The Saga of Palm Tree Island

Known to its founders as the Diminishing Republic, and to legend as Palm Tree Island, this sandbar has been a cultural hub for 20 years. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH –– Nancy Faye Craig walks from her townhouse in Wrightsville Beach down to a small shore in her private neighborhood that faces the mouth of Lees Cut — Harbor Island’s northern saltwater border — through which small craft can cruise between the Intracoastal Waterway and Banks Channel. 

It’s a Saturday afternoon and the tide is dead low. Families who live in the townhomes that dot Wrightsville Beach’s edge — near the public boat ramp — read magazines and watch their children play in the water. 

Craig’s attention is directed to the fully exposed sandbar across the cut. Marked by a synthetic tree, a parking meter and the American flag, the twice-a-day haven locally known as “Palm Tree Island” has been a cultural hub for two decades.

With a party schedule determined by the tides, Palm Tree Island exists in its full glory for brief windows of time, until the water rises once more and only the tips of the palm fronds are visible to passing vessels. 

“Everybody always migrates toward a focal point,” said William Salling, an original pioneer of the island. “Once the tree went up, we started noticing small groups, small gatherings that would go on over there. It was very low key and that’s the way we always wanted it.”

A woman in her 70s, Craig is a local watchdog. She serves on the Channel Walk homeowners board and has rung alarm bells to law enforcement agencies, calling attention to what she says is a debaucherous scene that came about during the previous decade.

According to beach-town lore, a group of locals installed a live palm tree on the sandbar around the year 2000. Salling, one of those founders, said the official name for the outpost is the Diminishing Republic. 

“We call ourselves Belongers amongst our tribe,” Salling said. “And we’re there to welcome people. It didn’t matter where you’re from. The whole idea was just to create a gathering space.”

Twenty years later, a new crowd of boaters have asserted control over the island’s culture. The focus is less kumbaya, more partying.

Craig calls it a nuisance. Young folk Uber into her neighborhood and then hop on a boat to cross Lees Cut. They return hours later, drunk and rowdy, she said. 

There was one young woman, Craig recalled, who passed out on the neighborhood’s community dock: “She refused to be transported to the hospital. What can you do with someone like that?”

Another incident in recent memory also caught her ire: A partygoer traversed across the water into the lawns of her neighbors and asked a couple who were sitting on their deck permission to use their restroom. 

“Now, that is gall,” Craig commented, while peering toward the small group that had gathered that afternoon on the sandbar. Though tidal conditions were ripe for a large crowd — with low tide hitting around 3:15 p.m. — it was a relaxed atmosphere: frisbee-throwing, tube-floating, and light music. 

“They tackled Masonboro and got it under control,” Craig said. “Then all those people came here. So why can’t they tackle this one too?”

Wrightsville Beach police intermittently dock a patrol boat in the marina near Craig’s neighborhood to deter loud music and other commotions. But Palm Tree Island itself lies in the jurisdiction of the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, where it’s treated like any other unincorporated coastal territory.

“Palm Tree Island is just a sandbar, so it’s technically not an official anything,” said NHCSO spokesman Lt. Jerry Brewer. “It’s the equivalent of being at Masonboro.” 

Two years ago, the party culture became so extreme that a crackdown was required, Brewer said, but since the Covid era, the scene has been relatively tranquil.

“The first time I went out there, I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ The people were basically being held hostage at their home,” Brewer said. “It was so loud it sounded like you were at a concert.”

For Salling, the Diminishing Republic that he and his compatriots cultivated in the early years of the 21st century has been subverted by something different. 

“People have a sense now,” Salling said, “that, ‘You can’t mess with me. This is our space. We’re going to do whatever we want to do, and if you challenge us, we’re going to challenge you right back.’”

It’s largely a generational gap, said Salling, who is now in his upper fifties. 

“I’m not saying I’m disappointed in it because everybody has a right. But I always try to say, if you respect your fellow man over there — the younger culture should try to think about that a little more — it would be a better place.”

‘It started with just a spindly little tree’

At low tide, an expansive triangular sandbar emerges from the water at the eastern mouth of Lees Cut. The synthetic palm tree, a parking meter, and the American flag are its defining markers. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

Coastal forces formed Palm Tree Island more than 20 years ago, where previously there was nothing but a waterway channel abutting a sea of tidal marsh grass.

“As the tides ebb and flow and all that stuff, I guess the sands found a sweet spot where there was no current,” Salling said. “And it just started growing from there.”

He and his buddies bought a live palm tree and stationed it on the emerging sandbar in the christening of the Diminishing Republic. Once it rotted, they replaced it with an artificial lookalike. Local media initially attributed the out-of-place palm to the work of UNCW fraternity brothers, a misconception that the Diminishing Republic trailblazers allowed to fester, Salling said.

At that time, a family in Channel Walk — near where Craig lives — was simultaneously grieving their lost son, Salling recalled.

“They scattered his ashes the day that we put the palm tree in,” he said. “They didn’t know it, and they woke up the next morning and were looking out there, and they said that was their son, reincarnated.”

A few years later, the Town of Wrightsville Beach entered into its quest to monetize as many parking spaces on the island as possible, a new philosophical turn that prompted the Diminishing Republic’s next landscaping addition: the parking meter. 

“An individual over in Channel Walk put it out there. And we laughed. We thought it was the funniest thing,” Salling said. “It was a political jab.”

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The final addition was the flagpole bearing the Stars and Stripes, put up by another individual, completing the trifecta of symbols that now define the enclave. 

“It started with just a spindly little tree,” Salling said. “We laid low. We never wanted to be focal points.” 

Then came the cultural tug-of-war. The energy envisioned by the Diminishing Republic founders was a coastal oasis, a micro-utopia, where participants help friends in need, share provisions and maintain an open door. 

“It’s not the same now,” Salling said. “It’s harder because there’s different views. Whether it’s political, or way of life, or anything of that nature.” 

Younger adventurers now lay claim to the sandbar. It’s commonplace for weekend low tides to attract dozens of boats filled with eager drinkers. That element has always been there, Salling said, just not with such force.

Lt. Brewer said during the wild times a few years ago, one of the new-generation social ringleaders endured a string of citations, which tampered down the vibe. 

“The major player who was a problem, we cited him enough to where he’s tired of getting cited for having loud music,” Brewer said. “And it’s pretty much calmed down.”

Salling thinks the new hard-core energy at Palm Tree Island arose in part due to a migration of boaters away from Masonboro, looking for new haunts. Even though the Diminishing Republic has lost its grip on the island’s culture, he doesn’t have the urge to intervene. It’s not his role, he said. 

“We don’t own the island, we don’t control it,” he said. “It’s just there, and that’s what we wanted to do, was just create a space for people.”

Symbolizing community

Palm Tree Island’s symbolism has been emblazoned onto swimwear and other products by Tim Vandenberg, whose clothes are carried by Wrightsville Beach surf shops. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Palm Tree Island – Wrightsville Beach)

Timothy Vandenberg moved to Wilmington a few years before Salling and his troop installed the first tree on the newfound sandbar. Vandenberg is a video marketing coordinator at Cape Fear Community College, and said he saw potential for the Palm Tree Island symbolism to be the defining brand of Wrightsville Beach — like South Carolina’s crescent moon and palmetto tree, or California’s bear.

He trademarked Palm Tree Island as a brand and produces products adorned with the image of a palm tree accompanied by a parking meter. 

“We wanted to take something that had local significance, and tried to come up with a cool way to represent Wrightsville Beach,” Vandenberg said. 

Philanthropic partnerships are intertwined with the brand. The company makes a sun shirt along with Wilmington Dermatology, and sends proceeds to the Skin Cancer Foundation. 

Vandenberg said when formulating his business, he tried to make inroads with the Diminishing Republic crowd. 

“I want to pay respect to those guys,” he said. “Those guys are like the stewards of the island.” 

Messages weren’t returned. “I kind of took that as, they weren’t necessarily cool with it,” Vandenberg said. 

The brand enjoyed strong growth throughout past years. Just recently, he made final touches on a kiosk at Wilmington International Airport that will carry Palm Tree Island gear. 

His brand is now sold at numerous local surf shops, including Surf City Surf Shop. Vandenberg said the store’s owner inquired about his relationship with the Diminishing Republic, and their reception to his commercial venture. To make things smoother, the Surf City owner connected the two parties and helped work up a gesture of goodwill, Vandenberg said. Proceeds from the line’s Surf City sales are contributed to an upkeep fund for the Diminishing Republic, for when the palm fronds need replacing or if the parking meter ever makes a haywire escape. 

Sallings said, personally, he is opposed to commercializing the island. 

“That was never our intention,” he said. “That symbol over there, of the parking meter and the tree and the flag, it represents a community.” 

Vandenberg added he’s working on another initiative: donating additional proceeds to the Wrightsville Beach Museum. 

‘I like it when it diminishes’

A Sea Tow boat moves north on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, passing Palm Tree island in full swing. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

Craig, wearing a pink visor and carrying a clipboard, surveys the view from her neighborhood shoreline. She tells a younger man that he needs to move his crab trap somewhere else other than his dock.

“The Diminishing Republic, I like,” she said, acknowledging that the island’s founders are unaffiliated with her current adversaries, who party on across the water.

“And I like it when it diminishes.”

She helped broker a meeting between residents in her locale and nearby law enforcement agencies, but said she thinks the “sheriff’s hands could be tied.” 

Marine agents police for underage drinking and overly loud music, but for the most part, Palm Tree Island is still a good-time frontier, accepting of anyone with boat access. 

Former Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House told the StarNews in 2018, in reference to Palm Tree Island: “If the problem is solely on the island, we really get into a gray area if we can do something or not.” 

Current chief David Squires confirmed to Port City Daily the territory is overseen by the sheriff’s office. 

Lt. Brewer said during recent weeks, the marine unit has been prepping for Independence Day, the only day of the year in which all five boats in the sheriff’s fleet are deployed simultaneously. 

For Craig, what appears to be a second sandbar forming further east within Lees Cut is causing even more headaches. She continues to vouch for a heavy-handed police presence near her home to deal with the voyagers who use her neighborhood as a loading dock for sandbar festivities.

“Hopefully, going forward we won’t have any problems there,” Brewer said. 

Despite losing the reins of the frontier that he helped establish, Salling said he and his crew continue to act as stewards, preserving the sandbar’s prominent symbols. (The flag is maintained by another individual, Salling said.) 

“We start new every single 12 hours,” Salling said. “It’s covered up. And the only thing that sticks up is that tree. And as the tide starts to flow out, the sand rises out of the water, and it’s kind of like she’s showing herself again. It’s neat to watch.”

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