On the wraparound porch of the Gregory Cottage, an extension of the historic Carolina Yacht Club overlooking Banks Channel, three generations of the Bradley family gathered. They came from across the country in late July to spend a week together on the waters they grew up on and at the club founded by their patriarch, Richard Bradley, and his friends.
This was the second official Bradley reunion held at the Gregory Cottage, but the family’s reunion tradition extends back 150 years, said Anne Russell, local historian, playwright and the great-great-great niece of Richard Bradley.
The history of the Bradley family is entwined with the history of Wrightsville Beach. As Russell tells the story, in the mid-1800s, avid sailor Richard Bradley decided to build on the island that would come to be named Wrightsville. At the time colloquially called the Banks, the area was Bradley’s favorite place for sailboat racing. He and his friends built a structure as an escape from storms and a hub for the Bradley family to congregate. Today, this place is known as the Carolina Yacht Club.
When Russell, now considered the family matriarch, and her cousins were growing up, they attended reunions every summer. During Beach Week, the gatherings were a time for family to come together. Throughout the ’40s and ’50s, once each summer the whole family would congregate and migrate from a great-aunt’s house on Masonboro Sound to Johnnie Mercer’s Pier, but would always end up at the yacht club.
“We went all over the place; it was very free-form. We would generally go where the food was,” Russell laughed.
For the Bradley family, Beach Week was about enjoying all of the cousins together, continuing family traditions and strengthening bonds. But as the years passed, the family grew and spread, making it challenging to maintain the annual extended family reunion.
“We moved around a lot when I was growing up,” said Bradley Wootten, Russell’s first cousin. “But our family always came back to the yacht club. We all grew up around it.”
But for Jennifer Twiggs, Russell’s daughter, the Bradley family was never together in the way their parents had been.
“There became a gap where we all vacationed at the yacht club over the summer, but we weren’t all there together,” Twiggs said.
So, when Twiggs learned the yacht club’s recently acquired Gregory Cottage could be rented, she realized the tradition could be renewed. She and her mother set to organize a formal Bradley reunion.
“Planned reunions were something other families did that I admired, so I wanted to make this happen. I wanted to bring it back and have my kids experience it,” Twiggs says.
The first official Bradley Beach Week reunion at the Gregory Cottage was held last summer, with a turnout of 20 Bradley family members. This year, 22 family members from across the United States gathered at the cottage. The family already has the 2015 date reserved, hoping to even expand to two cottage rentals, Russell said.
“These last two reunions have been the first time all three generations have come together as a family,” Twiggs said.
Apart from strengthening family ties, Beach Week passes family traditions down to the younger generation, notably sailing.
With a dock on Banks Channel just across Waynick Boulevard, family members share the ropes of the skiffs. The Bradley sailing tradition continues as the more seasoned seamen teach and even race the younger sailors. Russell’s own four daughters and 10 grandchildren all learned to sail this way.
Watching her family sailing and enjoying the yacht club together again carries on the memory and spirit of Richard Bradley for Russell and the family.
“When I watch the parents and children having fun together, I feel like I’m back in my own childhood,” Russell said, “spending summers here at Wrightsville Beach, with my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins together again.”
As the sun lowered each evening, the gang made its way back to the yacht club for a meal prepared by family members. Everyone cooking and dining together has always been a tradition, said Russell’s cousin Susan Royder of South Dakota. Though today meals are held on the club’s back porch, everyone is finally dining under one roof again.
Within the Bradley family, a tradition as old as Wrightsville Beach itself is being revived and renewed. Though they look forward to their new summer tradition at the Gregory Cottage, the family will always remember where this tradition comes from, Russell said.
Today, the Bradleys are optimistic about the future of these reunions.
“The young ones will definitely keep it going after us, they love it,” Royder says.
As Wrightsville Beach has grown and changed, so has one of its oldest families. Yet its spirit and traditions have remained. And through remembering tradition, the family says, it will always stay rooted in its heritage.