April 27, 2010

Portsmouth Island Homecoming 2010: The island lives – even if for only one day


The now abandoned island of Portsmouth, which is accessible only by a 20-minute boat ride from Ocracoke or by air, celebrates its history once every two years by hosting a gathering of its surviving former residents and their descendants.  About 500 people traveled from as far away as California, Maine, and Florida for this biennial event which took place on Saturday April 24.

“Portsmouth Village Lives” was the theme for this year’s homecoming.  The windy and cloudy day only threatened to spoil the joyous mood with rain.  Starting at 7:30 that morning, a small fleet of flat bottomed boats began ferrying people over for the event, each rider paying $20 for the round-trip service.  People of all ages huddled against the cool temperatures and choppy waters of the now shallow Ocracoke Inlet to the only dock on Portsmouth Island. 

Portsmouth Island has no modern conveniences and all food, drink, and necessary items were carried to the island by all the participants.  Most people traveled with large coolers, backpacks, and bags filled with their contribution for the super-sized potluck lunch that would follow the Homecoming program scheduled for noon.  Waiting at the pier was a small army of ATVs used to transport only these coolers to the tent, which was set up in the shadow of the church.

As people started their journey on foot down the path towards the village, they were greeted with overhead vinyl signs connected between trees welcoming them to this year’s homecoming.  The tradition of giving a commemorative pin to everyone who passed by continued and all 500 pins were given out again at this homecoming.  A woman with a delightful slow island dialect said, “Welcome to Portsmouth Island” to every passerby.  Printed on green paper was a program with the times of the day’s events.

Former residents and descendants were asked to sign-in and fill out a name tag that included their family or ancestor’s name.  Names like Salter, Dixon, Gilgo, and Daly were among the names that once dominated the population of the deserted island town.

During this year’s Homecoming, the Cape Lookout National Seashore had a ribbon cutting ceremony as it unveiled a series of exhibits designed to keep the history alive and relive the ways of this once powerful shipping village.  As participants made their way to the large white tent set up for the day’s festivities, they wandered through the exhibits, buildings, and cemeteries, reading about lives of the people who once lived there.  It was a step back into time.

The first home on the edge of town is the Theodore and Annie Salter house which is now a Visitor Center  and home to many of the new exhibits designed by the Park Service.  Yellow ribbons were tied into bows on the front porch to welcome people home.  Inside, displays told the curious that this was the only house on the island plumbed for gas and that Annie Salter was the island’s postmistress.  It was the only place that provided visitors with flush toilets.

When people left the Visitor Center, they were familiar with the hardships that faced the residents.  Nature and economic influences took its toll on the island residents who gradually moved away.  Animals had eaten the land bare of vegetation, which allowed the sands to consume the island.  The last resident left in 1971.  Most of what was left was found in history books.

Exhibits relived a regular day at the 1840-era Post Office, which once was the nucleus of island life.  The villagers came here to get their mail, to play checkers, croquet or music, and to debate the issues of the day.  The Post Office still displays a flyer offering a reward of $15,900 in gold for notorious robbers of mail trains.

Once every two years, the Post Office becomes operational from 9 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. and is manned by workers from Ocracoke and Hatteras islands.  People waited in line to mail their postcards and letters in order to get the Portsmouth postmark.

Across the street is an 1850-era house that once belonged to Walker and Sarah Styron that housed the Ocracoke Quilting Club for the day.  The back of this house faces the inlet and its original kitchen was destroyed by a hurricane in the 1920s.

Further down the path, over the bridge, through the marsh and into the tree area heavy with mosquitoes is the old 1927 one-room schoolhouse which closed in 1943 because of a lack of students.  The exhibit featured many exquisite old photos and retold stories of past teachers and students.  The first schoolhouse was built around 1800 as a private academy.

Next to the schoolhouse is a 1905 house that had been relocated here by Cecil and Leona Gilgo from another island.

Net menders demonstrated on the front porch of the home that had belonged to George and Patsy Dixon, circa 1875.   Old lanterns and artifacts were displayed on the porch, including a very old hand-held wind gauge, which was tested by most who saw it.

In front of the Washington Roberts house, which was used as a safe haven for islanders during bad storms because of its innovative and strong construction, were boat builders.  As people watched, an old-style flat bottomed skiff was created from juniper.

Across the street is the 1914 Methodist Church, and the sounds of people singing hymns drifted from its open windows.  In 1899, the original church was destroyed by a storm and in 1913, the second church was also destroyed by a storm.  The high steeple showed signs of hard weather.  It was 1956 when services were discontinued.

Continuing down the path, members of the Ocracoke band, Molasses Creek, could be watched as they warmed up for the performance that would follow the homecoming ceremony.  They sat on the porch of the 1926 house that had been built by Roy Robinson.  In front of the musicians was a decoy carver.

At the far end of the single-lane sandy path is the recently restored U.S. Life-Saving Station, which was decommissioned in 1937.  This building was the centerpiece of the last homecoming event two years earlier.

At 11:30, all the visitors made their way toward the white tent located in the yard of a yellow house that once belonged to Dennis Mason, Dave Willis, and Harry Dixon.  At 11:45, all former residents and descendants assembled in front of the church for a group picture before taking their seats under the tent.

As people settled in, a vehicle drove close to the stage under the tent and with help, Dot Salter Willis, 89, the last person still alive who was born on Portsmouth, took her place on stage.  She traveled to the homecoming via helicopter because of her age.  This year, she didn’t speak to the gathering as she had done in the past.

The ceremony began at noon.  The speakers used a public address system that was powered by battery.  Rev. Joyce Reynolds from the Ocracoke United Methodist Church led the gathering in prayer, followed by a hearty welcome from Ed Burgess, former president of the Friends of Portsmouth Island.  In her opening comments, Marjorie Spruill, president of the Friends of Portsmouth, told everyone, “We’re so happy you are here.”

Wouter Ketel, chief interpreter for the Cape Lookout National Seashore, recognized the families and the guests who traveled to continue the homecoming tradition.  He also spoke about the grand opening of the exhibits on the island.

In keeping with tradition, a history of Portsmouth Island, which had been written by Dot Salter Willis, was read to the crowd by Frances Eubanks, the granddaughter of Theodore and Annie Salter, from a paper in Miss Dot’s own handwriting.

Songs were sung by Connie Mason and scripture was read from an old Bible belonging to a deceased Portsmouth resident, Henry Pigott, the last person to leave the island.  Heads were lowered in prayer as the church bell tolled.  People sang from music copied on a single sheet of paper.  In her closing prayer, Rev. Reynolds told the congregation to “go in peace.”

Food and music by Molasses Creek followed.  Two long lines formed and one-by-one, participants got their fill of lunch, all cooked elsewhere and brought over by boat.  Conversations were lively as descendants caught up with each other and relived previous homecomings.  A box was passed around for contributions to help with the costs of the homecoming. 

With all the activities completed, people made their way down the sandy path and back to the dock.  At 2 p.m., the boats started transporting the 500 people back to Ocracoke, which took hours because the boats could carry only five to10 people at a time. 

The 2010 Portsmouth Island Homecoming was organized by the non-profit organization Friends of Portsmouth Island and the Cape Lookout National Seashore.  Kudos to the volunteers who worked tirelessly for the two days getting ready for the event and to those who are already planning for the 2012 homecoming.


More on Portsmouth history

The Friends of Portsmouth Island has a really nice Web site at www.friendsofportsmouthisland.org.  It has a lot more on the history of the island, more photos, and tips for visiting.

Getting to Portsmouth

The easiest way to get to Portsmouth Island is by boat from Ocracoke.  Rudy Austin runs a “passenger ferry” from his dock on Silver Lake to the island regularly when weather conditions permit.  The cost is $20 a person.  You can reach the Austins at 928-4361.  You can also travel to the island with a four-wheel drive via a small ferry that carries vehicles. More information is available on  www.friendsofportsmouthisland.org.

Other Articles about Portsmouth Island

Click here to read an Island Free Press article about visiting Portsmouth Island.


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