Following is an account of a wedding that took place on Portsmouth Island nearly one hundred years ago. It is entitled “A Beautiful Church Wedding on Portsmouth Island, Fifty-Seven Years Ago” and was written by M. Mason Daniels in1968. In addition to the story of the wedding, the bride shares many fascinating memories of life on this now abandoned island at the turn of the twentieth century.
“The once busy, but now almost deserted town of Portsmouth, on the south side of Ocracoke Inlet was recently visited by a native, now a resident of Washington, D.C. She had been absent from her childhood home for nearly fifty years. With her were a son-in-law and daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Dondero, also of Washington. The mother tried to recapture for her elder daughter, Rosalie, some of the highlights of her youth at Portsmouth, especially her wedding in the little Methodist church.
Portsmouth Village as seen from the Tower of the Life Saving Station:
“Ada Roberts, daughter of James Roberts and Mrs. Susan J. Gilgo Roberts, of Portsmouth, N.C., was married to W. Harvey Styron, of Davis, N.C., on October 12, 1911, at eight o’clock in the evening. The ceremony was performed by the Rev. E. A. Paul, Baptist minister of Davis, N.C., who was the bridegroom’s pastor. He was assisted by the Rev. R. E. Pittman, Portsmouth Methodist minister. Mr. Styron had been teaching in the Portsmouth school and Ada had been one of his students.
“These were facts already known to Rosalie. But to reach the site of the long-ago wedding, and there hear her mother’s description of it, took quite a bit of doing for the entire party. Portsmouth embraced two neighborhoods: Down-the-Banks, on the north end by the inlet, and Up-the-Banks, two miles south. Ada’s home had stood in the sheltered cove about mid-way between the two.
“For this particular visit, Ben Salter, host at a hunting lodge Up-the-Banks, and a former Portsmouth son, took his guests in a small motor boat and let them study the shore line, while Ada pointed out familiar landmarks. Tiny inlets, resulting from recent hurricanes, had criss-crossed the middle of what had once been Portsmouth and discouraged any thought Ben might have had of driving a jeep to Ada’s old homeplace. Formidable undergrowth also barred all passage and swallowed up the ruins of the house. The boat could not get very close in because of shallow water. Only two tall, old cedars, that had once shaded a smooth, fenced in lawn and croquet court, told this ‘sad historian of the pensive plain’ where the exact spot was.
“Finally, they tied up at the late Mr. Jody Styron’s landing Down-the-Banks and trekked to familiar places. This end of the island is a large area of flat, lagoon-laced, green-carpeted turf, a good distance from the sea. Further south, the banks narrow to only a few hundred yards in width.
“Their first stop was at the Methodist Church that has been without a pastor since 1945. They borrowed the organ key from a next-door neighbor. There are only three residents left, two white women who are sisters, and one Negro man, Henry Pigott. The returned natives were welcomed, and soon an impromptu religious service was in progress.
Portsmouth Methodist Church:
“With Mrs. Ada Roberts Styron and the Dondero’s, were Ada’s sister, Mrs. Verona R. Oglesby of Morehead City, and a cousin, Leida Mae Willis, and her father, Milan Willis of Atlantic. Like hundreds of others, they had fled the tides which had usurped their lands, and dispossessed them. After an unhurried ringing of the old church bell, that had so often called them to a well attended weekly Sunday School, and a monthly sermon by the circuit preacher, the nine of them went inside. Verona played the organ and they all sang, “Blest be the Tie that Binds”, “Rock of Ages”, “My Faith Looks up to Thee”, and other hymns. Ben, a devout member of the Atlantic Primitive Baptist Church, read from the pulpit bible. There were moments when the group just sat, too overcome with nostalgia to go on talking. Eyes were misty and lumps in the throats had to be swallowed. Ada took Rosalie to the altar and stood again on the very spot where the wedding ceremony took place, on that warm October evening. Others, tip-toed over and hovered near to hear the reminiscing. Only one of them, Henry Pigott, had actually witnessed the wedding.
Henry Pigott’s House:
“The 1911 bride, who has been a widow since her husband died in 1957, told this writer the following story:
“‘I stood on the spot where Harvey and I said our vows, and I relived for Rosalie the happenings and scenes of that day. Harvey and I stood under an archway of cedar and evergreens sprinkled with fall flowers from Portsmouth yards. My cousin, Abner Dixon, and other local youths, brought the boughs of greenery and many of the flowers such as goldenrod and home-grown chrysanthemums, in red, lavender and gold, from Cedar Island, by boat.
“‘I was a girl again, going through the ceremony and seeing and feeling the presence of all those loved ones and friends who crowded in the church. Memories of our summertime, protracted meetings also came flooding in. Milan’s father, old Mr. Dave Willis, a handsome Hatteras import, would pat his foot, sway to the tempo and lead the whole congregation, including the organist, with his rich baritone in “There’s a Great Day Coming By and By”. His infectious fervor had a punch all his own, as he lead “Let the Lower Lights be Burning” and wound up the last stanza: “Trim your feeble lamp, my brother, Some poor sailor tempest tossed, Trying now to make the harbor, In the darkness may be lost”. Mr. Dave had lived, man and boy, within the beam of the great Hatteras lighthouse. He knew the meaning of the word, “send a gleam across the wave, some poor fainting, struggling seaman you may rescue, you may save”. Mr. Dave was still an outsider. Portsmouth people were clannish and suspicious of any outsider, especially when it came to marrying one of their own. Hence, the regrettable custom of intermarrying which was the code of the day. They were absolutely adamant in their opinion that no Hatterasman could be any good. None of them could have told you when this resentment began, but it is likely that it took hold when Fort Hatteras fell to the conquering Union soldiers. In the confusion that followed, the residents of Hatteras, feeling the sting of defeat and futility of suffering further indignities and losses, decided to leave the Confederacy of the Southern States and return to the federal group. Such a decision at the very time that those same Union soldiers moved on, forty miles south, to occupy Portsmouth, would have been difficult for the Confederacy-loving Portsmouthers to forgive. Mr. Dave might have been teaching his adopted neighbors some kind of lesson when he made a joyful noise unto the Lord, a loud noise that reached rafter-bursting crescendo.
“‘The church was lavishly decorated for our wedding. The greenery was festooned along the walls and, over the windows, was caught up by white ribbon bows. Beyond the archway, white candles glowed like fireflies on the altar and among the vases of flowers on the organ, thus adding to the illumination from the kerosene wall lamps. I recall my wedding gown, which was white net, over a satin slip. It was floor-length, with three quarter length sleeves. A Portsmouth seamstress made it. My illusion veil fell into a train. I carried a nosegay of white (permanent) lilies of the valley, on white fluted net. My apparel was all new, except for an old, heart-shaped locket, an heirloom. I do not remember anything borrowed or blue.
Portsmouth Methodist Church:
“‘The three bridesmaids were cousins Carrie Goodwin of Cedar Island, Ethel Willis and Olive Babbit of Davis. Groomsmen were cousins Abner Dixon and Joe Roberts of Portsmouth and Irwin Davis of Davis. None of the attendants are living to enjoy the memories with me.
“‘Henry Pigott’s uncle, Joe Abbot, son of “Aunt Rose” Pigott, Portsmouth’s midwife, prepared the wedding feast at our home. He was a regular chef at the Jordan L. Mott gun club, nine miles south of Portsmouth, and pleased the appetites of such celebrities as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, under North Carolina’s Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy. Joe Abbot was a member of the Methodist church and its only strict tither. His mother, Rose Pigott, had been the young daughter of a slave belonging to Earls Ireland, one of Portsmouth’s wealthy ship owners, and sea-roving captains. After the evacuation of the residents and the occupation by the Union soldiers in August, 1861, Rose, alone of all her race, remained on the island. By her midwifery, fishing with a net, oystering, barbering and digging ditches, she raised a large family of highly respected daughters and sons, such as Joe Abbot.
“‘My mother’s sister, Mrs. Vera Gilgo Willis, (wife of Milan and mother of Leida Mae) now deceased these many years, played Loenghren’s Wedding March, by Wagner, then played softly all during the ceremony. Thinking of Aunt Vera, brought to mind a rapid succession of Christmas programs which she directed. She often had me recite a poem or play some of the carols. When she was absent from services, I substituted for her at the organ. I remembered three teachers, Mrs. Medora Ireland, Martha Daniels and Lucy Linton who taught in the mid-way schoolhouse and visited my home to teach me the organ.
Interior of the Portsmouth Methodist Church:
“‘Boatloads of friends came from Ocracoke and Cedar Island for our wedding. Harvey’s family and friends came from Davis. Three of the “gas” boats anchored out in the slough abreast our home in the cove. There were no newspaper write-ups and no cameras to catch the menagerie that waded ashore that day. Wedding guests, the bridegroom, his parents, his pastor and all attendants transferred to waiting skiffs which were skulled along by oar into shallow water. Then everybody got barefoot and holding their suitcases high above the water, slogged laboriously toward dry land. The suitcases held new clothes to be worn in the wedding. We saw nothing humorous about this. It was our way of living. Though things were of a pastoral simplicity, every facet of life meant a lot to us. Our wedding day was a delightful occasion, the crowning event of a happy childhood for me, and as we soon moved to the city, the termination of an Arcadian existence.
“‘They were precious, carefree days on Portsmouth and our country then seemed free of everything evil or dazzling. We knew nothing of automobiles, cigarettes, drugs or liquor. Boys and girls gathered night after night at our home to sing, “The Maple on the Hill”, “Red River Valley”, and “Red Wing”, as I played our old fashioned reed organ, with its mirrored cabinet. The stool was cushioned in red plush.
“‘My mother would give us sugar and vinegar to boil and we had candy pullings. The broken pieces of hard, off-white candy were laid upon a large greased platter. At other times, we popped corn in the kitchen range. Superstitions, fortune-telling and savory good luck charms were regarded with seriousness. On New Year’s Eve, we cooked collards, black-eyed peas and hog jowls and ate promptly at the stroke of midnight. Each unmarried girl stirred the peas with a long, wooden ladle and each serving had to be served directly form the pot. A girl who hoped for a husband also wore red garters on New Year’s Day.
“‘Some evenings we had a square dance in somebody’s big kitchen or a vacant house to which we repaired with a kerosene filled hurricane lantern. If the inlet was too rough for Wid Williams to get across from Ocracoke and play the fiddle for our shindig, some local youth would play a small mouth harp or an accordion. They were glorious times. If we were missing any of the world’s stores, we were too innocent to know it.
“‘While reminiscing, we lingered at the altar and about the organ, where we added some coins to the collection plate that rests just left of the music rack. There is never a day without hunters, fishermen, tourists or returning Portsmouthers wandering into the little church. They usually leave a contribution and Henry uses it to buy paint and repairs for the building. The lady residents keep the floor swept and the furniture dusted.
“‘How deeply etched on my heart were those old sermons, chosen for their appropriateness. We knew the Promised Land that flowed with milk and honey. In good weather we lived in the Promised Land, for Portsmouth was a virtual paradise. Over and over we listened to such texts as Mark 1:17. The Sea of Galilee was real to us and we felt a genuine kinship for the two brothers, Simon and Andrew, who, while casting a net, heard the Master say, “Come ye after me and I will make you fishers of men”. We were assured that there had been plenty of wise men, but Jesus passed them by and chose from simple walks of life, men whose minds, not being already filled, were open to learn.
“‘I had been prone to digress from the topic of the wedding to many others, and as we left the church reluctantly, it seemed natural to point out the site of the little wooden bench on the lawn of the adjoining lot, where Mr. Dave Salter sat and courted Miss Jonesie Roberts for fifty years. They both died single, he having refused to live “Down-the-Banks”, and she having refused to live “Up-the-Banks”.
“‘During the bombardment of Fort Hatteras on August 27, 1861, most Portsmouthers, together with their one hundred sixteen slaves, were escaping Cedar Island or Belhaven, and on that day Jonesie Roberts was allegedly born on a featherbed in the bottom of a sailing yawl just off Cedar Island.
“‘One fat woman, Miss Rossie Gaskins, tried to go, but panic stricken, she forgot to use the back door which had been enlarged just for her, and got stuck in the front door. The Union soldiers found her, released her and set up housekeeping, treating her meantime with great kindness. Legend has it that Miss Rossie’s stocking would hold a peck of corn.
“‘The tones of the old church bell and the organ continued to haunt me as we visited the nearby cemetery to view the tombs of long gone relatives. I could still remember the shallow graves and the high water table, and especially the burial of an old lady when I was five years old. My father, holding me in his arms, had to take me away from the service as the casket was being lowered, because I began crying, “Don’t put her in the water!”
A Portsmouth Island Gravestone:
“‘Proceeding further on our tour, we paused to observe abandoned houses that were once alive with activity, and finally reached the discontinued Coast Guard Station, originally called the Life Saving Station. The building, crowned by a multi-windowed cupola, was erected in 1894, the year I was born. It had always been a symbol of security and advancement to me, just as the tiny Methodist church with its spire, had been. Incidentally, these two landmarks have always appeared on geodetic survey maps of the North Carolina Coast. In 1915, Josephus Daniels and William McAdoo were instrumental in having the U.S. Revenue Service and Life Saving Service combined under the U.S. Treasury Department, and named the U.S. Coast Guard.
Portsmouth Island Life Saving Station:
“‘I could never forget the two huge, gray station horses, Dewey and Nancy Hanks. They were bought in 1896, from McCleary McClellan Livestock Company in Norfolk, Virginia, for one hundred dollars each, and were used for pulling the surf boat and other rescue equipment to the surfside. How different they were from the many wiry banker ponies that ran wild on our banks.
“‘Here on the Coast Guard lawn, herded and guarded within the white paling fence, four hundred Cape Verde Islanders, speaking only Portuguese, remained from May 8, until May 11, 1903. They had mutinied and beached their barkentine, the Vera Cruz, because her Captain had not made good his word to smuggle the poverty stricken immigrants illegally into the United States. Thirty-two trips were made to bring them ashore in such boats as local people could provide. It took four and a half barrels of flour to give them one meal. The government furnished the flour and housewives baked the bread. I was nine years old and remember that my mother baked in large pans enough biscuits to fill a flour barrel. Some of the foreigners ran away from the station crew and crawled through the marshes to beg for food at the homes. We fed them when they came. Their women and children strung coffee beans to while away the time. As their fears and discomforts increased, so did their wailing and weeping and strange jabbering. Their Captain stowed away in a whale oil barrel on a ship, and escaped the law. The Revenue cutter, Bautwell, took the crew and passengers away.
“‘There was not always plenty of cash to spend, but our men folk could go over to Hyde County and barter a fifty pound bucket of salt mullets for a fifty pound bucket of ears of corn, or for skeet apples. Food was always in abundance for those smart enough to raise a vegetable garden, to fish a net or to own herds of cattle and sheep. Pamlico Sound was at our door and the wide marshes with plenty of tender, green growth, snuggled at the base of tall rushes, furnished free range for livestock. We had a garden full of chickens and some domesticated Canadian geese for decoys. Hunting wild fowl was a rewarding pastime, furnishing food, feathers, goose-quill pens and even the goose wings for sweeping up the brick hearth.
“‘Usually two of our cows would come up from the range at night, to nourish their penned-up calves and supply us with milk, cream and butter. For them we drew brackish water from a shallow well. We drank rain water from our large juniper cistern. There was only one deep well of good, fresh drinking water on the island. It was on land Up-the-Banks that had belonged to the family of Captain John Wallace. He was Governor of Shell Castle in the late 1700’s. He was also a member of the Constitutional Convention that met in Fayetteville, N.C. and voted to ratify the Constitution of the United States on November 21, 1789.
“‘Portsmouth people, in order to survive, had to be unafraid, in times of great peril and disaster. They lived on the brink of danger; danger from livestock rustlers who came ashore armed, and necessitated the appointment of a beach patrol to keep watch. Such wealth of cattle and sheep, on a somewhat unprotected range so close to busy shipping lanes, was a target coveted by our enemies in every war our country has fought. There was the ever present dread of thirst, when all the Island cisterns ran dry or had salt water during high tide, and the dread of epidemic while living so far from medical aid. The nearest doctor was forty miles away.
“‘I had never been attended by a physician until my oldest child was born. My Grandmother Roberts, who grew up on Cedar Island, came to live with us and grew an herb garden. Like most of Portsmouth, it was a spot of enchantment. Her plants were for flavor, fragrance and physic: hot mint tea for colds, sassafras tea and yaupon tea to purify the blood in Spring, steeped feverfew [a medicinal herb] for reducing fever, larkspur for stings and bites, and a great store of additional remedies such as rinsing out nasal passages with sea water, sulfur and molasses for the blood, mustard plasters for chest cold, honey for a cough, burnt alum and boiled red oak bark for sore throat, turpentine and salt, fat pork applied to cuts, soap and sugar applied to boils, and waxed green myrtle bushes to drive away fleas and insects.
“‘On our return trip by boat to Ben’s Lodge, a fishing crew hailed us and gave us a large flounder for supper. We used my mother’s recipe for baking it:
“‘One whole large flounder. Score each side of fish with sharp knife. Leave 1 ½ inches between scores. Place in shallow baking pan with dark side of fish up. Place one sliced onion and one cut up white potato around sides of fish. Add water one inch deep in pan. Dice one forth pound of salt pork and lay pieces over the indentations on top of fish. Bake in oven of an iron,wood-burning range for thirty minutes. Mix two tablespoons of flour in one cup of water. Pour over potatoes and onions to thicken gravy. Cook for 10 minutes. Serve with baked cornbread.
“‘One author had said that Portsmouth died of her own rapacity, allowing livestock to nibble every leaf and stubble of the sand-binding vegetation, thereby causing the large sand dunes to fly away with the wind and fill up her harbor. Perhaps this is true.
“‘I carry so may memories of Portsmouth in my heart, it would be impossible for me to tell “in mournful tradition” all I feel about the once thriving seaport with its harbor, warehouses, academy, and shipyards, all of which had declined and left only a remote, close-knit village in my day. Gradually, with no children, no pastor, no cats, no dogs, no ponies or cattle, no noise except birds, sea and wind, it wasted away and became an old man dreaming in the sun, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’”.