Lake Norman Magazine

Built with anticipation, foresight

May 2005.
May 2005. Richard Rudisill

Editor's note: This story ran in the May 2005 issue of Lake Norman Magazine.

Like most young people moving to Lake Norman, young Diana Dunlap could barely contain her excitement. One big difference, though: There was no lake, only a trickle of a creek that she couldn’t even see from the house.

The year was 1962, and Diana remembers people thought her family was crazy to count on living by a lake that wasn’t there yet. Today, she is Diana Sweezy, with a husband, two grown children and several grandchildren, and she lives in that original waterfront house. Her parents, James and Mildred Dunlap, bought the land, built the house and even built the dock before the lake was created. They did it all with absolute certainty that the lake would be there and that they wanted to live next to it year-round.

“People in Mooresville would say to us, ‘Why do you want to move way out there?’ Or, ‘How do you know the lake will come up that far?’ But my daddy just laughed. He knew where the water would go because Duke Power had markers out,“ she says as she looks out at Lake Norman from her waterfront sun porch.

Longtime dreamHer parents had jumped at the chance to buy land “way out there” because they had always dreamed of raising a family on the water. They lived in landlocked downtown Mooresville, but their dreams were of shallows where the children could play and a view of water all year.

James Dunlap chose land in a lonely spot just west of where Williamson and Brawley School roads come together. He bought the parcel from Dave Atwell, who had a farm where Sundown Estates sits today. The land was backed by woods and faced nothing but mud, cornfields and a few sawmills. “You have to realize this was all farm and woods,” Sweezy says. “We would have to drive down tractor paths to where the river was just a sandy creek. There were cows that would walk right down through the trees.”

James Dunlap picked a gentle rise that the house would sit on. The lake would fill the front view and sweep around to the left, into a little cove, wrapping around three-quarters of the house.

Window on the waterThe Dunlaps built the house they had always wanted: a classic 1960s ranch of 1,200 square feet, constructed of brick, with the front facing the water. It had one of those ’60s picture windows that eventually would enable the Dunlaps to see an expanse of water from their living room. They put the kitchen up front, too, because Mildred Dunlap wanted a view of the water while she was cooking and washing up.

They built their pier, and then they waited for the water. It wasn’t long, because James Dunlap was paying careful attention to what Duke Power was doing.“We used to have to drive out Brawley School Road to see the glitter of the river water. But in 1963, we got to watch our little stream in the pasture get deeper and deeper until we could see it from the house.”

She says the lake filled gradually, slowly swallowing cornfields and tractor paths, just as her father had anticipated. All her father’s calculations worked, because the water met the dock perfectly. Now all of a sudden, theirs was the first house on that part of the lake.

“We know it was the first lake house because we were the first to get power out here — they had to bring the power poles down to us.”

Young Diana wasted no time designing a flat roof for the dock so she would have a place to sunbathe. She says the dock has been rebuilt with and without roofing at least six times since then.

Today, the house looks like many other brick 1960s ranches on the lakefront. They expanded the house when her father died in 1999 and her mother was becoming more frail. Sweezy and her husband, Roger, went to live there full time to care for her mother, and they all needed more space for privacy. The expansion consisted of another 800 square feet: a new bedroom, bath, walk-in closet and screened porch on one side, and a glassed-in sun porch and deck in front, where the picture window used to be.

Enjoyment continuesThe family still likes to spend as much time as possible by the water, so the sun porch and deck get a lot of use. When the grandchildren visit, the adults have an easy time monitoring the kids from there. Just as Sweezy’s father intended, the lake water is shallow until it gets to the submerged old creek bank — just enough distance for children learning to swim.

“Today everyone wants deep water, but Mama and Daddy knew they didn’t want that. They wanted us kids to have a beach and some shallow water to play in.”

Sweezy says a portion of the pasture was always sandier than the rest, forming a natural beach in just the right spot.

Sweezy says that beach was the scene of many an oyster roast up until about 1970. They’d have to drive to a fishmonger in Charlotte to get the oysters. Then they would make a good, hot fire on the beach. When it burned down, they’d lay a sheet of tin across the hot coals, put the oysters on, and cover the whole thing with soaked burlap bags. Her mother would make cracklin’ corn bread and french fries at the house while the oysters were cooking, and then haul the whole picnic out on the sand.

Taste for seafoodSweezy’s mother, who hailed from coastal Wilmington, knew her way around boats and was devoted to seafood. She quickly became a fan of the freshwater kind from the new lake. The sight of a boatwoman catching fish apparently was novel enough to rate a piece in the local newspaper. A picture in the Mooresville Tribune from the 1960s shows “Mrs. James Dunlap proudly displaying a 6 lb. bass.” Her daughter remembers that “she was one of the first women here to catch a fish. They called her ‘Riverboat Annie’ around here.”

When Mildred Dunlap was casting for fish in those early years of the lake, there were few other boats.

In those days, Sweezy remembers, the only place to buy things (without driving in to Mooresville) was Country Corner on N.C. 150, where Starbucks is today. “It was the only thing out here. It’s where we bought gas. It’s where I bought my first pair of skis.”

Brawley School Road and Williamson were the paved roads. Anything smaller was a dirt track. Interstate 77 did not exist.

“There were only two drive-ins, on different sides of Mooresville. As teenagers, we would cruise through town just like the movie ‘American Graffiti,’ ” she remembers.

She says she did get into town and could see her friends, but it was a bigger deal then, with the lack of paved roads going to her house.

Difficulty getting around intensified around 1969. “We had a twister come up the lake. It jumped the house and picked up boats in the cove. It tore a path from Brawley School Road to our only store at Country Corner,” she says.

Then 20 years later, Hurricane Hugo did even greater damage to trees and rooflines, sheds and porches. By then, lots of people were living at the lake.

Sweezy says it has been amazing to see her father’s vision catch on with thousands of people. Since the lake was filled, she has seen more and more people choosing to live on the lake each year — not to mention an increase in the cost of acquiring a lake lifestyle.

“If you bought in 1962, you probably paid $1,500 to $2,000 an acre. Then it caught on. And the price kept going up a thousand a year, “ Sweezy says.

These days, Sweezy rarely goes out on the lake because of all the boat traffic. She prefers to walk the beach in the early mornings. She is nostalgic for the days when she looked out at the water and there were no houses across the way.

“If only you could imagine the total silence and at night, the total blackness . And the quiet. It was so quiet. People have no idea what it was like to be alone out here.

“It has been wonderful watching all of this, just wonderful.”