At the Rack Time pool bar, locals still talk about the time John Ratzenberger floated into town on his yacht and stopped by for a drink in Belhaven.
Nobody calls him Ratzenberger when they tell this story at the friendly watering hole on Pamlico Street, where the actor’s picture hangs next to the dartboards.
He’s Cliff Craven, the postman from “Cheers.” He’s Hamm, the pig from the Toy Story movies. He’s the voice behind crazy cartoons in Cars, Wall-E, and The Incredibles.
And in Belhaven, he’s another character who steered a boat up the Pungo River and passed a night in this town full of curiosities, adding his name to its quirky cast list.
“He was so down-to-earth,” says bartender Vivian Woolard, pointing to the portrait. “I actually shot that picture with my phone.”
Hidden on the back roads between Bath and Swan Quarter, Belhaven likely sees more traffic arrive via outboard motor than over the bridge on N.C. Highway 99.
The town rises and falls with the water, deriving its personality from what washes ashore, offering a colorful stopover to soggy, windburned travelers. In the summer, people just tie their boats together and bob offshore. You knee-board. You fish. You water-ski.
In the winter, you hibernate.
Walter Cronkite used to park his boat in Belhaven. Roy Clark of “Hee Haw” fame was known to cut through, as was Twiggy, the British supermodel.
Woolard remembers serving the man who invented Formula 409 cleaning spray.
Rack Time owner Carlton Smith recalls the couple who always arrived carrying a pet monkey. In this town, the beast hardly turned heads.
“They’d bring him in and set him on the bar,” Smith says, “and the monkey would just sit there like, ‘Whatever.’ ”
At Rack Time, you can see where hundreds of sailors have scratched or inked their names on the bar, maybe adding a naked mermaid as a flourish. With the Intracoastal Waterway in sight of downtown, Belhaven serves as a roadside attraction for boats, a riverfront equivalent of a favorite diner along Route 66.
Smith talks about a French yachtsman with boat trouble who motored into Belhaven and spent two weeks here, making repairs. He became a regular, mingling with the Beaufort County folk.
“It’s America in here,” Woolard says. “And we’ve had them from all over the world. France. Lithuania. South Africa. I’ve had these guys from Germany. They’d bought a boat and redid it, painted it black like a pirate ship.”
You understand why the world picks tiny Belhaven for a pit stop once you spend a day here.
You eat crab casserole at Fish Hooks cafe. You gawk at the flea collection and the three-legged pig at The Belhaven Memorial Museum, not to mention the wreath made out of human hair. You visit the grave of Little Eva, a native of Belhaven who taught the world how to do “The Loco-motion.”
You leave town with a dozen stories nobody else has heard, and you carry them with you like gift-shop souvenirs, happy you followed your curiosity.
Shaped by the water
Few people live in Belhaven anymore: just 1,685 at last count, about a third less than the town’s population in 1950.
In its early days, the town made its fortune from lumber, floating tons of logs down from the northeast. River Forest Manor, the grand mansion and marina that drew Cronkite and other luminaries, was originally the property of a timber baron.
Now the manor is for sale.
Belhaven long depended on the shrimp and crabs it pulled from the water, packed or sold fresh. There’s a giant crab sculpture outside the library downtown. Restaurants serve fish sandwiches and shrimp plates. Crab pots sit strewn in people’s yards.
But those industries have slowed down.
Water surrounds Belhaven — not the grand coastal bays too wide to see across, where tourists drive their cars onto ferries for a ride. Belhaven floats on the snaking rivers and creeks that form the finger-shaped Inner Banks. It’s hard to reach, and it feels that way.
The natives who first staked out this land got around in dugout canoes made from cypress trees, which European settlers refined and rode on the rivers until the 1800s. You can see a version of this essential Belhaven mode of transportation parked in front of the Chamber of Commerce, along with a poster advertising the nearby Aurora Fossil Museum.
Then and now, it’s hard to live in Belhaven without a boat — a truth hurricanes regularly demonstrate.
Flooding still plagues this town with a long shoreline. Waterfront development projects help hold the waters back, but in 2011, Hurricane Irene filled the downtown streets with three feet of water. Rack Time hoisted its pool tables up on cinder blocks and reopened two days later.
Here inside the Inner Banks, Belhaven will never be a Nags Head, a Calabash, or a Wilmington. But nobody wants it that way. Woolard speaks of living in Wilmington and being afraid to let her children cross the street because of all the traffic. Here they ride their bikes to the riverfront.
“In Belhaven,” Woolard says, “we all drive with one hand. So we can wave.”
One woman’s treasure
This is a town you visit on a wild hair. And its reputation today rests largely on the shoulders of its wildest resident: Mrs. Mary Eva Blount Way.
In 1951, the Daily News of nearby Washington published this description of Belhaven’s resident eccentric: “housewife, snake-killer, curator, trapper, dramatic actress, philosopher and preserver of all the riches of mankind.”
Those riches started with a collection of buttons, which totaled about 30,000, and grew to include a dolphin skull, an anchor believed to be from the War of 1812, an opium pipe, a stamp-size Bible, a pair of horse goggles, a World War I machine gun, and a human skeleton.
After she died in 1962, her family turned her odd assortment into The Belhaven Memorial Museum, rather than divvying it up among themselves. And so it remains in the old City Hall, tended by Arthur Congleton since 1996.
“Just imagine all of this in one lady’s house,” Congleton says, gesturing to the warehouse of junk. “That I did not meet her is one of my regrets. I wouldn’t have taken much of her time. I would have just asked her, ‘Why, Mrs. Way? Why?’”
She lived a life as colorful as her collection. She married a Quaker ship captain. She caught and dissected snakes for schoolchildren to inspect. She wrote poetry, including this line of life advice: “Take one peep every day. Take a good look on Sundays.”
She gathered things in the same way Belhaven gathers passing travelers. To walk the cluttered aisles of her museum is to view a history of objects that caught her eye: a piece of a spacecraft pulled from the water off the Bahamas, a prenatal child in a jar, fleas dressed in wedding costumes and arranged under a magnifying glass — a gift from gypsies who stayed on her land.
“This is a prime example of, 100 years ago, if there’s not a law against it, why not?” Congleton says. “I guess she ran to the eccentric-old-lady kind of life.”
Every year, about 1,000 people troop through the museum, gawking at it all, happy they let curiosity lead them.
Small town, big stars
The town stands out for the people it attracts. But for a tiny spot on the Inner Banks, Belhaven has also produced an outsize share of luminaries.
C.J. Wilson played six positions for the Northside High School Panthers, then started as a defensive lineman for East Carolina University down the road in Greenville. Today his picture hangs in the lobby of Town Hall. In it, he’s wearing a Green Bay Packers uniform and holding a Super Bowl trophy.
Eva Narcissus Boyd left Belhaven for Brooklyn, New York, as a young girl — before she took the name Little Eva and scored a No. 1 hit with “The Loco-Motion.” She mingled with the likes of Carole King. But she came back home to this river town once her star started to dim, and today her grave stands in the front row at Black Bottom Cemetery, a steam train etched above her name.
The water washes over Belhaven and erases names and places. But it brings a new tide of visitors each year, a fresh set of eyes to see what the water and land create when they bump together — a new collection of wanderers driven by their curiosity.
5 things not to miss in Belhaven
Spoon River Artworks
In this downtown gallery space, you’ll find art by North Carolina artists; local cheeses, crackers, and craft beers; and a large wine selection. They also serve lunch and dinner. 263 Pamlico Street. (252) 945-3899.
Fish Hooks Cafe
Shrimp, crabs, and fish pulled straight from local waters are served here. It’s a great spot for meeting locals or boaters stopping off on their worldwide tour. Try the fried fish or soft-shell crab when it’s in season. 231 East Main Street. (252) 943-9948.
Farm Boys Restaurant
This is a great spot for a fish sandwich outdoors. The patio looks over the water, where you can watch the boats drift past or the whitecaps lapping at the shore. On Friday and Saturday nights, The Front Porch (a recent addition to the facility) offers a complete dinner menu and table service. 216 Pamlico Street. (252) 943-3295.
Belhaven Water Street Bed & Breakfast
Innkeepers Andy and Karen Fisher renovated this more-than-100-year-old home and opened it to guests in June 2005. Every bedroom has a view of Belhaven Harbor. 567 East Water Street. (252) 943-2825.
333 Pamlico Street
Belhaven, N.C. 27810
The Belhaven Memorial Museum
211 East Main Street
Belhaven, N.C. 27810
Hours: Daily, 1 p.m.-5 p.m.
Closed Wednesday and Sunday.