The OcraFolk Music and Storytelling Festival in June, the Ocracoke Independence Day celebration, and the Ocracoke Fig Festival in August are opportunities for islanders and visitors to come together on the dance floor. As many couples as can comfortably fit in the room form a circle. When the musicians strike up a lively tune, the caller, who almost always dances, announces, “Honor your partner,” then “All join hands, and circle left.” So begins the traditional Ocracoke Island Square Dance.

Although it is called a square dance, it would more accurately be described as a big circle dance. The dance proceeds in three parts: the initial big circle, a middle section of one or more two-couple figures, and a final big circle or grand march.

In 1992 Bob Dalsemer, president of the Country Dance and Song Society, visited Ocracoke and was surprised to discover a “big circle” dance tradition on the island. For many years, this style of dance was thought to exist only in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

It is time to revise the history of this dance.

The big circle dance is almost certainly a form of the English country dance. In 1651 Thomas Harper in London published The English Dancing Master by John Playford, a manual containing more than one hundred tunes and dance figures. The manual documented many figures, including dances in the “round” for an indefinite number of couples, and sets (geometric formations) for two or more couples. The Scots-Irish “Square Four” and other four-handed reels also influenced the earliest settlers from the British Isles.

For years, big circle dances were occasions for socializing in many coastal communities in Virginia, Maryland, and Eastern North Carolina. The Outer Banks was no exception.  The Ocracoke square dance was held regularly from the mid-1700s until the early 1960s. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the dances, with eight to twelve couples, were often held in private homes. Later they were held in public spaces, including the lodge of the old Doxsee Clam Factory, on the dock at Captain Bill Gaskill’s Pamlico Inn, at Stanley Wahab’s Silver Lake Inn (now the Island Inn Commons), in the old Ocracoke School Recreation Hall, an abandoned WWII building that had been moved to school property, and in the building that now houses the Ocracoke Variety Store.

By the middle of the twentieth century several factors combined to nearly extinguish the dance. The establishment of a WWII naval base on the island and subsequent improvements in transportation and communication, including paved roads, ferry service, telephones, radios, and television, led to a dramatic increase in connections to the outside world and to tourism. With the steady increase in visitors an ever-larger number of attendees were unfamiliar with the dance. There was no precedent for teaching the dance to newcomers, and islanders soon became frustrated with the confusion and disorder that resulted. Rock & roll and the jitterbug, the popular music and dance of the 1950s, soon displaced the traditional island square dance.

Although there were occasional attempts to revive the dance in the 1970s, these endeavors were thwarted by the steady decrease in the number of islanders who were familiar with the dance, and by the lack of a qualified teacher.

By the time Bob Dalsemer visited Ocracoke, it had been thirty to sixty years since his interviewees had actually performed the dance, and, sadly, no one alive was able to reconstruct it faithfully. However, in 1996 a small group of islanders gathered in the Ocracoke School gymnasium, along with several musicians, to attempt to recreate the Ocracoke Island square dance. It soon became apparent that our bodies remembered what our minds had forgotten. In the course of one evening the essential elements of the dance were recaptured.

To my knowledge, no other coastal communities in Maryland, Virginia, or North Carolina have maintained a living tradition of the big circle dance. However, as Dalsemer observed, finding a long tradition of the big circle square dance style on Ocracoke, “extends the range of this form well outside the Appalachian Mountains and suggests a variety of possibilities regarding dance origin and migration.”[1]

Undoubtedly, as settlers moved westward, they carried their dance traditions with them. The big circle dance is to this day a vibrant tradition in the mountains of North Carolina, Virginia, East Tennessee, and West Virgina. It can even be found in Ohio, Indiana, and other areas of the Mid-west. Unfortunately, this dance form has gone extinct everywhere on the coast, except on Ocracoke Island.

Although the Ocracoke square dance is no longer held every Saturday night, as in years past, it is kept alive at special events throughout the year. There may be some confusion as newcomers learn the figures, but the enthusiasm, excitement, and broad smiles on the faces of dancers young and old are testaments to the value of holding hands, looking your neighbor in the eye, moving to the rhythm of lively music, and feeling part of a welcoming community.

The Ocracoke Square Dance is an important tradition that captures the spirit of this extraordinary village.

Click here for complete instructions for performing this dance.

 

 

[1] “Old Time Square Dancing on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina: Notes from Interviews with Ocracoke Island Dancers, September 13-15, 1992” by Bob Dalsemer in Country Dance and Song, Volume 26, July 1996.

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Ocracoke has a long tradition of elevating and moving houses and other buildings. By our current count, more than four dozen houses and other structures on the island have been moved. Many more have been elevated, especially after major flooding from Hurricane Dorian in 2019.

In the nineteenth century most houses, stores, or outbuildings to be moved to another location were first jacked up two or three inches at one corner and secured with shims. This was repeated at the next piling or pier until the entire house was elevated a few inches. The process was repeated as many times as necessary to raise the house high enough to add supports. It was then lowered onto rollers and pulled to its new location by horses.

Occasionally, an entire house might be disassembled, then rebuilt on a different lot, or even moved across the inlet from Portsmouth Island to Ocracoke.

In 1898 Aliph O’Neal married Homer Howard. For a wedding present, Homer’s parents, James and Zilphia Howard, purchased an unfinished house from “Thomps” Bragg located on School Road (near where Books to be Red sits today). They had the house dragged to its present location on Lawton Lane by a team of horses. The house was later elevated after sea water washed through the windows during the September 1933 hurricane. It was raised again in 2005 (by a neighbor, the old way, a few inches at a time), but not quite high enough to prevent two inches of sea water from inundating the house during Hurricane Dorian in 2019.

Homer & Aliph Howard House
Homer & Aliph Howard House

Homer & Aliph Howard House

The mid-19th-century Kugler Cottage is believed to be one of the oldest surviving houses on Ocracoke. The house, in the “Windmill Point” area on the northwest side of the village, has a commanding view of the sound, and, according to oral history and deed research, was moved to this site in the early 20th century, probably about 1915, for use as a summer cottage.

Kugler Cottage
Kugler Cottage

Kugler Cottage

In her book, A Blessed Life, Della Gaskill (b. 1937) describes moving an island home many years ago:

“When my grandmama and my grandfather, Papa Cas [Richard Caswell Williams (1884-1959)] and Zilphia [Zilphia Gray Styron (1886-1966)], were going to get married, my grandfather built a house around the other side of the Island by what we call the Creek (Silver Lake Harbor.) The house was built around where Chris and Mabel Gaskill lived [near British Cemetery Road]. After my Papa built the house they were getting ready to get married and my grandmama told him that she weren’t going around the Creek to live, so my grandfather had a boat, and he had to take that house down piece by piece and bring it around the shore side in back of my mama’s house and bring it piece by piece down where the old home place stands now… I guess there probably were men that helped him take it down and move it by boat until they got it all down there where they built it on the land where it sits today, the old home place [near the Assembly of God Church].”

Della Williams Gaskilll Homeplace
Della Williams in front of the Williams Homeplace

Della Williams Galkill in front of the Caswell & Zilphia Williams House

Blanche Howard Jolliff (1919-2018) recounted that her father, Stacy Wilson Howard (1885-1968), was helping move a house in May of 1903 when word spread through the village that the Vera Cruz VII, a two-masted brig carrying illicit liquor and nearly 400 immigrant passengers, wrecked at Ocracoke Inlet. Someone ran to the house movers bearing the news and a barrel of rum. “That was the end of the house moving,” Blanche said with a smile.

Sometime around 1915-1920, Eliza Styron O’Neal convinced her husband, Ivey O’Neal, to dismantle their house, which was situated near Northern Pond, and rebuild it “Down Point” on Loop Road, close to Eliza’s extended family. According to Ivey and Eliza’s grandson, Ivey sawed through the wooden pegs to disassemble the house. The lumber was carried by horse and cart to the shore of Pamlico Sound, loaded onto a barge, ferried to a landing Down Point, then unloaded onto another cart and carried to its present location, where it was reassembled with iron nails.

Ivey & Eliza O'Neal House
Ivey & Eliza O’Neal House

Ivey and Eliza Styron O’Neal House

In November 1927 Ivey O’Neal, his brother Billie, and two companions were fishing nets when “heavy seas and a roaring gale” swamped their boat, drowning Ivey, Billie, and one other. Blanche Howard Jolliff explained that Billie O’Neal (1889-1927) and his wife, Eliza Scarborough O’Neal, lived on the north side of Silver Lake Harbor (“Around Creek”), near where the Back Road is now. They had purchased a lot on the road now called Lighthouse Road, and were having their 1910 house dismantled when Billie died. After the funeral, the carpenters, Thad Gaskins and Charlie Scarborough, asked Miss Eliza if she wanted them to stop and re-build the house where it was. She decided to continue having the house dismantled. The lumber was carried to the new lot and reassembled.

Billy & Eliza O'Neal House
Billy & Eliza O’Neal House

Billy & Eliza O’Neal House

The 1901 building that housed the Ocracoke Odd Fellows Lodge (subsequently used, variously, as a school, private residence, coffee shop, WWII officers’ quarters, and finally the Island Inn) was moved soon after the dissolution of the Lodge in 1925. Islander Benjamin O’Neal (1880-1939) bought the building for use as a private residence for his family. He contracted with Charlie Scarborough to move it about 600 feet to its present location. Today it is being rehabilitated to serve as a community gathering place.

Odd Fellows Lodge
Odd Fellows Lodge/Island Inn

Odd Fellows Lodge/Island Inn

After WWII many of the buildings that were part of the Ocracoke Navy Base were dismantled and/or sold, moved and repurposed. One such building, formerly a barracks, is the Methodist Church recreation hall.

Methodist Rec Hall
Methodist Church Rec Hall

Methodist Church Rec Hall

Another was the old school recreation hall which was moved again to become part of Capt. Ben’s Restaurant (later the Ocracoke Oyster Company) when a new school gymnasium was built. That building was demolished after it sustained major damage from Hurricane Dorian in 2019.

The separate kitchen from the 1904 Life Saving Station which had been repurposed as a morgue by the US Coast Guard during WWII, was sold in 1947 and moved behind Wahab and Elizabeth Howard’s house (on the corner of Back Road and British Cemetery Road) for use as an outbuilding.

USLSS Morgue
USLSS Morgue

USLSS Morgue

Native islander, Maurice Ballance (1927-2014) recalled that after WWII the Navy stationed a night watchman to “guard” their abandoned facility on the island.  The watchman spent much of his time selling liquor and getting drunk.  After dark, Maurice said, you could hear the sound of muffled hammers and other tools as old iron nails squeaked when they were being pulled out of the buildings in the process of retrieving windows, doors, and other items. He called it “The Midnight Requisition.”

One enterprising islander hauled off an entire building in the middle of the night with a Dodge Power Wagon that he’d bought from the Navy. He made it to about where present-day “Over the Moon” is located when his truck quit.  He unhooked the trailer with the building on it, and pushed the Power Wagon to his house on the Back Road.  He left the building in the road (this was the one-lane concrete road that the Navy built).  Neighbors looked out first thing in the morning to see a “big” building sitting right in the road in front of their house.  The Navy sent someone to investigate. The investigator was given a tip and accused Bud Styron of the deed. Bud insisted he wasn’t to blame. “It wasn’t me,” he said. “It couldn’t have been me.  My Power Wagon won’t even start.  How could it have been me?”

A small single-story frame summer cottage is located on the shore of Silver Lake. Oral history attributes the construction of this cottage to Washington, North Carolina, native, Togo Wynn. The story is that Leonard Meeker purchased the cottage after WWII and had it moved to its present location, extending it over the breakwater. Additional oral history suggests that Meeker incorporated other materials salvaged from the Navy Base in the late 1940s or early 1950s.

Wynn/Meeker Cottage
Wynn/Meeker Cottage

Wynn/Meeker Cottage

Island natives, Van Henry & Bertha O’Neal, who were living on Portsmouth Island in 1945, dismantled their home after it was damaged during the hurricane of 1944, and built a craftsman style home on Back Road using materials from their Portsmouth Island home as well as other materials from historic structures on Ocracoke. The house was later moved to Sunset Blvd and remodeled.

Van Henry and Bertha O'Neal House
Van Henry and Bertha O’Neal House

Van Henry & Bertha O’Neal House

Down Point Decoys (formerly Capt. John’s Junque Shoppe, and later the Merchant Manner Gift Shop) was built ca. 1950 as part of the Green Island Hunting Club located “down below” in the marshes several miles northeast of the village. Wahab Howard moved it to its current location near Captain’s Landing Hotel. It served as the first dedicated gift shop on the island.

Decoy Shop
Decoy Shop

Decoy Shop

A few years after schoolteachers, David and Sherrill Senseney, moved to Ocracoke in 1973, they had an opportunity to acquire an historic island home in exchange for moving it. This early 20th century house was originally built by Thad Gaskins (1887-1961), noted local builder, on the opposite side of Silver Lake and moved “Down Point” near the lighthouse several decades later. The Senseneys had it moved a second time, in 1976, from across the street from the lighthouse to its new location, where it sits today, several hundred feet southeast on Lighthouse Road.

Senseney House
David & Sherrill Senseney House

David & Sherrill Senseney House

In 1978 the warehouse section of the Community Store was detached from the main building and moved to the back. You can read about that move here.

Community Store Stockroom
Community Store Stockroom

Community Store Stockroom

Today, modern house movers position steel beams under buildings, then, with an array of computer-controlled jacks, elevate the building, as a unit, as much as eight or ten feet in a matter of several hours. Once elevated, the building can then be lowered onto a heavy trailer and moved to a new location, or positioned on sturdy wooden cribbing until new pilings or piers can be built.  The structure is then lowered onto the new foundation.

Sometime in the late 1970s two houses, including the former home of Lorena and Bert Williams (and later, Jean Scarborough), on Irvin Garrish Highway were moved to make room for the construction of the Boyette House Motel (now Boyette Condos). The Williams/Scarborough house was cut into three sections by island carpenter Calvin Wilkerson, moved in pieces, and re-attached in the Oyster Creek neighborhood, just over the first bridge, and christened “Horatio Too.”

Horatio Too
Horatio Too/Williams House

Horatio Too/Williams House

In 1984 when the Silver Lake Motel & Inn was built, two two-story historic island homes were relocated. The Walter and Armeda O’Neal house was moved to Irvin Garrish Highway, near the 1718 Brew Pub. Walter O’Neal (1885-1976) was a prominent local storekeeper and hunting guide.

Walter & Armeda O'Neal House
Walter & Armeda O’Neal House

Walter & Armeda O’Neal House

The Tommy and Bessie Howard house was moved to a lot directly behind the bank. Mr. Tommy Howard (1878-1972) retired in 1941, after serving as Ocracoke’s postmaster for almost forty years.

Tommy & Bessie Howard House
Mr. Tommy & Miss Bessie Howard House

Mr. Tommy & Miss Bessie Howard House

Some years earlier Miss Bessie’s small wash house had been moved to the end of O’Neal Drive in the Trent Woods section of the village. Local carpenter Calvin Wilkerson expanded and remodeled the wash house according to his own creative vision. The cottage was elevated after being flooded in Hurricane Dorian.

Miss Bessie's "Washhouse"
Miss Bessie’s “Wash House”

Miss Bessie’s “Wash House”

Mermaid’s Folly gift shop on the harbor (formerly the Gathering Place) is another historic building that was moved to accommodate a new motel.  When the Anchorage Inn was built in 1981 the historic William Ellis Wiliams (1878-1934) house was relocated to the shore of Silver Lake in the Community Square.

Mermaid's Folly/Williams House
Mermaid’s Folly/William Ellis Williams House

Mermaid’s Folly/William Ellis Williams House

The Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum is located in the former home of Capt. David Williams (1858-1938) and his wife Alice Wahab Williams. Capt. Williams was the keeper of the Ocracoke United States Life Saving Station from 1905-1915.  The substantial foursquare house, built about 1900, originally sat facing the harbor, and was moved in 1989 to National Park Service land in order to make room for the Anchorage Inn.

OPS Museum/Williams House
OPS Museum/David & Alice Williams House

OPS Museum/David & Alice Williams House

In the mid-1990s the author acquired a 100-year-old wash house that was located behind Lightkeepers Guest House on Creek Road. With the help of several friends and a borrowed trailer and heavy-duty truck, the 28’ X 16’ building was hauled away and relocated behind my house. Maneuvering the building around the back corner of my house and into position was a challenge until a neighbor suggested sandwiching strewn sand between two sheets of plywood laid on the ground. We positioned the trailer wheels on the strategically placed plywood, disconnected the trailer from the truck, then, using the sand as primitive ball bearings, swung the building into position.

Philip Howard's Outbuilding
Philip Howard’s Outbuilding

Philip Howard’s Outbuilding

Sorella’s Restaurant (formerly Ocracoke Pizza Company), which had for many years been the homeplace of Herman and Flossie Spencer, is a rare example of the coastal cottage. It was moved from the corner of Irvin Garrish Highway and School Road.

Herman & Flossie Spencer House/Sorella's Restaurant
Herman & Flossie Spencer House/Sorella’s Restaurant

Herman & Flossie Spencer House/Sorella’s Restaurant

When the local Assembly of God made arrangements to build a new church in 2003, the original 1942 building, along with the marquee, was moved to Irvin Garrish Highway across from Jason’s Restaurant, and remodeled as a rental cottage.

Assembly of God Church/Rental Cottage
Assembly of God Church/Rental Cottage

Assembly of God Church/Rental Cottage

At the same time, the parsonage was relocated behind Sorella’s Restaurant.

Assembly of God Parsonage/Rental Cottage
Assembly of God Parsonage/Rental Cottage

Assembly of God Parsonage/Rental Cottage

In about 2015 the early 20th century George W. Simpson, Jr. House which originally sat beside Corky’s Store on Creek Road, was moved to First Avenue. It is now the home of year-round residents.

George W. Simpson, Jr. House
George W. Simpson, Jr. House

George W. Simpson, Jr. House

In about 2000 the Benjamin Joseph Garrish, Jr. House (built ca. 1920), which was originally located behind Corky’s Store, was moved to Ocean View Road.

Benjamin Garrish House
Benjamin Garrish House

Benjamin Garrish House

Houses, outbuildings, stores, and other structures continue to be relocated on Ocracoke. The 1934 Alonzo and Cora Louise Burrus bungalow was moved from its original location near the intersection of Creek Road and Silver Lake Drive to the sound shore near the Kugler cottage in the spring of 2023.

Alonzo & Cora Louise Burrus House
Alonzo & Cora Louise Burrus House

Alonzo & Cora Louise Burrus House

More than two dozen additional buildings have been relocated on Ocracoke Island. We have every reason to suspect that more buildings will be moved in the future.

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Ocracoke Island’s 19th postmaster, Thomas Wallace (“Mr. Tommy”) Howard (1878-1972), was appointed October 21, 1902. Soon after his appointment Mr. Tommy built a small building close to his home (near where the Silver Lake Motel is located today), one of Ocracoke’s four dedicated post offices. Mr. Tommy held the position for nearly 40 years, until he retired in 1941.

Mr. Tommy counted among his ancestors O’Neals, Williamses, and Jacksons, all early settlers on Ocracoke Island. His great-great-great-great-grandfather was William Howard, Sr., colonial owner of the island. As a child, his grandmother regaled him with stories of pirates and seafarers. His father, Robert Howard, served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. After the war Robert was captain of a schooner carrying rice between South Carolina and North Carolina. During one of these journeys he contracted tropical fever, perhaps dengue or malaria, and never fully recovered. He died in 1878 when Thomas Wallace was just nine months old.

Thomas Wallace and his four older sisters were raised by their mother, Minerva O’Neal Howard, with help from their grandmother. Minerva operated a tourist home and did sewing for neighbors. Like most island families, they raised their own vegetables and kept chickens, sheep and at least one beef cow.

In many ways Ocracoke was a dynamic small community during Tom Wallace’s youth. Thirty-eight years before Thomas was born, a post office was established on the island. In that same year, 1840, more than 1400 sailing ships were recorded as having passed through Ocracoke Inlet. By the late nineteenth century, steam-powered excursion boats, as well as sailing vessels and freight boats, could be seen anchored in Pamlico Sound. Well-heeled tourists were coming from New Bern, Greenville, and other cities to the new Victorian hotel located on the shore of Silver Lake.

According to Ursula Loy and Pauline Worthy in their 1976 book, Washington and the Pamlico, “Ocracoke Island in those days was very much more interesting, exciting and pleasurable than today…. People would inhale the fresh salt air and feel a sense of freedom soon after arrival. They would fish and swim in the daytime and square dance every night…. The island was crude and undeveloped, the natives were friendly and would go out of their way for everyone to have a good time. They had a brogue peculiar to the coast and the sea, which the visitors loved, but could rarely imitate or impersonate.”

Young Thomas had an inquisitive mind and a remarkable memory, and he took every opportunity to engage sailors and visitors in conversation. In spite of an extremely limited formal education, he read anything he could get his hands on.

In October 1889 the Pioneer, one of the last wooden steamships, wrecked on Ocracoke beach. Unlike most commercial vessels of the time which hauled a single commodity, the Pioneer was carrying general cargo. One contemporary news article claimed, “it was like manna from heaven” when the vessel Pioneer was wrecked off Ocracoke in a violent storm. Everything from Bibles to cabbages floated ashore. Hams, bananas, barrels of flour, casks of alcohol, bladders filled with snuff and a great deal of canned food came into the island, which was flooded by the tide. “Everywhere folks were knee-deep in water sweeping up valuable debris as things washed by them.” One gentleman threw away his old shoes when he spied a new pair drifting toward him, only to find the new ones were both for the same foot. One woman gathered up enough bladders of snuff to fill a barrel which she proudly kept upstairs in her house for all to marvel at.

The ship struck during the daytime and was plainly visible from the shore as she broke into pieces and disappeared into a raging sea. Tom Wallace’s entire family joined their neighbors and the ship’s crew, all of whom were saved, salvaging whatever goods had washed ashore. When they returned home, Minerva and the girls emptied their bags to reveal bolts of cloth, cured hams, canned vegetables, hoop cheeses, and an assortment of other comestibles. Eleven-year-old Tom Wallace brought home a box of books. Although his mother was disappointed with his acquisition, Tom Wallace was nurturing his passion for reading, an obsession that eventually led to his employment as Ocracoke’s longest-serving postmaster.

As a lad, Tom worked in the local general store, and used his spare time to improve his reading.

For a time, Tom Wallace also joined other young island men fishing and oystering, even serving on a fishing vessel off the Philadelphia and New Jersey coast. He returned home when he was twenty-four years old to accept the job as island postmaster (click here for a history of the Ocracoke post office).

Mr. Tommy's Post Office
Mr. Tommy’s Post Office

Throughout his career, mail arrived at Ocracoke by boat. At times “Mr. Tommy,” as he was now known, carried mail from Ocracoke to the Hatteras Island village of Avon in a 22’ sail skiff, sometimes rowing the entire way if the wind did not cooperate.

When he was thirty-three years old Mr. Tommy married Nancy Elizabeth Williams, a native of the mainland town of Creswell. “Miss Bessie,” as she was known, accompanied her husband to Ocracoke, assisted at the Post Office, and immersed herself in the community and the Methodist Church.

In 1937 Mr. Tommy had the honor of sending the United States’ first airmail letter. On October 12 he dispatched a letter by airplane to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the scene of the Wright brothers’ historic first flight in a heavier-than-air machine.

Both Mr. Tommy and Miss Bessie were staunch members of the Ocracoke United Methodist Church. Mr. Tommy served as Sunday School teacher and superintendent, choir leader, and member of the Church Council. He was also a loyal member of the Ocracoke Civic Club. Although Mr. Tommy developed significant hearing loss in his old age, his mind remained sharp and his wealth of local knowledge was prodigious. Friends, visitors, and journalists sought him out for fascinating stories about island history and people.

Mr. Tommy and Miss Bessie had two sons, Lafayette and Robert Wahab, and one daughter, Eleanor Nell. When Mr. Tommy died in 1972 at the age of ninety-four, he was the oldest island resident.

Mr. Tommy’s granddaughter, Betty Helen Howard Chamberlin, and her husband, George, own and operate Captain’s Landing Motel and Captain’s Cargo gift shop on the site of the old Ocracoke Store (across the street from the site of Mr. Tommy’s post office).

 

Mr. Tommy at his Post Office
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