't an island at all. In 1756, Benjamin Holden was granted a purchase patent allowing him to buy land for a plantation and the adjoining 100 acres of oceanfront "between Lockwoods Folly and Bacons Inlett." Two other families acquired land nearby. What we know today as the island of Holden Beach comprises the original Holdens Beach, Robinson's Beach and the beach owned by the Bellamys. At low tide, people could walk across the marsh from the mainland to catch fish or gather clams and oysters.

The Robinsons and Holdens operated successful fisheries, providing locals with salted fish -especially mullet and spots- which was in great demand in the days before refrigeration. The fishery started by Benjamin Holden's great-grandson, John Holden, in the 1920s employed 18 men who worked for shares of the catch. The owner built and maintained a storage shed, two boats, oars, two big nets, baskets and the 60-gallon barrels in which the fish were salt-cured prior to packing and shipping. During the Depression, when cash was short, barter was common.

"It was not unusual for farmers from Robeson County, Bladen County or Columbus County to bring corn down to the fishery and trade for fish," according to John F. Holden's book, "Holden Beach History."

Holden Beach Tourism & Vacation Rentals

In 1924, John mapped the first subdivision and called it Holden's Beach Resort. Two years later came the island's first building, a 10-bedroom guesthouse on pilings. The "Old Hotel" had a covered wraparound porch with a back stairway leading to the outhouse. The Depression slowed development for a few years-as did rumors of the Intracoastal Waterway to come.

When the Intracoastal was dredged in 1932, Holden Beach became a true island, and John negotiated with the state of North Carolina to provide a bridge or ferry to reconnect Holden Beach to the mainland. The first ferry was made of wood, and it was human-powered. Locals fashioned a hickory "jack stick" to pry the ferry along a metal cable strung across the Waterway.

John's son, Luther, wanted to attract more visitors to the beach and constructed a four-bedroom cottage on an oceanfront lot. Although the $15- to $20-per-week rent was beyond the reach of most people, he built more cottages, one at a time. The cottages and streets often reflected the hometowns of the vacationers: Chapel Hill Cottage, Greensboro Cottage, Charlotte Avenue.

In 1939, because there were no other options for dining out, Luther's wife started serving family-style meals in the hotel. When the Brunswick Electric Membership Corporation brought electricity to the island in the spring of 1941, refrigeration and lights made it easier to stay on Holden Beach.

North Carolina sunset in Holden BeachDevelopment slowed again during the war years due to gas rationing and the inconvenience of mandatory blackouts.

John F. Holden, who started in the family business in the late 1930s, built the first pavilion in 1939, giving vacationers a place to congregate for square dancing and to play the jukebox for a nickel a tune.

By 1954, the rental business was accommodating thousands of visitors each year. New roads and a bridge improved access to the island and led to the development of the boat-building, shrimping and fishing industries. In 1952, John built the Surfside Pavilion, a two-story center housing bowling alleys, a restaurant, a bath house and a souvenir shop, as well as the U.S. Post Office.

The Dream survives a Hurricane

In October 1954, Hurricane Hazel roared onto the island. Without early warning systems, residents had no time to secure their property against the 150-mile-per-hour winds, which left only a handful of the 300 cottages intact and leveled the high dunes. In some cases, where entire homes were picked up by the wind and deposited on another lot, the homeowner simply bought the lot and left the house in its new location.

In the aftermath of Hazel and other storms, property owners were cautious about rebuilding. It took 10 years for the number of homes to reach 300 again, but, by the 1960s, the memory of Hazel's strength had faded. Holden Beach Fishing Pier was constructed in 1960, the interdenominational chapel was dedicated in 1961 and the town was incorporated in 1969. Dr. R. H. Holden donated land for the chapel and the town hall, and the area prospered.

John F. Holden never lost sight of his dream of keeping Holden Beach a family beach, a contrast to the neon and commercialization of other areas along the coast. He sold his vacation rental business to his son, Alan, who runs it to this day with the help of his family. Most of the cottages are second homes that owners live in part of the year and rent out the rest.

Holden Family Members Grow up in Holden Beach

Alan's son, Shane, was the first of the next generation to be born and raised on the island. He spent his childhood on the beach, enjoying the freedom to disappear among the high dunes. "You could build forts, be gone for hours and your mom would never really look for you as long as you were home before dark," he remembers fondly.

Unlike today, there weren't many other children on the beach. Shane and his cousin rode their bikes two miles to visit each other, and, since there weren't yet elementary schools nearby, the 45-minute bus ride to Union Primary seemed interminably long.

Shane misses the freedom of being able to build open fires in metal drums on the beach.

"When I was little, we used to go out and pull in the fish nets and clean fish on the beach," he says. "We would cook spots, make cornbread and have oyster roasts."

Gay Atkins bought her first cottage on Holden Beach in 1981. By then, there were about 700 residences, but the original character of the place and its ties to fishing remained strong. "I feel privileged that I moved here when I did, because that was when Brunswick County was truly Brunswick County," she says. "People who made a living clamming and fishing were all still here. During the winter everyone worked with each other, put nets out and caught fish."

What they didn't put in their freezers, they sold, she remembers. Some people still make their living from the sea, but Holden Beach's primary industry now is tourism.

Gay has watched the area change from an isolated, quiet little beach to a more sophisticated, water-bound paradise. Initially she saw tourists only from Easter through Labor Day, "and then the world went away." Winter tourism has increased as longtime visitors return to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Sand castle near a beach home in Holden BeachA world traveler, she loves returning home to the island and has been active in the community, serving both as commissioner and as mayor. After 26 years, she still is exhilarated when she crosses the high-rise bridge and catches a glimpse of the island and the ocean.

Holden Beach Real Estate & Tourism

Shane and Gay both saw a temporary shift in the kind of person buying homes in the early 2000s. "The most dramatic change was the 2002-to-2005 real estate boom," says Shane. "I've never seen so many houses sell so fast." During that time, people were buying houses and selling them for a profit just months later. Gay believes today's purchaser-typically someone who loves the beach and wants to bring his or her family here-is making a more personal investment. Shane finds that more buyers today intend to eventually retire to Holden Beach.

The town of Holden Beach continues to invest in amenities to benefit residents and vacationers alike, including water and sewer systems and a new town hall. And the island continues to win awards for "best family beach" and "best place to buy a second home."

Shane Holden wants his home to retain its special character for the sake of his three children, who are 7, 4, and 1 and represent the eighth generation of Holdens to enjoy the island.

"I want my children to experience some of the things I did as I was growing up on the island. When they get old enough to appreciate this island's uniqueness, I hope they try to do the same for their children," he says.