A Family’s Paradise

by | Feb 13, 2024 | History, People

The Bland brothers, descendants of the first deed holder on Topsail Island, recount some of their family’s history on the island.

Sitting with the Bland brothers is a bit like watching a Ping Pong match, with stories — and corrections — bouncing back and forth throughout the conversation. Twins Bill and Tom and younger brother Richard have a lot of stories to tell about the history of the area and about their own ancestors, as their family has been on Topsail Island since 1907.

It started with their great-grandfather, John Thomas Bland, Sr., of Burgaw. Around 1900, John Bland became friends with the Atkinson family, who, Richard says, “were the ‘old’ family that welcomed our great grandfather to this area.” In March 1907, John Bland registered the first deed for land on Topsail, a total of 100 acres. Over the next couple of years, he purchased more land and that total was almost doubled, to 199 acres.

Bland family early 1960s

The brothers say the very first permanent structure built on the island was a simple fishing cabin, constructed by the Bland family from lumber brought over by boat from the mainland. Their cabin served as a vacation spot for family members and friends who discovered a new adventure on Topsail Island. Although there was no infrastructure, no running water or electricity, Richard says people “would stays days and weeks at a time.”

That cabin also became a part of Topsail’s famous — or, rather, infamous — mysterious story of the Gold Hole.

In the late 1930s, an expedition group started searching for alleged buried treasure that was said to have been washed up from a ship that wrecked just off the island. Richard explains that the Gold Hole “happened to be next to the old Bland cabin, and it was the only structure they could stay in to do the digging.” The crew even hired a few of the Bland boys to help with the digging.

The treasure was either not found or was carried off in the middle of the night by those who had been leading the expedition. Whether there was ever an actual treasure to be found is still a mystery.

By the 1950s there were more structures on the island, and the Bland fishing shack had been modernized a bit. The cabin survived Hurricane Hazel, which destroyed most of the structures on the island in 1954. It was sturdy enough that one of the Bland family cousins, Jane Watson, said after the storm that “even the teacups were still hanging on their hooks on the wall.” The cabin could not survive a fire, though, which did destroy it in 1967.

Bob Bland

All visits to the island were stopped during World War II, when the military established Camp Davis and used Topsail Island for its operations. Richard explains that they “brought artillery over on the pontoon bridge.” No one was allowed on the island until after operation Bumblebee concluded in July 1948.

“Once they opened up the island, things started moving much faster,” Richard says. In August 1948, David Bland, a lawyer in Goldsboro, wrote to his cousins and suggested a meeting on the island to divide up the property.

The island was officially named Topsail at that point, and the stretch of land owned by the Bland family became known as Bland Row.

Tom and Kitty Humphrey, Bland cousins, built the first house on the island, starting the building process as soon as they were allowed to in 1948. In March 2013, when the Town of Topsail Beach celebrated its 50th anniversary, Tom’s son Bobby Humphrey was recognized as the “longest living full-time resident of the town.”

Bland Beach House

One of the first stores on the island, the Cracker Boz, was also built on Bland property in the early 1950s. Sitting on the ocean dune, though, the structure was “blown back across the road” by Hurricane Hazel. The Bland lineage includes Dorothy Bland Sox, John Thomas Bland, Sr.’s daughter and great-aunt to Bill, Tom, and Richard.

It is said that Dorothy was the one who convinced J.T. Bland, Sr. to build the fishing cabin on Topsail that started the legacy of the Bland family on the island.

Dorothy Bland also had a house “on the other side of the dunes,” Richard says, that was “blown back by Hazel to the other side of the road.” The house still stands today, although on stilts and in its new location next to the Bland Beach House.

Bill says an older Bland brother, Bob, passed away in 2011. Bob was very active in politics and helped Gabby Giffords with her re-election campaign. Tom is technically now the oldest, being seven minutes older than twin Bill, and is retired after working in the banking and education industries. Bill is also retired after 30 years as a brick sales representative. Richard is the youngest and, as Bill says, “an accomplished painter, primarily using oil paints.” Richard’s paintings decorate the walls in the Bland Beach House today.

Richard, Bill and Tom Bland

Their father, Bill, and mother, Dot, moved to the Bland Beach House after he retired. Bill passed away in 1999, and Dot continued to live there until she passed away in 2014. Several Bland families, including the Humphrey, Cox and Watson families, still live on the island as permanent residents.

There are many, many more stories that could be told of the Bland family and their lives on Topsail Island. They have seen a lot through the years. Richard tells the story of the road to Topsail Beach being built by the military to accommodate the Bumblebee project and of the new swing bridge that was built to replace the precarious pontoon bridge.

As Bill says, “There are so many other Bland cousins and in-laws, along the one-mile stretch of Topsail Island that you would spend the next two years searching them down for their input into a complete Bland history.”

Even though tracts of that original land purchase have been divided and sold in the past 116 years, the house that Bill Bland, father to Bill, Tom and Richard, built in 1973 is still very much a part of the family. In fact, the “boys” have just recently been renovating and repainting the house. Bill (the son) says “the Bland Beach House will remain in the Bland family for as long as our children and grandchildren enjoy visiting it.”

About the author

Pat Fontana

Pat Fontana

I am a business writer and communications workshop leader. My business, WordsWorking, and my recently published book, Talk to Me Like I’m a Human, focus on improving workplace communications, concentrating on the fundamentals of human interactions. I developed, write about and train on the concept of REAL Communications, encouraging others to communicate with Respect and Empathy, paying close Attention and Listening with intent. I can be reached at pat@words-working.net.