A look back . . . Belhaven’s very first ICW Celebration!

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By Deanna F. Swain

BELHAVEN — Like their predecessors nearly a century ago, the organizers of this weekend’s Fifth Annual Intracoastal Waterway Celebration (scheduled for Saturday afternoon, Oct. 14, from 12:30 until 7:00) are hopeful for the future of their small town.

The inaugural affair 89 years ago certainly made a big splash!!

These days, we are used to seeing a variety of small-town festivals, each with music, vendors, beauty pageants and military bands. Imagine, though, trying to hold such a festival without the Internet, widespread phone service, or easy transportation.


In 1928, Belhaven did just that — celebrating the newest Intracoastal Waterway link with a party that impressed even jaded newspapermen from Raleigh!

According to the August 26 and August 31, 1928, editions of the Raleigh News and Observer, the 2,500 residents of Belhaven welcomed 20,000 visitors to their shores for a massive celebration on Thursday, August 30, 1928.

Nearly the entire town participated in the event! Buildings were decorated with bunting and streets were closed as local boys directed traffic. Several thousand guests gathered on the lawn of a local riverfront manor to listen to speeches from state dignitaries and music from a 25-piece Army band from Norfolk, Virginia.

A whopping 10,000 people gathered along the shore for speedboat races. The military put on a show, sending two Naval airplanes and a dirigible from Newport News, Virginia.  The Coast Guard sent its entire North Carolina fleet to anchor in the harbor amongst decorated local boats.  Visitors strolled through the town, visiting amusement rides and the local beach while hundreds formed a motorcade to view the newly opened canal about ten miles to the east.

If such a display from a small town was not impressive enough, the afternoon included a fish fry and picnic lunch that moved one Raleigh reporter to Biblical references about feeding the multitudes. Thousands of pounds of local fish were caught and fried in sufficient numbers to provide a one and a half pieces for each of the 20,000 visitors.  Hundreds of picnic baskets prepared by local families were spread out for the public along a table reported to be around 1,750 feet long.

After the masses were fed, they were treated to an air show from the two Naval pilots. The evening concluded at the town’s riverside pavilion, with an eight-piece orchestra from Roanoke Rapids serenading dancers until 2 am.

As eastern North Carolina gears up for its local fall festivals, spare a moment to think about what a wonder this 1928 celebration was.  Eighty-nine years ago, a sleepy little town at the far end of a rural county staged a celebration that impresses even by today’s standards. Over time, local knowledge of this remarkable party has largely faded.  The prosperity envisioned by the partygoers has faded too.  Belhaven is a smaller place and even quieter these days, but a group of residents are rallying community spirit and pride with events throughout the year and a long-running Fourth of July celebration.

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