Historical Society of Topsail Island not only interprets the island’s intriguing past, but also contributes to the betterment of the community.
Although it’s only one small link in the chain of barrier islands along North Carolina’s coastline, Topsail Island’s rich history and storied past set it apart from all the others.
Situated in both Pender and Onslow counties about halfway between Jacksonville and Wilmington, the island includes the towns of North Topsail Beach, Surf City and Topsail Beach. The 26 miles of shoreline have seen the likes of pirates, Native Americans, Air Force pilots and even a top-secret missile program. For more than 20 years, Historical Society of Topsail Island has worked to honor and promote the area’s unique and illustrious history.
Established in 1989, Historical Society of Topsail Island preserves and interprets various historical artifacts, photos and documents that help illustrate the island’s intriguing past. Part of its mission includes maintaining the Assembly Building, home to a secret missile-testing project in the 1940s.
“People see the sign out front for the Assembly Building and naturally they assume it’s something the town has established, but it’s literally the assembly building where military rockets were developed and assembled,” says Rick Stidley, one of the Historical Society board members. “It’s still in almost the exact same configuration it was in when the military was here during Operation Bumblebee.”
Operation Bumblebee took place on Topsail Island from 1946 to 1948. A collaborative effort between the U.S. Department of Defense, the Navy and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, this secret guided missile-testing program produced the country’s first strategic surface-to-air missiles. At that time, Topsail Island was only accessible by boat, and its 26 miles of barren beaches made it the ideal location for such a mission. In addition to the Assembly Building, the Navy built a launching pad and nine observational towers up and down the island, eight of which are still standing today.
“The rockets were assembled in the building and then taken across the street to a cement pad on the beach to be launched,” Stidley says. “They launched over 100 rockets over the course of two years, before the project just outgrew itself and needed to be moved someplace bigger.”
Historical Society of Topsail Island built the Missiles and More Museum in 1997 in honor of Topsail Island’s role in the history of U.S. aviation and warfare. Located both inside and adjacent to the Assembly Building, the museum is home to exhibits featuring both Operation Bumblebee and nearby Camp Davis, a military base built during the war as an antiaircraft artillery training facility. Another highlight of the museum is an exhibit on the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). In response to World War II, this group of trained female American military aircraft pilots flew out of Camp Davis. Other exhibits include a look at early Native American life on the island, and there’s a new exhibit exploring North Carolina’s pirates, including the infamous Blackbeard, who is said to have launched attacks from Topsail’s shallow inlets.
“We also have a huge shell collection and lots of artifacts people have found on the island,” Stidley says. “There are rockets hanging on the ceiling and a section for kids with a touch tank set up like a beach. We have a little bit of everything really.”
The Historical Society is made up of more than 300 members and volunteers who all share a passion for Topsail Island and its history. In addition to maintaining the Assembly Building and the Missiles and More Museum, the society aims to give back to the local community. Monthly luncheons feature guest historians who speak on a variety of topics relating to local history. The society also awards $10,000 each year in scholarships to local high school seniors through a contest showcasing historical events related to either Onslow or Pender counites.
In the summer the society runs an interactive aquarium program for local children in conjunction with North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. The culminating event each year is the Autumn with Topsail Festival, a 30-year tradition with regional artists, crafts, live music and food.
All money raised through fundraising events goes straight into maintaining the Assembly Building, supporting Missiles and More Museum and educating the public about the island’s fascinating history.
“People who live close by and come for the first time always say they can’t believe they’ve waited this long to come, and that there’s this much history here,” Stidley says. “The preservation of the history of the island and all the things that make this area special is really important. It doesn’t matter if you live in North Topsail, Surf City, Topsail Beach or elsewhere, the history of the island encompasses everybody.”
Autumn with Topsail Festival
Now in its 31st year, Autumn with Topsail Festival celebrates the rich history of Topsail Island by showcasing the best artists and crafters in the region. Thanks to the volunteer efforts of Historical Society of Topsail Island, the festival invites more than 100 carefully selected vendors each year to display their hand-crafted works on the grounds of the Assembly Building on Topsail Beach.
In addition to the artisans, the two-day event also features live bands, food vendors, a beer and wine tent and a variety of children’s activities, including inflatables, face painting and crafts. All proceeds from the event go toward helping the Historical Society support the Assembly Building and Missiles and More Museum.
“We’re going to have great food, live music and lots of activities for the kids,” says Autumn With Topsail Chairman Rick Stidley. “Our focus is really on the art, because these artists are the best out there. So come on out and help support the society.”
When: October 19 from 8:30 am to 8 pm and October 20 from 8:30 am to 4 pm
Where: 720 Channel Boulevard, Topsail Beach.
Admission: $6 for adults or $10 for a two-day pass. Children age 12 and younger and active-duty military with ID get in free.
- Live music includes The Carolina Band at noon on Saturday, followed by the North Tower Band Saturday at 5 pm. On Sunday, The Band of Oz plays from 1 to 4 pm.
- The Kiwanis Club of Topsail Island will host a pancake breakfast from 7:30 am to 10 am on Saturday and 8 to 10 am on Sunday inside the Assembly Building. Prices are $7, $4 for children ages 6 to 11 and free for children 5 and younger with an adult breakfast.
- The Missiles and More Museum will be open from 10 am to 4 pm during the festival. Admission to the museum is free, but donations are appreciated.
Photos by Perna Photography, LLC