“Capt Jack – take you over and bring you back...”
"Capt Jack" (John Winfield Willis 1875-1962) was the son of John Chapman Willis and Marinda Taylor Willis. Capt Jack was the father of Robert Neal Willis and Jack Miller Willis. Neal and Evelyn Jones Willis had two daughters - Linda Willis Sadler and Judy Willis Peregoy - both still live in Beaufort. Capt Jack's other grandchildren are: Jack Willis, Jr., Joyce Willis Johnston, Michael Willis and Mae Willis Stevens. Thanks to documentation and stories collected by his family – the colorful history of Capt Jack lives on……
According to Neal Willis’ book, Beaufort by the Sea-Memories of a Lifetime, John Winfield Willis was born on
Mulberry Street and later moved to a house on Turner Street. He married Daisy Elizabeth Whitehurst in 1907 in Miss Emily Loftin’s house on Marsh Street.
“He worked in the river fishing, oystering, clamming and for a time at the boat yard of Whitehurst & Rice…At one time he operated a steam-powered merry-go-round for a carnival...He would get up on many cold winter mornings before sunrise and then go out in the cold water in a pair of old leaky boots to pick up oysters barehanded. He had to row a boat five miles each way, then open the oysters and walk all over town trying to sell them for 25 cents per quart, often having to bring them home so we could eat them before they spoiled.”
[In the 1920’s] “Dad had a houseboat; really it was old sailing Sharpie with an enclosure built on top. It was up on posts about six feet above the water at the foot of
Moore Street and Front…..There was a walkway from the breakwater to the front of the boat.
He had a motor boat with a cabin named Capt Jack that was used to carry people to the Swimming Shoal and to Piver’s
Island and for fishing parties. Since the Davis House and Manson House were just across the street, he got a lot of business from the tourists there.
He had rowboats, fishing lines, bathing suits [ordered from Sears Roebuck] and crab scoops for rent. This was across from the Swimming Shoal now called
Carrot …...where we had cleared the beach of shells and broken bottles. We charged 15 cents round trip…. in rowboats….We [Dad, Jack and I] taught swimming and rowing. Island
Later he moved everything to the west end of Front Street in a metal building owned by George Brooks, a local contractor, who had a speed boat Miss Beaufort housed in the building…..After the building was destroyed in a storm, he built a wooden building at the same location. This too was destroyed in a hurricane…..the Capt Jack was washed up on the shore. The rowboats were sold.”
History tells us that Capt Jack was also looked to as a weather man as he either walked or rode a bicycle to and from his fishing camp. “He told us to look to the wind for weather signs. He could also look at the clouds and tell what kind of weather to expect for the next few days.
…He told me about the 1917 freeze and the influenza epidemic. The river across Gallants was frozen solid enough that cars could be driven across on the ice...He said he also witnessed the last hanging on Court House Square.”
Neal Willis’ book goes on to tell us how his father’s birthday was always celebrated. “…Each year he had a watermelon cutting on the breakwater near his camp at the foot of Moore Street
…When I was growing up, a lot of people went sheep heading, especially Dad. It was nothing to catch a fish weighing 12 to 14 pounds. It was so big that you couldn’t scale it with a knife. Dad had what he called the ‘sheep head board’. It was a large board where he could drive a nail in the fish’s tail and scale it with a hoe. They were very good eating baked with onions and potatoes. The meat was white and very good. We used sand fiddlers for bait. They wouldn’t bite shrimp or fish. They ate barnacles and small crabs on the large posts and rocks. They were very strong and could bend a regular hook. Dad told Mr. Jones, the hardware manager, and he had the Pflueger Hook Company make a stronger hook. They named it the ‘Capt Jack Hook’.”
Beaufort by the Sea - Memories of a Lifetime contains most of the above information, plus Neal Willis' memories of what it was like growing up in Beaufort. It can be purchased at the BHA’s Old Beaufort Shop, Scuttlebutt, The History Place or by contacting Linda Sadler.
Photos provided by Linda Sadler