by Charles Upchurch
photographs by Nick Pironio
If you conjured up an image of Raleigh’s oldest social club – where for 100 years the seasons have carried with them a ritual flow of barbecues, oyster roasts, family celebrations, debutante parties, and holiday luncheons – it would not be the image of a country pond in Knightdale. But since 1913, on land granted by King George to the Hinton family sometime around 1730, the Milburnie Fishing Club has been a rustic retreat of Raleigh’s old guard.
Behind the club’s gated entrance and up its winding drive sits a squat, featureless, cinderblock structure set upon a rise overlooking 12 acres of dammed-up water called Milburnie Lake. It is less a lake than a fishing hole. Harvey Johnson, 86, a member for 46 years and whose father, Charles E. Johnson, was an original charter member, calls Milburnie “the best bream fishing pond in America – and the ugliest clubhouse you’ve ever seen in your life.”
On May 4, the club will celebrate its centennial in customary Southern fashion. Hundreds are expected to gather at the clubhouse, a long, narrow dining hall with a large, smoke-blackened fireplace and a screened porch lined with dozens of green rocking chairs, many of them tagged with brass nameplates. Members will brown-bag their beverages of choice; caretaker and cook Sandy Teeter will fire up the kitchen, and the menu, as always, will feature “Bar-B-Q pig and chicken, boiled potatoes, coleslaw, black-eyed peas, sliced tomatoes, onions and hush puppies.”
Unlike the rest of Eastern Wake County, very little has changed at Milburnie Fishing Club in the century since A.H. Byrum, E.P.Maynard, R.P. Dickson, T.C.Powell and J.P. Timberlake threw in $500 each to buy 65 acres from the family of Charles Lewis Hinton. On the fringe of Midway Plantation, they established a sportsman’s getaway and a respite from the urban bustle of Raleigh.
The original by-laws called for membership to be capped at 75. Among their number were the stalwarts of the city – men of law, banking, insurance and real estate – whose descendants populate the membership roster still. Today that number is 100, with active members transitioning to “life members” after reaching 65. This was a recent move, says board member Hart Huffines, “to keep the club young and active.” As a result, the club is enjoying a revival of sorts, with an influx of new members, some as young as 25, and members whose kids are becoming old enough to enjoy what the club is renowned for: superb fishing.
Sam Bratton, 48, has been a member at Milburnie half his life, following older brothers Johnny and Ted, and their late father John, who joined in the 1950s. “The best thing about Milburnie is taking kids out there,” Bratton said. His own childhood memories of Milburnie go back to Sundays in spring spent with his dad, headed to the club after church, learning to cast a fly rod, catching enough bream for supper, cleaning and frying them up right there. Sons Sambo, 8, and Parham, 5, are Bratton’s fishing buddies at Milburnie now.
Kids and families have always been the lifeblood of the place. Boy Scout and Y-Guides campouts, birthday parties, Easter egg hunts and summer cookouts bring the energy and laughter of children throughout the year.
Hart Huffines, whose father, Dewey, has his named inscribed on one of the rocking chairs, says it is that feeling of family – of connection – that has endeared Milburnie to generations of members. They want to enjoy the club the same way their parents and grandparents did.
“Somebody once suggested that we put in a TV,” said Huffines. “People went nuts.”
But necessary improvements over time have kept the basic amenities updated, including a concrete deck outside the clubhouse and a battery storage shed for the trolling motors that power a small fleet of fiberglass jonboats. And every year, on the Saturday of the ACC basketball tournament, members spend the better part of the day doing maintenance on the lake. The water level is lowered and underwater structures that attract fish are repaired; their habitat is restored. By the time the dogwoods are in bloom, largemouth bass and bream are nesting, frisky in the cool-but-warming surface water, hitting with ferocity almost anything that moves.
“A five- or six-weight fly rod and a popping bug and you are in business,” said Huffines. “The lake is the perfect size to fish around in about two hours.”
On any given day at Milburnie, a member can count on having the place to himself. The gatherings occur at the traditional times – Easter, Fourth of July, Labor Day, and a high-spirited ladies luncheon at Christmas. Groups hosted by a member are welcome and typically don’t require a reservation. It’s not unusual to see a party of Carquest executives gathered around the stone fire pit (CEO Temple Sloan III is a member). Hampden-Sydney College has hosted evenings for alumni, students and parents. The local Ducks Unlimited chapter uses the club on occasion, as do fraternities from UNC and N.C. State.
Milburnie Fishing Club has a mythic quality that lurks below the surface. Perhaps it is the reputation it once had as Raleigh’s “old boys” club, just far enough away from town to play some serious cards and enjoy some whiskey.
After all, during Prohibition and well beyond, Percy Flowers, the legendary Johnston County bootlegger, was known to pay a visit. But while it’s true that little has changed at Milburnie, times have. Maybe it’s the simplicity of it – the utter refusal to impress or be impressed – that imbues the place with its palpable charm. That, and after 100 years, the fishing has never been better. If the next century shapes up like the last one, 2113 will be a cause for some truly old-fashioned celebration.