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The Legacy of the Wright Brothers in Kitty Hawk

Throwback Thursday: OBX Style

The Legacy of the Wright Brothers in Kitty Hawk

While just about every American, young and old, knows that the Wright brothers achieved the first successful airplane flight, many are likely unaware that this flight took place in the Outer Banks.  Considering the brothers lived in Ohio, why did they select Kitty Hawk, NC for their flying experiments?  To answer this, we must go back in history to when Wilbur and Orville were young.

The Influence of Family

The brothers were born into a family of abolitionists, temperance movement supporters, and active members of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ.  Their parents were firm believers in intellectual pursuits and encouraged their children to become well educated.  

Milton Wright, Wright brothers father
Milton Wright. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian

 

Susan Wright, Wright brothers mother
Susan Wright. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian

Wilbur and Orville’s mother Susan was especially unusual for a woman in that time period.  She studied literature at Hartville College in Indiana, where she met her husband Milton, and also had considerable mechanical knowledge learned from working closely with her father in his carriage shop.  She built toys for her children and even her own household appliances.  It was Susan who Orville and Wilbur turned to when they needed advice on their flying machines.

The brothers had a variety of individual talents, skills, and personality traits that complemented one another.  Wilbur Wright, of the Wright BrothersWilbur was intellectually motivated, excelled in school, had an extraordinary memory.  His young adult life was especially shaped by an accident when he was 13 years old that left him with lingering heart and digestive complications. A former athlete, his health problems resulted in depression and he isolated himself until he and his brother began working on their aeronautical research.

Orville Wright, of the Wright BrothersLike his brother, Orville was incredibly intelligent and inquisitive.  He was energetic, mischievous, and a practical joker, despite being painfully shy.  He enjoyed conducting experiments, building new inventions, and dismantling things to see how they worked.  Of the two, Orville more closely fit the stereotype of the innovator and scientist.  But Wilbur became the more public figure as he was a gifted speaker and not shy like Orville.

According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, relying on each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses was crucial to the brother’s invention of the airplane. Neither probably could have achieved alone what they did together.  They also were influenced by their only sister Katharine. Katharine Wright, Wright brothers only sisterLike their mother, Katharine pursued her educational and career goals, graduating from Oberlin College and becoming a high school teacher.  Katharine, Orville, and Wilbur had a very strong bond and were more interested in their intellectual pursuits than finding partners and settling down.  None of them ever married.

Dayton, Ohio and Bicycles

The Wright brothers credited growing up in Dayton, OH as stimulating their interest in aeronautical engineering.  In the 1890s, Dayton was a hub for manufacturing and industry, making it a place humming with technological innovation.  This environment, along with their parents’ support, encouraged the boys to tinker and explore.  The brothers’ first experience with flight occurred in 1878, when their father gave them a small rubber band–powered toy helicopter designed by French aviation pioneer Alphonse Pénaud. Intrigued by the toy, Orville and Wilbur made several copies of it in varying sizes.  Their fascination with mechanics continued as they grew and as young men, they established a printing press followed by a bicycle repair shop and factory. These enterprises funded their aeronautical experiments.

While many factors contributed to the Wrights’ success with flight, their familiarity with bicycles played an influential role.  According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, understanding the importance of balance, the need for strong but lightweight materials, the role of aerodynamic shape to combat wind resistance, and the chain-and-sprocket system for propulsion are a few of the lessons they learned from bicycles that would prove essential to their flying experiments.

The Brothers Arrive in Kitty Hawk

The Wright brothers concentrated their early research on simple hang gliders, following the path set by earlier inventors.  They were especially influenced by the German flight pioneer Otto Lilienthal, who made nearly 2000 brief flights in 16 different gliders between 1891 and 1896.  The brothers built upon Lilienthal’s research and between 1899 and 1905, they built and tested many airplane prototypes. The 1900 glider was the first piloted aircraft and was also the first to be tested in Kitty Hawk, NC.

The Wrights needed a number of specific conditions in order to test their glider.  First, they needed steady winds.  Second, they needed a wide-open space with limited obstructions.  Third, they needed something from which to launch their glider, such as high sand dunes.  Lastly, they wanted a place to experiment in peace without a lot of onlookers.  Kitty Hawk fit these requirements perfectly.  

The glider being flown as a kite in Kitty Hawk in 1900
The glider being flown as a kite in Kitty Hawk in 1900. Image courtesy of The National Park Service

At the time, Kitty Hawk was a tiny coastal fishing village of approximately 300 people with ideal average wind speed at 15 to 20 mph.  The Kill Devil Hills, located four miles south of town, provided massive dunes from which to glide, and an abundance of sand to cushion crash landings. While Kitty Hawk was ideally suited for their experiments, it was not without challenges.  The weather was often unpredictable with sudden squalls and constantly shifting sands.  But the brothers persevered.

Before making piloted glides, the Wrights always tested their gliders by flying them as kites. “Kiting” provided valuable data on lift and drag, and enabled them to get a feel for the controls.  Unfortunately, their 1900 glider only produced about half the lift they predicted, so it was back to the drawing board in Dayton, OH.

Wilbur Wright laying prone on glider just after landing in Kitty Hawk in 1901
Wilbur Wright laying prone on their glider in Kitty Hawk in 1901. Image courtesy of The National Park Service

The brothers returned to Kitty Hawk year after year, each time with an improved aircraft.  After collecting massive amounts of data, building a wind tunnel to test models, and over 200 wing designs, the brothers designed the successful 1902 glider.  Orville and Wilbur made between 700 and 1000 glides, some reaching 600 feet in the air.  This success invigorated them and they immediately started working on a powered airplane.

In 1903, they again returned to Kitty Hawk ready to test their aircraft, which they called “The Flyer.”  The first attempt was unsuccessful but the second attempt resulted in a 12-second flight — the very first piloted airplane flight.  The brothers alternated as pilots, and by the end of the day, their airplane had made an impressive 852-foot trip in 59 seconds.  The brothers filed for a patent in March 1903 and it was finally granted on May 22, 1906.

The Wright Flyer lifts off for the first time in Kitty Hawk in 1903. Orville is on board with Wilbur running alongside.
The Wright Flyer lifts off for the first time in Kitty Hawk in 1903. Orville is on board with Wilbur running alongside. Image courtesy of The National Park Service

The Wright Brothers’ Legacy

While Orville and Wilbur had achieved flight, their airplane was not exactly practical.  To successfully market their creation, they had to demonstrate it could turn, fly for longer periods, and fly over more varied terrain than Kitty Hawk’s sand dunes.  By the fall of 1905, the Wrights had built their third powered airplane and on October 5, Wilbur circled a field 30 times in 39 minutes. The brothers had finally proven that flight could be stable and practical.

Interestingly, Orville and Wilbur did not initially do much to popularize their success.  They didn’t fly publicly until 1908, when they started a European tour.  This caused them to become overnight celebrities.  They met with English royalty, were honored with parades, received the Legion of Honor award, and were caricatured by the media.  Both men disliked the attention, but if they were going to sell their airplane, they had to endure it.

The Wright Company secured numerous contracts with the U.S. military, selling The Flyer to the Army in 1909 and the Wright Model B to the Navy in 1911.  They produced a variety of designs until Orville sold the firm and retired in 1915, three years after Wilbur’s premature death.

The Wright brothers’ impact on the 20th century is beyond measure.  All successful airplanes have incorporated the basic design elements of the 1903 Wright Flyer.  Their inventions had an immense impact not simply on the military but on the entire culture, including technology, art, and literature.  They also became an integral part of the Outer Banks’ long history.  In commemoration of their accomplishments, a 60-foot granite memorial was erected in Kitty Hawk in 1932, which you can visit today.


 Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

The restored Chicamacomico Life-Saving Service Station

The Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station

The U.S. Coast Guard has a rich history of military service, law enforcement, and maritime rescue.  It is currently the world’s twelfth largest naval force and enforces U.S. law in 3.4 million square miles of coastal water.  These impressive statistics make it hard to believe “The Guard” had humble beginnings connected to the Postal Service.  Yep, you read that correctly — the Postal Service!

It all began in 1790.  At the request of Alexander Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury, Congress established the Revenue Marine, which was responsible for collecting customs duties in the nation’s seaports.  In 1848, the Revenue Marine had the Life-Saving Service added to its responsibilities.  Around this time, the Treasury Department realized they were paying too much to rent spaces used by government entities.  So the decision was made to fund the construction of Post Offices and other government buildings, including life saving stations along the coast.  The first stations were run primarily by volunteers with no one in charge and no one receiving proper training.  In fact, most of the early crewmen were political appointees and Postal Service employees!  The U.S. Life-Saving Service Logo

The lifesaving system managed to continue with this lack of structure and training until the 1850s when Congress appropriated more funds to pay the salaries of full-time keepers at each station and superintendents to supervise.  But keepers still had to wrangle volunteer crews to help when ships were in distress!

Things changed in 1871 when Sumner Increase Kimball, a lawyer from Maine, was appointed the chief of the Revenue Marine Division. He succeeded in gaining funds to employ crews of surfmen and build new stations.  He also drew up regulations, established crew performance standards, and set station procedures.

Sumner Kimball who became chief of the Revenue Marine Division and was responsible for professionalizing the Life-Saving Service
Sumner Kimball. Image courtesy of Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site

By 1874, Life-Saving Stations were being built in North Carolina. One of these stations was Chicamacomico, pronounced “chik-a-ma-COM-eh-co,” which is an Algonquin Indian word meaning “land of shifting sands” or “sinking sands.”  Sinking sands is an apt description because the construction process was not a smooth one!

Building was supposed to begin in 1871, but was quickly stymied. The contractor began work without proper materials, the winter weather interfered with progress, and the laborers walked off the job claiming deplorable work conditions. The original contractor even threatened the foreman with a gun, claiming he was responsible for the abandonment of the crew.

In 1874, a second contractor was hired and construction progressed more smoothly.  The station was commissioned on December 4, 1874.  Over time, violent storms damaged the original structure beyond repair, so a new station was built in 1911 and still stands today.

According to James Charlet, site manager of the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site and Museum, the station employed up to eight lifesavers and one keeper, all of whom worked six days a week and spent Sundays on call.  They endured a grueling daily regimen of drills and if a crewman wanted a day off, he had to give 30 days notice and pay for his substitute’s wages!

Typically aided by only ropes and a wooden rowboat, the rescues these men performed were heroic.  One of the most famous rescues was of the British Tanker Mirlo in 1918. The Mirlo was torpedoed by a German U-Boat off the coast of Rodanthe. Carrying a massive amount of oil, the tanker immediately caught fire.  Six Chicamacomico crew members launched their wooden boat from the beach, and paddled five miles out to where the crew was stranded. The life-saving crew made multiple trips to rescue as many sailors as they could.  After six and a half hours, the crew had saved 42 of the 51 British sailors.  As a result of this rescue, the six crew members received The Grand Cross of the American Cross of Honor. This medal of valor had requirements so high that only 11 people total have ever received it.  Six of them were stationed at the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station.

The restored Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station
The restored Chicamacomico Station. Image courtesy of Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site

 

By the mid-20th century, with the development of more reliable navigational aids, helicopters, and more powerful boats, the life-saving stations had become obsolete. The Chicamacomico Station was decommissioned in 1954 and in 1959, the 1874 Station was moved closer to the 1911 Station by the National Park Service.  After that, the Station’s buildings lay abandoned for years.  But in 1974, the Chicamacomico Historical Association (CHA) was formed and attempts were made to purchase and restore the Station.  It wasn’t until 2002 that all buildings were deeded to the CHA.

The station is the largest and most complete U.S. Life-Saving Service station in the country, with every building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s also one of the only original 1874 stations that is open to the public and one of the few stations with all of its original buildings intact.  

Beach Apparatus Drill at Chicamacomico Life-Saving Service Station performed by U.S. Coast Guard
U.S. Coast Guard performing the Beach Apparatus Drill. Image courtesy of Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site

 

Chicamacomico is also the only station in the country that is open as a museum, usually from April to November.  The most popular museum program is the weekly Beach Apparatus Drill performed by active members of the U.S. Coast Guard. Chicamacomico is the only life-saving station that still offers a demonstration of this drill, a routine that was required to be practiced weekly by all crewmen in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This drill serves as a reminder of the Coast Guard’s humble roots and honors the Postal Service employees, fishermen, and other volunteers who risked their lives every day.


Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

Nags Head Casino Postcard

Remembering the Nags Head Casino

When you think of the Outer Banks, it’s likely the beautiful beaches are first to come to mind.  A popular attraction for rock and roll musicians is not as likely to be imagined.  But ask any local over the age of 50 about the Nags Head Casino and you’ll be regaled with stories of legendary music acts and dancing the night away.

Originally built as a barracks in the early 1930s for the stonemasons who constructed the Wright Brothers National Memorial, the Nags Head Casino was purchased in 1937 by G. T. “Ras” Wescott.  The two-story building housed duckpin bowling lanes, pool tables, and pinball machines on the first floor while a bar and expansive dance floor occupied upstairs.  Ras was known for his special care of the wood dance floor, waxing and buffing it each day.  To preserve it, he asked patrons to remove their shoes and dance barefoot.  With the top-floor shutters open to the ocean breezes and young people grooving barefoot, the Casino was the epitome of summer fun.   

Nags Head Casino Birds Eye View
Bird’s eye view of the Casino. Image courtesy of Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum: www.oldnagshead.org

During the 1930s and 1940s, big band music reigned, drawing crowds of up to 1000 people to the Nags Head Casino!  During this time, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman are a few of the acts who played.  As doo-wop, Mowtown, and rock and roll gained popularity in the 1950s and 60s, bands like The Platters, Fats Domino, The Four Tops, Bill Deal and the Rhondels, and The Temptations entertained.  According to Carmen Gray, founder of the Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum, “anybody who was anybody played at the Casino.”  Until the 1970s, bands continued to make the trek to Nags Head to put on a show.  And on nights when no band played, a Wurlitzer jukebox provided the music.

Nags Head Casino Music Poster for Johnny Alligator

Unfortunately, the fun came to an end when Ras Wescott sold the building in the mid 1970s and soon after, the roof collapsed during a winter storm.   Jockey’s Ridge Crossing shopping center now occupies the site of the beloved Casino.  But Nags Head locals still reminisce about the raucous music, 25 cent PBRs, Wednesday night boxing matches, and walks on the beach after a night of dancing.  For their generation, it truly was the place to be for both patrons and musicians.  Bill Deal, from The Rhondels, remembers that “it was always packed. We never worried about having a crowd.  The Casino certainly opened doors for a lot of groups. If you played the Casino, you’d made it.”  For many, the time, the place, and the music will never be replicated, but the Casino will always be remembered.


Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

Spend a Night in Rodanthe

Movies transport us to other worlds, allowing us to live vicariously through the characters. If you’ve always wanted to be a globetrotter, James Bond takes you from Cuba to China to Czechoslovakia.  If you’ve ever wondered what Mars might be like, The Martian transports you there.  And if you wish you could visit the Outer Banks, look no further than Nights in Rodanthe.  Based on Nicholas Sparks’ book, the characters played by Diane Lane and Richard Gere fall in love when they team up to protect a very special Outer Banks home from a storm.  

This home has a fascinating story to tell.  Built by Roger Meekins in 1988 on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the home was originally called Serendipity.  At the time, there was more than 400 feet between it and the ocean.  But as the years passed, the sand eroded, and the tide encroached.  In 2009, Hurricane Bill damaged the home, destroying its septic system and HVAC.  The second owners, Michael and Susan Creasy, wanted to sell but the extensive repairs kept buyers at bay.  It soon slipped into such disrepair that the county wanted to condemn it and after each storm, residents wondered if it was still standing.  Hope for Serendipity seemed far away until fans of Nights in Rodanthe, Ben and Debbie Huss, saved the property in 2010.

Moving the Inn at Rodanthe
Transporting Serendipity to its new location. Image courtesy of Hooked on Houses: www.hookedonhouses.net

The first task was to move the property farther from the ocean to prevent high tides and hurricanes from further damaging it.  According to Richard Adkins of WRAL, the house was lifted off its foundation, placed onto a trailer, and transported seven-tenths of a mile down N.C. Highway 12 to its new location.  The house was raised several feet higher than it had been and the pilings were dug 16 feet down for greater stability.

Inn at Rodanthe
Serendipity, now the Inn at Rodanthe, restored and reborn! Image courtesy of Sun Realty: www.sunrealtync.com

Ben and Debbie are such fans of the movie that they made every effort to replicate the set. According to Irene Nolan of the Island Free Press, the Husses watched the film dozens of times and worked from enlarged still photographs.  They added the iconic blue shutters over the windows, painted the beadboard cabinets a vibrant aqua, and filled the home with antiques, including a 1918 Adler organ similar to the one in the movie.  

The Inn at Rodanthe kitchen
The renovated kitchen. Image courtesy of Sun Realty: www.sunrealtync.com

According to Hooked on Houses blogger Julia Sweeten, they remodeled the kitchen to look just like the one Diane Lane cooked in, tracking down the same wallpaper used in the movie.  But even more wonderful than their renovations is the Husses desire to share Serendipity with others by making it available to vacationers.  So come to Rodanthe to take in the spectacular oceanfront views and enjoy Ben and Debbie’s loving attention to detail!

The Inn at Rodanthe porch swing
Enjoy the porch swing and the sunset at the Inn at Rodanthe.  Image courtesy of Sun Realty: www.sunrealtync.com

Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

Southern Shores Flat Top Cottages

Flat Top Cottages of Southern Shores

When you think about Outer Banks architecture, you likely imagine pastel-colored beach houses with expansive, wrap-around porches, sitting atop wooden pilings.  But in the mid-20th century, a different type of vacation home was popular.  Known as flat-top cottages, they are characterized by their no-pitch roofs and clean, mid-century modern lines.

Flat Top Cottage Aycock Brown
Flat top cottage in Southern Shores, circa 1955. Photo by Aycock Brown, courtesy of North Carolina Modernist Houses

Frank Stick, an artist and conservationist, is credited with designing the flat-top cottage.  Stick studied at the Chicago Art Institute and his paintings appeared on covers of popular magazines like Field and Stream and the Saturday Evening Post.  In 1929, he and his family settled on Roanoke Island and helped to establish the Wright Brothers National Memorial and the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.  Stick also played a vital role in establishing Cape Hatteras National Seashore as the United State’s first national seashore, which protects significant portions of OBX barrier islands.

Flat-top cottages David Stick and Frank Stick
Frank Stick (right) with son David Stick (left). Image courtesy of North Carolina Modernist Houses

After World War II, Stick turned his attention from painting and philanthropy to architecture.  In 1947, he bought 2,800 acres north of Kitty Hawk, including four miles of Outer Banks oceanfront.  Timber was scarce due to the war, so Stick chose to build with concrete blocks made of local sand.  Inspired by island-style homes in the Florida Keys as well as the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the home facades and floor plans are clean and simple. The flat roofs feature extended overhangs, which offer shade, while the large windows let in ocean breezes.  Many of the cottages feature local juniper-wood paneling, ceiling beams, and hurricane shutters.

Flat-Top-Green-Marie-Walker
Flat-top cottage. Image by Marie Walker, courtesy of My Outer Banks Home

Stick built 80 of these homes in a community called Southern Shores, which was incorporated as a town in 1979.  Currently, less than half of the original flat tops still exist.  Some were damaged by hurricanes, but most were replaced by multi-story vacation homes as owners’ tastes and needs changed.  The flat top cottages that remain are treasured by their owners as important parts of OBX history and iconic examples of mid-century architecture. 

Each year the Southern Shores Historic Flat Top Cottage Tour takes place in April.  Click the link to purchase tickets.


Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

 

Nags Head Cottage Row

Nags Head: Cottage Row

The Outer Banks have been delighting visitors for over 100 years, but Nags Head is the original tourist attraction.  

Perquimans County plantation owner Francis Nixon is credited with starting the summer vacation tradition with his family in 1830.  The idea spread to other families living across the Roanoke Sound who were seeking an escape from the inland heat.1    

At the time, the ocean air was thought to relieve the “yellow chills” brought on by malaria which was prevalent on many plantations.  So when summer arrived, entire households — including livestock — would move to Nags Head.2   Hotels were built for the onslaught of tourists as early as 1838 and by 1850, visitors could walk along a boardwalk, dance under a pavilion, and even enjoy a bowling alley!3 

Boat Arriving in Nags Head with tourists
Image courtesy of the Town of Nags Head

The first oceanfront cottage was built around 1855 by Dr. W.G. Pool of Elizabeth City, who bought 50 acres for $30.  It’s said that Pool then divided the land into lots and sold them to the friends of his wife for one dollar each so she’d have companionship while at the beach!  By 1885, 13 cottages were built.4  

In the early 1900s, self-taught carpenter Stephen J. Twine repaired and enlarged many of the original summer houses.  Then between 1910 and 1935, he built cottages that would come to represent the Nags Head style of architecture.  These homes formed Old Nags Head Beach Cottage Row, which is now a National Historic District.

According Marimar McNaughton, author of the book Outer Banks Architecture, the Nags Head style is a blend of the original Outer Banks structures and the Arts & Crafts bungalow popular in the early 1900s.  The cottages’ timber-framed exteriors were clad in shingles or weatherboard and topped with gabled roofs with dormers. They also featured wrap-around, single-story porches with built-in benches, wooden storm shutters, and breezeways. The porches, windows, and doors were all strategically designed to maximize cross breezes off the ocean.  With these homes, each design element had a purpose.

Nags Head Unpainted Aristocracy
Image courtesy of Our State Magazine, Emily Chaplin, & Chris Council

Only six of the original cottages remain today.  They are rustic, weathered, and practical, yet elegant in their simplicity, inspiring the moniker the “Unpainted Aristocracy.”5  After sheltering generations of families and enduring over 100 years of storms, they melt into the sand and seagrass that surround them, as if they have always been there.   


Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

Old Christmas in the Outer Banks

Old Christmas in the Outer Banks

Add this to the lengthy list of “reasons to love the Outer Banks”:  residents celebrate not one, but two Christmases (and, no, it’s not Christmas in July).  In January, when most Americans are taking their fir trees to the curb and boxing up decorations, many folks in North Carolina prepare for a second party called “Old Christmas.”  

What Day Is It?

Old Christmas (also known as Twelfth Night) has a long and fascinating history.  In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII established the Gregorian calendar, which was ten days ahead of its predecessor, the Julian calendar. This change was slowly communicated across Europe.  Not surprisingly, many people were ignorant of the change while others refused to recognize the new calendar, so it was common for people to disagree about what day it was.  Often, resistance to the new calendar was inspired by religion.  Roman Catholic nations transitioned to the new calendar the year it was announced, while many Protestant and Orthodox nations hesitated. This meant, for example, that England was ten days ahead of France and celebrated Christmas on different days.

Old Christmas Day

It wasn’t until 1752 that Great Britain and her colonies transitioned to the Gregorian calendar.  And by this time, the gap between the calendars had increased to 11 days (because it takes the earth 365.2422 days to complete its orbit around the sun, which amounts to 11 minutes and 14 seconds added every year).  To finally get the British people in sync with Europe, Parliament ordered that September 2, 1752 be followed by September 14, 1752.  From the perspective of the Brits accustomed to the Julian calendar, this moved Christmas day from December 25th to January 5th.  Thus, January 5th became known as “Old Christmas Day.”  With subsequent shifts in our calendar, Old Christmas has been celebrated between the 5th and 7th of January.

 

Old Christmas in the Outer Banks
Rodanthe residents celebrating Old Christmas with “Old Buck.” Image: Ben Dixon MacNeill

 

So how does this relate to North Carolina?  One story is that Great Britain didn’t clearly communicate the calendar shift to their colonies in the Americas, so folks in the Outer Banks continued to celebrate holidays according to the Julian calendar.  Another story is that the colonists knew, but simply refused to comply.  Eventually, however, the Gregorian calendar became standard in America and we synced back up with Europe.  But the tradition of Old Christmas remains.

Old Christmas in the Outer Banks
Children with “Old Buck” and the customary drummer who announces his arrival. Image: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library

 

Oysters and Old Buck

So between the 5th and 7th of January, residents of the Outer Banks celebrate this strange bit of history with oyster roasts, caroling, and spending time with neighbors and family.  A custom unique to the area is the appearance of “Old Buck,” a ghost bull who hides in the woods on Hatteras Island and only appears at Old Christmas. The appearance of Old Buck is rooted in customs of Medieval England, which included a performer who rode a hobbyhorse during Christmas celebrations.  This creature, “powered” by two people camouflaged under cowhide and fabric, leaps and prances its way through the community delighting both the young and old.  

So if you happen to visit the Outer Banks at the beginning of January, head over to Rodanthe on Hatteras Island, known as the best place to celebrate Old Christmas.

Happy Holidays!


Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

Mystery of the Lost Colony

For many Americans, Thanksgiving is a time to enjoy family, food, and football.  But life for the first English settlers was not always so festive, especially for the members of the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island.  

What Do We Know?

On June 22, 1587, John White and 118 English colonists arrived at Hatteras Island.  They quickly decided the area was not suitable for settlement and migrated around the Pamlico Sound to Roanoke Island.1  This group was the third of Sir Walter Raleigh’s expeditions to arrive in North Carolina but the first attempt at settlement.  Day-to-day life for the 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children must have been difficult as they attempted to farm the land and interact with the Native inhabitants.2   John White soon needed to return to England for supplies but, due to the Anglo-Spanish War, could not get back for three years.3   

He finally arrived at Roanoke Island in 1590 but found the settlement completely deserted.  Not a single person remained.  The only traces left by the colonists were mysterious words “Cro” and “Croatoan” carved into a tree and gate post.4  What were the settlers trying to communicate?  Did they leave the island?  Did they die from an epidemic?  Research conducted by Dennis Blanton from the College of William and Mary and David Stahle from the University of Arkansas may illuminate the mysterious disappearance of the Lost Colony.

The Mystery of the Lost Colony
John White discovers the word Croatoan carved on the Roanoke fort gate post. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 Is the Truth in the Trees?

According to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Blanton and Stahle looked at the rings of centuries-old cypress tree trunks along the rivers of the Virginia-North Carolina border. Every year, trees grow by adding layers of wood cells.  The width of the tree ring indicates how much the tree has grown in a particular growth season.  The wider the ring, the better the conditions for growth. The research team discovered the tree rings were significantly smaller than average during the years 1587-1589.5  This discovery, along with other environmental data, indicates the settlement of Roanoke Island coincided with the worst drought of the past 800 years!6  

Has the Lost Colony Been Found?

Historians hypothesize that the colonists dispersed, searching for more hospitable environments, perhaps trying to cohabitate with Native American tribes.7  Some scholars believe the colonists traveled 50 miles south to Hatteras Island, then known as Croatoan Island.8  Is that the reason Croatoan was carved into a gate post at the site of the original colony?  Were they trying to tell John White where they had gone?

The mystery was further compounded in 2012 when the British Museum uncovered a tantalizing clue on one of John White’s maps.  Using X-ray spectroscopy, a four-pointed X or star was uncovered underneath a paper patch that had been secured on the map.  The X marked a spot at the western end of Albemarle Sound near the outlet of the Chowan River, which corresponds to an area White mentioned in testimony he gave after returning to the colony.9

Map of the Lost Colony
A paper patch on the map covers an X shape, visible when backlit, that might be a “lozenge”, a symbol that represents a fort. Image from the Trustees of the British Museum.

The James River Institute for Archaeology and the First Colony Foundation, as well as British archaeologists, have been excavating sites near the Albermarle Sound attempting to find traces of the settlers.  While they have discovered artifacts dating back to the 16th century, there isn’t yet enough evidence to say for certain that the colonists ended up there.  It’s possible we will never know exactly what happened to the “Lost Colony” but scholars will persevere.  As Eric Klingelhofer, professor of history at Mercer University, said:

“We need to know more.  This whole story is a blank — a blank page, a blank chapter of history, and I think archaeology is the only way to come up with answers.”10


Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

Whalehead Club

Haunted Happenings at Whalehead Club

With Halloween just around the corner, the Coastal Cottage Company brings you a spooky edition of Throwback Thursday!


The Outer Banks has a fascinating history full of pirates, deadly storms, shipwrecks, and even a Lost Colony.  Given its moniker “The Graveyard of the Atlantic,” it’s no surprise that the area is haunted by restless spirits.

In a previous post, the Coastal Cottage Company showcased the beautiful Whalehead Club on Currituck Sound, Corolla.  But there’s more than stunning grounds and Art Nouveau decor at Whalehead.  While enjoying the elegant woodwork and Tiffany lighting, guests may also get a sense that they’re not alone. Visitors, guides, and volunteers have reported hearing sounds coming from empty rooms, such as doors banging and muffled voices, as well as the Otis elevator mysteriously moving on its own.  Other visitors have reported smelling cigar smoke in the room where the portrait of Edward Collings Knight, Jr, the original owner, hangs.  The supernatural presence at the Whalehead Club is so strong that the Coastal Paranormal Investigations group visited the mansion in 2009.

Whalehead Club
Image courtesy of Visit Whalehead and Whalehead Preservation Trust


Michael Lay, from the
Outer Banks This Week, tells a popular story about a Whalehead ghost.  After the original owners passed away, Whalehead served a number of purposes including as a site for rocket fuel tests conducted by the Atlantic Research Corporation.  Employees and their families often stayed on site over the weekends and one night, a company employee and his wife were awakened by the bathroom door creaking.  Thinking a draft was causing the noise, the husband got up to more securely shut the door. On his way back to bed, he stepped around a figure in the dark, assuming it was his wife who had gotten up to help close the doors and windows.  But when he climbed into bed, his wife was fast asleep!  Who was the figure he passed in the doorway?

While no grisly murders or horrific deaths occurred at Whalehead, there’s definitely an unexplained supernatural energy.  What we do know, according to Whalehead guides, is that the Knights visited their home in October 1933, like they did every year, but left abruptly three weeks later and never returned again. . .

Want to hear more spine tingling stories?  The Whalehead Club offers two ghost tours: The Daylight Ghost Tour (appropriate for children) and the Moonlight Legend, Lore, and Ghost Tour (held after dark with lanterns).  These special tours are seasonally available and can be reserved in advance by calling 252.453.9040 ext. 226, or by purchasing tickets on site.


Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

Jockey's Ridge Dune

The Shifting Sands of Jockey’s Ridge

This installment of Throwback Thursday is all about the mysterious natural landmark Jockey’s Ridge.  

We hope you’ve been enjoying our Throwback Thursday series and will join the Coastal Cottage Company again next month!


If you lived on the Outer Banks in the 1970’s, you may remember a putt putt golf course near Jockey’s Ridge with playful hazards like an octopus, cobra, and sand castle.  Visitors today may never see that golf course, not because it was torn down, but because it was completely buried by sand.  

Jockey’s Ridge is the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast, ranging in height from 80 to 100 feet.1  The dune is “living” because maritime winds shift the sands approximately nine to twenty feet per year, constantly changing its shape and size.2  The legends surrounding Jockey’s Ridge have kept both locals and visitors entertained as they contemplate what the sands have gobbled up over the years.

Jockey's Ridge Sand Castle from Putt Putt Golf Course Covered by Sand
The castle hazard from the old putt putt golf course that now lays hidden beneath the sand. Image by Jeff Shelf.

During the early 19th century, Nags Head was a popular vacation destination for folks wanting to improve their health by taking in the salt air.  The Nags Head Hotel was the center of social life, offering guests dancing, fine dining, and strolling the boardwalk.3   Unfortunately, the Civil War took its toll on the grand structure.  The Confederate army used the hotel as a headquarters, eventually burning it to prevent Union forces from utilizing it.  According to Phyllis Cole from the North Beach Sun, some locals claim the remains were buried by the sands of Jockey’s Ridge, but others argue the hotel was too far from the base of the Ridge for that to be possible.4  We may never know if more than sand lies within the dunes!

According to geological research conducted at North Carolina State University, the dunes doubled in size between World War I and the early 1950’s but have shrunk in recent decades.5  Despite becoming smaller, in 2003, the state had to move sand from the southern edge of the dunes because homes were at risk of being buried.  Given the strength of northeastern winds, you may be wondering why the sand doesn’t completely blow away.  Park Rangers explain that the dunes’ sand particles hold moisture throughout the year and while the sun dries the top layer, the inner layers of sand stay wet. The high winds blow the top, dry layer off, but the wet layer below stays put.6  

Jockey's Ridge State Park Large Dune
Hiking the dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1974, the dunes were declared a National Natural Landmark and a year later, the funds were appropriated for Jockey’s Ridge State Park.  Today, the park encompasses 420 acres and includes a visitor center, museum, nature trails, and 360-foot boardwalk.  For adventure lovers, sandboarding, hiking, and hang-gliding are all available.  So if you’re climbing the dunes, and the wind is just right, don’t be surprised if you see the tip of a sandcastle or octopus tentacle peeking out of the sand. 


Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

 

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