One of the oldest houses on Ocracoke Island is tucked away at the end of an unpaved lane. You would have to be intentionally looking for the house in order to locate it…or be extremely lucky to stumble across it.

Today it is called the Rondthaler House (or by members of the family, simply the “Homeplace”).

Theodore (1899-1966) and Alice (1899-1977) Rondthaler were so taken with Ocracoke on their first visit to the island in the summer of 1935 that they purchased the house on a whim. Remarkably, it was not until two years later that the Rondthalers saw the inside of their new house. For the next decade they spent as much of their summers as possible on Ocracoke. In 1948 the Rondthalers left their jobs at Black Mountain College and moved to Ocracoke permanently. Theodore was hired as principal of the local school, and Alice as one of his four teachers.

The immediate previous owners of the house were the McIlhenys, a mainland North Carolina family that enjoyed spending summers on the island. The McIlhenys were part of an extended family of Kuglers, Bells, Nunnellees, and Mallisons who had discovered Ocracoke in the mid-1800s. The McIlhenys had purchased the house from native islanders, Daniel Sylvester Tolson (1867-1944) and Sabra Howard Tolson (1870-1944), who had moved to Delanco, New Jersey, where their son, William Ira Tolson, was living.

The house, which is referred to as the Tolson-Rondthaler House in the 1990 National Register of Historic Places, is a typical “story and a jump” style which was common on Ocracoke from the antebellum period through the turn of the 20th century.

The Register notes that this house is “[b]elieved to be one of the oldest surviving Ocracoke houses.” Although the house is listed as being built about 1860 for Daniel Tolson, further research suggests an earlier date. Even the National Register remarks that this house “has the only instance of nine-over-six sash windows found in the village.” The report goes on to state that “[s]ince this is an early sash type, this supports an antebellum date for this house.” Typically, island story and a jump houses from later periods have two-over-two sashes.

Although the exterior chimney, shed-roofed front porch, rear shed kitchen wing, and several of the windows are additions or replacements, the parlor mantel, front door, floors, much of the interior siding, and various interior details are believed to be original. Construction details include the use of repurposed ship’s knees, naturally curved pieces of wood used as bracing in sailing ships.

Daniel Sylvester Tolson was the son of William Sylvester Tolson (b. 1827), a local ship’s pilot. William’s first wife was Eliza B. Williams (1827-1866). Interview notes compiled by the author in the late 1990s include a comment made by Blanche Howard Jolliff (1919-2018), an Ocracoke native well known to possess a near-encyclopedic knowledge of island history: “Rondthaler house owned by Eliza Williams’ people.”

Eliza B. Williams Tolson was the daughter of George Williams (1794-1836), and the granddaughter of Joseph Williams (1766-1824). This strongly suggests that the house was built prior to George Williams’ death in 1836, or perhaps even before Joseph Williams’ death in 1824.

The following photographs, taken during rehabilitation after Hurricane Dorian (September 6, 2020), document some of the outstanding features of this house.

Stairway

 

 

 

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The Ocracoke – Washington Freighters: The Last of an Era of Maritime Commerce
(Reprinted from the Newsletter of the Historic Port of Washington Project, November 15, 2020, by Blount Rumley)

Since the first colonists came to occupy the Outer Banks of North Carolina there was the need to supply those islands with the items necessary to support a community; material that the community could not generate for itself. In return, the banks inhabitants sold wares of the sea, operated trading ports, and later furnished a place to relax from mainland life.

Nearby coastal mainland towns were the logical link to the Outer Banks, as they had the needed transportation and service connections to other parts of the country. Washington, North Carolina, was the primary connector to Ocracoke, and there was a strong commercial and social relationship between them.

Individuals and commercial entities from opposite ends of the trading route operated vessels to carry goods back and forth. Another class of vessels transported passengers, mail, and small items, but addressed here are the boats that moved heavier materials and larger shipments. There were many vessels over the years; for example, Annie Wahab, Nellie, Mary S, Preston, Relief, and the ones below, that made the run in the twentieth century, the last of an era.

Russel L

Owned by Capt. Ike O’Neal, she was a Bug-Eye, which carried Leg-O-Mutton sails. A gas engine was installed at a later date. On one trip she sailed from Ocracoke to Washington in a record 5 ½ hours, logging 12 knots. The motorized Bessie Virginia was never able to beat that time. She was the last sailing vessel on the run. She went aground near Ocracoke after a storm about 1922.

(The photo above is of a Bug-Eye similar to the Russel L.)

On one trip to Ocracoke a goat on board ate much of the jib, which was not being used at the time. The boat could not return to Washington on schedule until the jib had been repaired.

Dryden

The vessel William G. Dryden, operated by Capt. Jesse Garrish, was similar to the Bessie Virginia but a little smaller, and was used on the Ocracoke-Washington run. She also ran from Ocracoke to Swan Quarter for a while. She was the first diesel-powered boat on the Washington route.

(The photo above is the William G. Dryden, mid-Pamlico Sound, 1922.)

Lindsay C. Warren

The Warren was an ex-military patrol boat converted as a freight-passenger boat. On January 26, 1950 the captain, Glenn Willis of Beaufort, was shot and killed in Washington by a crew member. That ended the approximately one-year life of that run.

Maw Paw

The Maw Paw, owned by Kim Saunders of Washington, was in service for a short while after World War II. She was an ex-military aircraft rescue boat. Kim replaced the faster-running (possibly Packard) gasoline engines with more fuel-efficient diesels.

Bessie Virginia

The m/v Bessie Virginia was built in Crisfield, MD about 1910 of California Red Heart Pine, with 3-inch thick planking. Her length was 64 feet, 11 inches, with a beam of 18 feet. Her draft was 5 feet, with a cruising speed of 10 knots. She had a Cummins diesel when purchased, and that was replaced by a Gray diesel in Swan Quarter. She was purchased in 1949 or 1950 by Capt. Van Henry O’Neal, and his father, Capt. Walter C. O’Neal of Ocracoke. The first mate from 1949 to 1961 was Powers Garrish. Her average trip time loaded was 7 hours, 15 minutes, but on one trip with a good tide she made it in 6 hours, 55 minutes (The above is a quote from Van Henry O’Neal).

(The photo above is the Bessie Virginia on the Pamlico Marine Company railway in 1950, Capt. Van Henry O’Neal beside her. (Pamlico Marine Company was on the later site of the North Carolina Estuarium).)

In addition to passengers, she carried practically anything that would physically make the trip. Henry Rumley helped back a house trailer broadside across the deck at Washington. In a very precise maneuver, Van Henry managed to guide it through the railroad bridge, and it seesawed its way to Ocracoke.

Note the Ocracoke photo showing the fuel drums that most always surrounded the pilothouse. Soft drinks always were loaded aboard, as were groceries from the local wholesale grocers. She carried medicines, clothing, building supplies, motor vehicles, passengers, livestock and anything else that would fit aboard. Van Henry could often be seen visiting Washington shops with a list of needed items from the Ocracokers.

On reverse trips to Washington she transported full loads of seafood destined for individuals and wholesalers.

When the state was paving the first roads on Ocracoke, the Bessie Virginia brought in from Norfolk all the concrete for the job; 17,600 one hundred pound bags. It took a few trips to Norfolk to do it. (Quote from Van Henry, 1992)

During World War II, the navy hauled in their own concrete to build the road from the navy base to the ammunition dump.

(The photo above is the Bessie Virginia at the Naval Base (later park service) dock at Ocracoke.)

By 1961 the state ferries, bridges, and Highway 12 had been dramatically improved, and with it came the inevitable decrease in the need for the coastal freight vessels. In February, 1961 the Bessie Virginia reduced its Washington run to every two weeks. On May 25, 1961 Van Henry sold the Bessie Virginia and discontinued the service to Washington. Van Henry delivered the vessel to its buyer in Norfolk, Virginia. His son, Ronnie Van went with him, and Ronnie Van joined the coast guard the next day.

That ended an era that began at least 180 years earlier.

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On a recent ferry ride back home to Ocracoke after a trip “up the beach” to Nags Head, my daughter Amy, our friend Jenifer Kidwell, Lachlan, and I were relaxing and catching up on some reading. Jen was reading Carl Goerch’s 1956 book, Ocracoke. In one chapter Goerch lists twenty-eight things “you won’t find on Ocracoke.” Here is the list:

  • Policeman
  • Traffic light
  • Elevator
  • Pool hall
  • Brick building
  • Chain store
  • Hospital
  • Parking meters
  • Golf course
  • Lawyer
  • Doctor
  • Furniture Store
  • Drug Store
  • Printer
  • Florist
  • Billboard
  • Sidewalk
  • Bakery
  • Bank
  • Beer parlor
  • Jail
  • Book store
  • Bowling alley
  • Dancing school
  • Dentist
  • Diaper Service
  • Funeral home
  • Hardware store

After reading the list out loud we decided to identify things from that list that we now have on Ocracoke. They are:

  • Policeman (deputy sheriffs)
  • Elevator (there is an elevator in the Anchorage Inn, and a few in private homes)
  • Brick building (the Bluff Shoal Motel and Captain’s Cargo [the former post office] were the first brick buildings on the island)
  • Lawyer (I believe there is only one practicing resident lawyer on the island)
  • Doctor (and a Health Clinic)
  • Sidewalk (that narrow concrete pavement along Irvin Garrish Highway around the harbor)
  • Bank
  • Beer parlor (several, to be sure!)
  • Jail (used mostly for folks who have spent too much time in the beer parlors!)
  • Book store (thanks to Leslie Lanier at Books to be Red)
  • Hardware Store (this business is a franchise of True Value located in the Variety Store; the gas station is a franchise of Exxon; and Kitty Hawk Kites is a local area franchise…so one might argue that we have one or more “chain stores,” but I don’t think this is what Goerch meant by “chain store.”

Then we did some brain-storming and came up with a list of things Ocacoke has had in the past (any time from the 1700s until recently) but that we no longer have. Here is that list (in no particular order):

  • Movie theaters (one, the “Ocean Wave” built in 1914 near the present-day Harborside Gift Shop; and another in the Wahab Village Hotel [now Blackbeard’s Lodge] in the 1940s through the early 1960s)
  • Roller Skating Rink (also located in the Wahab Village Hotel)
  • Appliance Store (near the Harborside Motel, run by Sid Tolson in the 1950s)
  • Ice Plant (located where Kitty Hawk Kites is today)
  • US Coast Guard Station (we still have a Coast Guard presence, but no active station)
  • Saturday night square dances (nowadays only held on special occasions)
  • Mounted Boy Scout troop
  • Furniture store (one of the original businesses located in the Variety Store building)
  • Barber Shops (although today we have a hair salon, formerly there were “barber shops” with real barber poles; one was located at the Community Store, another “down point” on Loop Road
  • Dive shop (located in Oyster Creek development)
  • Clam canning factory (Doxee’s, ca. 1897-ca. 1912, on the SW shore of Silver Lake harbor)
  • Victorian Hotel (the Ponder Hotel, 1885-1900, located where the NCCAT [former USCG Station] building is now)
  • Railway (a length of track from the Ponder (or Ponzer) hotel to the beach, laid to accommodate a horse-drawn tram)
  • Florist (at one time we had two!)
  • Bakery
  • Laundromat
  • Pony Penning (a July 4th tradition for many years)
  • Year-around passenger ferry (various mailboats, including the Aleta and the Dolphin), although a high-speed passenger ferry now operates from Hatteras during the summer season.
  • Artists Colony (see https://www.villagecraftsmen.com/ocracokes-artists-colony/)
  • Free-ranging cows, sheep, and goats
  • Residents who have never been off the island
  • Wind mills (in the mid- to late-1800s there were at least four windmills on the island)
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