This is a story about the passage of time and impermanence and what, if anything, lives after us. The setting is Portsmouth Island, one of the Outer Banks, and a village that was founded there in 1754, peaked at roughly 600 residents a century later and was abandoned in 1971.
If you go to Portsmouth today, you have to take a boat from Ocracoke Island, on the other side of the inlet. When you arrive at the island dock, you will discover a half-dozen old homes, a school building, a Methodist church and a few cemeteries, all looking as if local residents might just have stepped down to the shore for an hour or two and might be back any time.
My occasion for talking about Portsmouth was my stranding a few weeks ago on Roanoke Island, home of the Outer Banks History Center. I was between two destinations and I finally had a couple of days for exploring an extraordinary oral history collection housed there. I’m referring to a unique group of approximately 100 oral history interviews funded by the National Park Service and focusing on the islands that make up the Cape Lookout National Seashore and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Those interviews were conducted between 1968 and 1985, and the interviewers included a group of very talented folklorists, including Connie Mason, a Crab Point native who was later the curator of collections at the North Carolina Maritime Museum, and Bill Mansfield, of Raleigh, a gifted graduate of the UNC Folklore Program.
Portsmouth Island in 1878
I had wanted to listen to those interviews for years. They were recorded before so much of traditional coastal life was on the edge of being destroyed and so are especially precious. No oral history project today can re-trace their path. All but a few of the people interviewed have now passed away. Several of the villages where they were born and lived and died are now gone. Quite a few of the islands where they lived are now abandoned or, some would say, worse, obliterated by condominiums and beach developments.
I also knew that they went deep into the past. The oldest interview, in fact, was with a 99-year-old man, Fred Gillikin, who was born on Portsmouth Island in 1878. When he was interviewed at his home in Smyrna in 1977, Mr. Gillikin was still as sharp as a tack. His interview describes his years oyster dredging on Pamlico Sound in the 1890s and his career in the U.S. Life Saving Service beginning in January of 1900. Mr. Gillikin served at Core Banks, Cape Lookout and Fort Macon and retired in 1939. That’s roughly when today’s oldest coastal residents begin their life stories.
This morning I’d like to tell you a little bit about what I learned from Mr. Gillikin and the other gentlemen and ladies who generously shared their stories with the folklorists employed by the National Park Service. I would like to share with you an admittedly personal and pretty eclectic take on what I discovered in them about our maritime past and folkways and, for want of a more delicate way of putting it, the way things come to an end.
At Ocracoke Inlet
The first thing to acknowledge is that the people who shared their stories with those folklorists were describing a different world. Most of us take that notion for granted when we contemplate life a century ago, but I think that relatively few of us truly comprehend the reality of it or we would be more inclined to studying the material world and technology of that earlier age and the relics which are all we have left to decipher it.
Suffice it to say, they lived in an age before petroleum. Most power was still generated by livestock, wind or water. Refrigeration, electricity, telephones, indoor plumbing and state ferries to the mainland all lay in their futures.
One’s knowledge of the varieties of, and cures for, cattle constipation made you a more valuable member of their society than your knowledge of spelling or the stock market. On Portsmouth, one world, that of the Age of Sail, was crumbling. The village had been in a state of perpetual decline since the Civil War. And what the islanders considered the “old ways” —what we might call “traditional culture”—had very little to do with what we would call them today.
The most traditional boat at Ocracoke Inlet, for instance, was called a cooner. A cooner was a distinct kind of regional dug-out workboat made out of two logs joined by a keel log and then decked and fitted with masts. Lee Daniels, a retired Coast Guardsmen born on Cedar Island, for example, clearly recalled his father’s cooner. Long before Down East boat builders created what are now considered the region’s classic work boats early in the 20th century, the cooner and its larger cousin, the periauger, were the classic workboats in North Carolina. Nobody alive today has seen a cooner or periauger on the water, however. None is preserved in a museum. And only a handful of people have ever seen the ruins of one (and known what they were looking at).
According to Mike Alford, the foremost authority of historic wooden boats in North Carolina, Daniels’s interview provides what is likely the single best description of a cooner’s construction in existence.
These interviews are full of such little gems.
The West Indian Trade
The earliest ones also speak to a broader historical experience, the Age of Sail and its decline. Even in Lee Daniels’ lifetime, he recalled seeing, in a single glance, “five and six, 4-masted schooners, trying to beat up the coast.” That world had largely disappeared by the 1920s. Yet, according to their sons and daughters, their fathers almost to a one had worked on merchant sailing vessels in their younger days. That was true on Portsmouth and on Ocracoke Island, on the other side of the inlet.
Fanny Pearl Fulcher, a schoolteacher from Ocracoke, told a familiar story about her father. “When he was sixteen,” she said, “he went away to work on a vessel, as most of the boys did at Ocracoke.” She remembered “hearing him talk all my life about St. Kitts, Dominica and Puerto Rico.”
Many island men, like Fanny Pearl Fulcher’s father, worked in the “West Indian trade,” as it was called. Others, like the father of another interviewee, Ocracoker Ben Salter, were sailors in the shipping trade that plied up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Salter’s father ran lumber to Maine and often returned on ships laden with ice cut out of Bay State lakes and preserved in a ship’s hold packed in saw dust.
The West Indian trade and the “coastwise”—Eastern Seaboard—trade shaped every aspect of Outer Banks life. In his father’s day, Portsmouth Islander Steve Roberts, born in 1902, explained that, “They went from Portsmouth to the West Indies and East Indies and brought all the different things that people ate.”
Yes, they ate oysters, clams and fish. But just as often, and more reliably, they dined on foods preserved, in his words, in “vinegar and molasses and molasses hogsheads. Vinegar was in bottles. And there was cider…. We got that in bottles and got pork in bottles and I don’t know how many different things to eat came in bottles.”
In addition to shaping the island’s diet, the sea trade added a convivial bellicosity to 19th-century island life. Marion Gray Babb was one of several interviewees who recalled their elders telling stories about “Washington Row,” a section of taverns frequented by sailors.
Those taverns were emblematic of that earlier age, reaching well into the 18th century, when hundreds of merchant sailing vessels annually lightered their cargos and picked up pilots at Portsmouth and Ocracoke.
Lightering, overhauling seagoing vessels and entertaining their crews were the village’s mainstays. We might be seduced by its isolation and emptiness when we visit Portsmouth today, but back then those sailors would have come from all over the Americas, Europe and the Pacific, spoken many languages and represented many races and cultures. By the time that Marion Gray Babb was born, however, Ocracoke Inlet had shoaled up, the merchant sea trade had disappeared and the taverns and sailors were gone. Instead of foreign mariners, a far more likely visitor in her younger days would have been one of the gangs of oystermen from Core Sound or Hatteras Island who came and lived and worked on Portsmouth during the winter.
The Most Amazing Thing They Ever Saw in their Life
Another thing that I relished in these interviews is the revelation of moments when you can actually see momentous change. We are always taught that most historical transformations occur gradually and reflect the slow unfolding of broad social changes, and that is of course often true. On the other hand, we who grew up on the coast and lived through hurricanes understand that change is often sudden, unexpected and cataclysmic.
These last few years we have also learned that Nature is not the only force that shatters the old ways and turns our world upside down overnight.
Consider, for instance, a story that Lionel Gilgo told in the interviews about a winter day on Pamlico Sound in 1918 or 1919. Gilgo, who is still alive and still telling stories, heard this story from his father, Lionel Gilgo, Sr., and other Portsmouth Islanders. According to him, a crowd of Portsmouth Island oystermen was working over at Cross Rock, maneuvering their sailing skiffs over the oyster beds and wielding heavy tongs to wrestle the oysters out of the cold water and into their boats.
All of a sudden, they heard a strange noise in the distance. They looked up from their work and paused, tongs in hand, and made out a faint thump, thump, thump over the sound of the wind and waves. The noise was coming out of southwest, in the direction of Core Sound, and moving toward them, but they, in his words, “kept looking and couldn’t see a thing in the world.”
They stood in their boats and watched the horizon and waited as the strange thump, thump, thump grew louder. Finally, they followed the sound to the channel by the old fish factory on Casey’s Island and made out a boat coming through the channel. She had neither sails nor oars, but was cutting through the waves and throwing up salt spray. “There come a skiff and nobody a poling it nor a rowing it,” Gilgo recalled the oystermen thinking. “Everybody,” he said, “laid their oyster tongs down and just gazed at that boat coming.”
The strange sight turned out to be Bill Gaskill, an Ocracoke fisherman traveling home from Beaufort, and they were witnessing the first gasoline motor ever seen at Ocracoke Inlet.
“That was,” Gilgo remembered, “the most amazing thing they ever saw in their life.” By nightfall, one of the oystermen, Dave Salter, had ordered a gasoline engine for himself. Eager to put the Age of Sail behind them—those who romanticize that era are usually people like us, who never had to make a living on a sailing vessel—the younger fishermen were all soon sporting gasoline motors.
Parts of daily life as tangible as boat design, fishing gear and culinary practices and as intangible as their sense of time and their relationship with Nature changed virtually overnight. At Ocracoke Inlet, that instant was the end of the Age of Sail, the beginning of the Age of Petroleum. While we knew of course that one age passed into another, I suspect that we could not fully appreciate its meaning if Lionel Gilgo had not crystallized so well for us that world-shattering transformation into that one little moment.
After the Age of Sail
Another thing that impressed me about the interviews is how well they capture a more recent Portsmouth, the village of the early 20th century, after the Age of Sail.
At that time, the village was declining, but still stubbornly holding onto its fragile island world. For the men and women interviewed, this was the Portsmouth of their youth. Most recalled the time around the turn of the century when the village still boasted several stores, a church, a grist mill, a post office and a Coast Guard station.
By then, a growing number of islanders lived by fishing, oystering and clamming, something that nobody at Ocracoke Inlet could do prior to 1880. But by the early 1900s, oyster buy-boats visited regularly from as far away as Chesapeake Bay, a menhaden fish factory had opened at Casey Island and a clam cannery at Ocracoke, so the islanders also had markets for their fresh catches for the first time.
The oral histories also reveal that that generation of Portsmouth Islanders (those of roughly 1900 to 1930) lived off the sea no less than their ancestors. One can scarcely separate any part of their lives from the sea. They built their homes out of the decks and planking of wrecked ships. “[You’d] pick up boards from wrecks [and] use that to burn and cook with, and you didn’t have to buy anything except coffee,” Roberts recalled. “If a ship come ashore like the John I Snow [which wrecked in 1907], …you got enough to last you half your life.”
Their needs were relatively simple. “You had to buy white beans,” Roberts said, referring to a dish that one hardly thinks of as classic coastal cuisine any longer. Not so then: “White beans was the biggest dish there was in that day,” he continued. Chicken and white beans, he said, was the most cherished Sunday dinner.
“And collards if you could get them,” chimed in Joseph Morgan, another Portsmouth Islander, born around 1900, who was interviewed at the same time as Roberts.
Whalebone and Storm Houses
In their lives, the sea was bones and sinew. The Portsmouth Islanders heated their cottages and cooked with driftwood and wreck planks. They mulched their gardens with seaweed. They dined all winter on waterfowl and nearly every islander made an important, extra bit of money raising “live decoys,” which were Canada geese with clipped wings that sport hunters used to entice wild geese into shot-gun range.
I would have loved to see the autumn “goose round-up.” At round up time, the islanders drove several hundred Canada geese, already marked as to ownership, out of the salt marshes and into a pen on the property of George Gilgo, a local waterman renowned for his way with the birds. There they were divided up and sold to hunters.
Their reliance on the sea went, literally, to the foundations of island homes. One of the islanders, Ada Roberts Styron, recalled how, when she was a girl, they used whalebone to reinforce the construction of what they called “storm houses,” village homes that were structurally reinforced and used as places of safe refuge for villagers during hurricanes. On a low-lying island like Portsmouth, where storms like the ’33 hurricane flooded homes, in Ms. Styron’s words, “up to the beds,” that extra strength could be a matter of life and death. During her youth, Portsmouth had three such “storm houses” put together with wooden pegs and whalebones.
A Dancer and A Pair of Oyster Women
Another thing that I like about hearing so many interviews from a single community is that you get to hear different aspects of some of the more memorable individuals and gradually build your own vision of them.
Two among the Portsmouth Islanders stood out to me. The first was a cantankerous, plain-spoken old bachelor named Sam Tolson who, when most of the interviewees were young, was the island’s oldest resident. Tolson was a small, stooped over fellow who walked with a cane. But in his younger days, he apparently had more than a passing resemblance to the dashing John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin and, while in New Bern in the spring of 1865, was accused of being Booth and jailed until John Wallace, Portsmouth’s leading merchant, traveled to New Bern and vouched for him.
Sam Tolson’s talent on the dance floor was legendary. He enthralled one and all with his dancing ability. Under the influence of (in order of his preference) laudanum, vapor drops or paregoric, the old curmudgeon apparently did a soft shoe with such grace and balance that, as an islander named Steve Roberts attested, Tolson “could dance with a glass of water on his head without spilling it.”
According to the other islanders, he even carried dancing slippers in his pocket wherever he went, so that he would not have muddy shoes in case he happened upon a dance. All agreed that he was irascible, plainspoken until it hurt and was, at times, almost a hermit.
“Everybody knew of his peculiar ways,” Roberts said, “but everybody liked him.”
Their recollections of a very different individual also stay with me. Her name was Lizzie Pigott and she was a member of the island’s only African-American family early in the 20th century. (Approximately a third of the islanders were slaves in 1810, but nearly all left during the Civil War.) Ms. Pigott and her family were consigned to the back pew at the Methodist church and had to be mindful of a Southern color line that frayed, but did not totally vanish there on the sea’s edge. Nonetheless, she hardly lived the life of a typical Southern woman, black or white.
She and her sister were oyster-women: not cannery oyster shuckers or oyster hawkers, as black townswomen often were in that day, but working oyster-women. Many considered oystering the hardest, most dangerous job on Pamlico Sound. Yet Pigott and her sister, Rachel,” Lionel Gilgo recalled, “used to oyster just like men.” They had their own sail skiff and tongs and, as Gilgo remembered, “They’d go out on oyster bottoms, oyster all day long, go aboard the oyster [buy] boats and put their oysters out and come back to shore, just like men did.”
Lizzie Pigott was also renowned for playing the accordion and her hymn singing. She was the island’s only haircutter, and she was said to make the island’s best light rolls, the classic Down East yeast bread– all together, a rather beguiling group of talents in my mind. According to the islanders interviewed by the NPS folklorists, she also grew some of the island’s loveliest flowers and was a compulsively strict, clean, fastidious homemaker who once wouldn’t let her sister from New York City into her house until she had taken a bath.
The Islanders’ Passion for Croquet
And then there was the islanders’ fervor for croquet. Somehow, before listening to these interviews, when I thought of that harsh, wind-swept landscape and all those mosquitoes, that remote island of rugged individualists, that village of crusty oystermen with biceps as big as ham hocks and old sailors’ wives who could gut a sea turtle faster than you can blink, I did not anticipate a passion for a British yard game.
“That was the only recreation we had,” an old fisherman exclaimed. “We took that serious, too, I’m telling you. We’d play 4 or 5 hours one game…. If it got dark on us and we were playing a game, [the balls and wickets] were left there, as is, and [we] …started [again] the next afternoon.” I don’t understand why, but the islanders’ ardor for croquet comes up again and again in the interviews.
When the islanders who told their stories were young, the village boasted three croquet diamonds. That would have been roughly between 1910 and 1940, when the village only had two or three hundred inhabitants. A fourth croquet diamond was located at the Coast Guard station. “Sometimes,” another retired fisherman recalled, “we’d go down and challenge them.”
Judging from the interviews, the islanders gladly traveled a lot farther than the Coast Guard station for the chance to play a few wickets. They challenged teams from fishing villages all up and down the Banks and they’d take the mail boat to engage in spirited contests with them. “There were people that would gather to them matches, I’m telling you, just like they do baseball today,” Lionel Gilgo recalled. “The field would be full of people.”
The village champion was a man named Wash Roberts, an oysterman. Gilgo remembered when Roberts took the mailboat all the way to Marshallberg, on Core Sound, to play their champion and defend the island’s honor. Roberts won the match and, when he returned, Gilgo recalled, “We give him a celebration.”
A Village’s Last Days
Maybe that’s a good place to leave the islanders, playing croquet until dark on a hot breezy summer day, a crowd gathered around the diamond and spiritedly cheering their champion.
Perhaps Lizzie Pigott is sitting on her front porch and softly singing a hymn while she watches them. Maybe Sam Tolson is standing by the counter at Dixon’s Store—his favorite haunt, unless there was dancing to be had—and the aroma of white beans and chicken simmering is in the air.
We can leave them there in our minds at least, back before the ’33 storm and the way it devastated the oyster grounds and the eel grass beds.
We can leave them there before the grist mill was shut down, and before the fish factory, the general store, the school, the Coast Guard station and, finally, in 1959, the post office, all closed.
We can leave them there before the island only had three residents, the ones of my childhood: Lizzie Pigott’s brother, Henry, and two older ladies, Elma Dixon and Marion Babb.
We can leave them there before the village is uninhabited, the island deserted. We can leave them back before we all who have called that coast home realized how frail our hold on it is, how much like the Portsmouth Islanders we may yet be.
This was the keynote lecture at the North Carolina Folk Life Society’s annual meeting in Fountain, N.C. on March 29, 2008. Dedicated to the memory of Karen Baldwin, it was later published in the North Carolina Folklore Journal.