Capt. Ben’s Waterfront Restaurant was established by Ocracoker Ben Mugford in the early 1970s. Situated on the end of a dock overlooking Silver Lake harbor, across the road from the Harborside Motel, the restaurant quickly gained a reputation for excellent cuisine, spectacular sunset views, and colorful native island cooks and wait staff. Unfortunately, the restaurant burned to the ground in a fire in 1977.The enthusiastic but woefully untrained and disorganized volunteer fire department was unable to extinguish the fire before it became a conflagration. Although no one was injured or died, it was a sad day for Ben and his family, and for the entire Ocracoke community. It was, however, a wake-up call for islanders.

In 2016 Jimmy Creech wrote the following account of that awful night, and the beginning of a new era that today boasts a well-trained and well-equipped volunteer fire department (https://www.ocracokevfd.org/).

The Night Capt. Ben’s Restaurant Burned

By Jimmy Creech
March 2016

When Capt. Ben’s Restaurant burned to the ground, I was the pastor at the Ocracoke United Methodist Church.

There was no organized volunteer fire department at the time. We had an old fire truck, an old army surplus equipment truck, a collection of second-hand boots, coats, overalls and helmets, and a two-bay building to house it all. Womac was the fire chief, but no one ever showed up for the training he scheduled once a month. I certainly never had training! It wasn’t required back then – whoever showed up for a fire was welcome! Whenever the sirens went off, most always for brush fires started by discarded cigarettes thrown from passing cars on highway 12, we always had a good turnout and everything seemed to go well enough. Didn’t happen that way when Capt. Ben’s burned.

The sirens sounded shortly before midnight that Saturday. I jumped out of bed, pulled on a bathing suit and some sandals and ran to the fire hall. When I arrived, I discovered that those ahead of me couldn’t start the fire truck – the battery was dead. Someone tied his pickup to the fire truck with a rope and towed it down the back road toward Blackbeard’s Lodge. Once it was running, the driver drove the fire truck back to the fire hall to pick up those of us waiting to fight the fire. Word was there was a fire at Capt. Ben’s Restaurant.

While I waited for the fire truck to return to the fire hall, I put on a helmet, pair of overalls, coat and a pair of rubber boots, all much too large for me, but the best I could find. Don’t remember how many there were of us, but we all jumped on the fire truck as it came back by, siren blaring, and headed off down the back road toward Capt. Ben’s. As we passed cottages along the way, tourists, who had been partying, came running out to jump on the fire truck for the ride. Several young women in bikinis with beer in their hands joined us. Must have thought it would be something fun to do on a Saturday night, I guess.

When we pulled up in front of Capt. Ben’s, I jumped off, grabbed the nozzle, pulled the hose off the truck and ran with it toward smoke I saw coming out of a window at the rear of the restaurant on the edge of the lake. I stood at the window, smoke pouring out, and desperately yelled, “Water! Water! Water!” No water. The driver made the mistake of turning off the fire truck when he got to Capt. Ben’s and it wouldn’t start, so it couldn’t pump the water.

Capt. Ben's Fire, 1977Photo by Henry Raup (OPS Collection)
Capt. Ben’s Fire, 1977 Photo by Henry Raup (OPS Collection)

Suddenly, I realized the slack in the hose I was holding was fast disappearing – the fire truck was being towed again, and no one bothered to tell me. Not wanting to drop the nozzle and have it damaged by being dragged down the road around the lake, I took off running with it behind the fire truck, the much-too-large helmet bouncing on my head and my feet nearly coming out of the much-too-large rubber boots with every clomp along the road. The truck finally started about where Howard Street meets the paved road. The driver waited for me, pulled the hose in, then turned the fire truck around and headed back to Capt. Ben’s.

Again, I pulled the hose from the truck and headed back to where I saw the smoke before. Now, large flames were leaping out of the window. I turned on the nozzle and began spraying water through the window inside the restaurant. The flame just got larger, breaking through the roof and spreading throughout the building. To better get at the fire, I crawled beneath the back porch and began shooting a stream of water into the building through a gaping hole the fire had burned in the floor. Lying on my stomach, I aimed the water into the heart of the fire, hoping to knock it down.

In a few minutes, someone crawled under the porch next to me and said, “Jimmy, you’re getting everybody on the other side of street wet! Please lower the water!”

The crowd of people who came to see the fire stood across the street from Capt. Ben’s. Lying on my stomach beneath the opposite side of the building from the onlookers, I wasn’t just shooting water up at the burning structure, I was shooting it through the flames into the air and onto the people standing across the street.

Someone else crawled under the building next to me with an air pack for me to use to protect me from all the smoke I was inhaling. I put on the facemask, but couldn’t figure out how to put the tank on my back or how to turn the air on. So, I gave up and sent it back out. I learned later that I had the air tank upside down.

When it was obvious the fire had complete control of the building and there was no way to extinguish it, I crawled out and began to spray water on two large fuel oil tanks on the adjacent property while what was left of Capt. Ben’s burned. We didn’t want the heat to cause the tanks to rupture or explode.

Capt. Ben’s burned completely to the ground. At sunrise, after spraying water on the smoking debris to extinguish all live embers, I walked to the parsonage and began preparing to lead worship later that morning.

Aftermath, Cat. Ben's Fire, 1977Photo by Henry Raup (OPS Collection)
Aftermath, Cat. Ben’s Fire, 1977 Photo by Henry Raup (OPS Collection)

The following Monday night, the Civic Club held a special meeting to discuss Capt. Ben’s Restaurant burning down. The room was packed with Ocockers and the atmosphere was tense. Ben Mugford was there, understandably angry at the incompetence of the “fire department.” There was a lot of finger pointing to put blame on someone for the debacle: the deputy sheriff who discovered the fire; Womac, the fire chief; the designated fire truck driver who failed to keep the battery charged; etc.

I spoke and said I was to blame because I had never gone to one of Womac’s training sessions. I said I knew when they were scheduled but just didn’t make the effort to go to them. I then described what happened at Capt. Ben’s (pretty much what I’ve written above, but with more details than I can now remember). As I told the story, the atmosphere began to relax with laughter breaking the tension.

When I finished, the Civic Club discussion moved away from pinning blame for the failure of the Volunteer Fire Department to organizing to make it better. We didn’t want another property on Ocracoke to burn to the ground because we didn’t know what we were doing. It was clear that Womac wasn’t getting support from the community and that he couldn’t make people come to training.

Womac said he was ready to retire from his position – he’d been trying to retire for years, but no one would step up to take his place. So, we elected David Fletcher to be fire chief and created a committee to develop policies and procedures for the fire department. Following that meeting, those wanting to be in the fire department met to elect officers. We scheduled training sessions to be led by expert trainers coming from Raleigh, and made it a requirement for everyone to participate in all training sessions in order to be members of the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department. We also began fundraising to purchase new equipment.

The fire at Capt. Ben’s Restaurant was a major loss and embarrassment for Ocracoke, but it also served to initiate a trained and professional volunteer fire department for the island.

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Welcome back to another edition of our island newsletter!

Some of you may have heard about the fire scare we had last month.  A bottle rocket set off a blazing marsh fire just north of Jackson Dunes on June 8.  The wind was exceptionally strong and pushed the flames to the edge of a stand of tinder-dry cedar trees.  It was only by the quick action of local fishermen (who used their net stake pump to draw water from a nearby ditch), the Volunteer Fire Department (who responded immediately), and scores of worried citizens who struggled with hoses and shovels, that the fire was contained before it jumped the road and engulfed homes and more trees.

Everyone was concerned because the dry brush was fueling the fire and the gusty wind was driving it rapidly towards the village.  Residents and business owners were warned to gather valuables together in the event that the fire became an uncontrollable inferno.  And we all breathed a communal sigh of relief when the fire was finally reduced to smoke and charred vegetation.

Post-fire Marsh Scene:
Post Fire Marsh

One benefit of the conflagration was the passage of an island ordinance prohibiting fire crackers, bottle rockets, and other individual fireworks.  The ordinance calls for criminal and civil penalties so please remember to leave your fireworks at home from now on.  None of us can afford to let our beautiful village fall victim to reckless negligence.

The fire erupted late in the afternoon, during one of the final performances of the OcraFolk Music & Storytelling Festival.  In spite of the distraction the festival was a huge success.


For some time I have been chronicling local island history in these pages.  One of the most colorful characters to be associated with Ocracoke is Edward Teach, otherwise known as Blackbeard the Pirate.  I will recount some of his history and stories in a later newsletter, but right now I want to share some thoughts about Blackbeard’s quartermaster, William Howard.

As many of you know, William Howard was the fourth colonial owner of Ocracoke Island (and the first owner to make his home here).  Family legend suggests that William Howard of Ocracoke is the very same William Howard, quartermaster to Blackbeard.  At least that’s what some of the family think.  Others are not so sure.  Dora Adele Padgett, herself the great-great-great-great granddaughter of William, in her book, William Howard Last Colonial Owner of Ocracoke Island, discounts this theory.  She writes:

“And what of the old tales that William Howard, Blackbeard’s Quartermaster, was the same person as William Howard, who in 1759, 40 years later, purchased the Island of Ocracoke?  Evidence points to the fact that in 1718 William Howard Quartermaster, was an experienced ruffian, a seasoned villain and a seafaring man of wide experience.  He is described in the Virginia Court indictment against him as ‘a vagrant seaman, who did associate himself with wicked and dissolute persons.’  In 1718, William Howard who later lived on Ocracoke was a youth of about 18 years of age, hardly the seasoned villain of wide experience who had been Blackbeard’s quartermaster.”

For a different view consider the following.  After my father’s death in March I was going through his papers and discovered a ten-page type-written document entitled “History of the Life of Frank Treat Fulcher.”  Frank Treat, as everyone on the island called him, was a colorful character.  He was a folk artist who carved a number of boat models, as well as the last supper scene that can be seen in the vestibule of the Methodist Church.  His rendition of the Coast Guard vessel EAGLE is on display in the Maritime Room in the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum.  He left the island as a youth and eventually landed a job in Norfolk as a policeman.  Later in life he became a Methodist minister, explaining this change in occupation with the memorable statement, “I figured if I couldn’t beat the Hell out of people, I’d try preaching the Hell out of ’em.”

Frank Treat Fulcher (1878-1971)
Frank Treat Fulcher

According to Frank Treat’s autobiography he was “born January 25, 1878, on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.”  His father was in the Life Saving Service; his maternal grandfather was a merchant sea captain.  He writes, “At ten years of age my mother let me sail with a friend of hers, a Mrs. Rose, who was Captain….of the schooner EMILINE and I was seaman 3rd class.”  This was in 1888.  That is 170 years after Blackbeard was killed.  And boys were still leaving home to become sailors at ten years old!  Frank Treat “sailed to the various ports of Eastern Carolina” and rose to the rank of seaman first-class.  He recounts rescuing the first mate, who seems to have had a habit of falling overboard, more than once.  From the EMILINE he moved on to the schooner BESSIE where he learned both to cook and to “cuss a blue streak.”  He was not yet eleven years old.

Before Frank Treat turned thirteen years old he had sailed aboard the schooner ROBERT F. BRATTON which almost sank in the Atlantic Ocean on a trip from Charleston, SC to New Bern, NC.  In his own words, “Frank Treat is now twelve years old and is a salty old seaman.”  He met a Captain John Day and sailed on the CARRIE FARSON and then Captain John Beverage who convinced him to sail on board the “UNITY R. DYER, a two topmaster.”  Frank Treat reports “We were in several storms.  Once we were blown off the coast in a hurricane.  It took us fourteen days to sail back.  We lost our deck load and we came near sinking from open seams in the deck.  That was really the worst time I had ever seen.” In October of 1893 Frank Treat’s ship, the DAVIDSON “went ashore about three miles south of Cape Henry and was a total loss.”   ” I was pulled ashore through the breakers on a line,” he recounts.

After chronicling several more shipwrecks Frank Treat tells of his time aboard the Barkentine HENRY NORWELL, “the hardest ship of all.  The Captain was the toughest and the most ungodly man I had ever seen.”  Although Frank “fared much better than the rest of the crew, because I was a better wheel man and I could steer the ship better, by the wind…….we could not endure this hardship any longer, so we all jumped ship [in Brunswick, Georgia].”

After this adventure, Frank Treat signed up as mate on the Russian ship PAULINE bound for Hamburg, Germany.  He was seventeen years old, “in the possession of two good fists….and “could take care of myself.”  As he relates the story, “I helped shanghai the crew and when they discovered where they were, there was trouble in the air, but by this time I had become quite a man, so I talked them out of mutiny.  Fifty-seven days crossing the Atlantic.”  Others would recall that he ruled his crew with “fist, marlin spikes, and boot toes.”

From Hamburg, Frank Treat made a voyage on the “full-rigged ship ACHILLES” to Sydney, Australia.  It took them 120 days via Cape Good Hope, and 143 days to return (by way of Cape Horn) to Rotterdam, Holland.   Off the coast of New Zealand “a storm….carried us 69 degrees south of the Equator, down in the Antarctic ice drifts.  Man Alive!  It was below zero.”

In 1896, when Frank was 18 years old, he was quartermaster on the steamer, NEPTUNE, which left Rotterdam for Baltimore, Maryland.

Judith Levine, in her book, Harmful to Minors, in reference to the influential French historian Philippe Aries, points out that “Until the mid-1700’s….at seven, a person might be sent off to become a scullery maid or a shoemaker’s apprentice; by fourteen, he could be a soldier or a king, a spouse and a parent; by forty, more than likely, he’d be dead.”

No one can be sure at the present time if William Howard of Ocracoke was the same person as William Howard the pirate.  Family members are researching the archives for new clues.  But one thing is certain in my mind.  In 1718 a young man still in his teens was no doubt capable of the seafaring experience necessary for serving as quartermaster of any vessel, let alone a pirate ship.  If you have any doubt, just look at the record of Frank Treat Fulcher.

Until next time, all the best to you from the entire staff of Village Craftsmen.

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