- Associated Press - Saturday, January 14, 2017

SUNSET BEACH, N.C. (AP) - The past 20 years of Sheila Clark’s life has been stuffed into a small mailbox about a mile and a half away from Sunset Beach’s nearest parking space.

Stories of Clark’s son, her divorce and her new husband are all in the mailbox alongside other visitors’ happy memories, adolescent humor and lamentations about impending divorce.

“I know about the original story,” Clark said of the Kindred Spirits Mailbox. “It was about two people who had met each other and they wanted to communicate and nobody ever knew who it was until about two or three years ago.”

One of those people is Frank Nesmith, a 90-year-old local resident who set up the box on another nearby island 40 years ago before moving it to its isolated resting spot on Bird Island in Sunset Beach. At the mailbox, people can write down their thoughts in notebooks before the journal entries are archived in perpetuity.

Everyone who writes in the mailbox, said Nesmith, is a Kindred Spirit to others.

Some people claimed to have searched 10 years to find the elusive box on the beach; others took three years.

“The first time I wrote in the mailbox, it was about my son,” said Clark, who lives in Winston-Salem, N.C. “We bought the place when he was 3 and this is the only beach he still wants to come to. Most of the time it was about him and how thankful I was for his life.”

Clark was at the mailbox while celebrating her third anniversary with her husband, Devlin, but said she had been coming to the spot for 22 years. For the last several years, the journal entries have been archived and housed at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s William Madison Randall Library.

“And I went through a divorce, so all of that’s in these books in Wilmington about my life and divorce,” she said. “I wrote a lot of times to other people, hoping they would see it and give them some hope. That’s why I say ‘who would have ever believed,’ because there were times when I had those ‘down and felt sorry for myself’ moments, but when I came here, I felt like I was writing in the book to give other people hope.”

The man who made the mailbox

“The way this thing got started, a friend of mine and I decided that people that walk along the beach have various things to think about and they don’t have any place to put those thoughts down,” said Nesmith. “And we thought that maybe if we put a mailbox out, people could write in the journal and express their views, whatever they may be. It got started and it never has stopped.”

That friend was Nesmith’s girlfriend at the time, Claudia, who continued collecting the journal entries until her death about 10 years ago.

Nesmith estimates that the Kindred Spirits Mailbox has been operating for about 40 years, although the first location was on a different island.

“The first place I put it was over on a little island between Sunset Beach and Ocean Isle,” he said. “Tubbs Inlet is right down there and right in the middle of Tubbs Inlet was a little island and I had named it Isle de Claudia. Well, it didn’t take long before the little island washed away and I had to put it somewhere else.”

Like the island, Nesmith’s romance was short-lived and Claudia was married the next year.

“You know, summertime romances tend to slip by real fast,” he said. “The mailbox? Permanent.”

Even through hurricanes and storms, the mailbox has survived. Although the metal box on top has been changed 10 or 15 times throughout the years, the post that it sits on is the original.

“When a hurricane came by about two or three years ago, three or four days later there were 15 people looking for the mailbox, and they had it back up in business before the end of the week,” said Nesmith. “It’s a thing that has taken care of itself. I have no question that when I’m not around anymore, it’ll still be taking care of itself because everybody’s interested in it.”

The writing in the notebooks

The writings in the mailbox range from marriage proposals, prayers, sad memories and celebratory entries of an erotic nature, written by people of all ages, different languages and different nationalities.

Some writings are a prayer to God, others mourn the loss of a loved one and one is a self-congratulatory note regarding love-making on the beach.

When the mailbox was first moved to its location on Bird Island, Nesmith used it to lobby North Carolina to save the island.

He would give tours advocating for the area’s preservation, and helped form a group called the Bird Island Preservation Society, which advocated for the island’s protection.

“And most of those writings are ‘Oh, how can we save this island from development’ before the state bought it,” Nesmith said. “Lucky as we were, we were able to get it in the state’s name.”

For his efforts, Nesmith was awarded the the Order of the Long Leaf Pine in October 2016.

Now, vacationers from around the world - including some who visit year after year - come to the beach and write in the mailbox.

“People talk about everything in the world,” Nesmith said of the mailbox entries. “Whenever you get to be 90 years old, it’s hard to remember lots of things, and I would have to say most everything that’s written in there are things that are written that come from people’s hearts, whether they’re happy thoughts or sad thoughts.”

And there’s a seasonal difference in what goes into the notebooks.

Rebecca Baugnon, UNC Wilmington’s Randall Library Special Collections specialist, handles the notebooks when they’re sent to the library and noted that the summer entries are more about fun, gratitude and loved ones.

“Once it gets to be the fall, the entries usually become more serious and they’re more contemplative people who have taken the time to walk down there and they’re usually alone and they are able to express their thoughts in different ways,” she said.

The university archives the notebooks that volunteers bring every few months.

“I don’t know when they’ll holler ‘uncle’ at the library at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, whenever they get more than they can stand, but they haven’t turned me down yet,” said Nesmith.”

The journals’ journey

“We have approximately 400 or 500 notebooks, at this point,” Baugnon said of the collection that serves a historical record for the region’s past several years. “We receive them regularly every three or four months so the collection is constantly growing.”

Gerald Parnell, the library’s coordinator of special collections, was introduced to Nesmith through Glenn Blackburn, a retired professor at the University of Virginia at Wise, who knew Nesmith wanted to do something with the notebooks from the mailbox.

“Glenn asked me one day if we were interested and arranged a visit with Frank,” said Parnell in an email. “We have been receiving the notebooks periodically since then.”

The bulk of the library’s collection is between 2012 and 2016, with notebooks from some disparate years like 1996 and 2004. Nesmith and library officials said other years’ entries are tied up in Claudia’s estate, and are not yet a part of the collection.

The journals from the disparate years were brought in by people who had been given a notebook as a gift or had found one on the beach, said Baugnon.

The notebooks contain writings from people worldwide of all ages and different languages.

“It also makes me feel special that we are the repository for the notebooks,” said Baugnon. “So in perpetuity we’ll be able to keep these for people to see what has happened in southeast North Carolina and how many people from around the world have come to Sunset Beach.”

When the notebooks arrive, brought in by volunteer and North Carolina writer Jacqueline DeGroot or others, they’re often wet and have been exposed to sand, salt, sunscreen and bug spray.

“We usually have to dry them out,” said Baugnon. “The sand will fall out as I process them and we make sure none of the pages are stuck together and that items that have been tucked into the notebooks are put together so that way the pages won’t be stuck to those items.”

The notebooks are then put in files and stored in acid-free boxes in the manuscript collection room, available for use by a wide variety of researchers.

And the notebooks aren’t sitting in the library unused. A wide variety of researchers use the notebooks.

Some are used for creative writing students at the school, and a writer in Charlotte, N.C., is using the notebooks for a series for a collection of short stories.

Some people visit the library to find their own entries.

“Last summer, I also received a request from someone whose daughter was proposed to at the mailbox,” said Baugnon. “She was looking to frame a copy of that proposal because she wrote in it after they were finished and, subsequently, multiple entries after that described watching the proposal happen.”

Right now, a finding aid is available online to help researchers locate different entries, but the actual documents haven’t been digitized yet and researchers must examine them in person.

But there are other options for future use.

Looking ahead

“The best way that we could make this developing collection more accessible to researchers, students, faculty, staff in a broader context would be to digitize the collection,” said University Librarian Sarah Watstein. “That would require some funding to dedicate for equipment but also the staff that would digitize the materials.”

Watstein said the first step toward digitization would be conferring with the university’s general counsel to make sure there were no legal issues with making the materials available digitally. The school would also have to decide whether to do the work on-site or outsource the job.

The advantages of digitization, Watstein said, would be the wider availability of the journals and the ability to search the entries.

“That’s a key, key piece,” she said.

Other options include an interactive exhibit, a traveling exhibit or an on-site exhibit in the library itself.

But the school has no plans to stop collecting the journals.

“Randall Library Special Collections is committed to preserving and telling the story of Southeast North Carolina,” said Watstein. “So this collection is a vital way of capturing that history and telling the story of the region.”

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