Return of pier brings back memories too good to lose

By Si Cantwell

June 2, 2002

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH |Johnnie Mercer's pier opens

The work on Johnnie Mercer’s Pier is about finished, but the pier can’t reopen because of a dispute between the owners and the town of Wrightsville Beach over whether the new pier house strays too far from the design submitted to the town.

I hope things can be worked out soon. Johnnie Mercer’s Pier has been a Wrightsville Beach institution since Julian Morton built it in the 1930s.

Julian’s son, Hugh, owns the tourist attraction Grandfather Mountain.

Around 1950, Hugh Morton brought Joe Hartley from the mountains to see his maternal grandfather, Hugh MacRae, the former Tidewater Power Co. owner who built the trolley to Wrightsville Beach and Lumina.

Mr. Hartley worked at Grandfather Mountain and had been a water boy when Mr. MacRae built the road from Linville to Blowing Rock as a stagecoach line decades earlier.

It was Mr. Hartley’s first trip east, so they went out on the pier.

“Somebody had caught a 40-pound drum, and Mr. Hartley had never seen a fish that big,” Hugh Morton, 81, said Friday. “We went back up to Wilmington and Mr. Hartley told my grandfather, ‘That fish was as big as a boy!’ ”

Developer Luther Rogers bought the pier from Julian Morton, and Johnnie Mercer bought it in 1939 and renamed it, said Matt Johnson.

Matt’s father, Bob, bought it in 1969 from Mr. Mercer’s widow. He still owns the pier and Matt runs it.

Johnnie Mercer died in 1964 after his car veered into the opposite lane late one night on Oleander Drive and hit another car head-on, also killing a Wilmington College student.

Annie Bryant Peterson said Mr. Mercer worked day and night at the pier.

Mrs. Peterson, 90, grew up in Castle Hayne. Her uncle, George Hutaff, built the Crystal Pier at the south end of the beach, no longer used for fishing. She founded Bryant Realty near Johnnie Mercer’s 50 years ago, and in 1971 she opened the Silver Gull motel across the parking lot from the pier.

She remembers when the old pier house had a pot-bellied stove. Fishermen would gather around it on chilly days.

One of the pier houses burned and a pregnant Mrs. Mercer escaped out of a second-floor window, Mrs. Peterson said.

The pier had to be rebuilt after Hurricane Hazel in 1954. Mr. Johnson said he’s heard the cash register ended up at the Babies Hospital.

One of Mrs. Peterson’s employees, Tilly King, lived in a house behind the pier in the late 1950s or early ’60s. There was an open building with a roof but no walls, and a popular jukebox.

“When they started making too much noise, Tilly would walk over there and pull the switch on the whole thing,” Mrs. Peterson said. “They finally had to move the switch.”

Matt Johnson said his father bought the pier so he could be his own boss. Bob Johnson was originally from Smithfield and married a Wilmington woman, the former Shirley Barnhill.  He sold ads for the Star-News and the Raleigh News & Observer before buying the pier.

Jan Brewington, director of the Wrightsville Beach Museum, remembers eating a hot dog for breakfast at Johnnie Mercer’s Pier after her junior prom.

The pier has been closed since Hurricane Fran in 1996. That’s hurt business at the Silver Gull, Mrs. Peterson said, particularly in the off-season.

“It’s really been bad for us,” she said. “I didn’t hardly think we’d make it this year.”

The old wooden pier has been replaced by a concrete pier that may not have the atmosphere or the wave action of the old one, but it should be far more durable.

The old pier provided some mighty good memories for a lot of people. In 1990, it gave my wife Maria and me the best night of fishing we’ve ever had. The spots were biting under a full moon after midnight, and at dawn the blues started running. We caught 22 fish by 10 a.m.

Maybe it was 32 fish . . .

Get that pier back open, Wrightsville Beach.

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