While driving, biking, or
walking almost anywhere along the
Outer Banks from early April through December you are likely to notice
of brightly colored red and yellow wild flowers. They are gaillardias
(Gaillardia aristata), a member of the sunflower family. Drought
especially well adapted to sandy soil, gaillardias flourish on the
in direct sunlight.
(or Joe Bell Flower):
Gaillardias are so well
adapted to the Outer Banks that you might
think they have been here forever. In fact, they are native to the
western sections of North America where they are often called Indian
flowers, fire wheels, or paint brushes. The flowers were introduced to
in the early days of the twentieth century by a gentleman from
North Carolina who was just as colorful as the gaillardia, Joseph Nash
in Washington in 1850, Joe Bell seems to have been destined
for adventure. When he was only fourteen years old he left home, lied
age, and joined the Confederate army. His military career was cut short
family friend recognized him and sent him home with a cavalry patrol.
only one year at university and another at a business
college, he was persuaded to attend watchmaker’s school. His
Nash Bell, Sr., and his uncle, Benjamin A. Bell, were established
and jewelers in New Bern and Washington, North Carolina. In his early
Joe joined the family business.
Bell left Washington abruptly after a brief courtship
with one of the young girls in town. For the next half century he led
unconventional life. He was in the Klondike in 1896, mining for gold.
most novice miners in the unforgiving Yukon Territory he found little
Eventually he abandoned his search for gold and settled for a time in
City where he opened a watch repair and jeweler’s shop.
Klondike Gold Rush:
In 1899, when gold was
discovered in Nome, Alaska, Joe Bell
moved his business there. The sea called him sometime later, and for a
served aboard sailing ships plying the Pacific Ocean. By 1906 he was
San Francisco. On the 18th of April the San
Andreas Fault opened up
along a 296 mile corridor. The resulting fires, caused mainly by
lines, raged out of control for four days and nights. It was one of the
natural disasters in the history of the United States.
that California was not for him, Joe Bell moved to
New York, then back to North Carolina where he established an itinerant
repair and jeweler’s business. When his horse died he was
ready for another
undertaking. By the 1920s Joe Bell was living on Ocracoke.
Bell’s brother-in-law had purchased two homes on
Ocracoke Island where he and his extended family spent summer
vacations. It was
the perfect retreat for the aging adventurer. As caretaker of his
brother-in-law’s summer residences Joe Bell received free
housing and the
opportunity to continue his unconventional lifestyle. Ocracoke had not
entered the modern world. None of the island homes had indoor plumbing,
electric power had yet to be introduced. All of the roads were sandy
the only connection to the mainland was by private yacht or the daily
No more than 550 people called Ocracoke home.
the off-season Joe Bell enjoyed his solitude when he
wished, or the companionship of friendly neighbors when that suited him
It was not unusual for Joe and friends to gather around a jug of
wine and wile away the hours laughing, sharing stories, and playing
one occasion, after imbibing copious amounts of their home brew, they
set up a
coal oil lamp so it would cast shadows against the living room wall.
then took turns tracing around their shadows.
another occasion Joe fell into the cistern while trying
to dip out a cup of water to wash down strong drink.
life suited Joe Bell. He made a modest income
repairing watches and jewelry. He even served as magistrate for a
Although there were few small claims cases to be adjudicated on
Ocracoke he did
officiate at the occasional wedding ceremony.
Ocracoke visitor who fell in love with the island in
the 1920s was Rex Beach (1877-1949), American novelist, playwright,
water polo player, sportsman, and journalist. In Beach’s 1921
book, Oh, Shoot!: Confessions of an Agitated
Sportsman, he describes Ocracoke as the “centre of
industry.” He goes on to say that “the houses are
scattered among wind-twisted
cedars or thickets of juniper and sedge, and most of them possess two
outstanding adjuncts – a private graveyard and a decoy pen
[for live decoys]”.
Beach was also an
adventurer. Like Joe Bell, he had spent
time in the Yukon Territory prospecting for gold in 1896, and then in
1899. When Rex Beach came to Ocracoke Joe could often be found on
late into the evening drinking and sharing stories from his days in
Bell’s most enduring legacy is the Joe Bell flower, for
that is what islanders call the gaillardia. The most popular story has
Joe Bell moved to Ocracoke to mend a broken heart. According to the
woman he loved left him to marry another. In tribute to his enduring
her Joe Bell brought gaillardia seeds to Ocracoke and planted the
his yard. Some versions of the story claim he cast seeds to the wind,
wore a gaillardia flower in his lapel, and passed out flowers and seeds
anyone who would accept them.
with any legend, Joe Bell’s story got more fanciful as
the years passed. Charles Whedbee, North Carolina judge and raconteur,
published his version in which Joe Bell’s wife Josephine, a
midwife, died and
her heartbroken husband discovered gaillardias growing out of a conch
next to her grave. He decided to bring the flowers to Ocracoke, where
spent many a happy summer.
fact, Joe Bell never married. He did bring some of the
red and yellow flowers to Ocracoke from California, but not as a way of
a broken heart. He was simply a man of good taste who appreciated
beauty. On the
mainland he was known to dress in a
dark suit with a necktie and a pearl stickpin. On Ocracoke he wore a
long sleeved white shirt, gold collar button (adorned with a garnet),
pants and red suspenders.
Joe Bell died in 1930. He
was standing on his brother-in-law's porch
when he had a stroke and fell to the ground. He was buried in a simple,
handmade wooden casket in the yard. Joe Bell flowers were planted next
to the grave, but they no longer grow there. Nevertheless, Joe Bell's
legacy lives on.
Bell planted the colorful flowers in his Ocracoke yard
almost a century ago. They quickly spread to neighbors’
yards¸ then throughout
the village. In time they migrated past the village and established
along the highway as far north as Hatteras Inlet. By the 1970s Joe Bell
had spread the entire length of the Outer Banks.
When you spy a cluster of his
brightly colored flowers,
think “there are joebells” (for on Ocracoke it is
usually pronounced as one
word), and remember the story of Joe Bell, one of many unusual
have called Ocracoke home.
See also To Ocracoke! by
Fred M. Mallison, especially chapter 10, "Uncle Joe Bell."