Alice and Theodore Rondthaler had been married for a decade when Alice’s mother came from Connecticut to live with them in Clemmons, North Carolina. Mrs. Keeney was suffering from the “Melancholies.”

In New England in the mid-1930s the popular cure for her malady was withdrawal to the seashore. Alice soon made inquiries about possible resort destinations on the coast of North Carolina. Someone suggested Ocracoke. Ocracoke Island was isolated and far from the cares of the mainland. The natives were stress-free, relaxed and friendly, and, Alice was told, the perfect place to take Mrs. Keeney for the cure.

Alice asked about places to stay, and was told that Ocracoke had no hotels, but Aunt Mame took in boarders. She should just write to “Aunt Mame.” Her address was simply, Ocracoke, NC.

About two weeks later Alice received a post card with this note written in pencil: “Aunt Mame ain’t keeping folks no more but you can stay with me. Uncle Gary.”

That was all it took. Alice and Theodore began making preparations for their first trip to Ocracoke, “on faith” as Alice recalled.

On the appointed day Mrs. Keeney sat quietly, never speaking, as the Rondthalers motored east to the coastal village of Atlantic. There they would meet the mailboat for the four hour trip across Pamlico Sound.

The next day, around noon, Alice, Theodore, and Mrs. Keeney boarded the Aleta, a 42 foot wooden vessel powered by a diesel engine. In addition to the mail and a small amount of freight the Aleta could hold about two dozen passengers. Theodore passed his expensive leather suitcase to the deckhand who promptly tossed it unceremoniously through the deck hatch and into the hold, where it landed on blocks of ice.

“Excuse me,” Theodore asked with as much civility as he could muster, “why did you throw my luggage below deck?”

“Why, to keep the ice from melting, of course,” came the answer.

Truth be told, Alice and Theodore were immediately impressed with the unpretentious demeanor and straightforwardness of the captain and crew of the Aleta.

About two hours after their departure, when the mainland had fallen below the western horizon, and the Aleta was still out of sight of Ocracoke, Mrs. Keeney looked at her daughter, and uttered the first words she’d spoken in three years. “Alice,” she said, “where in the hell are you taking me?”

Mailboat Aleta:

The Rondthalers’ first trip to Ocracoke would not be their last, for it was love at first sight. The people, the history, the community, and the lifestyle all resonated with Alice and Theodore, a couple steeped in commitments to equality, tolerance, simplicity, and peace.

Alice Keeney (1899-1977) was a young, single woman when she moved from Somersville, Connecticut to Winston Salem, North Carolina. There she worked as secretary for Rev. Howard Edward Rondthaler (1871-1956), a distinguished Moravian pastor who later served as president of Salem College, and still later was consecrated bishop of the Southern Moravian Province. Rev. Rondthaler was married to Katharine Boring, a Philadelphia Quaker.

Rev. Ronthaler’s eldest son, Theodore Edward (1899-1966), was born in the parsonage while his father was pastor of Christ Church in Old Salem, North Carolina. The Moravian faith was central to his upbringing. Six generations of Theodore’s forebears had served as Moravian teachers and clergymen, in Saxony, Russia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.

Theodore attended private and public schools in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and in North Carolina. In the summers, from 1912, when he was thirteen years old, until 1921, he visited Pocono Lake Preserve in Pennsylvania to visit his grandparents. Pocono Lake Preserve was a summer camp founded by devout Quakers, Isaac Sharpless and Joseph Elkinton. The camp consisted of one hundred cottages and offered hospitality to members of the Orthodox branch of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends.

It was at the lake that Theodore developed a life-long interest in swimming, rowing, and canoeing. He also enjoyed music, especially playing his guitar and clarinet. Perhaps the most enduring lessons Theodore learned at Pocono Lake Preserve were the high ideals and principled testimonies of the Quakers.

Following graduation from high school, Theodore enrolled in the University of North Carolina, where he graduated in 1919. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the student council, and Golden Fleece, the highest honorary organization on the campus. The Order of the Golden Fleece selected its members based on “service to the University as reflected in scholarship, motivation, creativity, loyalty, and leadership in academic and extracurricular pursuits.”

After receiving his B.A. Theodore pursued a number of interests, including unloading fish at Fulton’s Fish Market in New York City. He lived in the Bowery, an area “filled with employment agencies, cheap clothing and knickknack stores, cheap moving-picture shows, cheap lodging-houses, cheap eating-houses, [and] cheap saloons,” as it was described in 1919. Bums, prostitutes, gangs, “degenerates,” and thousands of sailors on shore leave frequented the Bowery.  Theodore took a room at the YMCA, one of the first institutions of social reform in the Bowery. While rooming there he was frequently exhorted to better himself!

From the YMCA Bowery Theodore moved to New Jersey, where he enrolled in Princeton University. He received his master’s degree in English and Latin in 1923. During the next two years he toured Europe by motorcycle, and attended classes in Munich and Paris. With only enough money for his boat fare back to the states, Theodore earned his meals aboard ship by playing his clarinet at the captain’s table.

By 1924 Theodore had returned to North Carolina where he began teaching Latin at Salem College. There he met and fell in love with Alice Keeney, his father’s secretary. They were married in 1927. The following year the couple moved to Clemmons, North Carolina where Theodore taught high school. He later became principal. The Rondthalers had two children, Howard and Alice Katharine.

In 1935, while the Rondthalers were living in Clemmons, they discovered Ocracoke. They were instantly enamored of the island, and their one week vacation quickly expanded to three. They even bought a cottage, the old Dan and Sabra Tolson home, which at that time was owned by the McIlhenys, a mainland family that enjoyed spending summers on the island. Remarkably, it was not until two years later that the Rondthalers saw the inside of their new house. From then on they spent as much of the summer as possible on Ocracoke.

On December 7, 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and suddenly the United States was at war. By the end of the spring school term in 1942 the T. A. Loving Company had begun work on a Navy Section Base on Ocracoke Island.

That summer Theodore secured a carpenter’s permit which allowed him to work on Ocracoke. Because of his ability to read blueprints and use a surveyor’s transit, Theodore was soon transferred to building the first paved road on the island, a one-lane concrete strip between the Base and an “Ammunition Dump,” a row of protected and reinforced buildings used to store live ammunition.

By October the T.A. Loving Company had built barracks for up to 600 Navy personnel, administration and engineering buildings, radar and communications facilities, an electrical shop, offices, and a mess hall.

Alice and Theodore kept their permanent residence in Clemmons until after the war. In 1945 they took jobs at an experimental liberal arts college located in the mountains of North Carolina. Black Mountain College emphasized art, poetry, music, and design, which were integrated into the curriculum according to John Dewey’s principles of education. Theodore taught several unconventional courses, including “History of Extraordinary Communities.” No doubt he included references to Ocracoke, where he and Alice continued to spend their summers.

By 1948 the Rondthalers’ children, Howard and Alice Katharine, were enrolled at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. At that time Alice and Theodore Rondthaler 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. In short order, as Carl Goerch put it in his 1956 book “Ocracoke,” they were “considered as much a part of Ocracoke as the lighthouse or the Coast Guard station.”  Goerch goes on to say “there’s a mutual liking and understanding existing between them and the natives of the island.”

The Old Ocracoke School House:

(Photo courtesy of Earl O’Neal)

In his spare time Theodore enjoyed strolling through the village, using the many well-worn sandy paths that wound between modest clapboard houses, family cemeteries, general stores and chicken yards, and across makeshift wooden bridges that traversed languid tidal creeks. Mostly he was out and about visiting neighbors, or simply stopping to chat with fishermen mending their nets or with carpenters building a new skiff. When storms and hurricanes threatened, Theodore made it his mission to pass the word throughout the village.

Alice was just as gregarious. One islander described her as a “walking newspaper.” In her wanderings about the village Alice collected the news: who was down with the flu, how many fish were brought to the docks, when the preacher’s new baby was due, why the mailboat was late getting into the harbor. Eventually Alice published her local news in the school paper and in the Outer Banks weekly newspaper, the Coastland Times.

Every spring Alice organized a Junior Class trip to some distant city, maybe Raleigh, or even Washington, DC. For many of her students this would be their first opportunity to visit a city, hail a cab, eat in a fancy restaurant, or see a play.

Former students remember Theodore and Alice as “a mighty good principal and teacher.” It would be an understatement to say that they were respected. This is not to say that Ocracoke students didn’t occasionally play pranks – tacks on the teacher’s rush bottom chair, or a toad in the teacher’s desk drawer. But Principal Rondthaler attempted to instill his values (fairness, respect, responsibility, and creativity, to name a few) in all of his students.

The Rondthalers remained at the school for fourteen years.

At retirement Theodore obtained his surveyor’s license. At that time island deeds were notoriously vague. Corners were often indicated as “the large live oak tree,” “the corner of Harry’s chicken pound,” or “the stake near William’s shell pile.” For several years he used his skills to provide more accurate deeds, and settle land disputes.

Theodore’s Quaker background also helped him settle personal squabbles. He not only informally mediated quarrels between neighbors; he was also available as a counselor for couples experiencing marital difficulties.

Even after retirement Alice and Theodore continued to teach Sunday School at the Methodist Church. Theodore acted as lay preacher when the minister was off the island. Both are remembered for their familiarity with the Bible, and their ability to bring meaning to ancient texts by connecting them to current events and contemporary issues. The Rondthalers were always respected. They were also persuasive advocates for social harmony.

Sometime after Marvin Howard established the Ocracoke Boy Scout troop in the mid 1950s Theodore accepted the position of scoutmaster, one of many volunteer roles he filled.

Eight students graduated from Ocracoke School in 1965. Theodore had been retired for three years, and he was recruited as Commencement Speaker. He chose as his text two verses from the Biblical book of Amos: “Thus he shewed me: and, behold, the LORD stood upon a wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in his hand. And the LORD said unto me, Amos, what seest thou? And I said, A plumbline. Then said the LORD, Behold, I will set a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel”

Theodore described the plumbline, a simple contractor’s tool, and pointed out that the plumbline embodies the principal of dependability. Then his talk became personal. Addressing each graduate by name he spoke of the need for dependability – for Joseph and Reginald who were on their way to college; for June Yvette and Margaret who would be attending nurses training; for Jimmy who would be doing training in auto mechanics; for Vickie and Linda who were getting married; and for Armistead who would be pursuing electronics maintenance and repair.

Theodore also became chairman of the Ocracoke Board of Mosquito Control and was instrumental in implementing a policy of digging mosquito control ditches to drain breeding areas within the village. 

Theodore died in April of 1966 after a struggle with cancer. His tombstone on Ocracoke reads “Yea, a man may say, thou hast faith and I have works: Shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.: James II: 18.

Theodore Rondthaler in Back Row, with Students (back row: Maude Ellen Garrish, Hazel Wahab, Peggy O’Neal, Wanda Simpson,& Josephine Howard; front row: Sigma Willis, Mickey Garrish, & Walter C. O’Neal):

(Photo from the Alice Rondthaler Collection, courtesy Ocracoke Preservation Society)

After Theodore died Alice continued to give her time and energy to the Ocracoke community. She wrote for local publications, collected island history and stories, continued to be an active member of the Methodist church, and befriended both native Ocracokers and newcomers to the island.

Alice periodically invited friends to her cottage for seafood dinners. Alice almost always baked brown bread, and fixed baked beans with bacon. “Maggie,” she once said, “you can bring the green beans. Merle, you can bring the potato salad, and Sherrill, you and David can bring the crab cakes.” When Sherrill protested that she’d never made crab cakes, Alice countered that all she needed to do was walk across the lane and ask her neighbor, Rebecca Spencer, how to make crab cakes. “Rebecca makes the best crab cakes on the island,” Alice pointed out. It was Alice’s way of introducing newcomers to island natves.

Once, while on a road trip off-island, Alice was pulled over for speeding. She explained to the officer that she was listening to a tape of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and it was just not possible for her to drive slowly to that tune. The trooper found Alice’s novel excuse entertaining, but he issued the ticket anyway…along with a warning to listen to different music while driving.

Alice continued to travel into her 70s. On her last trip to the mainland she contracted an infection, and died shortly afterwards from complications of pneumonia. Her body was returned to Ocracoke for the funeral, and carried to the community Cemetery, as so many before her, in Monk Garrish’s old blue Jeep pickup truck.. She is buried beside Theodore. Her epitaph reads, “She hath done what she could.” Mark XIV: 8.

Alice Rondthaler:

(Photo from the John Wall Collection, courtesy Ocracoke Preservation Society)

Alice often said that once you get Ocracoke sand between your toes you’ll always come back. Theodore frequently remarked that he couldn’t thank Ocracoke or its people enough for what they had given him.

Ocracokers will always be indebted to the Rondthalers for their abiding love of this place, and for their many and valuable contributions to the school and the community.

Mrs. Keeney may not have known “where in the hell” her daughter and son-in-law were taking her in 1935, but Alice and Theodore quickly discovered where they were – home.


Spring greetings from Ocracoke Island!

As warmer weather approaches, we are beginning to see many familiar faces returning to the island for rest and rejuvenation.  Welcome back!

Many of you knew my father, Lawton Howard, a member of the early-morning coffee contingent on the Community Store porch, and a frequent, afternoon, behind-the-counter visitor at Village Craftsmen.  He died on March 23, at age 90, in his own home, next door to where he grew up, surrounded by family and friends.  Many people, both on-island and off-island, will miss him and his fabled good humor.

In past newsletters I have chronicled some of his history and amusing stories.  You can read these accounts by following the links below:

The Story of Lawton Howard

Amusing Stories About Lawton Howard

Lawton Howard:
Lawton Howard

After my father suffered a mild back injury several years ago he stopped driving.  My daughter, Amy, or I would take Dad for a daily ride.  Almost every day he wanted to go “down below” to the pony pen and watch the horses.  He was always interested in the health and well being of the herd.  He knew that one of the mares was pregnant and commented on this nearly every day.  On April 5, two weeks after my father died,  a new filly was born.

Ocracoke’s newest member of the pony herd:

Interest in the once-wild Banker Ponies is a long tradition in the Howard family.  My father often told me about the time in 1926 when he was 15 years old.  It was July and the annual Independence Day pony penning was in jeopardy of not happening because several of the young men were squabbling about something and no one was prepared to round up the horses.  My dad and his best friend, Ansley O’Neal, though still teenagers, decided that they were old enough to tackle this responsibility.  They mounted their ponies on July 3 and rode all the way to Hatteras Inlet (this was long before there were any paved roads on the island) where they camped out under the stars.  Early the next morning the two boys began chasing the first small herd southward, toward the village.  As they encountered each succeeding herd they forced them to join the others.  Occasionally some of the animals would swim out into Pamlico Sound and make the boys’ job much more difficult.  Finally, after a grueling day of hard riding in the blazing summertime sun Lawton and Ansley rode proudly into the village behind several hundred stampeding Outer Banks ponies.  It was a proud day for them both, and a fond memory for my father until the day he died.

After the National Park Service purchased the majority of Ocracoke Island in the 1950’s the herd was reduced to a more manageable size and eventually confined to a penned area in the middle of the island.  I remember helping my Uncle Marvin build the first pony pen in the late 1950’s.  Captain Marvin was a native O’cocker who spent many years away from home sailing throughout the world, and then retired in the early 1950’s back home to Ocracoke.  He is well known on the island as a champion of young people and scoutmaster of the renowned Mounted Boy Scout troop.  He wrote the following article, “Ocracoke Horsemen,”  which is reprinted from “The Story of Ocracoke Island.”

Captain Marvin Howard, c. 1960 astride his pony, “Lady:”
Marvin and Lady

“Ocracoke Horsemen,” by Captain Marvin Howard:

We hear a lot about the fishermen of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but few stories deal with the equestrians of the Outer Banks.  Surely some of them deserve to be proclaimed as among the world’s best for their daring feats on horse-penning occasions.  This is particularly true of the old days when as many as two-hundred ponies were penned on Ocracoke Island alone.

There have been wild horses roaming the Outer Banks since the landing of the Sir Walter Raleigh adventurers.  None of these wild horses were ever large except the Pea Island pony which came from the original quarter-bred horse.  (The quarter-bred horse, which has been developed as the finest cow-pony ever known, originally came from the Carolinas where they were bred for the quarter-mile race.)  However, the ponies of the Outer Banks did vary in weight from five hundred to eight hundred pounds.  They lived on the range the year round as wild as deer or wild horses can ever be.  For sustenance they had only the salt grass, the boughs of live oak and red cedar, and when the winters were severe, they dug in the sand hills with their hoofs to get the succulent roots of the sea oats.  These ponies no doubt had strains of Arab steed for in numbers of them there was untold beauty in color and build.  They were fleet of feet, hardy, well lined, and full of muscle.  They made fine saddle horses when properly trained.  In recent times, two Ocracoke horsemen stand out.  One was Homer Howard, the other was Monroe Bragg.

Homer Howard, (Lawton’s & Marvin’s father) c. 1942, aged 74:

Homer Howard

Homer Howard with his Coast Guard Horse, 1912
Homer Howard and Horse

There are many people on Ocracoke who can recall their daring feats.  People who have seen jockeys in America and England and have been to numerous horse-shows, carnivals, circuses, fat-stock shows, and rodeos in California, Texas and Mexico say that only on Ocracoke on the Outer Banks of North Carolina does the catching of wild horses with bare hands take place.

Captain Jim Howard was keeper of Hatteras Inlet Life Saving Station for a good many years.

Captain James W. Howard, (Homer’s father) c. 1888, aged 49:
James Howard

He owned quite a few cattle and wild ponies on Ocracoke.  Jim bought a two-year old Arabian horse from somewhere on the mainland.  His son, Homer Howard, broke and trained this horse for running the wild cattle and penning the wild ponies.  His name was “White Dandy,” though he was mottled with gray.

James Howard astride his horse, White Dandy, c. 1888
James Howard and White Dandy

On “White Dandy” Homer on many occasions started at the north end of the island in the cool of the morning, driving the herd of wild ponies south. He rode merrily along across Tar-Hole Plains.  There he would come upon a second herd of ponies headed by “Old Wildy,” a long, rangy stallion.  This herd, too, he would start driving southward.  The third herd he encountered at Scraggly Cedars, then the Great Swash.  After passing Great Swash he came to Knoll Cedars where the sheep pen used to be, and from there on southward the driving got touchy and more strenuous for the herds from the north were reluctant to go farther south and would try to cut through the thickets or sand hills back northward.

There were about two-hundred wild ponies in those days. They had to be driven over sand hills, through bogs, across creeks, through marshes, and through woodland thickets of myrtle, cedar, oak and yaupon. At about ten o’clock in the morning of pony-penning day, the horses could be seen spread out on the plains around “First Hammock Hills,” just north of Ocracoke Village. Each little band was headed by a tough and stringy stallion. They ran hither and thither, their manes and tails flying, heads held high, ears pointed forward, and necks arched to meet a foe. And whenever the stallions met, they did battle-biting, kicking, pawing — until the rider closed in. Then, they veered off from each other, returning to their herds. It was no easy task to drive these wild ponies sixteen miles southward to the corral in Ocracoke Village.

Ocracoke boys perched in a big live oak tree with one limb at least thirty feet long to get the first view of the ponies as they were driven down the sandy road to Cockle Creek, the harbor. There were no docks in those days; the ponies were herded along the shore and in the shallow water to the corral by people on shore and in boats. After all the horses were penned and the bars closed, the people went home, ate dinner, and then returned for the branding and selling of the stock.

There were buyers from the mainland who wanted the ponies for saddle horses or for farm use.  As soon as people began to climb the corral fence, a general movement among the stallions started.  Hoofs began to fly, and teeth snap, with much squealing and snorting.  Then, suddenly someone on the fence would yell “Homer’s caught the motley roan over there.”

To catch a wild stallion with nothing but bare hands took wit, agility, strength and stamina. Homer Howard would walk quietly through the mares, slapping them on the rump, working his way between them slowly, gradually — getting closer and closer to a great stallion — crouching panther-like, ready, alert — and in a flash he was astride the stallion, holding its mane with his left hand, throwing his elbow over the horse’s withers, hooking his knee behind the elbow of the horse’s front leg, reaching out with his right hand to catch the horse’s lower face just above the nostrils, clamping down tight, and sticking there with the tenacity of a bulldog. The stallion would rear, pitch, squeal, snort, paw the air for thirty of forty minutes, but finally, out of wind, tired, and afraid, he stopped his violent struggling. Slowly the horseman eased his grip; immediately, the stallion lunged and reared. Only after several attempts did the horse admit his defeat. “Old Widdie”, “Guthrie Sam”, and “Rainbow” and others were truly great stallions and had the spunk and grit to put up terrible battles. Their tusks, or cutting teeth, were long from age and could be used to cut and slash, and their forefeet and rear hoofs held a wicked kick.

They used mostly McClellan saddles in those days, never western. Here again, Homer Howard was a master horseman, as he crawled astride and called for the blindfold to be snatched off.  Then with a mighty heave the wild horse began to buck or run or sun-fish — backing, twisting, turning, rearing — coming to a full stop with head down, stiffened legs or standing on his hind feet, groaning in every nerve, his body sweat-soaked from his efforts, nostrils extended, expanding and contracting like a bellows.  But finally he was out-mastered by the victorious horseman.

On your next stop to visit the Ocracoke pony pen try to imagine these stories of outstanding horsemanship, Fourth of July Pony Pennings, and the long history of the Outer Banks ponies.  And be sure to look for the new filly.

Until next time, our best to you all from

Philip and the entire staff at Village Craftsmen