CAROLINA BEACH — When Betty Jo Phelps’ husband bought her the Carolina Beach Fishing Pier four decades ago, she had no plans of working there. She wanted to fish for flounder.
“I told him when he done it, I said, don’t ever plan for me to work up there,” Phelps said. Nearly 40 years later, she notes, “Now it’s all I do.”
In February, Phelps was inducted into the Carolina Beach Walk of Fame.
A mother of six, her children have aided the helm in the upkeep of the multifaceted operation – part pier, part bar, part grill.
“You need to retire mom,” Donna Johnston, manager and heir to the pier quipped to her mother. “We try to get her to sit down and she won’t.”
“I’ve been trying to train her,” Phelps said. “I said I’m gonna retire when I get 80, I’m 77 now.”
“She tells me, write stuff down, write stuff down,” Johnston said.
Weathering the storm
Phelps’ husband, the late Frederick Phelps, died in 1995. A year later, Category 3 Hurricane Fran ravaged the pier while the ocean consumed the rest.
With no insurance to cover damage incurred by devastating weather conditions, the Phelps family had to front the cost to rebuild the pier themselves.
“We had a big family meeting and decided, put it back,” Phelps said.
Piece by piece, Carolina Beach’s lone pier returned. “Everybody has had something to do with the pier,” she said.
Phelps’ son, Freddy Phelps, handles maintenance operations of the pier, which seemingly never end. After this season’s onslaught of tropical storms, he has installed more than six pilings so far.
Storm season is a stressful time for the family as they are still without storm insurance to cover weather events due to the cost.
“We’ve been lucky so far,” Johnston said. “We’ve skipped a lot of big bullets.”
Both Phelps and Johnston live within a quarter-mile of the pier. In inclement weather, they both have a clear view of their stilted, two-story business.
The matriarch is known to keep a watchful eye. “My brother would say [to Phelps], ‘stop looking out the window’,” Johnston said.
Year after year, the pier has stood strong since Fran.
“It would have to take a (category) 4 or something to get us off the beach,” Johnston said. “If mother nature wants you, mother nature’s going to take you.”
Catch of the day
Open 24-hours a day, the Carolina Beach Fishing Pier serves as a revolving door for local fisherman. “These people, they fish here almost every day,” Johnston said.
The toughest part of the gig?
“The phone rings constantly,” Johnston said.
People from all over the state phone in, wanting to know what’s biting that day. It’s not uncommon for a regular to bring fresh vegetables or homemade apple butter along with them to offer the family and their staff as a simple gesture of kindness.
King, spot, flounder, drum, and pompano have found their way to the end of the line this month. “Come fill your coolers,” the family said in a post on its Facebook page.
Over the years, the family has witnessed many noteworthy creatures the ocean has churned up. From seals to sea turtles, it’s just another day at the office.
“We’ve seen alligators, we’ve seen deer, we’ve seen a little bit of everything,” Johnston said. “This week there’s a whale going up and down the beach.”
On the second floor rests the High Tide Lounge. With nearly 180 degrees of oceanfront views, it rightfully boasts “the best view on the island.” A novelty in the pier and bar business, High Tide permits patrons to enjoy the entirety of the 700-foot pier, drink in hand.
“I even myself got married upstairs,” Johnston said. “I came in the back way, and we stood facing the ocean.”
Phelps occasionally will sit on the deck of the lounge on Sunday afternoons to grab a drink.
“I’ll come up there once in awhile and we sit there and talk about old times,” she said.
Throughout the years, Phelps has enjoyed a front-row view of the evolution Pleasure Island has endured.
“When I first moved here there was six telephone poles,” she said. “It was deserted, you couldn’t see at night down here. You couldn’t see nothing.”
Every year, the ocean takes in a large portion of beach, and every following season, sand is dumped back where it once was. “The rocks were the best thing they did,” Johnston said.
With a slightly meandering path, the pier’s authentic wear reflects its longstanding history. It isn’t perfect, but it’s still standing tall.
“The pier’s taken a beating. It’s done pretty good,” Johnston said.
Tucked away on the northernmost point of the island, the pier’s most frequent patrons are fellow islanders.
“Everybody knows you, you know what they want when you walk in the door,” Johnston said.
There’s a plaque on the wall of the first floor which gets one – maybe two lucky names engraved within it each year.
“Every year, somebody that’s been fishing year after year and year, we donate them a season ticket,” Johnston said. “A lifetime [pass] that they’re in the hall of fame for fishing here forever.”
For $350, fishermen can purchase a season pass to the pier. A lifetime pass may ultimately cost the Phelps family, but they don’t mind.
“We get by, we live good, what do we need?” Johnston said. “Materials (are) materials.”
Both the pier and the upstairs lounge host various charitable, religious and cultural events. From a yearly low country boil to a sunrise service to the weekly line dancing crew, Beaches & Boots, the Phelps family maintains a generally open-door policy.
The late patriarch would be proud of how his family has run the pier, Johnston said. “My dad would give his shirt off his back to anyone that would need it.”
Familiar faces and kindred spirits make the pier a second homestead for the Phelps’ and their extended family of local patrons.
“You need anything, somebody out there is gonna help you,” Johnston said. “I tell people, ‘When you fish, my God, you’re making a memory.’”
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