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Cypress Grill destroyed in fire

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector
and Deborah Griffin
The Enterprise and Weekly Herald

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

JAMESVILLE — Shock and sadness quickly gave way to prayers and words of encouragement as word spread across North Carolina that a landmark herring restaurant was destroyed in a late Sunday fire.

The Cypress Grill, located nearly 40 miles northeast of Greenville, on the banks of the Roanoke River burned to the ground.

The restaurant was empty and no one was injured, said Jamesville Community Volunteer Fire Department Fire Chief Michael Pierce.

No foul play is suspected, but the investigation is ongoing, Pierce said. At this point, it’s believed lightning caused the fire, he said. Other media outlets reported that Joseph Griffin, director of Martin County Code Enforcement and Safety, said an extension cord "appears to be a likely culprit,” but the exact cause remained undetermined Monday afternoon.

Cypress Grill is an eastern North Carolina legend, observing the ritual of operating only from mid-January to late April when herring swims up river to spawn. The tradition continued even after N.C. Marine Fisheries banned herring fishing from the river in 2007 and the restaurant had to buy out-of-state fish.

The restaurant was featured in The New York Times and Smithsonian magazine in the early 2000s. Both those publications said the business dated back to 1936.

Leslie Gardner and his late wife Sally took over the business in 1974. Their daughter Kathy Davis took over operations in 2012, but her mom continued to make pies for the restaurant until her death on July 28, 2017.

Sharon Britt, director of the N.C. Herring Festival, held Easter weekend in Jamesville, learned about the fire through Facebook at about 3 a.m. Monday.

“I first thought it was joke. After a picture or two was posted I realized it wasn’t a joke,” said Britt, who moved to Martin County in 2006.

The Davis family was unavailable for comment Monday but posted a statement on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

“As the news spreads this morning, we wanted to take a moment to ask that you all keep our family in your prayers as we deal with the tragic loss of the Cypress Grill. It was lost in a fire late last night. However, we are thankful no one was injured. Thank you for your thoughts and prayers, as well as all the messages we have received so far. And a huge thank you to the Jamesville fire dept as well as the other departments that came out to help fight the flames,” read the post.

Although the restaurant and festival weren’t formally linked, there were ties that bind them, Britt said.

Because of the fishing moratorium, the festival often only had a limited supply of fish for meals. When they ran out, Cypress Grill was the place they sent people to for a fish dinner or supper.

“The festival was always a time for homecoming because it always happens on Easter weekend,” Britt said. “When I think about Cypress Grill, I think about homecoming for locals and for people who would travel and make that venture. Sometimes it would be people who would come once a year to have a meal. It was almost was like a destination and the journey was important as well. And we’ve lost that.”

Britt’s thoughts were echoed in the comments left on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

“Grew up going with my daddy years ago,” one Charlotte based fan wrote. “...continued tradition each year (from Charlotte) with my mom and siblings!”

A Tarboro woman wrote that her parents went to the restaurant when they dated and continued to go there every year until his death in 2011. The woman and her family made sure her mother visited the restaurant as many times as she wanted in the following years.

Mary Pope of Wilson reminisced about her family’s ties to the restaurant.

“My late husband’s family had some of their family fishing photos inside the Cypress Grill on walls … they were pictures of the Pope Family when the kids were small and love to fish,” she said. Her husband was one of 10 children and those who are still alive went and ate herrings every season, she said.

“I never went there until I married, later on in the marriage,” Pope said. “But the food was awesome and the people that owned it worked there and they always asked ‘Where are you guys from?’ I remember walking down on the river bank after we ate. I loved the chocolate pie and flounder. It was awesome.”

“Please, please rebuild as you are my favorite place to eat in the whole world,” one fan wrote. “I loved going there to eat, driving there from Ahoskie. My prayers are with you, so thankful no one was hurt.”

Numerous other commenters also urged the family to rebuild.

The town of Jamesville will also be encouraging the family but recognize rebuilding will be a daunting task, said Jamesville Mayor Pro Tem Willis Williams.

I think right now everyone is in mourning and in shock because it’s almost an irreplaceable site, the building itself,” he said.

“It was kind of our bragging spot. It seems that in these small towns, there’s not a lot left to give us that,” Williams said.

Without the restaurant, Williams worries Jamesville will just one more little town that travelers along U.S. 64 fly by on their way to the Outer Banks.

“It won’t be the same because that was fixture that was here a really long time,” he said.

The entire building was engulfed by fire when the volunteer fire department and rescue personnel arrived on the scene, Pierce said. Martin County Sheriff’s Department responded to the scene and arrived just prior to Jamesville Fire and Rescue.

“We got the call at 11:13 p.m. (Sunday) night,” he said.

The fire was out in about 30 minutes, according to Pierce, but the building is a total loss.

Units that responded were Jamesville Fire and Rescue, Williamston Fire Department and Griffins Township.

Deborah Griffin is with the Enterprise and Weekly Herald of Williamston. She can be reached at dgriffin@ncweeklies.com.

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570.

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