Rae thought her husband George Sloane, Jr. had lost his mind when, in 1955, he asked her to move with their two young children to live as the only residents on a small island off North Carolina’s mainland. After all, George had steady work in Columbus, South Carolina, and the thought of picking up everything to move to an island that was accessible only by ferry and had no power and no family or friends was a lot to ask of any young wife.
Rae’s uncle Odell Williamson had been buying tracks of land on the island since 1947 and he was in need of someone to sell lots for development. In 1950, Williamson partnered with Mannon Gore to launch and run a four-car ferry from the mainland to Ocean Isle Beach. Three years later, Williamson bought most of the island for $218,000.
“In 1955, when we came down to the island for a family get together, Uncle Odell talked my husband into moving to Ocean Isle Beach to sell real estate,” said Rae Sloane Cox, founder of Sloane Realty Vacations. “George had a great job in Columbus, South Carolina, and we had two babies in diapers. I thought he had lost his mind, but when your husband is taking care of you, you follow him wherever he goes. George had always wanted to live on the beach, and I loved him so much that I would have followed him to the moon.”
On June 8, 1955, Rae and George Sloane packed up their children, drove onto the ferry with what little they had, and never looked back. “We had the whole sky and the whole ocean. We had it all,” said Rae.
The Sloanes used money they had gotten after George’s mother’s death to build a house on the island. “When we started, we were selling ocean front lots for $500,” said Rae. “Odell paid us two percent, and we sold hundreds of them. If people knew what we lived on they wouldn’t believe it. We ate a lot of fish, oysters, and crabs. We were so monetary poor, you wouldn’t believe it, but we were young and in love and were very wealthy in every way that mattered.”
“The only way we survived was that my mother lived out in the country and had a big garden,” said Rae. “She would gather food and had peas fixed, and she would bring us cornmeal and grits. Way back then, there were also groups of men who fished with nets, and they would give us so much fish.”
After realizing there was a need to have a place for guests to stay when on the island, Rae and George enclosed the downstairs of their home and the next summer began renting the space to out-of-towners. They also rented the one house on the island that was still standing after Hurricane Hazel.
“In 1956, we had the two rentals, and we ran an ad in the Charlotte newspaper,” recalled Rae. “We only got one postcard back that said, ‘Where is Ocean Isle Beach?’”
However, it wasn’t long before travelers discovered Ocean Isle Beach and began spending their vacations along the peaceful sandy shore fishing, walking the beach, crabbing, oystering, and lying in the sun. With more and more visitors coming to the island, the couple decided it was time to build a place for the visitors to stay. According to Rae, “In 1957, we started building a small motel. We had six units and we lived in one of the apartments.”
Slowly, George and Rae took on more homes to manage as vacation rentals, and they booked their rentals using mainly postcard communications. “Most of it was word of mouth,” said Rae. “They would send us a postcard and tell us when they wanted to come down, and we would send a postcard back and tell them to come on down. There was one phone on the island four miles away. It was an old crank phone. We would have to get in a car, go back over there, and return any phone calls.”
The business required hard work. “We had a well with a pump in the backyard. I did all the laundry, and I would fold the sheets when they were still a little damp so they would look like they were ironed. You learn to do whatever you can to make it work. I primed many water pumps and scrubbed many bathrooms.”
“As we grew, our biggest work was on the weekends and on the holidays. At that time, the turn day was on Sunday, and it was such a burden on me because you couldn’t get any help on Sunday. I worked myself to death. I’m the one that changed the turn day to Saturday, and pretty soon, everyone followed suit.”
By 1965, the Sloanes were managing 25 vacation rentals in addition to the inn. In the late 1960s, lots were selling for $4,000, and the island saw significant development which brought much needed infrastructure including streets, water lines, sewer, and the Ocean Isle swing bridge.
George and Rae’s hard-working, yet idyllic life together came to an abrupt end in 1971 when George Sloane, Jr. was killed in a car accident while returning home from Shallotte. A heartbroken Rae was now facing life on the island as a single mother of three, burdened with multiple mortgage payments, and facing the unfathomable workload required to keep up with their business.
“If I had not had three children to consider, I would have tried to work out some way to go with him,” Rae said as she recalled those dark days. “But I told myself a thousand times a day, I have got to think about these children, not me. My youngest had just turned eleven. I had to think of them.”
In addition to her grief, Rae had to face the bank and their mounting mortgage payments. “My husband had bought so many pieces of property that he believed he could buy with a little down and make payments, so we had a whole lot of debt. We had so many mortgages at the bank, I just told him I can’t pay any more. Our banker said, ‘Rae, you sign it because I know you are going to try.’”
Almost immediately, Rae was tempted with an offer to sell their properties and rental business.
“I had some men that brought me a contract for $1.5 million,” said Rae. “I looked at it, and to me it looked like $100 million. I had grown up in the country very poor. I asked them to let me think about it. I figured out what I would have to pay off to the bank and what I would have to pay in taxes, and I realized I would have so little left after it was all said and done that I would still have to get a job. So I decided not to take it, and it is a miracle that I didn’t.”
But soon after, her local bank president was killed, and a new bank manager took over. Rae said, “He and two men in suits from the bank came over, and they wanted to know what I was going to pay. I looked straight at them and said I can’t pay you a thing because I don’t have anything. But if I can make the money, you will be paid on time.”
The bank president told Rae, “I pulled all the files, carried them to the big home office, and they said we are going to have to take all these mortgages back because there is no way a woman can pay all of this.”
However, the bankers eventually decided to give Rae a few months to see if she would be able to make the payments, and from that point on, every one of her payments were made at least two days in advance.
“My Lord was really good to me. After George was killed, for the next two to three years everything was selling like crazy, and I was paying off the mortgages. They didn’t think a woman could handle the business.”
Building the Destination
Throughout the 1970s, Sloane Realty Vacations exploded, and Rae’s sister Sonya came to the island to help her with the business. Rae recalled, “I remember during that booming time, four men came in from Lake City, South Carolina, and I showed them the eleven lots I had. They came back to the office and wanted to buy all eleven lots. As they were signing the contracts, one of the men said, ‘I thought I’d be on damned fire before I did business like this with a woman.’”
In 1978, Rae married Connor Cox, a retired high school principal from Tabor City, North Carolina, who had purchased a house from Rae and put the house into her rental program before losing his wife to cancer. Rae recalled, “Our children joked that I was marrying him so I could get the rent, and he was marrying me to get the commission.”
The country experienced a recession in the 1980s, but people were still buying property on Ocean Isle. “We were so established by that time that it didn’t kill us,” said Rae. “I found out that people will go on vacation when they don’t do anything else. And if I believe in it, I can sell anything. The prices for several years were going up too fast. I’ve never had anyone fuss at me for selling them something, but I’ve had dozens of people mad at me for not making them buy more.”
In the late 1980s, the family expanded the Ocean Isle Inn to seventy rooms. All three of her children, Tripp, Debbie, and Pam got their real estate licenses and joined the business. “My family members have been the ones I depended on to help run my business.”
Eventually, Rae and Connor Cox wanted to travel, so Rae turned over the business to her children. “I ran that rental business. I was the boss until everything went on computers. Then my husband wanted to retire and travel, so I did.”
Rae Sloane Cox was a true pioneer in the vacation rental industry, and her legacy is found in the close ties within her family, the building of a successful real estate and rental business, and the shaping of a destination. The island’s population has grown from four people in 1955 to approximately 600 current permanent residents including a seasonal population of 25,000, and Rae and her family have been instrumental in molding the entire island community.
Today, Sloane Realty Vacations has 35 year-round employees and manages over 150 long-term rentals and 375 vacation rental properties from Ocean Isle Beach to Sunset Beach. The company is co-owned by Rae’s children, Tripp Sloane and Debbie Sloane Smith. Debbie is also now serving in her fourteenth year as mayor of Ocean Isle Beach. Pam, the youngest of the siblings, no longer works with the company, but still lives locally and is married to Robert Yoho, Ocean Isle’s fire chief, and most of Rae’s fifteen grandchildren and fourteen great-grandchildren still live in the area. Three of her grandchildren are also working in the business: Whitney Sauls (General Manager), Chris Bryan (Sales Manager), and Leah Peterson (Accounting).
“Everywhere I go, someone is hugging me. I just love people,” explained Rae. “I’ve always just loved people. I worked hard, but I enjoyed what I did. I’ve had a good life.”