Ocracoke did not get official street names until 1999. Street signs appeared in 2005. For most of Ocracoke’s history islanders simply used landmarks or residents’ names to designate particular streets, or to give directions.
In the early 1980s a generous island widow, Myrtle Doolittle, donated a parcel of land to her beloved Methodist minister and his wife who were being transferred to a congregation on the mainland. I was asked to design a small compact house they could use as a vacation get-away. A local carpenter and various friends volunteered to build the cottage.
One afternoon, as I was digging a hole for one of the house’s pilings, I cut through an underground telephone cable.
For years local resident Randall Mathews was the island’s one and only telephone repairman. It was common practice to simply call Randall about any telephone problems or issues, and he would promptly make the repair. However, shortly before this incident the telephone company had established a company-wide 800 number to call for all customer repair issues.
I called the number and quickly realized the service representative was not from eastern North Carolina, and had never heard of Ocracoke. I discovered she was located in Kansas. The conversation went something like this:
Me: Hello, I am calling to report a severed telephone cable.
Her: Yes sir, can you tell me where you are located?
Me: Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.
Her: And where exactly is the severed cable?
Me: Well, it is about halfway between Myrtle Doolittle’s house and the new cottage we are building for the Methodist minister.
Her: Sir, can you please give me the street address?
Me: I am sorry, but we don’t have street addresses.
Her: You don’t have street addresses? How will I know where to send the repairman?
Me: Randall will know where this is.
Her: Who is Randall?
Me: Randall is our telephone repairman.
Her: But I still need to know what to tell him
Me: Please tell Randall to go behind Myrtle’s house, and walk toward the road where Mrs. Padgett lives. He will see the lot where we are building a small cottage for the Methodist minister. Actually, I found a concrete turtle on Myrtle’s porch steps. I carried it over to the construction site and set it down so it is pointing directly at the hole I was digging when I cut the telephone cable. He will have no problem finding the severed cable if he just looks for the concrete turtle.
Her: (There was a lengthy silece before she replied.) Uhh,…OK….I’ll pass this message on to the repairman. Thank you very much.
Several days later I saw Randall at the Post Office. “Did you get the telephone cable repaired,” I asked him.
“Oh my gosh,” he said, “that woman in Kansas was so befuddled. All she could say was that some man called to say that ‘Myrtle Somebody’ had a turtle that was stuck in concrete and that somehow the turtle had cut a telephone cable. I think she thought you might have been calling from an insane asylum.”
We had a good laugh, and Randall told me he had found the severed cable and made the repair.
After the catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Dorian on September 6, 2019, at least fifty island homes, businesses, and rental cottages were demolished due to extensive storm damage. Dozens of others have been painstakingly re-wired, restored and remodeled. Many more are still in the process of being rebuilt, including dozens that have been elevated, or are scheduled for elevation.
Ocracoke has a long tradition of elevating and moving buildings. Among many others, my home, the Bragg-Howard house on Lawton Lane, has been moved once and elevated twice. The old Odd Fellows Lodge (the center section of the former Island Inn) has also been moved, as has a section of the Community Store and the former Coyote Den (the Gathering Place), to name just a few.
In the old days, houses were elevated slowly, typically 1 ½” at a time. Starting at one brick piling, the house was jacked up and a board placed in the new space. The worker then moved to the next piling with the same procedure. When all of the pilings had been raised 1 ½” the entire maneuver would be repeated over and over until the house was elevated to its new height. The entire process would take weeks, often months, of slow, meticulous work. A number of people living on the island today have raised houses using this primitive method.
To move a building, islanders of several generations ago would position it on wooden rollers and pull it to its new location with horses. Today most houses are elevated and/or moved by professionals using steel I-beams, 6” X 6” wooden cribbing, synchronized hydraulic jacks, and heavy-duty vehicles and trailers. A modest sized home can be raised in a day or two, although it may take more than a month to install new pilings and prepare them for lowering the building.
Amy Howard and David Tweedie’s house adjacent to the Village Craftsmen is in the process of being almost totally rebuilt. Last week Steve Bray of Bray’s House Movers in Camden, North Carolina, began the task of elevating the house. As I walked around the house, now about seven feet in the air, I noticed an interesting detail of the elevation process. The photo below shows Steve Bray and David Tweedie late in the afternoon assessing the day’s work.
The next photo shows the bank of gauges and levers on his truck that Steve uses to control the hydraulic jacks that lift the house in unison.
This is one of the six hydraulic jacks that lift the house:
Some of our readers, especially those with a curious or engineering interest, may find the following detail fascinating. If you look closely at the following photo you will notice that two 50’ long, 10” I-beams run the length of the house, several feet away from the house, and are positioned over the six jacks (three on each side) which rest on the cribbing. These are the beams that are raised by the jacks.
Interestingly, the nine 40’ beams that the house actually rests on are positioned UNDER the 50’ beams. When the movers first placed the beams in position I found this curious. Here is another photo:
Then I noticed the clamps:
Thirty-six “C” clamps securely hold the nine 40’ I-beams (on which the house rests) to the 50’ I-beam above them (two clamps on each end of the 40’ beams). The entire weight of the house is thus supported by the 36 clamps!
I asked Steve about this arrangement that I thought peculiar. He explained that with houses like this one that are low to the ground this procedure eliminates the necessity of excavating all around the building (and sometimes under the building) in order to position the 50’ beams and jacks lower so the 40’ beams could then rest ABOVE and on top of the longer beams, an arrangement that wouldn’t require clamps.
Steve assured me that the clamps would hold and support the house. Each clamp, he explained, is rated to support two tons without breaking. Thirty-six clamps gives a total rating of more than one million pounds!!
In addition, the 40’ long, 10” I-beams are strong enough to span the entire width of the house, thus allowing support only outside the perimeter of the house. This makes installing pilings much easier.
As I write it has been more than ten months since Hurricane Dorian. Recovery has been slow, but islanders, with the help of Steve Bray and his crew, are determined to rebuild and to create a stronger and even more resilient community.
My German-speaking maternal grandfather, Joszef Guth, immigrated to the United States from Hungary in 1912. He was 21 years old and had trained as a butcher in his native land. When the captain of the wooden ship on which he was traveling learned of my grandfather’s trade the captain offered him employment on the voyage. As grandpop always told it, “der butcher var drunk; he don’t showed up!”
In New York City grandpop was reunited with his childhood sweetheart Julianna Pohlmueller who had arrived the year before. After they married they traveled to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where Joszef’s fellow-apprentice Louie Laszlo had recently settled. It was there that grandpop established his first business. In addition to maintaining a retail butcher shop, grandpop (now known as Joseph Guth) made home deliveries from his horse-drawn wagon.
Joseph and Julianna eventually had three children, Joseph, Jr., Helena, and Kunigunde, my mother.
By the time my mother was old enough to help in the family business grandpop routinely sent her out into the immediate neighborhood to deliver cuts of meat to customers. On one memorable occasion my mother was dispatched to a wealthy neighbor who invited her into her home. When my mother stepped onto the thick and richly colored oriental rug she was enthralled. She had never seen such luxury and beauty. Right then she decided that one day she would own such a rug.
Eventually my grandparents moved to Philadelphia. It was there, when my mother was nineteen years old, that she met and married my father, Lawton Howard, a native of Ocracoke Island. He had left home when he was just sixteen years old, and, like so many of his island peers, secured a job with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, working on dredges and tugboats on the Delaware River.
After my dad’s retirement in 1966 my parents moved back to Ocracoke where they immersed themselves in the community and enjoyed fishing from my dad’s hand-built wooden skiff. Around 1977 my dad purchased a new outboard motor for his boat.
In that same year Sam Jones, wealthy entrepreneur and businessman, died. Sam, a native of Swan Quarter, North Carolina, had married Mary Ruth Kelly, granddaughter of Capt. George Gregory Howard of Ocracoke Island. Sam was the owner of Berkley Machine Works in Norfolk, Virginia. On the shore of Lake Lawson, Virginia Beach, he built a 14,500 sq’ 30-room brick mansion, which housed much of his art collection, including paintings, Victorian antiques, Art Deco furnishings, Persian rugs, rare books, and custom-built furniture. Sam also built several large structures on Ocracoke, including the present-day Castle Bed and Breakfast and Berkley Manor. These were furnished with valuable antiques and numerous Persian rugs.
After Sam’s death his family offered many of his island furnishings for sale. Interested buyers were invited to tour Berkley Castle to view the items. When my mother learned that Persian rugs were for sale she immediately decided she wanted to see them. After all, she thought, her husband had just bought an expensive outboard motor; maybe she would splurge and get a Persian rug. When she arrived at the Castle in her signature cotton house dress (with two large patch pockets) Sam’s son-in-law dutifully led her from room to room to peruse the rugs although he was convinced she was an extremely unlikely buyer. At the end of the tour my mother asked to return to one of the upper rooms. She pointed to the 10’ X 12’ “Hunting Scene Rug” there, and inquired, “How much is that one?” On being told the price was $1,000 she reached into her pocket, retrieved $500 cash, handed it to Sam’s son-in-law, and announced that she would be back momentarily with the remainder of the money.
The hunting scene rug design is an ancient weaving style originally produced for royalty and nobility. It is no ordinary rug, but an exquisite piece of art that tells a story. For several years the rug graced my parents’ modest island living room, but, because my mother found the fringes difficult to keep straight and tidy, she eventually gifted it to me. When I restored my grandparents’ 150-year-old, 1,100 sq’ Ocracoke cottage I placed the rug in my living room.
On Friday morning, September 6, 2019, as Hurricane Dorian was churning the waters of the Atlantic Ocean off our coast and whipping up winds near 100 mph, a neighbor sent me a text: “The tide is coming up in our yard!” I opened my front door and looked down the lane directly across from my house. In a matter of minutes tidewater came rushing down the lane. It looked like a small river. Almost as quickly, rushing water came from the right and the left. As water rose ever higher on my fence I sensed the coming catastrophe. When the tide breached the top points of my picket fence I knew it would be only a matter of seconds. Water cascaded onto my porch. I shut the door and used towels to help keep the tide from pouring under the door. It didn’t help. Water flowed into my first floor and bubbled up between the old floor boards
I stepped back onto the Persian rug. It was floating.
The tidewater receded almost as quickly as it came in. But the damage was done. Insulation under my floors and in my walls was soaking wet. Several of my electric outlets were submerged. My washer, dryer, and refrigerator were destroyed.
I looked at my Persian rug, wondering if it could ever be salvaged. It was saturated with sea water, and it began to smell after just a couple of days. But it was too heavy to carry out of the house. Even four strong men were unable to lift it. After several days I developed a plan. We were able to fold the rug into a manageable size, about 32” wide. I tied it up and cinched a sturdy strap around the bundle. To that I tied a strong length of rope which I attached to my pickup truck which was in the lane directly across from my front door. With a little bit of amateur engineering skill we were able to pull the rug onto the porch and manipulate it over the railing so it could dry out.
That is where the rug stayed for about a week. My living room floor now had a chance to dry out, but I still despaired about saving the rug. How could I rinse it, clean it, and dry it? I didn’t have the space, the equipment, or the expertise to clean and restore this beautiful Persian rug. And I didn’t have any way to transport the rug to a professional cleaner. I didn’t even know where I could take it, and Ocracoke is almost three hours by ferry just to the mainland. Besides, both of my vehicles had been flooded.
That’s when Heather and Hilman Hicks, and their daughter Abby, showed up. They are frequent visitors to Ocracoke. They love island history, have participated in our Ghost and History Walking Tours of the village, and have purchased several items from our craft gallery, Village Craftsmen. They were on the island as volunteers with the faith-based group Samaritan’s Purse. When they saw and heard the story of the Persian rug…its rarity, its beauty, its provenance…they decided they had to help.
With the assistance of Samaritan’s Purse volunteer, Curt Wall, and other helpers, Heather and Hilman were able to wrestle the now almost dry rug off the porch, and into the bed of their waiting pickup truck. From there it was transported to the ferry line where an islander in another pickup agreed to take it onto the boat. In Swan Quarter, where Curt had left his vehicle, the Persian rug was transferred to his pickup truck for the ride to Pettyjohn’s Professional Rug Care in Wake Forest, North Carolina.
Below are several photos of the rug-cleaning process:
Not quite two weeks later Heather and Hilman (above) brought the rug back…dryer, cleaner, brighter, and lighter than it had been in decades.
According to Katie Pettyjohn Reuther, the rug “lost [about] 90 pounds (of sand and shells) while it was on vacation!” Petyjohn’s workers said they had never seen a rug with fragments of oyster shells embedded in the fabric.
Heartfelt thanks are in order to Heather and Hilman Hicks, Curt Wall, all of the other volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse, and the fine folks at Pettyjohn’s for their skill and professional handling of my hunting scene Persian rug which once again graces my living room floor.