Welcome to our Ocracoke Island newsletter!
Sit back, relax and let your mind take a stroll down Howard Street. Today is a rainy, but warm Spring day. The azaleas are in bloom and the fig trees are bursting forth with large green leaves and small green-brown figs. The rain is light and feels cool and refreshing on bare skin. It is a good time to slow down and enjoy being a part of this adventure of life.
In only a few days it will be Palm Sunday and then Easter. Many public schools schedule their breaks during these weeks so we are looking towards more visitors shortly.
Traditionally there are a number of special events at this time of year including Easter sunrise service on the beach. If you will be visiting the island look for flyers at the Post Office and various other places around the village.
Don’t forget to visit the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum. Starting next week and continuing into the Fall they will host a wonderful exhibit of rare island photographs from July, 1955. They were taken by documentary photographer Martha McMillan Roberts.
Also, remember to tune in to “A Prairie Home Companion” this Saturday evening, April 15, to hear “Molasses Creek” perform live from New York City. If you keep your computer turned on you will be able to cast your ballot during the “Talent from Towns Under Two Thousand” competition. We are all wishing them the best.
In past newsletters I have referred to an area of the village known as “down point.” Traditionally there are three unique sections of Ocracoke: “down point,” “’round creek” and “up trent.”
Many people are surprised that a small village like Ocracoke would have such distinct areas. Some local history will help clarify.
Ferries and roads are relatively new additions to life on the island. The Navy paved a few roads here during World War II. Prior to that time there were only foot paths and narrow sandy lanes just wide enough for a horse and a cart. Even with the advent of ferry service across Hatteras Inlet about 1950 there still was no highway down the length of Ocracoke. It was quite a challenge to drive the beach without four-wheel drive from the inlet to the village!
In the village, two small natural “ditches” or “guts,” as they were known locally, were connected to the harbor. Before the 1950’s the harbor itself was known as “Cockle Creek.” Still today local people are just as likely to refer to the harbor as “the Creek” as “Silver Lake.” Cockle Creek was just about as wide as it is today, but considerably more shallow. My father says that as a young boy he could walk across the middle of the harbor without getting his chin under water.
Oysters, crabs and small fish were abundant in the Creek which extended beyond its present-day perimeter as wetlands covered with needle grass and other marsh grasses. The guts extended even farther. One cut through the village approximately where the new Ocracoke Harbor Inn now stands. The other, larger and more formidable, severed Ocracoke just about where Highway 12 runs from the harbor towards the edge of town.
Below is a 1939 photo showing one of the foot paths looking towards the harbor with a foot bridge leading across this gut. The pilings of the bridge are barely visible in this photo in front of the harbor–the light area in the center. Several such small bridges were constructed here by the CCC in the 1930’s.
This photo, which shows no buildings in the foreground, was taken from my father’s cousin’s front porch. Cousin Elsie Tolson’s house still stands. It is now connected to The Island Ragpicker and a present-day view from this same location would include the Creekside Cafe, Slushie Stand, Bike Rentals, Ride the Wind, NC Highway 12 and “Kayak Corner.” Quite a change, to say the least!
All of this construction was made possible after the Navy dredged Cockle Creek so they could bring larger draft vessels into the harbor during the war. In the dredging process they pumped all of the spoil onto the surrounding marsh and filled in the guts as well.
Before the dredging, and especially before the foot bridges were built, Ocracoke Village was effectively cut in two. It is helpful to remember also that the “bald beach” extended well into the area now included in the town of Ocracoke. Not far behind the Island Inn the vegetation stopped and tidal flats began. My father remembers islanders shaking their heads because Thurston Gaskill was building his home (now the Thurston House Bed and Breakfast) “on the beach.” I myself can remember the remnants of sand dunes and sea oats growing in the yard diagonally across the street from the Island Inn, and airplanes landing on the beach and taxiing right up to the front of the Wahab Village Hotel (now Blackbeard’s Lodge).
The beach-front boat house for the US Lifesaving Station still stands only a short distance from its original location. You might be surprised to learn that this building is situated not far from the Island Inn, on Lighthouse Road. Horses would pull the heavy surf boats across what were then wide sandy flats all the way to the edge of the water for many a daring rescue of hapless mariners.
For local residents, too, traveling from “’round creek” (the area that now includes the Post Office, Howard Street, the Methodist church, the Library, etc.) to visit family or friends “down point” (the area that now includes the lighthouse, the Assembly of God church and Wayne’s crab house) meant negotiating the marsh, the guts, the tidal flats and the bugs. Often it was necessary to walk all the way around the guts, out to the beach, and then back up the other side. It was not uncommon for people to pack their bags and spend a night or two after such a long journey!
Still today residents identify as “pointers” or “creekers.” Although all of the older houses are gone from “Up Trent” (the area towards present-day Oyster Creek) the identity of that section also remains.
On your next visit to the island think about whether you are “round creek,” “down point” or “up trent” and try to imagine a village of 500 people without automobiles, telephones, street lights or paved roads. You will gain a kernel of appreciation for the importance of knowing your special place in this very special village.
(P.S. Don’t be confused by “Down Point Decoys” which is next to the Post Office. This business is run by David O’Neal, a pointer, but the building is definitely “round creek!”)
Until we see you on the island, remember that we enjoy sharing local history, stories and current events with you. We hope you like hearing from us as well.
Philip and the entire staff of Village Craftsmen