Island Homecoming 2010: The island lives – even if for only one day
By ANNE BOWERS
now abandoned island of Portsmouth, which is accessible only by a
20-minute boat ride from Ocracoke or by air, celebrates its history
every two years by hosting a gathering of its surviving former
residents and their descendants. About 500 people traveled
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
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
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,
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
giving a commemorative pin to everyone who passed by continued and all
500 pins were given out again at this homecoming. A woman
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
exhibits designed by the Park Service. Yellow ribbons were
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
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
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
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
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
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
featured many exquisite old photos and retold stories of past teachers
and students. The first schoolhouse was built around 1800 as
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,
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,
original church was destroyed by a storm and in 1913, the second church
was also destroyed by a storm. The high steeple showed signs
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
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.
building was the centerpiece of the last homecoming event two years
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
the homecoming via helicopter because of her age. This year,
didn’t speak to the gathering as she had done in the past.
The ceremony began at noon. The speakers used a public
system that was powered by battery. Rev. Joyce Reynolds from
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
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
the church bell tolled. People sang from music copied on a
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
and one-by-one, participants got their fill of lunch, all cooked
elsewhere and brought over by boat. Conversations were lively
descendants caught up with each other and relived previous
homecomings. A box was passed around for contributions to
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
Friends of Portsmouth Island and the Cape Lookout National
Seashore. Kudos to the volunteers who worked tirelessly for
two days getting ready for the event and to those who are already
planning for the 2012 homecoming.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
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
The easiest way to get to Portsmouth Island is by boat from
Ocracoke. Rudy Austin runs a “passenger ferry” from his dock
Silver Lake to the island regularly when weather conditions
permit. The cost is $20 a person. You can reach the
at 928-4361. You can also travel to the island with a
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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