photo courtesy museum of the albemarleThe Chowan Beach resort in Hertford County is the subject of Museum of the Albemarle's latest exhibit, Memorable Sands. It's an exploration into the African American beach resorts of the region.
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photo courtesy museum of the albemarleThe Chowan Beach resort in Hertford County is the subject of Museum of the Albemarle's latest exhibit, Memorable Sands. It's an exploration into the African American beach resorts of the region.

Museum sifts through the sands of time

By Robert Kelly-goss

Albemarle Life Editor

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Phyllis Pillmon’s voice betrays her love of the past when she’s asked to share her memories of Chowan Beach. Those were memories of growing up in Hertford County, at a place that was legendary as a vacation spot for African Americans from the 1930s to the 1990s.

“I remember being a little girl. We would go there and help, me and my sister,” recalled Pillmon, the daughter of Chowan Beach’s second owner, Sam Pillmon. “We would help with the merry-go-round.”

Saturday Museum of the Albemarle will open the exhibit, Memorable Sands. It is a chance to look at the African American beaches and vacations spots in the region, most notably Chowan Beach.

Museum and exhibit curator Wanda Stiles says Chowan Beach was especially important because it was such a popular spot that featured numerous attractions, including top name musical acts.

“Chowan Beach was on the Chitlin’ Circuit,” explained Stiles. “It was a network of African American musicians performing in African American clubs and audiences from the 1930s to the 1960s.”

That meant that big names such as B.B. King, James Brown and Sam Cook performed along the Chowan River in Hertford County during the summer months.

Eli Reid opened Chowan Beach in 1929. Stiles says he simply wanted a place for his family to go and vacation.

“But then it expanded to a lot of people coming on vacation and spending the week there,” said Stiles. “That would be a lot of upper class African American families.”

Families from places such as Durham and up and down the East Coast would head to Chowan Beach to spend a week on the water. Locals would flock to the popular site on the weekends.

Eventually Reid would add a restaurant. By 1937 he would be promoting it in advertisements as “The playgrounds of the Carolinas.” He promoted cottages with running water to let, boating, fishing and swimming.

Eventually he would add amusement park rides and in the 1950s a dance hall would be erected and more rides and a fun house would be included at Chowan Beach.

In 1967 Sam Pillmon bought Chowan Beach from Reid. Stiles says the two men were in the jukebox business and knew one another. Pillmon and his family would take over the resort’s operations and it would thrive for three more decades.

Phyllis Pillmon and her sister sold tickets to boat rides. She recalls the cottages and perhaps most importantly all of the people who would come from up and down the East Coast.

She says even beyond hay days of the Chitlin’ Circuit big name acts would attract people to Chowan. Acts like Eddie Floyd (“Knock on Wood”) would play the dance hall.

“My mother would go to the airport to pick them up and we would get to know them,” recalled Pillmon.

Summers at Chowan Beach were “a whole lot of fun,” she said.

But the days of Chowan Beach would begin to draw to a close first after segregation ended but then when large amusement parks such as King’s Dominion or Busch Gardens became popular.

And, Pillmon said, people began to pass away; people whose lives were a part of Chowan Beach and the other way around.

Stiles says Saturday’s exhibit opening will feature a ribbon cutting at 10 a.m., concert by the Interfaith Community Choir at 11:30 a.m., a piano concert by Katherine Bunch at 12:30 p.m. and then a talk and book signing by Chowan University professor and author of “Chowan Beach: Remembering an African American Resort,” Frank Stephenson Jr., at 2 p.m.

For more information contact the museum at 252-335-1453.