SUNSET BEACH – His tours of Bird Island ended years ago and, a majority of the time, someone else makes the more than mile-long, sandy trek from the southern end of Sunset Beach to collect notebooks tucked inside the cherished mailbox on the state reserve.
Yes, others may be carrying out the popular, some would even say sacred, traditions started by Frank Nesmith, but the man who has become a living legend in this small Brunswick County beach town is content to sit back and reflect on his contributions.
“It’s mighty pleasant to have something that you acquired a little fame from,” he said one crisp, late-autumn morning in the living room of his home on the banks of the Intracoastal Waterway.
At 90 years old, Nesmith (pronounced NEE-smith), has a treasure trove of memories from years of making his mark in Sunset Beach.
Most are good memories. The bad ones, well, he just chuckles at today.
You do not become acknowledged as the mayor of Bird Island without ruffling more than a few feathers.
“That was my playground,” he said of the more than 1,400-acre coastal reserve tucked between Sunset Beach and the Little River Inlet in South Carolina.
When the tide was low, Nesmith would drive his $300 car across Mad Inlet, a shallow, meandering channel that once separated the southern end of Sunset Beach from Bird Island. That was a few decades ago, before the town was incorporated and one could easily count the number of homes scattered throughout the island.
Back then, Bird Island was owned by Jefferson-Pilot Corp. heir Ralph Price. He purchased the island in the early 1950s. Nearly four decades later, Price left the land to his widow, who, along with her son, had plans to develop the land.
“In the meantime, I had retired and I was traveling in an old car with an old dog,” Nesmith said. “I was single and I just loved to see geography.”
He spent five months on the road, traveling through the Gulf Coast states, as close to the Rio Grande as he could get, up to Canada and over to the west coast.
“I had seen a lot of places and decided this was about the place in the country to be,” Nesmith said.
He returned to what was originally the family home, one he bought from his parents in 1975 after his divorce. He enjoys the seclusion on the main side lot his parents bought in 1958. This was their beach getaway, a short 35-mile drive from their home in Tabor City.
“I just love it,” Nesmith said, looking across the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway to the island. “I love living on this side of the beach, especially in the summer time.”
In the early 1990s, Nesmith began giving weekly tours on Bird Island. He advertised the tours on homemade signs he’d post on trashcans throughout town in the summer.
The tours were a boost to the membership of the Bird Island Preservation Society, which started out as a small group of Sunset Beach residents dedicated to preserving the island.
“People liked to walk in front of the sand dunes rather than houses,” Nesmith said. “I realized how much people enjoyed the island. Good gosh, sometimes we’d have 200 people out there in the summer.”
Another big draw to Bird Island was the “Kindred Spirit” mailbox, a fixture Nesmith planted on the island decades ago.
In 1976, he and friend initially placed the mailbox on a tiny island that was once in Tubbs Inlet at the north end of Sunset Beach.
“Anybody that goes down to the ‘kindred spirit’ mailbox is a kindred spirit,” Nesmith said. “As things will do on the beach, the little island washed away. So, we decided to move it to Bird Island.”
Over the years, thousands have made the 30-minute walk from the southernmost beach access in Sunset Beach to the mailbox to write messages on notebooks tucked in the mailbox. They share their joy, their pain, their fears, their memories and aspirations on the pages of those journals.
People help Nesmith collect the journals. A stack of them rest neatly in a basket near a staircase of his home. The journals are hand delivered to the New Hanover County Library in downtown Wilmington, where they are archived.
Ten years after the fight began to preserve the island, the state in 2002 acquired the island for $4.2 million.
“Oh, my Lord have mercy. I never go down to Bird Island where I don’t say, ‘Thank you Lord for giving us this place,’” Nesmith said.
After several years, he stopped giving tours. He was getting tired, he said. Tours were taken over by a group of Bird Island stewards.
He also doesn’t collect notebooks left in the mailbox as often.
Still, he closely follows the tides and winds in order to ride his three-wheeled bicycle on the beach as often as he can. Friends who own an oceanfront home let him store the bike there for easy beach access.
A feat for which he’s proud but perhaps least known is what became his first fight for public land in Sunset Beach. The public parking lot with the gazebo that accesses the beach as you first drive onto the island exists because of him.
“I’m really proud of that because at the time (the owner) could have built high-rise condominiums here,” Nesmith said.
He’s a father, grandfather and a World War II Army veteran. After selling his insurance agency business in 1958 and retiring, he’s traveled to every U.S. state except Hawaii.
Nesmith has experienced his fair share of accomplishments. But it’s what he’s done at Sunset Beach – Bird Island, the Kindred Spirit and the public lot – that he’s most proud.
“If I hadn’t had the experience with those three things I would have said of my life, ‘you didn’t do much, ole’ boy.’”