Ocracoke did not get official street names until 1999. Street signs appeared in 2005. For most of Ocracoke’s history islanders simply used landmarks or residents’ names to designate particular streets, or to give directions.

In the early 1980s a generous island widow, Myrtle Doolittle, donated a parcel of land to her beloved Methodist minister and his wife who were being transferred to a congregation on the mainland. I was asked to design a small compact house they could use as a vacation get-away. A local carpenter and various friends volunteered to build the cottage.

One afternoon, as I was digging a hole for one of the house’s pilings, I cut through an underground telephone cable.

For years local resident Randall Mathews was the island’s one and only telephone repairman. It was common practice to simply call Randall about any telephone problems or issues, and he would promptly make the repair. However, shortly before this incident the telephone company had established a company-wide 800 number to call for all customer repair issues.

I called the number and quickly realized the service representative was not from eastern North Carolina, and had never heard of Ocracoke. I discovered she was located in Kansas. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hello, I am calling to report a severed telephone cable.

Her: Yes sir, can you tell me where you are located?

Me: Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.

Her: And where exactly is the severed cable?

Me: Well, it is about halfway between Myrtle Doolittle’s house and the new cottage we are building for the Methodist minister.

Her: Sir, can you please give me the street address?

Me: I am sorry, but we don’t have street addresses.

Her: You don’t have street addresses? How will I know where to send the repairman?

Me: Randall will know where this is.

Her: Who is Randall?

Me: Randall is our telephone repairman.

Her: But I still need to know what to tell him

Me: Please tell Randall to go behind Myrtle’s house, and walk toward the road where Mrs. Padgett lives. He will see the lot where we are building a small cottage for the Methodist minister. Actually, I found a concrete turtle on Myrtle’s porch steps. I carried it over to the construction site and set it down so it is pointing directly at the hole I was digging when I cut the telephone cable. He will have no problem finding the severed cable if he just looks for the concrete turtle.

Her: (There was a lengthy silece before she replied.) Uhh,…OK….I’ll pass this message on to the repairman. Thank you very much.

Several days later I saw Randall at the Post Office. “Did you get the telephone cable repaired,” I asked him.

“Oh my gosh,” he said, “that woman in Kansas was so befuddled. All she could say was that some man called to say that ‘Myrtle Somebody’ had a turtle that was stuck in concrete and that somehow the turtle had cut a telephone cable. I think she thought you might have been calling from an insane asylum.”

We had a good laugh, and Randall told me he had found the severed cable and made the repair.

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After the catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Dorian on September 6, 2019, at least fifty island homes, businesses, and rental cottages were demolished due to extensive storm damage. Dozens of others have been painstakingly re-wired, restored and remodeled. Many more are still in the process of being rebuilt, including dozens that have been elevated, or are scheduled for elevation.

Ocracoke has a long tradition of elevating and moving buildings. Among many others, my home, the Bragg-Howard house on Lawton Lane, has been moved once and elevated twice. The old Odd Fellows Lodge (the center section of the former Island Inn) has also been moved, as has a section of the Community Store and the former Coyote Den (the Gathering Place), to name just a few.

In the old days, houses were elevated slowly, typically 1 ½” at a time. Starting at one brick piling, the house was jacked up and a board placed in the new space. The worker then moved to the next piling with the same procedure. When all of the pilings had been raised 1 ½” the entire maneuver would be repeated over and over until the house was elevated to its new height. The entire process would take weeks, often months, of slow, meticulous work. A number of people living on the island today have raised houses using this primitive method.

To move a building, islanders of several generations ago would position it on wooden rollers and pull it to its new location with horses. Today most houses are elevated and/or moved by professionals using steel I-beams, 6” X 6” wooden cribbing, synchronized hydraulic jacks, and heavy-duty vehicles and trailers. A modest sized home can be raised in a day or two, although it may take more than a month to install new pilings and prepare them for lowering the building.

Amy Howard and David Tweedie’s house adjacent to the Village Craftsmen is in the process of being almost totally rebuilt. Last week Steve Bray of Bray’s House Movers in Camden, North Carolina, began the task of elevating the house. As I walked around the house, now about seven feet in the air, I noticed an interesting detail of the elevation process. The photo below shows Steve Bray and David Tweedie late in the afternoon assessing the day’s work.

The next photo shows the bank of gauges and levers on his truck that Steve uses to control the hydraulic jacks that lift the house in unison.

This is one of the six hydraulic jacks that lift the house:

Some of our readers, especially those with a curious or engineering interest, may find the following detail fascinating. If you look closely at the following photo you will notice that two 50’ long, 10” I-beams run the length of the house, several feet away from the house, and are positioned over the six jacks (three on each side) which rest on the cribbing. These are the beams that are raised by the jacks.

Interestingly, the nine 40’ beams that the house actually rests on are positioned UNDER the 50’ beams. When the movers first placed the beams in position I found this curious. Here is another photo:

Then I noticed the clamps:

Thirty-six “C” clamps securely hold the nine 40’ I-beams (on which the house rests) to the 50’ I-beam above them (two clamps on each end of the 40’ beams). The entire weight of the house is thus supported by the 36 clamps!

I asked Steve about this arrangement that I thought peculiar. He explained that with houses like this one that are low to the ground this procedure eliminates the necessity of excavating all around the building (and sometimes under the building) in order to position the 50’ beams and jacks lower so the 40’ beams could then rest ABOVE and on top of the longer beams, an arrangement that wouldn’t require clamps.

Steve assured me that the clamps would hold and support the house. Each clamp, he explained, is rated to support two tons without breaking. Thirty-six clamps gives a total rating of more than one million pounds!!

In addition, the 40’ long, 10” I-beams are strong enough to span the entire width of the house, thus allowing support only outside the perimeter of the house. This makes installing pilings much easier.

As I write it has been more than ten months since Hurricane Dorian. Recovery has been slow, but islanders, with the help of Steve Bray and his crew, are determined to rebuild and to create a stronger and even more resilient community.

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“Dear Sir: A 16 oz. BOTTLE CONTAINING NOTE, DATED 12 OCTOBER. 1956 was FOUND ON THE WINDBLOWN SANDS OF OCRACOKE,,ISLAND. SOUTH OF HATTERAS & EAST OF THE U.S. MAINLAND. IT WAS FOUND 14 OCTOBER 1957. Where WAS IT CAST FROM? PLEASE DROP ME A LINE…..BEST REGARDS. Bill Askren, General Delivery, Ocracoke, N.C.”

QSL Card Front

QSL Card Back

This was my first substantial clue towards discovering more about the life of Bill Askren, eccentric and mildly reclusive resident of Ocracoke Island in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

I’m not certain when I first laid eyes on Bill Askren, but I couldn’t have been more than twelve years old.

At that time Bill was about forty years old, tall and balding. He had driven an old car to the island, parked it on a sand hill, and lived in it. Later he moved into a small building on present-day Ocean View Road. He lived a simple, uncomplicated life. Whether he had accumulated some savings or relied on family money for basic needs, no one knew, but he also received monthly checks that often piled up in the Post Office. Islanders recall hearing that he had left a well-paying job at Martin-Marietta in the Washington, D.C. area.

Bill Askren stayed to himself mostly, and wandered island paths alone, clad in a short-sleeved white shirt, khaki pants, and inexpensive flip-flops.

Every summer Bill Askren seemed to become more eccentric. He camped out in an abandoned building near where the Pony Island Restaurant is today. He planted a vegetable garden nearby, and enclosed it within a crude wooden fence. In those days there was a community dump at the end of Sunset Drive, a one-lane concrete road built by the Navy during World War II. Bill frequented the dump nearly every day. Some islanders thought he was scavenging for food, but others realized he was simply gathering compost for his ever-more-luxurious garden.

Bill Askren

Bill stopped shaving, and ignored the island barber. As years passed, Bill’s red hair and beard grew longer and longer. He walked the island paths mostly after dark. Some islanders said he claimed to be a prophet. Younger children were fascinated by him, but also frightened. Like Scout and Dill in ”To Kill a Mockingbird,” they’d sneak up to Bill’s compound, then run away when he caught sight of them. Today, with the perspective of adults, they will tell you that Bill played the role of the idiosyncratic outsider, but he always added a wry smile to demonstrate that he was not to be feared.

Teenage boys soon learned that Bill Askren was quite an interesting character, with lessons to teach. He was intelligent and creative, if a bit quirky. He was a ham radio operator, and made contact with amateur radio enthusiasts throughout the world. He was also a tinkerer. To this day, a number of islanders will tell you about the crystal radios Bill Askren built and imbedded in cigar boxes and conch shells.

By the early 1960s Bill Askren had moved to California. But he stayed in touch with at least one islander, writing long, rambling letters laced with cosmic and metaphysical themes.

As time passed, Bill Askren’s connection with Ocracoke waned. Eventually, his pen-pal died. By the mid-1980s no one knew where Bill was, or how to contact him. His early life, career, family of origin, current whereabouts…all was lost. He simply disappeared…faded away like the diaphanous spirit he was.

All attempts to learn more about Bill Askren led to dead ends. Until 2014, that is….when I discovered the post card. It was published in “QST,” the official journal of ARRL [American Radio Relay League], the national association for amateur radio.

James Boothe, a ham radio operator, tells his story: “The year was 1956 and I was a young sailor aboard the destroyer USS Fred T. Berry DDE858. We were steaming back from a Mediterranean cruise and were about in the middle of the Atlantic, on our way back to Newport, Rhode Island. I got the position report from the charthouse and added it to a note that I wrote describing the ship and some particulars of myself, stuffed it in a bottle and heaved it over the side. One year after its launching, Bill Askren, W3EYB/4 was out beachcombing and found my bottle. He sent me one of his QSL cards [a post card confirming reception of a message by an amateur radio operator; QSL is code for “I acknowledge receipt of your message”], which showed a map of Ocracoke, and inked in a pirate’s X on the map side and described how he found it on the letter side. So that’s how I got my first QSL card.”

Discovering the post card confirmed the spelling of Bill’s surname, and provided a middle initial. His ham radio call sign prefix “W3” meant he had registered in Delaware, Maryland, DC, or Pennsylvania. Oral tradition that he hailed from the D.C. area was correct.

A quick Internet search led me to a page about a William B. Askren, born January 6, 1917, died April 7, 1999, and buried in Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, California.

I immediately sent an email to the three individuals who had left brief messages on the web page. Within hours I heard from a cousin. My hunch was correct. William B. Askren who is buried in Riverside California turned out to be the same Bill Askren who had lived on Ocracoke.

William Bernard Askren (“Red” to his family and childhood friends) was born in Harrison County, Indiana, to John William Askren (1893-1939) and Elcye Glenna Eckart Askren (1894-1987). His father was employed as a school teacher, and later as a lawyer for the FBI. The family moved to Washington, D.C. in the 1930s. Before the decade ended, Bill’s father died of complications from surgery. As the oldest of four siblings, Bill helped care for the family. His youngest sister, Ethelda, was just six years old.

John & Bill Askren

An inveterate tinkerer, Bill built his own camera when he was a young man. The following self-portrait survives.

Bill Askren Self Portrait

On September 4, 1946 Bill enlisted in the US Army. At the time of his enlistment he was twenty-nine years old, single, had no dependents, had completed four years of high school education, and had worked as an airplane mechanic and repairman. He served until May, 1947 as a private, first class.

How Bill Askren first learned of Ocracoke, or why he chose to move here, is still a mystery. He remained on the island about six or more years.

In the 1960s he moved to California to be closer to his family.

For more than three decades Bill stayed in California, spreading his message of peace, simple living, and healthy living. He biked most places he wanted to go, and as on the island, he continued wearing white, short-sleeved shirts, and simple flip-flops. His bicycle was usually adorned with placards communicating his musings.

Bill Askren

Islanders continue to remember Bill Askren as an eccentric and colorful character, a hippie before there were hippies, one who understood the importance of healthful vegetables and a genuine connection to the land.

Bill Askren

Rest in Peace, Bill!

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