Remembering the Currituck Sounder

In 1984 Barbara Doll, a student at Currituck County High School, visited Ada Waterfield at her home on Knotts Island and asked her to talk about her life and the island’s history. Ms. Waterfield was 90 years old at the time. She had been born on Knotts Island in 1894. In a story that she later wrote about Ms. Waterfield’s life, Barbara Doll called her “my dear old neighbor” and “friend from childhood.” She described her as a rather imposing figure, regardless of her age: robust, stern, uncompromising, strong-willed and unyielding, despite her years.

“Any force would have to take her unaware,” Barbara Doll wrote of her: “a face-on foe would never stand a chance.”

Ms. Doll explained that Ms. Waterfield loved her church and her family, and she still grieved for a father who died when she was twelve years old. Then she let Ms. Waterfield tell about her life on Knotts Island in her own words.

This essay was a lecture sponsored by the Currituck County Historical Society and the Friends of the Currituck Library that I gave in the fall of 2013. It was later published in “Carolina Comments,” the N.C. Division of Archives & History’s bimonthly newsletter, in January 2014.

 

Everybody Worked

“At first,” Ms. Waterfield told her, “there wasn’t any transportation [on Knotts Island], except by horse and cart or wagon because we had no road to connect the island to Virginia…. No one left the Island for goods because there was no way to go. Later in years there was a boat, the Currituck, that carried freight from Norfolk to the south end of Knotts Island to Poplar Branch and back to Norfolk.” Ms. Waterfield summed up island life during her childhood this way: “Everybody worked, the children went to school, and… on Sundays everybody went to church.”

Though surrounded by marsh and water, Knotts Island was not totally apart from the world and had a number of regular visitors when she was young. They ranged from traveling salesmen to sport hunters from New York. All those decades later, Ms. Waterfield still cherished the memory of one of the island’s regular visitors: “a colored man they called a huckster,” she said. “He went around and would take orders for things…and he would go by horseback over through Munden Point. The first book I ever got when I was in school was ordered from him by my mother.”

Doctors also could not reach the island except by boat. But, Ms. Waterfield said, “There were women who were midwives and people who made medicines of herbs. I had an aunt who made all our cough syrup and she made a special salve for Papa’s tetter on his hands.” (“Tetter” is an old term for a kind of dry cracked skin with blisters, probably emphysema.)

One time her sister accidentally cut off one of her older brother’s fingers on a chopping block. “Our neighbor, so they told me, stuck it back on with varnish!” she said. “To this day,” she added, “you can see a ridge around it. It’s funny looking, but it’s still on there.”

Music Drifting across the Marsh and Sea

They did not leave easy lives. They had, of course, no running water, no electricity and no refrigeration of any kind. For women like her mother, washing, cleaning, cooking and childrearing—as well as, for many, fieldwork, net making and other outdoors work—made for long, weary days and nights. Nobody had much money. A hurricane or nor’easter might leave an island community broken, crops ruined, and boats in the marshes. Storms, droughts, or plagues could literally spell the end for a whole village, and sometimes did.

Yet Ms. Waterfield’s elders sought to ensure that children like her grew up not just knowing how to work and survive, but ever mindful of the beautiful things in life.

She told young Barbara Doll that she had never forgot how her father purchased the very first organ on the island. “There were seven men that had girls and they wanted to hire a music teacher to board on the island and teach music to their daughters,” she said.

Up until that time, her father had led the singing at the local church with a tuning fork. As I read her words, I could almost hear that first organ playing one of the old hymns and the congregation’s voices rising out of the little church and drifting across the marsh and sea.

The Birth of the Currituck Sounder

Young Barbara Doll’s portrait of Ms. Ada Waterfield and Knotts Island a century ago comes from a remarkable collection of local history and folklore that was created here at Currituck County High School in the 1970s and ‘80s. In 1976 an obviously talented English teacher named Susie G. Spruill and the 30 students in her American Literature class launched a journal called the Currituck Sounder. Following in the footsteps of Elliot Wigginton and his students at the Rabun Gap High School in the Appalachian mountains of Georgia—the producers of the nationally-acclaimed Foxfire magazine and books—they traveled from Moyock to Powells Point to listen to their elders and gather stories about their history and traditional ways of life.

History teacher (and my friend) Barbara Snowden soon joined the effort. Over the years, the high school’s English, history, business and graphic arts departments all played important roles in producing the Currituck Sounder, as did the Coratucke Junior Historians, which Barbara first organized in 1977. The Currituck Sounder received crucial financial support from local businesses and community groups, including the Currituck Historical Society.

On and off between 1976 and 1988, the high school’s students compiled oral histories, photographs, stories and poems and published them in the Currituck Sounder.

They sought, first, to preserve Currituck County’s history: to record and preserve the voices not only of the famous or well-heeled, but the farmers, fishermen, hunting guides, boat builders, country doctors, shopkeepers, field hands and domestic workers who all called Currituck County home.

“Since we have very little recorded history,” Ms. Spruill wrote in her introduction to the first edition of the Currituck Sounder, “the best source of information on the County is its people.” Nothing seemed to excite her more than “seeing a group of students capture the soul and spirit of the people of Currituck.”

Over the years, the Currituck Sounder won statewide awards and even earned some national recognition. As I lingered over copies that Barbara leant me, I discovered something worthwhile in nearly every story in every issue.

The students may not have possessed a historian’s or folklorist’s professional training, but that did not deter them. They were smart and dedicated. They had the help of first-rate teachers and a great deal of community support. Many were talking with elderly friends, neighbors, or relatives for whom they cared deeply. The students clearly wanted to do right by them.

I could tell that those elderly men and women cared deeply for the young people as well. That older generation sought to impart to them something important about Currituck County’s past, but also something important about life itself.

The Currituck County Historical Society

Tonight, in honor of the Currituck Historical Society’s 60th anniversary, I would like to share a few of my impressions of the Currituck Sounder. Many years have passed since the last issue of the Currituck Sounder went to press and I imagine that even here you may not go back and read them very often.

I thought that it might be time to look at those old issues of the Currituck Sounder with a set of fresh eyes and to take a moment to remember and appreciate the accomplishment of your students, teachers and community members.

With avid curiosity, I have read every page of them over the last few weeks and I could not have spent the time any better. A generation ago, some may have considered them merely a high school exercise—an impressive high school exercise, but an exercise—but I don’t think anybody could say that now. Today their accomplishment seems like a precious thing. With a rare exception or two, the stories in the Currituck Sounder preserve the voices of men and women who are no longer with us, and a vision of Currituck County that is otherwise lost.

More Water in my Veins than Blood

Reading those old issues of the Currituck Sounder, I met a host of unforgettable souls. They ranged from Floyd “Fluff” Parker, a fisherman, boat builder and boat mechanic who declared, “There’s more water in my veins than blood,” to Hazel Johnson, a French immigrant who was buried alive and shot during the Second World War but eventually fled France and somehow ended up on Belle’s Island.

I relished meeting Emerson Sears, who told one of the high school students, Connie Stallings, that he worked plow horses from first light to sundown when he was still just a boy in Shawboro. “If the horse slowed down while he was plowing, another horse was brought to him,” she learned from him. He lived most of his life at Church’s Island and was still fishing or trapping most days at the age of 93, when Ms. Stallings interviewed him.

I also will not soon forget Clarence Twiford, a commercial fisherman who boasted, as few today can, that he “never worked a day’s work for a man in my life ‘cept what I’ve wanted to. I come in and go to sleep when I’m ready; I don’t pay no attention to the clock.”

They all recalled the days when small farming and gardening were the foundations of local life. In his interview, one of the county’s country doctors, a Dr. Wright, then 82, said, “In Jarvisburg alone, there used to be 30 farmers and now there are only two [agricultural] corporations.”

Another farmer, Mib Sawyer, similarly talked about the transformation of farming in Currituck County. In an interview that his granddaughter did with him for the Currituck Sounder, he also spoke about the old county schools:

            When I went to school, I lived in what is now Spot. I had to walk ‘bout 2 miles to school…, and it was a three-room school and had three teachers. The only one I remember is Elizabeth Aydlett. It was one to the sixth grade. It didn’t have nothin’ but ole potbelly wood stoves and had a pump in the yard. There weren’t no school lunches; you carried collard green sandwiches and beans or anything your people put in your lunchbox.

Because the Children Needed Her

The schoolteachers interviewed by the students made a special impression on me. They come across the pages of the Currituck Sounder as extraordinary, larger-than-life women with commanding presences and unswerving, almost daunting devotion to their students.

One such teacher that stood out to me was Margaret Poyner, who grew up on the Bells Island road and started teaching when she was 19 years old. In Matilda Ivey’s story about her, Ms. Poyner—who I believe was African American— remembered having as many as 75 children in her classroom. She was not complaining—just explaining.

Hunger was far too common in Currituck County in those days and she recalled how she and other teachers often brought cans of beans to school for elementary and kindergarten children that came to school hungry, in the days before the federal school lunch program. For two years, she also taught the first racially integrated kindergarten in the county without pay, because the children needed her and she thought it was right.

In her interview, another retired schoolteacher, Marion Fiske Welch, focused on the decade of the 1920s as a crucial dividing line between two ages.

The Pivotal Decade: the 1920s

“As I look back,” Ms. Welch told another of the high school’s students, Windborne Thorn, “it’s as if a curtain fell upon my childhood years, and I stepped into another world.”

“In my opinion,” she reflected, “the effects of the end of World War I, Prohibition, woman’s suffrage, the beginning of radio, and the increases in the purchase and use of the horseless carriage, the automobile, made our generation different.”

Things really began to change, Ms. Welch said, when local women filled traditionally males jobs while the men were fighting overseas during the First World War. In her eyes, the transformation of Currituck County continued when those young men came home from that terrible war, having seen so much of the outside world, and when the county got its first paved road in 1927.

If We Needed a Doctor

Another interview that stood out to me was with Ms. Bertie Harris. Born in Harbinger in 1910, Ms. Harris’s family owned the first radio in her neighborhood. “On Saturday nights neighbors usually came over and we all stayed glued to it,” she said.

Telephones were unheard of. “If we needed a doctor,” Ms. Harris recalled, “we had to put a white flag on a stake at the end of the road because there was no other way to contact him.”

When she was ten years old, she saw her first silent movie at the James Adams Floating Theater, a barge that housed a traveling theater troupe that, besides showing those first movies, performed plays and musicals up and down the coast. Ms. Harris watched that first movie while the boat was docked at Halls Harbor, near her home, and she and her family received complimentary tickets for the show because her mother baked cookies for the crew.

They Killed All They Could

Warren Collier’s interview with Louis O’Neal, a renowned decoy carver, made me yearn to see his handcrafted water birds. In the Currituck Sounder, Mr. O’Neal meticulously explained how, as a young man, he and his brother Pat would tromp into the North River swamps with one of those old-fashioned cross-cut saws and cut cross-sections of wood out of juniper stumps.

They used the juniper in fashioning the roughhewn “working decoys” that the big hunting clubs employed by the hundreds to attract ducks and geese into shooting range. He had always been a talented drawer and came from a family of boat builders. In his later years, he displayed a dazzling artistry in making waterfowl decoys of the kind displayed on a mantel, shelf, or other place of honor. His wooden birds awed young Warren Collier, and I think they would me, too.

Not surprisingly, many of the young people’s interviews—especially the boys— featured duck hunting here in Currituck County. They talked about sport hunting, often including their own first times in a duck blind with a grandfather or a favorite great-uncle.

Many of the watermen interviewed by the students had worked as guides for the hunting clubs in their younger days. Isaac Aydlett, born in Grandy in 1885, began his working life as a “marsh guard” when he was 14 years old, a rather thankless job that involved keeping other gunners out of a hunting club’s private lands.

Back in those days, before the advent of waterfowl conservation laws around 1920, he baited the birds with corn and used live decoys to lure them into firing range. “They killed all they could kill…. They just killed and slaughtered until they were ashamed of it,” he told Dorothy Sears, one of the high school students.

North of Indiantown

I was also completely taken with Edward Roberts, a retired farmer interviewed by a student named Sarah Clark. All his life, Mr. Roberts collected arrowheads, stone axes and other Native American relics on his farm 3 miles north of Indiantown. In his retirement, he opened a short-lived Indiantown Museum that housed thousands of local Indian artifacts in an old farm building behind his house.

Clearly a labor of love, his museum contributed, I surmised, to a reputation for being a bit of an eccentric. In Ms. Clark’s portrait of him, however, I recognized a kindred spirit, a man who had passionately gathered up whatever fragments of the past he could discover in order to understand what was here before us, to bring forgotten souls out of the shadows, and to see better who we are now.

I might be wrong, but from the interview in the Currituck Sounder I suspect that that old farmer had as great a depth of feeling for the local native peoples than anyone else alive at that time, and maybe ever since.

Shingle Landing and Ice from Maine

One of the most compelling interviews ran in the very first issue of the Currituck Sounder in the spring of 1977. A young man named Randolph Harry interviewed Ms. Alice Stephens, a Moyock native who was born about 1908.

Young Randolph called Ms. Stephens “grandma,” though they weren’t blood kin, and she wove stories for him that ranged from the Yankees burning Moyock during the Civil War to great schooners bringing cargo holds full ice from lakes in Maine.

She told him that Moyock had originally been called Shingle Landing and how they used to export cypress and cedar shingles that had been cut in the Great Dismal Swamp. She also recalled the countless barrels of salt herring that used to pile up at the landing. Black women, Ms. Stephens said, “would cut [the herring] and take the roe out and we’d go down and buy the roe by the quart or pint…. Then the herring were packed in kegs and shipped to other places.”

Every autumn, Outer Banks fishermen arrived at Moyock and traded oysters for corn with local farmers. Boatmen unloaded cattle raised on Currituck Banks there, too, and filled great pens on the edge of town with them.

Her neighbors transported goods mainly by boat when she was a child, and maybe twice a year they took the railroad to Elizabeth City or Norfolk, which, at that time, she said, seemed “500 miles away.”

Eventually a lumber mill opened at Moyock, providing a market for the old growth timber that was cut in the Great Dismal Swamp. Once a stretch of forest was cut, new settlers began to farm the old swamplands, including the Mennonites that settled on Pudding Ridge and raised mint so valuable that the Bank of Currituck kept a special place in its vault to store the barrels full of the distilled syrup.

Though a young girl at the time, she never forgot the night that the Moyock boys went off to the First World War. She and her family walked down to the railroad station to wave good-bye.

Ms. Stephens also remembered, as she put it, “the first thing I ever saw flying in the air”: not an airplane, but a dirigible that drifted over her school. “We all got out of the door and some of the boys even jumped out the window and watched it go o’er because we had never seen anything fly in the air before.”

Certain Basic Things Never Change

For all the changes that she witnessed in her lifetime, Ms. Stephens was not nostalgic for the past. “There are always changes for the good and changes for the bad,” she cautioned young Randolph Harry.

Most importantly, she wanted him to know that “there are certain basic things that never change.” She told him, “In Moyock we don’t have time to visit like we used to, but let anyone get in trouble and they are right there to help you out. So I don’t think kindness and goodness and those things change. They remain the same.”

Star of the East

Many of the stories collected by the students centered on the county’s churches. One that made an impression on me involved Noah and Maude Owens, who had a reputation for being talented singers in the choir at Poplar Branch Baptist Church during all the years since their marriage in 1919. They had sung at almost every funeral at the church for 69 years when one of the young ladies from their congregation came to interview them for the Currituck Sounder.

The student, Kelly Griggs, said that Ms. Maude always gave her a butterscotch candy after church on Sundays when she was a little girl, and she said that Ms. Maude’s rendition of “Star of the East” was always the highlight of the church’s Christmas service.

Star of the East, oh Bethlehem star, Guiding us on to heaven afar/Sorrow and grief and lull’d by the light, Though hope of each mortal, in death’s lonely night.

I was reminded again that history is war and upheaval, presidents and kings, but it is also the solace of Maude Owens’ funeral songs, the joy felt in the singing of “Star of the East” at Christmas in a little country church, and the kindness of old women to little girls.

I found some of the interviews more memorable for the way the interviews unfolded, than for the history remembered.

Across the Generations

One of those was an interview by a student named Kim Johnson with her grandfather, Jimmy Brickhouse, at one of your local rest homes or nursing homes. (Mr. Brickhouse, I learned today, was the much-loved janitor at the Griggs School.) She found him in bed and probably near his last day.

In the story that Kim Johnson wrote for the Currituck Sounder, I could tell that her grandfather loved her deeply and that she loved him deeply, and that they both knew this might be the end, though of course neither wanted to say it.

She told him about cheerleading and her other school activities, and he acted much more interested in talking about her life and her future than his past. Both seemed to be trying hard not to cry. At the end, Ms. Johnson wrote, “I hugged his neck and kissed his cheek [and] he slightly smiled and said, “Be good now ‘till next time.” In such stories, I began to understand that the Currituck Sounder was not only about preserving the county’s history.

Lastly, another interview that drove that lesson home featured Mrs. Cleola Barnard Hill, who was born in Gregory in 1900. Mrs. Hill lived in Moyock when Barbara’s student Kelly Maxwell visited her in 1987, for what I believe was the last edition of the Currituck Sounder.

“Mrs. Hill has worked since she was a child,” Maxwell wrote. They talked in a room heated with a wood stove, in a house that had never had indoor plumbing. In the old days, Mrs. Hill told her, “Housework was hard. A washboard and tub were used; clothes were scrubbed, boiled, and hug out to dry. Her parents raised chickens and sometimes hogs… They said they ate anything they could get…. She picked beans, cotton, and corn… [and] cleaned house for a lady in Shawboro every Friday from 8 am until 8 pm. Payment was 1 dollar a day.” Mrs. Hill told her these things without judgment or complaint.

“Mrs. Hill doesn’t worry about things that bother others,” Kelly Maxwell wrote. Fiercely independent, she “hates to ask for anything and hates for people to do things for her.”

In a way the great changes in technology, luxury goods, and modern conveniences during the 20th century seemed meretricious to the elderly woman. “She says God will take care of her.”

After hearing Mrs. Hill’s stories of a lifetime of hard work and privation, but also of simple joys, family and faith, Kelly Maxwell could only shake her head and say, at the end of her story, “I hope I can look back and recall my past as joyously as Mrs. Hill did, and at the age of 87. I would like to be as happy as she is.”

The Soul and Spirit of the People of Currituck

That—that moment when young and old, present and past, come together and get down to the marrow of things—is what ultimately makes these old issues of the Currituck Sounder so special in my eyes.

The value of the publication for preserving the county’s history is priceless—the stories preserve a part of the county’s past that would otherwise be lost and can’t be visited again.

But as I read through the old Currituck Sounders, I came to understand that that’s not all that was important about them. What started as a historical research project clearly became something more. The journal’s founding advisor, Ms. Susie G. Spruill, came to recognize that fact (as, I’m sure, Barbara did too).

Eight years after the first edition appeared, when she penned a new edition’s introduction, Ms. Spruill wrote, “Currituck Sounder is…an opportunity for two, three, or four generations to share, to develop a comradeship, and to realize through the sharing and writing we preserve for future generations the spirit of those people who call themselves Currituckians.”

I congratulate you all for nurturing a project like the Currituck Sounder—I know it’s only one of many good things that the people who care about Currituck County’s history have undertaken these last 60 years, but it’s a really special one. I hope that this little remembrance of the Currituck Sounder might inspire you once more to bring young and old together to go out yet again and re-discover, as Ms. Spruill said, “the soul and spirit of the people of Currituck.”

 

 

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