by Brooke Chilvers
If, in 1977, I was the leader of our first quest together – sighting red-cockaded woodpeckers in South Carolina’s Francis Marion National Forest – then our latest venture – tracking down the real estate of “fishing” artist and visionary 1950s developer Frank Stick (1884-1966) on North Carolina’s Outer Banks (OBX) – was definitely Joan’s domain. For decades, she’s owned a classic beach-box-on-stilts cottage in Nags Head that can be upped and moved, if necessary.
Luckily, Joan didn’t leave me and my husband as I’d left her back then, covered in mud with blackberry twigs (and possibly ticks) in her hair, at the Charleston airport, just minutes before her flight home. The then-general manager of the Richmond (VA) Symphony, who’d arrived at the house looking the part – matching scarf, heels, and handbag – was now rushing to the gate, still chewing a wad of gum to fight off thirst after my boyfriend’s truck got stuck in the seeping woods.
But the worst came when my totally mussed-up friend took her seat: Her neighbor was Omar Sharif! More than 40 years later, the scene still makes us laugh. At least we’d found our bird.
Sportsmen recall Frank Stick as a pioneer of the sport of surf fishing, writing and illustrating the first-ever book on the subject, Call of the Surf (1920); he also illustrated Heilner’s oft-reprinted 1922 Adventures in Angling: A Book of Salt Water Fishing. Stick’s sailfish, wahoo, tarpon, swordfish, and blue marlin burst free from the hold of the waves before submitting to the hook.
A generation later in his multi-act life, in 1947, Stick snapped up a 2,600-acre tract of barrier island sand just north of Kitty Hawk, for $30,000, where he envisioned, designed, and built a model ocean-to-bay subdivision with some 300 homes. He named it Southern Shores.
Our autumn, 2021, mission was to track down, between the rows and rows of cookie-cutter coastal McMansions popping up literally everywhere, whatever we could of the 25 surviving single-storey, flat-top cottages that once made Frank Stick and his family famous.
Frank was born in a railroad town in the Dakota Territory where his father was bank president. The family moved to Sioux City, and later to a coal-mining town in northern Illinois. There, they ran a grocery. Wherever they lived, Frank fished, hunted, and trapped small game. And sketched the outdoors around him.
After a four-month course at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1904 – his only formal art education – Stick started selling outdoor stories to Sports Afield, then to Field & Stream, and then the Izaak Walton League Monthly, which would use 13 of his oil paintings as covers.
He worked for a while in New York’s publishing world; returned to Illinois with his wife and two children; and then lived off the land on a remote island in northern Wisconsin, catching bass, northern pike, walleye and muskie, gathering wild rice, and shooting wildfowl.
By the end of World War I, things had nearly gone belly up, and Stick was darn near broke. But his career took off again in 1919 when one crucial commission led to 153 “Stick” sportsmen, canoes, and campsites being published in national and outdoor magazines – an illustration a week for 2½ years. He hung out with a fellow member of the Long Key Fishing Club’s “Bonefish Brigade,” Western writer Zane Grey; together, they “discovered” the bluefish and channel-bass fishing in Cape Hatteras.
The former grocery boy now built a grand home on Deal Lake in Interlaken, New Jersey; the former guide and camp cook now kept his own fishing camp at Barnegat Bay.
But the Great Depression changed everything yet again, and Stick set aside his paintbrushes, relocating to Roanoke Island. This triggered his next chapter as one of the first Outer Banks real-estate developers. He built a substantial ocean-front home in today’s Kill Devil Hills, then immediately borrowed against it to make further land acquisitions.
Bypassing post-WWII shortages, Stick used OBX beach sand and mortar to make 42-pound concrete building blocks (a practice later forbidden for fear of dune erosion) for his stylish flat-topped cottages with brightly colored whitewashed exteriors. They went up in only four months, at two-thirds the cost of the standard workingman’s home. To keep his streamlined Florida-inspired homes affordable, Stick used native juniper for the exposed beams, woodwork, and paneling.
Today, Stick’s minimalist square look, wide, overhanging soffits, propped-up Bahama shutters, and tar-and-gravel flat roofs are considered “quaint.” Nearly all have been replaced by multi-storey monsters that ooze “party-time rental property,” and not “summering family” vibes.
Noodling out from NC Highway 12, our personal Frank Stick Quest Trail took us to Roanoke Island and Manteo, The Wright Brothers National Memorial, Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, and Southern Shores, then on to Duck and Corolla for lunch. We cheered for each of the half-dozen flat-topped houses we spotted that had not been renovated with pitched roofs or second storeys.
Nearly all looked forlorn and uncelebrated, as if the sand-swept two-bedroom structures themselves were yearning to be three storeys tall with eight bedroom balcony suites, like their neighbors But my spirits lifted when I found the Facebook page, The Southern Shores Historic Flat Top Cottages, announcing the return of their annual 10-house tour in April, 2022.
In the last 15 years of his life, in a final unleashing of his talent, Stick painted 300 watercolor fish portraits, many found in the lovely boxed book, An Artist’s Catch.
The end of our visit to Stick Country lacked the drama of our Charleston gig. Vaccinated and boosted and standing in the sun, we embraced good-bye yet again in our long friendship. But as I climbed into the passenger seat of our car, I turned to Joan and whispered, “My husband is better looking than Omar Sharif.”
Brooke Chilvers is Gray’s art critic, resident bonne vivante, and very own renaissance woman. She and her (handsome) Breton husband, Rudy Lubin, split their time between their home in the Virginia hills and a house in Brittany.