Vandalized Wrightsville Beach landmark safe; Future up for debate

Amelia Beamer | Contributing Writer

A handmade mailbox tucked in the dunes of Wrightsville Beach, that once enticed thousands to thoughts behind in a notebook, was recently forced into retirement by vandals- devastating tourists, students and locals.

The mailbox became a staple of Wrightsville Beach tradition and history when built by Bernie and Sidney Nykanen in 2003. The Nykanens intended it to be a place for people to take in the beauty and solitude of the island, and to write, leaving behind thoughts, anecdotes, wishes and prayers. 

“I meant for people to go there and see the beauty of that spot and to really write what was in their hearts,” Bernie Nykanen said. “And when you went there, you couldn’t help but just pour it out.”

Former UNCW student Jordan Ferguson explained that the isolation of the mailbox wasn’t something that left one feeling alone, but rather, the opposite. 

“It was a place where people went when they didn’t want to be alone,” she said. “Even if you were alone, you weren’t. You were a part of something much larger…I wish it was still there. It was a comfort.” 

Next to the mailbox sat a handmade wooden bench. In early March, vandals smashed it to splintered pieces and dented and defaced the mailbox. Nykanen has repaired it four times over the past 11 years following similar vandalism attacks, but this time led the couple to decide that they could no longer carry on with the upkeep and emotional turmoil that followed such incidents.

“I don’t know what’s in their hearts,” Nykanen said. “It’s public property and they think that they can just do whatever they want to do, and after a while, it became too heavy on my heart.”

The mailbox is now located in the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History, where visitors can read the history of the mailbox, and can leaf through some of the 128 notebooks that were collected over the mailbox’s 11-year stint.  

While the mailbox is safe and preserved in the museum, many wonder whether a replacement will be made, and who would take responsibility for curating the new one. 

“I think that’s kind of the dilemma here,” Madeline Flagler, museum director, said. “Do you try to make it continue on in some form, or do you just say, ‘This was amazing for a time period’?”

Nykanen wrestles with the topic, and hopes that someone will continue the legacy. Before that can happen, he needs to be sure that the individual could handle the many responsibilities of maintenance that comes with being guardian of the mailbox.

“I’ve made over 200 trips to the mailbox,” he said. “It’s a lot of maintenance. Switching out the books, and fixing and repairing, and taking my wheelbarrow and tools… but I just think it’s time for someone else to pick up the mantle.” 

Nykanen said that he’s approached ministers at Port City Community Church, with thoughts of making it a project for their youth group, but is in no rush to make a decision.

“We’ve had a couple of inquires [at the museum], but we haven’t decided anything yet,” Flagler said, although she did mention several possibilities.

“We’ve talked about putting the mailbox on the porch here,” Flagler said, “but that’s a completely different scenario. It’s not looking at the water…it’s not isolated…it would be a whole different feel.”

Another option would be to bring the mailbox’s solace “home” for many UNCW students, by relocating it to campus.

“I almost wonder if there’s a place on campus… you all have a lot of those old-growth forests,” Flagler said. “That would be a very interesting thing to do. I mean, maybe even the creative writing or journalism department could take it over.”

Regardless of where the mailbox ends up, it will remain at the center of many students’ memories from UNCW.

“It was the first place I went after learning I was rejected from nursing school,” said 2013 UNCW graduate Megan O’Connell. “And the first place I went when I learned I was accepted after applying the second time. It was the last place I went before leaving town after graduation.”

“I think there is just something about putting all your worries that are in your head onto paper that makes things a little bit easier,” said UNCW alumna Lindsay Keller.

This was exactly what the Nykanens hoped for when they created the mailbox.

“Unlike today’s texting and tweeting and phoning, this is really the way of communicating—by putting pen to paper– and I was thrilled that it caught on that way,” Nykanen said. 

Until it is decided whether or not the mailbox has an heir, Nykanen gave advice to those in mourning. 

“Keep up the spirit. Lay back on the texting, and do more writing by hand.”