A lot of boats have come and gone through Elizabeth City’s public docks at Mariners’ Wharf Park since Fred Fearing and Joe Kramer began welcoming them back in the 1980s.
The pair would load up wine and cheese and Kramer would cut roses from his garden for the ladies on board. Their gesture of goodwill would have Elizabeth City dubbed the Harbor of Hospitality and the duo the Rose Buddies.
And while both Fearing and Kramer have passed on, the Rose Buddies tradition is very much alive and the Harbor of Hospitality is still known for its, well, hospitality.
“You may not see the golf cart along the walkway at Mariners’ Wharf Park’s public docks, but that doesn’t mean the Rose Buddies aren’t still welcoming boaters,” says Convention and Tourism Director Charlotte Underwood.
The golf cart she refers to was iconic. Folks around here knew that Fred Fearing was coming when they saw that cart traveling east, the wrong way on Fearing Street.
Joe Kramer died well before Fearing. When he passed, the rose bush from his place was transplanted at Mariners’ Wharf Park. Fearing would load up his cart with wine and cheese and drive down to the public docks to welcome the boaters. He would stop at the rose bush and cut the flowers as they were needed.
Boaters from around the world and across the country came here because of the kindness of Fred Fearing and the folks who populate this town. Even famed newsman Walter Cronkite made a stop here to avoid a hurricane and became enamored with Fred, the town and the townsfolk. He would return time after time when traveling north and south on the Intracoastal Waterway.
Over the years Elizabeth City’s reputation throughout the boating world spread and boaters would blog about our free docks and the grand greetings they’d received when they arrived here. Even newspaper columnists began to write about us.
Last year the South Carolina newspaper, the Beaufort Gazette, wrote about our waterside hospitality. It seems the columnist had a friend sailing from Virginia to South Carolina and the friend was mighty impressed with us, so much so that the columnist observed that our history of free dockage and the Rose Buddies should make us the envy of other ports.
He mentioned that Elizabeth City is known “worldwide” for this hospitality. And it’s true. Just ask the boaters from the United Kingdom, France, Netherlands and Canada who come through here.
Of course right here folks understood the impact of Fearing’s work. Former Elizabeth City mayor Steve Atkinson is a boater and a next generation Rose Buddy.
“We know (boaters) make a decision,” says Atkinson of coming to Elizabeth City. “We try to encourage them to come here. There are a lot of discretionary dollars that come here.”
Atkinson points out that boaters traveling along the Intracoastal Waterway can come through Elizabeth City and the Dismal Swamp Canal, or go through the Coinjock Canal in Currituck. Keeping this tradition of hospitality alive keeps the boaters coming here, he says.
Atkinson is also keeping a promise he made to Fearing.
“I was mayor-elect at the time,” recalls Atkinson. “I dropped down at his house and his daughter was there. I told him how much the community appreciated what he did over the years. I told him that as long as I was mayor I would continue the tradition.”
Atkinson decided not to run for a second term as mayor, but he did decide to continue showing up at the docks. As when he was mayor, Atkinson joins in the crowd at the docks and welcomes boaters with a short speech.
He tells the boaters that the town is available for them. He explains to them that there are services and people waiting to help them enjoy their stay in Elizabeth City.
Convention and Tourism’s Underwood says they will hold a Rose Buddy party when five or more boats are at the park. But these days it seems there are fewer boaters than in years past.
Just the same, the boaters who are arriving will find not only a public dock and a big welcome, but also free bikes at the Convention and Tourism office to get the around town. The bikes were donated and they have baskets that allow the boaters to load up on supplies. Underwood says it’s very popular with the boaters and gets them into town.
There are also services that boaters would like and the town is considering, although budgetary considerations might dampen the efforts to bring public showers to the waterfront.
Atkinson points out that the showers would be a boon because boaters would stop here to not only take advantage of the docks and hospitality, but also spend their money. That’s Atkinson’s point in all this; boaters spend a lot of money and the more attractive we make their stay, the more they’ll come here.
And they do talk to one another. Boaters will share information.
“Whether they are from Nova Scotia or the United Kingdom, 90 percent of them have heard of the Rose Buddies,” says Atkinson.
And so that’s what brings them here. Or at least that’s what started the word about the Harbor of Hospitality.
Underwood says it’s a tradition that will continue into the next generation. She says she still cuts roses for the party and she still comes out to greet boaters.
Fred Fearing’s golf cart is now in the warehouse of Museum of the Albemarle, but his spirit is alive and well. Underwood says that the senior Rose Buddy, Dave Thomas, still comes out to greet boaters. He helped Fearing in his last years. And while Thomas might have some good stories to tell, he was unavailable for comment for this story. But the next time you see a group of boaters gather at the park, you’ll likely see Thomas, Underwood and Atkinson. And you’ll see wine and cheese, and of course Joe Kramer’s roses.
“They choose to come here because of the hospitality,” says Underwood of the boaters.