“We have four centuries of great stories here.”
Jack Fryar can list Indian raids, pirates, wars, smuggling…
“Some people will tell you they don’t like history, and they are the same people who will go and watch a movie like ‘Gone With the Wind’ or ‘Gettysburg’ or ‘The Patriot’ or ‘Schindler’s List,’ [which] they love! So the lesson a historian—someone who writes history—takes from that is people do like history, if you take the time to tell a story.”
This observation has carried Fryar through two manifestations of his calling as a historian: via teaching and writing. Currently, he heads to Laney High School daily to teach social studies, but his passion is for local history, especially Colonial history of the Cape Fear coast.
Many people have met Fryar on the page through one of his books from Dram Tree Books, Wilmington’s beloved local history press. Fryar shut it down in 2010. Yet, Fryar and Dr. Chris Fonvielle Jr. are bringing it back to life in 2019. In so many ways, it is a natural and obvious pairing: Both men are educators, not just professionally (Dr. Fonvielle recently retired from UNCW) but in daily interaction. They both possess a passion for local history and a calm, reasoned manner of explanation that brings people and places to life—in almost any conversation. Get them together, and it’s rather easy to just sit back and listen to them build the story of any person, place or event in our area’s history. They just can’t help it; they’re having too much fun.
It is an occupational hazard trying to interview either of them.
“I‘ve loved history as far back as I have memory,” Fonvielle flashes his Indiana Jones’ smile. “Growing up in Wilmington, I went out to Fort Fisher, Moores Creek, Brunswick Town, like everyone, and I was always just captivated. But my brother and two sisters went, too. It didn’t take with them, so why did it take with me? I don’t know.”
While I’m trying to guide the conversation down the road of the Ark of the Covenant, Fonvielle tells me he grew up attending St. James Episcopal. “A lot of old Wilmington families attended St. James, so I heard a lot of old stories,” he offers, “like from Peggy Moore Perdue, whose grandfather was Roger Moore. She was my kindergarten teacher.”
Then he is off with a series of reminiscences and connections of people and events.
Dram Tree Books developed as a result of Fryar’s love for local history. It began with him publishing Coastal Chronicles Magazine in the ‘90s.
“[The magazine] told true and factually accurate stories about history of the Cape Fear and Carolina coast,” he tells, “but we tried to write it the way a fiction writer would; because a fiction writer creates whole cloth characters and times and situations. There’s no reason you can’t do history that way and use real people and real situations. You have to take the time to tell the story.”
Clearly, Fryar’s storytelling was compelling because the 10,000 copies he printed monthly would disappear from the newsstands within a week. Teachers would often pass them out in classrooms, especially in 4th and 8th grades wherein teaching NC history is required.
“There’s a couple of problems with that: First, the textbooks aren’t very good—if there is a textbook—especially for something local like the Cape Fear area. Secondly, a lot of the teachers aren’t from here, so they don’t even have a native North Carolinian’s passing familiarity with that history. So teachers were coming up to me, grabbing me by the lapels and saying, ‘Do something to help me!’”
The now defunct Coastal Carolina Press approached Fryar about putting together a book collecting the Coastal Chronicles. He was excited, having been a writer the majority of his life. Yet, he had never printed an actual book.
“I mentioned it to Ellyn Bache, who is a novelist friend of mine, who had Banks Channel Books going at the time. She asked me, ‘Jack, why would you let them do it and get maybe a buck a copy royalty when you can do it all and keep it all?’”
Fryar knew the business side of it, since he worked in bookstores, even managed one. He’d also been a publisher’s rep.
“I knew the business side of it,” Fryar admits. Since he wrote content focused on the Cape Fear and eastern NC, it wouldn’t make since for him go to a national distributor. “We’re not going to sell a lot of [my books] in Kansas,” he tells. “Pretty much the bulk of our sales was going to be east of I-95.”
Fryar already had design work experience while working for the magazine. He figured laying out a book wouldn’t be much different. “I mean it’s the same skills and so instead of letting Coastal Carolina Press do it, I did my own; the first volume of the Coastal Carolina Chronicles.”
In recapping the story, Fryar has hit a stride in the narrative, and his traditional storyteller’s cadence is in full swing. He’s like the Pied Piper; I would follow him anywhere just to hear what happens next. It’s easy to see how his students would, too.
“That’s actually where I first asked Chris to do a three-part story on Fort Fisher for me for the first volume,” he tells.
Dr. Fonvielle is considered to be the living authority on the Wilmington campaign in the Civil War.
“It went over real well,” Fryar chuckles. We share a look that says “obviously.”
His next book was “History Lover’s Guide to Wilmington and The Lower Cape Fear.” He wanted to go deeper into the groundwork that built our area aside from Fort Fisher and the Battleship. “There was so much more to see if you just knew where it was,” he adds.
The book has been one of my go-to sources for local history for over a decade. It is brilliant: The layout includes good quality photos of locations, a map, directions, history and significance. “So I wanted to do a book, where you can stand at the corner of Third and Market streets, thumb through, then put it in your back pocket and go!” Fryar notes of the concept.
When the first print run sold out, Fryar decided that Dram Tree Books had legs after all. “By the time I shut it down in 2010, titles were being carried in roughly 200 places in North Carolina,” he affirms. The economic changes of the aughts were not easy on Dram Tree. By 2008, of the 200 places struggling to stay open, nearly a third are no longer in business. What did survive wasn’t placing orders of the same volume as they had previously.
Fryar enrolled at UNCW to finish his undergrad degree and pursue his masters in history (he also finished a masters in education). Today, he says, the time seems ripe to relaunch Dram Tree.
“When [Fonvielle] retired, he asked what it would take to get Dram Tree back up,” Fryar tells. Once Fryar told him 2019, Fonvielle agreed to a consulting editor to the Dram Tree books line.
“I will get his opinion on new manuscripts that come in,” Fryar tells. “He’s another ‘real deal historian.’ He will also function as my legs—because I am tied up in the classroom all day. He can run books down to Old Books or the Bellamy Mansion or whoever else needs them.”
Fryar says the first task is to get all the non-fiction titles from the Dram Tree catalog back in print. Then he will tackle the additional seven books for press. He hasn’t stopped writing since Dram Tree shuttered 10 years ago, neither has Fonvielle.
“The biggest one, the one I am most eager to see out there—back in 2009 I had written a book about the Charlestown settlement on the Cape Fear River; South Carolina has the famous Charles Town. The Cape Fear has the first Charles Town 1663-67.”
He speaks with such excitement, worlds just tumble out of him. And then we are off on a tour of the development of the settlement in the area, as a result of King Charles’ restoration to the English throne. Slowly, names I recognize from old families and plantations appear. The area begins to take shape as he shades in with growth, migration and personalities. Fryar is fired with animation and excitement.
“Nobody had ever done a book on it,” he tells. “Well, I did, but I knew I was going back to school at that point, so I didn’t publish it because I knew I was going to need a master’s thesis. Being true good history and being entertaining aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.”
I nod, as I’m caught up in his description of the Charles Town settlement and murmur, “We have four centuries of great stories here.”