PO Box 248
Captain Joe burrus, August 24, 2007
The most recognizable symbol of Ocracoke Island is the lighthouse. This
simple 75 foot tall white tower with a steady beam has been guiding mariners
for one hundred and eighty-four years.
Built in 1823 at a cost of $11,359.35, the lighthouse continues to
inspire seafarers, islanders, casual visitors, artists, and photographers.
In August, 2004 I published a basic history of the Ocracoke lighthouse on
this web site. You can read it here.
Captain Joseph Merrit Burrus was appointed lighthouse
keeper in 1929, the same year that the beacon was electrified. The
light was automated in 1954, eight years after he retired. At that time
Clyde Farrow, Ocracoke's last lighthouse keeper, was transferred to Washington, NC.
Capt. Joe Burrus on the
Captain Joe, as he was frequently called, came to Ocracoke from
Hatteras. His wife, Eleanor, affectionately called "Miss
El," was born on Hatteras as well. Captain Joe retired in 1946, after
serving forty-three years with the US Lighthouse Service, his last sixteen years
During his long career in both Virginia and North
Carolina Captain Joe served at Tangier, Virginia; Thimble Shoal, Virginia;
Diamond Shoal Lightship, NC; Cape Lookout, NC; Croatan, NC; Cape Hatteras, NC;
Oliver's Reef, NC; Bluff Shoal, NC; and Ocracoke.
During the severe
winter of 1917-1918 much of Pamlico Sound was frozen solid. Joe Burrus was
stationed at that time on the old screw-pile lighthouse at Bluff Shoal, about
seven and one half miles from Ocracoke. According to old timers the cold
lasted so long that for several weeks no supply boats could reach the light
station on Bluff Shoal. Eventually Captain Joe ventured out onto the ice
and walked quite a distance. Whether he was attempting to walk all the way
to dry land, or just trying to relieve the boredom, is uncertain. At any
rate he turned back and remained at the lighthouse until the weather broke and
food and supplies were finally delivered to him.
When the supply boat
eventually made contact with Captain Joe the seaman reported that the lighthouse
keeper had run out of food. Of much more concern to Captain Burrus,
however, was the fact that he had used up his supply of chewing tobacco.
Maybe that's what he was after when he stepped out onto the ice that cold winter
By all accounts Captain Joe was a likeable, entertaining, and
humorous Outer Banker. Aycock Brown, in his November, 1941 issue of the Ocracoke
Island Beacon reports that "Captain Burrus is a Republican (he likes to tell people that he is the only "out and
out" GOP man on the island), but among his best friends are Congressman
Comptroller General Warren and others, all outstanding Democrats."
to Brown, "Capt. Burrus is a
Hatterasman, but on the beach road at Ocracoke he has built a beautiful cottage
where he will live with Mrs. Burrus
and family after he retires."
Captain Joe retired from the
lighthouse service in 1946. He lived in his new cottage until he died
eight years later. Captain Joe's son, Oscar, inherited the house, and
later Oscar's daughter acquired it. In the 1970s Ann Ehringhaus purchased
the house and opened Oscar's House Bed & Breakfast. Ann claims
that she still occasionally hears Captain Joe walking from room to room
upstairs, especially on dark, cold winter nights when Ann is alone in the
Recently I discovered an Ocracoke story recounted by
B.A. Botkin in his 1957 long-titled book, A Treasury of American Anecdotes,
Sly, Salty, Shaggy Stories of Heroes and Hellions, Beguilers and Buffoons,
Spellbinders and Scapegoats, Gagsters and Gossips, from the Grassroots &
Sidewalks of America.
On page 62 Botkin tells the story he
calls The Greatest Tobacco Chewer on Ocracoke Island. When I
discovered the reference to this story on the internet I knew I must find the
book and read the entire story. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that
Botkin's tale is an only slightly different version of a story about Captain Joe
that I had heard from one of the island's old time storytellers (although Botkin
identifies his character as "Old Marty" this story is actually about
It seems that Miss El, or so it was told, chanced to look out her
back doorway and noticed Captain Joe walking through the yard dragging something
behind him attached to a string. She wondered what he was up to when she
realized that he was turning the corner into the side yard. She walked
into the parlor and opened the front door. Here came Joe dragging that
object behind him. Next thing she knew he was again in the back
When he rounded the corner into the front yard once more
Miss El called out to him. "What in the devil are you up to, Joe,
traipsing around the yard hauling that old piece of string behind you? The
neighbors will think you've gone off your rocker."
Captain Joe, replied, "I've lost my chewin' tobaccy. So I've decided
to tie my false teeth to this here string and drag them through the yard.
If that tobaccy is anywhere in the vicinity these teeth will latch onto it, sure
as my name is Joe Burrus."
As a footnote, I am including several interior photos of the lighthouse,
courtesy of islander, Dale Mutro.
At the top of the spiral staircase is a
ladder, about 7 or 8 feet tall that leads to this hatch, the only access into
fourth order fresnel lens originally enclosed an oil lamp. It is now
four-bulb lamp changer operates automatically. When the upright 250 watt
bulb burns out the changer rotates 90 degrees and another bulb is turned on.
only access to the outside balcony is a 3 foot tall door. The iron railing
is visible behind the man crawling through the doorway.
Perhaps you can imagine why the Ocracoke lighthouse is not open to the general
public. In addition to being almost two hundred years old, the small
lantern, ladder, hatch, and 3 foot door do not lend themselves to