PO Box 248
March 20, 2007
A Traditional Island Whistle
As in most small rural villages and towns across America, Ocracoke children of
several generations ago played with a variety of homemade toys, and enjoyed
simple games like marbles, leap frog, and jump rope.
In addition, using leather balls made from old shoes, boys played a now
almost forgotten version of baseball called "cat." A colonial
precursor to the national sport, cat survived on Ocracoke long after it
disappeared from most other communities.
Also, with wind so prevalent along this section of the Outer Banks, flying
kites was a favorite pastime of island children.
When spring approached Ocracoke boys (and sometimes girls) made wooden
whistles from myrtle branches. This month's newsletter explains exactly
how to make a homemade wooden whistle just like the ones my father taught me to
make more than a half century ago. I hope some of our readers will help
their children and/or grand children make one of these whistles. It might
be a good alternative to video games! Look for more information about
other island games and toys in a future newsletter.
To make a wooden whistle, first find a straight section of a myrtle branch
(I'm told that wood from the willow tree also makes fine whistles, and was the
wood of choice in many mainland towns). Wait until spring, when the sap is
running. Choose a section about 6 to 10 inches long, about the diameter of
your thumb or middle finger, and cut it out with a sharp pocket knife. Be
sure it is straight and without protruding branches or blemishes (see figure A).
Then simply cut off one end at an angle. Cut it so that the tip created
is still slightly blunt (figure B).
Next cut a notch in the top of your stick. An inch or so back from the
blunt tip cut straight down by pressing the sharp knife blade through the bark
and into the wood. Then make the other side of the notch, starting a short
distance beyond the first cut. Bring the knife back at an angle and cut
towards the first cut (again, figure B).
About 5 or 6 inches back from the tip make a cut around the twig. Cut
all the way through the bark, just down to the wood. The goal now is to
slip the bark off of the twig. This can be tricky, so be very
careful. The best way to do this is to tap the twig with the handle of
your pocket knife to loosen the bark. Be sure to tap on every part of the
bark several times. Tap hard enough to loosen the bark from the wood, but
not so hard as to crack the bark. You might even want to moisten the
twig. If the bark cracks or splits you will
need to start over again with another twig.
In between taps grasp the bark and gently twist. Again be careful not
to split the bark. Eventually the tapping and twisting pressure will
loosen the bark and you will be able to slip the bark off of the twig (figure C). Lay the bark off to the side, remembering to be gentle so as
not to damage it.
Holding the naked twig, now enlarge the notch by cutting it longer and
deeper, extending the cut back from the first cut you made for the notch.
The length and depth of this notch will determine the pitch of the
whistle. Don't make the notch excessively long (the bark will need to fit
tightly when you put it back on your whistle), or too deep (you won't want to
weaken the twig and break it).
Next slice off a thin sliver of wood on the top of the twig, between the
notch and the tip. Don't slice off too much, just enough to let air pass
through after you slip the bark back on (again figure C).
Finally, dip your twig into a glass or water, or puddle, or just moisten it
with your mouth (don't use oleander or other poisonous branches!), and slip the
bark back on, lining it up exactly how it came off.
Now you can entertain the children in your life with your new, authentic Ocracoke Island
twig whistle. We encourage you to pass the skill on to all of the special children in your
life. And if you have a mind to, send us a photo of your whistle.
Look for a photo (or more) of a real whistle on our Ocracoke
Journal later in the spring.