James S. “Dropstitch” Bass (1913-2005) was one of New Hanover County’s most famous characters, an affable hermit who was nearly as well-known as the Fort Fisher hermit.
As his obituary noted, “He never met a stranger and was a true friend to everyone he met.”
A commercial fisherman, Bass lived for years at a “camp” on Eagles Island not far from the horseshoe bend in the Cape Fear River near Point Peter. He owned a small shack and shared a waterfront lot with four goats, a brood of chickens, a varying number of dogs and, in his own words, “one or two old king snakes that hang around.”
He made a living fishing shad and spot in the river and often made nets and shrimp trawls. Once a week or so, he would ride his blue wooden boat into downtown Wilmington for gas and groceries, often stopping behind Futrelle’s, his favorite diner, at Second and Princess streets, to mend his nets.
“One time, I saw him walking down Front Street in the middle of summer, wearing oilskins and rubber boots like it’s pouring down rain,” recalled Capt. Carl Marshburn of Cape Fear Riverboats. “I asked him what he was doing, and he’d say, ‘Oh, I’ve been down on the river.’ ”
Born in Brunswick County, Bass grew up in the Seagate community and shipped out on his first fishing boat at the age of 14. He worked on shrimp trawlers and as a cook on Dow Chemical tow barges on the Texas Coast. During World War II, he served as a fireman in the Navy.
The nickname “Dropstitch” apparently came from his “springy walk,” Bass said. Another fisherman compared his gait to a sewing machine.
Bass claimed to have pulled a 450-pound sturgeon from the Cape Fear and to have wrestled alligators in the river.
He finally moved into town after Hurricane Diana in 1984, after his camp was vandalized. For many years, he lived in rooms above Futrelle’s, helping make sandwiches downstairs until the diner burned. Later he lived in the Cape Fear Hotel and spent his last years at Mariner Health Care.
Date posted: May 20, 2014
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