“Is there an artists’ colony on Ocracoke?” is a question I frequently hear.

“We do have a number of talented artists and musicians,” I reply, “but, no, there is no formal or organized Artists’ colony on the island.”

Ocracoke Island suits artistic types very well, and it is not surprising that visitors wonder if an organized colony has ever been established here. Although there is no artists’ colony on the island today, Ocracoke was the site of a small experimental community that flourished here more than sixty years ago.

The worldwide movement that spawned the quintessential artists’ colony emerged in the mid to late 1800s and continued robustly through the early twentieth century. It is estimated that thousands of artists participated in nearly one hundred art communities in Europe, Australia, and the Americas during that time.

Scholars point to urbanization and industrialization as factors that influenced the movement. Romantic sentiments among many poets, writers, painters, sculptors, and musicians led to a growing nostalgia for rural life, country living, and peace and quiet. Artists, unlike more conventional types, were less constrained by society’s predominant mores, and could afford to adopt bohemian behavior and fashions suitable to their more unstructured lifestyles. Because of the colonies’ widespread embrace of pluralism and tolerance, they appealed to many eccentric artists.

In the early twentieth century Ocracoke was especially remote from cities, government interference in private affairs, and societal expectations. Without paved roads or ferry service, Ocracoke’s primary link to the mainland was the four and a half hour trip by mail boat to Atlantic, on the mainland of North Carolina. The island’s isolation and easy acceptance of strangers helps explain why a small group of artists and writers established their “Island Workshop” here in 1940.

Unlike many counterparts in Europe and elsewhere in the United States, the Island Workshop was neither a highly structured year-round community, nor an independent and self-contained community of transient artists and writers. Rather, it was a two-month long summer endeavor that was somewhat integrated into the year-round and long-established village of Ocracoke.

Sometime in the late 1930s a young man from eastern North Carolina, Vernon Albert Ward, Jr., found his way to Ocracoke. He had graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in English, and a specialization in creative writing. Although more educated than the local population, Ward quickly and easily settled into the community and made many friends. By all accounts, he was friendly, handsome, well-dressed, and polite. He was exceptionally athletic, and especially enjoyed swimming.

In the summer of 1938 Vernon Ward procured a job as manager of Stanley Wahab’s three-year-old “Spanish Casino.”

In 1935 Stanley Wahab had built his inexpensive replica of a Spanish style building on the island, near where the Back Porch Restaurant sits today. Made of plywood strewn with gravel while the earth-colored paint was still wet, the 400 square foot Spanish Casino mimicked an adobe hacienda. The flat roofed structure had extended and crenelated exterior walls with gently curving main sections. Windows were topped with decorative trim, and crosses within circles painted near the roof line suggested a southwestern theme. An open porch on the ocean-facing side was supported by peeled cedar posts, adding to the Spanish motif.

The Spanish Casino:

Spanish Casino

The interior was one large room with a raised platform on the western wall to accommodate a piano and musicians. Benches were placed along the walls, leaving a sizable dance floor in the middle. Island natives, Edgar and Walter Howard, brothers who had moved to New York City to play vaudeville in the 1920s and 1930s, came home periodically to entertain their fellow islanders. The popular music of the day included cowboy and western songs and ballads. Once in a while Edgar’s banjo and Walter’s guitar accompanied nationally popular entertainers who followed the Howard brothers to Ocracoke. At times, other island musicians played at the Spanish Casino. When live music was unavailable a jukebox served nightly to provide tunes for round dances, jitterbug, and traditional island square dances.

Stanley Wahab included a small canteen to serve his customers. Candy, cigarettes, and soft drinks were popular items. Eventually the Spanish Casino also offered hamburgers. Some years earlier, under the influence of Mr.Shaw, one of the Methodist preachers, sales of alcoholic beverages had been banned on Ocracoke Island. It was a rare night, however, when homemade meal wine did not flow freely behind the building or on the other side of the sand dunes.

The Spanish Casino was part of Stanley Wahab’s larger operation which included the Wahab Village Hotel (later renamed Blackbeard’s Lodge), and separate motel units dubbed the Green Apartments.

The manager, Vernon Ward, was a budding poet who had made contacts with other writers and artists from western North Carolina, New York, and Europe. Whether it was originally his idea, or someone else’s, the notion of an island workshop for artists and writers took shape, and Vernon Ward, who had remained on the island throughout the year, became the organizer and contact person. Soon a catalog was created, and advertisements placed in regional and national magazines.

Ocracoke’s first season for the artists’ colony was scheduled for July and August, 1940. Although the location was listed as Wahab Village, many of the classes were held in the local schoolhouse. Entertainment included dances at the Spanish Casino. Accommodations were arranged at the Wahab Village Hotel. The total cost for two months (room, board, tuition, and entertainment) amounted to a mere $200.  Attractions included “swimming, boating, fishing, dancing, and excursions.” Ocracoke was hailed as the “world’s widest and most beautiful seashore.”

The Wahab Village Hotel:

Courses included painting, sculpture, art history, creative writing, history of literature, Indian crafts, and physical education. The Island Workshop attracted an impressive list of talented teachers. Among them was Blanche C. Weill, a San Francisco native who studied in Europe with educator Maria Montessori and psychoanalyst Alfred Adler.  She started the first Montessori school in Berkeley, California. Weill earned a doctorate at Harvard, and practiced child psychology in New York, Cambridge, and Boston. She was the author of two books, The Behavior of Young Children of the Same Family, and Through Children’s Eyes, the latter published by Island Workshop Press.

Robert Haven Schauffler, well known expert on the lives of Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann, also participated in the Island Workshop. Schauffler, author, lecturer, singer, and cellist, was the son of missionaries to Austria, and attended Northwestern University and Princeton University where he earned a B.A. in 1902.  He served in WWI and was decorated with the Order of the Purple Heart. Schauffler was a prolific writer, contributing poems and monographs to numerous magazines and journals, including Collier’s Weekly, and Atlantic. He wrote several travel books, as well as books and plays celebrating holidays and other observances.

Other presenters and teachers at the Workshop included Daniel Tilden, a Cherokee Indian Chief, and Anita Wetzler, a nationally recognized sculptress.

The most colorful of the Workshop organizers and teachers, however, was Madame Helene Scheu-Riesz (pronounced Shoy-Reese). According to islanders who knew her, she was very friendly and outgoing. She has even been described as “bubbly.” Mme Scheu-Riesz, as she preferred to be addressed, was born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1880, but spent most of her life in Austria. At age 38 she published her first novel, Der Revolutionär. Eine Lebensgeschichte (The Revolutionary, A Biography), which came out during the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. However, she made a name for herself as a narrative writer, poet, playwrite, editor, journalist, and translator. She was active in the Austrian Women’s Movement, and was especially interested in making books available to children. She edited the “Sesambücher,” a series of classic works, in German, for young people, and translated Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland to German.

Helene Scheu-Riesz:

Mme. Scheu-Riesz emigrated to the United States in 1937, after her husband, Gustav Scheu, died. Even though she had been baptised as a Protestant before leaving Europe, as a woman of Jewish heritage she undoubetly felt threatened by the rise of National Socialism in Austria. True to her old-world traditions, she continued to wear gathered skirts, blouses with laced bodices, and a small scarf or peasant’s cap over her salt and pepper hair. Earrings and red shoes highlighted her colorful dress. Mme Scheu-Riesz, short and thin, spoke with a thick German accent.

In Europe, Mme Scheu-Riesz and her lawyer husband moved in intellectual and artistic circles. She was a major figure in pre-World War II society, hosting dinners and salons that attracted artists, writers, philosophers, and politicians. Well-known and well-connected literary figures, composers, artists, actors, and architects frequented the Scheu-Riesz home. It is not known how Mme. Scheu-Riesz came to know Vernon Ward, but clearly they were moving in the same circles once she arrived in America.

No record survives listing the Island Workshop students. Local sources indicate that only a handful of people were ever enrolled in classes, maybe 8-12 people at any one time. Dare Wright, popular 1950s photographer and author of children’s books, several set on Ocracoke, seems to have had a connection to Vernon Ward, and may have participated in the Workshop. No doubt the extreme isolation of Ocracoke contributed to the small number of students. In 1940 no ferries served the island, and the journey across Pamlico Sound on the 42 foot wooden mail boat Aleta took four hours.

Island Workshop Advertisement:

No local islanders are known to have taken advantage of the courses offered.

Most of the teachers (Vernon Ward, Daniel Tilden, Miss Weill, and Miss Wetzler) lived in two apartments in the Wahab Village Hotel. Mr. Schauffler, whose wife and children accompanied him, rented a house on the Point Road (now Lighthouse Road).

1940 was a time of upheaval in Europe. In 1933 Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party [the Nazi Party] had assumed power in Germany and was appointed Chancellor of the “Third Reich.” He repudiated the Treaty of Versailles two years later. In 1938 Germany annexed Austria. In September 1939 Germany invaded Poland. The events in Europe were causing anxiety and concern throughout the world, and Ocracoke Island was no exception.

Before the United States declared war on Japan and Germany in 1941(and established a Navy base on the island in June of 1942) Ocracoke had been one of the most isolated communities in the country. Few outsiders visited the island, and most of them were anglers and hunters.

The artists and intellectuals who participated in the Island Workshop were viewed by some locals with curiosity, and even with a degree of suspicion. They were described as “Bohemian” and “mysterious.” Mme Scheu-Riesz’s German accent and old-world costumes especially set her apart. Rumors circulated throughout the village suggesting that she and her fellow artists might be German spies. Although only a handful of islanders held this view, those closest to the artists reported that they were secretive, and reluctant to socialize with villagers. Workers at the hotel noticed that Workshop teachers and students covered their books and poems, and turned papers over whenever others approached them.

Most of the Workshop participants enjoyed spending their days on the beach. Islander, Jake Alligood, had an old flat bed truck that he had converted to an island taxi, and he often drove them across the tidal flats to the ocean. It was not unusual for the teachers and students to walk to the beach after dark. Mme Scheu-Riesz seemed especially interested in the flashing beacons and other navigational aids, about which she asked numerous questions. She was also observed making frequent calls, by ship to shore radio, from the Coast Guard Station.

Several island teenagers, intrigued by the exotic artists and intellectuals, and looking for adventure, decided to snoop around their quarters. They had listened to adults as they discussed the artists’ unconventional behavior and different lifestyles. Connections to foreign countries, strange dress, and a degree of eccentricity had made them suspect. Could the artists really be undercover Nazi spies?

The “detectives” never discovered any incriminating evidence.

Mme. Scheu-Riesz’s Jewish heritage points to something quite different from a suspected German spy. Rather, she appears to have been a committed progressive thinker. In Europe she hosted socialist salons, worked with her husband to broaden the viewpoints of “dreadfully nationalistic” Viennese primers, and was active in the burgeoning “first wave” of the women’s liberation movement. Mme Scheu-Riesz’s name appears in 1921-1929 records of correspondence in the Quaker-affiliated Swarthmore College library’s section on the National Council for Prevention of War. She is pictured in a 1921 photo of the Third International Congress of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

According to information from the Library of Congress, Mme. Scheu-Riesz also had a connection with Sigmund Freud, with whom she carried on correspondence in 1930. And she frequently combined her interest in art with her passion for politics.

Vernon Ward seems also to have been a progressive thinker, for he flirted with socialist and perhaps even communist ideologies. In a March 18, 1942 letter to his congressman, Herbert C. Bonner, he refers to “certain [of his] letters rather friendly to Russia…” that were published in the Raleigh newspaper, The News and Observer.  In the same letter he also acknowledges a rumor about his “personal morality” which he claims is “no longer valid.”  According to local sources, Ward was also a conscientious objector.

The Ocracoke “Artists’ Colony” (the Island Workshop), operated for only two summers (1940 and 1941). The December, 1941attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything. In the next six months hundreds of merchant vessels were torpedoed by German submarines off the Outer Banks. By the summer of 1942 the US Navy had constructed an Amphibious Section Base with as many as 600 personnel stationed on the island. Ocracoke was no longer the quiet, isolated retreat suitable for an artists’ colony.

Six months later, the Spanish Casino, which had already begun to disintegrate, was closed on the recommendation of the Navy commander. Shortly afterwards the building was demolished.

Although a rumor surfaced that Mme. Scheu-Riesz and several others from the “colony” had been detained and/or deported in 1942, nothing supports this. According to some sources, Mme Scheu-Riesz operated an art gallery in New York City after WWII. For more than ten years she was involved with the Island Workshop Press there. In 1954 she returned to Vienna. She devoted the rest of her life to school reform, writing numerous adaptations of fairy tales and translating children’s books from English to German. She died in 1970.

Vernon Ward went on to become a professor of English at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. He published several books on poetry. In the early 1960s he created and edited Tar River Poets, a literary journal devoted to publishing poems by members of the Poetry Forum in Greenville. At his retirement in 1978 the name of the journal was changed to Tar River Poetry, and submissions were opened to other poets. It has been listed as one of the top ten poetry journals in the United States. Ward was married and was survived by a daughter and son when he died in 2000.

After World War II Dr. Blanche C. Weill, dedicated child psychologist, devoted her life to the care of troubled children. She died in California in 1974.

Robert Haven Schauffler spent much of his adult life pursuing music and poetry, although his career touched on many other topics, including literature, travel, the military, and holidays. He died in 1964 at the age of 85.

Nothing further is known about Daniel Tilden or Anita Wetzler.

Between 1940 and 1947 Island Workshop Press, an outgrowth of the Ocracoke artists’ colony, published a number of books and pamphlets in New York City, including the following:

  • Through Children’s Eyes, by Barbara C. Weill (1940)
  • Will You Marry Me?, edited by Helene Scheu-Riesz (1940)
  • Fiddler’s Luck : the Gay Adventures of a Musical Amateur, by Robert Haven Schauffler (1941)
  • Stories of the Underground Railroad, by Anna L. Curtis (1941)
  • The Quakers Take Stock, by Anna L. Curtis (1944)
  • The Story of Liberty, by Louis Kaufman Anspacher (1944)
  • Shakespeare as Poet and Lover, and the Enigma of the Sonnets, by Louis Kaufman Anspacher (1944)
  • Democracy is Not Enough, by Scott Nearing (1945)
  • The Soviet Union as a World Power, by Scott Nearing (1945)
  • United World, the Road to International Peace, by Scott Nearing (1945)
  • See Here, Private Enterprise!, by H. Sabin Bagger (1945)
  • The Master Race Mentality, by Louis Kaufman Anspacher (1945)
  • War or Peace?, by Scott Nearing, (1946)
  • The Revolution of Our Time, by Scott Nearing (1947

A note about research: For years I had heard stories from islanders about the Ocracoke Artists’ Colony. The two central figures mentioned were Vernon Ward and Madame Helene Scheu-Riesz. I was able to gather some information about Vernon Ward, but was unable to learn anything further about Madame Scheu-Riesz. No islander remembered how to spell her name, and everyone pronounced it as “Shereese.”

I searched the Internet using various spellings and finally found information about a Helene Charisse. I discovered that she and her family were profesional dancers. Her mother was a personal friend and admirer of Isadora Duncan. The family (Helene’s mother and her ten children) danced in Europe, Africa, and the United States, including twice at the White House during Calvin Coolidge’s term.

When the children reached adulthood and went their separate ways Helene continued dancing alone, and eventually founded a dance studion in Indianapolis.

An article written by Helene’s husband after her death in 1981 referred to her mother as Madame Charisse. It was only a short leap to imagine that Helene was also called Madame Charisse after her mother died.

I decided that Helene Charisse was the colorful woman who had participated in the Ocracoke Artists’ Colony. She was involved in the arts as a professional dancer, and she was from Europe.  Although Helene Charisse was born in Paris I imagined that her family might have been German-speaking, or perhaps Ocracokers had misidentified or misremembered her French accent. Helene Charisse was born in 1909, so she would have been about 31 years old in 1940. Islanders remembered her as older, but I thought that time and memory might have conspired to cause them to be mistaken. After all, I reasoned, how many Madame Charisse’s could there be? I was convinced that I had located the right woman.

In October of 2008 a frequent visitor to Ocracoke showed me the Island Workshop advertisement that she had purchased on Ebay (see image above). It was the first time I had heard the official name of the Artists’ Colony. Back to the computer I went. Armed with the key phrases, “Island Workshop,” “Vernon Ward,” and “Ocracoke” I stumbled upon a December 30, 1940 Time magazine article mentioning Ocracoke Island and the book, Will  You Marry Me?, published by the Island Workshop Press, and edited by Helene Scheu-Riesz.

Eureka! The woman who had lived on Ocracoke in 1940 and 1941 was Helene Scheu-Riesz, not Helene Charisse. With this new information I searched the Internet again and was rewarded with thousands of hits. It was only a matter of patience and diligence until I was able to put together a more comprehensive and more accurate picture of the Ocracoke Artists’ Colony.

Madame Helene Scheu-Riesz was Austrian, as the islanders told me. And she did speak with a German accent. Also, she was about sixty years old when she arrived on the island, exactly as my sources remembered.

I learned a valuable lesson — trust your local sources!

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Ocracoke’s first house of worship was the Methodist Church, established on the island in 1828.  The congregation met in several different buildings over the years.  In 1844-1845 a schism erupted in the national body over the issue of slavery, and the Ocracoke charge then came under the care of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

The Ocracoke Methodist Episcopal Church, South:

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In 1883 the “northern” branch of the Methodist Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, also established a presence on the island. For fifty-four years the island was served by these two branches of the Methodist Church.

The Ocracoke Methodist Episcopal Church (the “Northern Church”):

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In 1937 the national bodies reunited. Throughout 1938 the newly unified Ocracoke congregation continued to meet in the two different church buildings.  Old rivalries were being laid to rest in a new spirit of cooperation.  Eventually both churches were dismantled and a new building was constructed.

The New Ocracoke United Methodist Episcopal Church, 1939:

In 1938, while many Ocracoke residents were learning to adjust to the changes in their religious institution, members of the Pentecostal/Holiness tradition began to proselytize on the island.  At that time Mr. Bertie Dixon and his wife, Eva, began holding “preaching services” at the schoolhouse.  In July, Miss Alice Austin, an evangelist from Buxton, NC, came to the island to hold revival meetings.

Miss Alice was accompanied by Robert Hancock, a Georgia native who was then working at the Civilian Conservation Corps camp on Hatteras Island.   Mr. Hancock played guitar and offered any other assistance needed.  Miss Alice’s sisters, Ruby and Doris Jennette, and Mr. Frank Miller and his wife, Angeline, also participated in the revivals.

The island was ripe for revival.  For years, Ocracokers had wrestled with reconciling their faith with the reality of a divided church, now on the cusp of an uncertain unification.  Miss Alice’s simple message of forgiveness and salvation hit a resonant chord.

Without a building, Miss Alice relied on the good will of Elizabeth Styron (better known as Aunt Bett), who offered the use of her front yard for services.  Aunt Bett’s home was “down point” where Charles Mason’s new home stands today.   The services were lively and spirited.  As a result, more than a dozen islanders accepted the invitation to “accept Jesus as their personal savior.”

On August 16, 1935 the Schooner “Nomis” had run ashore at Hatteras Inlet. Caswell and Zilphia Williams’ sons, James and Charlie, were among those islanders who had hauled home a significant quantity of lumber from the wreck.  The Williamses donated part of the lumber, and several men worked at building crude benches for the outdoor congregation.  Miss Alice preached from Aunt Bett’s front porch.

At first Miss Alice stayed with Mrs. Mary Midgette.  After Eliza Ella O’Neal was saved, Miss Alice stayed with her because, as she said, she “wanted to get out behind the graveyard and pray where she wouldn’t bother anyone.”

The revival lasted only two weeks, but a seed was sown.  Sixteen islanders responded to the altar call.  After the revival regular services were begun, but now they were held in different people’s homes.  Eventually, as the congregation grew and the weather turned colder, Aunt Bett allowed the worshipers to close in her back porch for use as a church.  At first they had no pastor.  Services were held with lay leaders, although both Alice Austin and Robert Hancock returned for short periods to shepherd the fledgling group.

It wasn’t long before the new Holiness congregation recognized the need for a regular church building.  Aunt Bett’s back porch had quickly proved inadequate.  Again Aunt Bett demonstrated her new-found faith and donated the lot next door to her house.

In 1940 Mr. Stanford Jackson, an octogenarian island carpenter and recent convert, offered to build the new church if the materials could be procured and several helpers found.  Eliza O’Neal’s sons, John Thomas, and his bother, Steve, and several others volunteered their time.  Construction was begun in 1941 and continued into 1942.  Sanford Jackson built the first pews as well.

An article in the “Ocracoke Beacon,” dated October 15, 1941, recalls, “Stanford Jackson, expert craftsman, who can make anything from a fiddle to a ship model, with his pocket knife, is now completing a much bigger job.  For several months, Stanford has been engaged (almost single-handed) in building the little church down on the Point Road which will be the place of worship for islanders of the Holiness Pentecostal faith.  The church is almost completed, and Stanford Jackson deserves praise for the fine job of carpentering he has done in building this place of worship.”

When the church was completed Miss Alice Austin returned to the island for the dedication and preached the first sermon.  Reverend Wells was the first salaried pastor the church called.  His daughter, Beatrice Wells, a 16 year old child evangelist, came with him and held a revival on the island during which several more people joined the flock.

The second pastor was Reverend W.G. Mizelle, who boarded with Mrs. Eliza O’Neal.  In January, 1943 Rev. Mizelle’s sister, Mildred, came to spend a week with him at his new charge.  While there she met John Thomas O’Neal and she stayed a full month.  Unfortunately John left in February to serve in the military and was gone for three years.

As a testimony to their newfound connection, John and Mildred wrote to each other every day, from February, 1943 to January, 1946.  John had only one furlough during his entire military service.  He spent two days with Mildred at her family home, and two days on Ocracoke with his mother.  When John told his mother that he only had four days leave, she wondered out loud, “If that’s all the time you had, what are you doing spending half of it here?”

John and Mildred were married February 5, 1946, less than two weeks after John was discharged from the service   Together they remained pillars of Ocracoke’s Assembly of God.

Alice Austin continued her support for the Ocracoke congregation over the years by serving on an interim basis between pastors.

On September 14, 1944 a fierce storm pummeled Ocracoke Island.  Winds were estimated at over 100 mph, and tides were running at fourteen feet.  The entire island was under water as powerful waves crashed into boats, homes and businesses.  Six houses were completely destroyed, as was Capt. Bill Gaskill’s Pamlico Inn and docks on the sound shore.

One resident’s first-hand account relates that there was “three feet of water pounding through this cottage,” that the porch was “blown off and front windows shattered, and front door blown in.”  “Practically all furniture [was] upturned and much of it washed into [the] kitchen.”

The Holiness Church was not spared.  It was washed off its foundation and the chimney was totally destroyed.  Members of the congregation soon rallied to repair the damage.

Reverend Glenn Lawrence was called as pastor immediately after the ’44 storm.  When asked by friends where he was going, Rev. Lawrence replied, “Ocracoke.”

“There ain’t so much as a cat alive down there!” he was told.

His reply: “Maybe so.  What’s dead I’ll bury, and then I’ll leave.”

In truth, Ocracoke Island has never suffered a hurricane-related death in spite of a number of violent storms.  Mr. Lawrence stayed for two years.

During World War II the U.S. Navy constructed a sizeable base on Silver Lake Harbor.  Although barracks were built, housing was still in short supply, especially for officers and their families.  The commanding officer contacted Mrs. Eliza O’Neal and asked permission to rent a small, unused structure for one of his men and his wife.

Mrs. O’Neal considered her building “not hardly fit to live in,” but she rented it nevertheless.  Not long afterwards she hailed Rev. Lawrence and beckoned him over to her yard.  Mrs. O’Neal’s new neighbors, the Navy couple, were cooking steaks, a scarce and coveted commodity on the island at the time.

“Do you smell that?” Mrs. O’Neal asked, turning toward the succulent aroma, and licking her lips.  “I’ll tell you one thing, Brother Lawrence.  If I had a biscuit I could stand right here and eat my supper.”

In 1946-1947 a parsonage was built next to the church with lumber donated by Thurston Gaskill, whose father operated the old Pamlico Inn that was destroyed in the 1944 hurricane.

On April 25, 1947 the ten enrolled members of the island Holiness church made application to the Assemblies of God, requesting approval to join their denomination.  An official letter approving the application was sent exactly one week later, on May 2, 1947, recognizing the Ocracoke church with a certificate of acceptance.

In 1948 several buildings were moved from the decommissioned World War II Naval Base, and attached to the back of the church for use as Sunday School rooms.

Tragedy struck again six years later.  It was November 3, 1954.  Reverend Ernest Powlesland had just preached his last sermon on the island and his replacement, Reverend Walter Whitaker and his family were moving into the parsonage.  That night a raging fire broke out in the pastor’s home.  In spite of valiant attempts by islanders to fight the fire with a bucket brigade their efforts failed and the building burned to the ground.  To everyone’s relief, however, the fire was contained and the church itself was saved.

Both pastors and their families were fortunate to escape the fire unscathed, but all of their personal belongings were destroyed.  Immediately islanders pulled together to help the unfortunate clergy.  Clothing, food, money, and toys were collected to help them recover their losses.

Pastor Whitaker remained on the island to serve the congregation.  He lived in the Sunday School rooms until a new parsonage was constructed in 1955.

In the late 1970’s Ronnie Midgett, with family in tow, came to Ocracoke straight out of Bible college.  He didn’t have a church, and Ocracoke’s Assembly of God didn’t have a pastor.  They teamed up for the summer, and just before school started the church members voted to call him as their preacher.  He stayed for three years.

Ronnie’s wife, Diane, remembers with a smile young Joseph Gaskill’s startled, candid, and quintessentially island comment when hearing for the first time the biblical story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead after four days: “Why Lord, he’s ranketh by now.”

Diane also remembers church members assuring her that they would pound the preacher and his family once a month.  Not knowing that “pounding” was an old island expression for providing the preacher with much needed supplements to his meager salary (a pound of sugar, a pound of flour, a pound of shrimp, etc.) Diane told Ronnie that she had heard that Ocracokers were a rough crowd, but she hadn’t expected them to be that rough!

Once, when Ronnie was fired up with the spirit he preached that he wanted to be like the Hebrew prophets and “dance naked in the streets” (meaning, but not explaining, that he meant naked in the Biblical sense of being unencumbered by his priestly garments).  On hearing this sentiment, Irma Foster, one of the founding members of the church, blurted out loud the only island exclamation that seemed appropriate, “Dey, Blessed Father!”

On one occasion Diane needed Ronnie to come home to take care of a household chore.  She called out to the Tradewinds Tackle Shop, thinking he might be there.  Louise O’Neal answered by explaining that Wayne Teeter thought Ronnie should be “down below” [a traditional island expression indicating anywhere from the edge of the village to the Hatteras ferry landing].”  Not understanding the local vernacular, Diane was concerned that Ronnie’s parishioners thought so little of their new preacher that they’d already decided where he should spend eternity.

The congregation has continued to flourish.  At the turn of the twenty-first century a major building project got underway with the construction of a sizeable addition to the back of the church.  This structure includes a spacious apartment for the pastor and his family, as well as large, modern Sunday School rooms.  The old parsonage was sold and moved to Highway 12, to be used as a rental cottage.  The church was moved in the fall of 2003. The new owners have converted it to a cottage as well.

Moving the Old Parsonage:

Moving the Assembly of God Church:

The Church Reborn as a Rental Cottage:

A new facility with moveable chairs, stained glass windows, and modern audio-visual capability was soon built to serve the needs of the Assembly of God’s twenty-one members and considerably more attenders and friends.

The New Ocracoke Assembly of God Church:

Special thanks to John Thomas and Mildred O’Neal for much of the information above.

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“Son, why don’t you come along with me,” Homer called out. Lawton was eager to join his father on beach patrol. It was exciting to be allowed to accompany a U.S. Coast Guard surfman, and this would be a great adventure. It was August 22, 1925 and Lawton was fourteen years old.

Together father and son set out toward the bald beach, leading Homer’s spirited stallion, “Old Bill.” Just a quarter mile from their village home the bald beach spread out before them. Wide flats, devoid of vegetation, extended for several miles toward First Hammock Hills, a large dune, prominent because of its covering of trees and bushes. Second Hammock Hills lay beyond that, and barely visible farther north was the first of several small maritime forests, more dunes, and, hidden amongst the thickets of yaupon and myrtle bushes, narrow tidal creeks.

The flats, dubbed the “Plains” by Ocracokers, were littered with seaweed, seashells, starfish, and horseshoe crabs. Terns circled overhead, diving at the interlopers in an attempt to keep their attention from exposed “nests” (really just shallow depressions in the sand) with two or three speckled eggs waiting to hatch.

Homer Howard, Sr.:

 

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But Homer and Lawton were focused on the beach. Turning east, they trudged through the soft sand, shielding their eyes from the sun as best they could. Once they arrived at the edge of the sea, walking became much easier. The sand there was hard and flat. Homer’s assignment was to walk along the surf, always with an eye toward the open sea. Schooners and steamers heading south regularly hugged the coast along the lower Outer Banks of North Carolina, trying to avoid the strong northward current of the Gulf Stream. Ships sailing north also had to contend with currents, strong winds, and treacherous shoals. All too often violent storms rose up with little or no warning. Captains and sailors frequently met with disaster as their vessels, blown off course, ploughed into the angry outer breakers of Ocracoke Island. It was the job of the Coast Guard life savers to patrol the beach and render assistance when tragedy struck.

Early in the afternoon of August 22 ship traffic along the Atlantic Ocean was light. Lawton even convinced his father to stop for a few minutes while he jumped into the warm water. Large waves and a powerful undertow suggested that a storm somewhere out to sea was making itself felt on Ocracoke. Waves periodically rolled far up onto the beach, forcing Homer and Old Bill to retreat. But Lawton was a strong swimmer. He emerged from the water only when his father beckoned him…and then reluctantly.

Walking along the beach, Homer pulled out his fiddle. He would play a tune (“Hand Me Down My Walking Cane,” “Bully of the Town,” or maybe “Boil Them Cabbages Down”), all the while keeping his eye on ships traveling offshore. Eventually fast-paced square dance tunes yielded to more melancholy numbers. “The Letter Edged in Black.” “Put My Little Shoes Away,” and “The Little Rosewood Casket” were soothingly popular at a time of high infant mortality. Homer and his wife Aliph had lost more than a half dozen babies to whooping cough, diphtheria, measles, and other childhood diseases. These songs reminded Homer that he was not alone. They helped protect him from debilitating sorrow.

Late in the afternoon, his fiddle back in his saddlebag, and his tour of duty coming to an end, Homer spied a four-masted schooner a considerable distance off shore and sailing south. As he and his son watched, the impressive sailing ship tacked and turned back toward the north. “What is that all about?” Homer wondered to himself.

Then, without warning the schooner turned around and headed south. As Homer and Lawton watched, the boat surprised them again when it turned northward once more.

“Mark my words, son,” Homer finally said, looking at Lawton. “The captain of that vessel is just waiting for nightfall. He’s planning to run her aground, probably for the insurance money.”

And then it was time to return to the station. Another surfman was taking over the patrol.

Early in the morning of August 23, 1925 Homer was awakened from his bunk at the station. The announcement, “Ship Ashore!” rang out loud and clear.

The Coast Guard rushed to the rescue. The four-masted schooner, Victoria S, was hard aground in the breakers directly across the Plains from Ocracoke village. Using the beach apparatus and breeches buoy the life savers quickly and efficiently pulled all seven sailors to safety on shore. Shortly thereafter the Victoria S broke apart in the pounding surf. Her cargo of rough cut pine lumber spilled out of the wreck and tumbled into the Atlantic Ocean.

The Wreck of the Victoria S:

 

For days large quantities of lumber washed up along several miles of beach. The owners of the cargo were contacted and they immediately dispatched an agent to Ocracoke to coordinate salvage operations.

The agent quickly assessed the situation. There were only two gasoline powered vehicles on Ocracoke Island in 1925. Captain Bill Gaskill, who owned the Pamlico Inn on the sound shore, had a flat bed truck. Mr. Albert Styron, who operated a general store near the lighthouse, also owned a truck. Both men were hired to drive out to the beach and collect as much of the lumber as possible. A steamer was requisitioned, and brought down Pamlico Sound. It tied up to a dock on the northwest shore of Ocracoke village.

For several days Captain Bill and Mr. Albert drove back and forth, from the beach to the sound, and back again, carrying load after load of lumber. At that time the main thoroughfare through Ocracoke village was a one lane, soft sand road that included what today is known as Howard Street.

In front of Stacy and Elizabeth Howard’s home the road made a sharp bend, and there the loose sand was especially deep. To negotiate the curve without getting stuck, the drivers of the model T trucks, equipped with narrow rubber tires, needed to accelerate as they approached, and maintain their speed as they rounded the blind bend.

Captain Bill had just loaded his truck at the beach. Piled with lumber, his vehicle was traveling west. Mr. Albert had just unloaded his truck at the steamer, and was returning to the beach, heading east. Both drivers approached the curve in front of Stacy and Elizabeth’s house at the same time. Both gunned their engines and rounded the bend simultaneously.

And that’s how it happened that Ocracoke experienced its first automobile accident, in early September of 1925, a head on collision, with only two vehicles on the island!

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