March 12, 2012

A eulogy for an old Hatteras village friend


“Sometimes, in the quiet before dawn, you might hear them creaking and stretching and groaning as they rouse to the sunrise. In the twilight calm after a stormy day, they settle and sigh. In the magic between midnight and morning, they are gently vigilant and perhaps whisper to each other, ‘remember when...?’

“They are the old houses of Hatteras, and, together, they are the heart of the village.

“These houses are symbols of a unique and spirited lifestyle, one often arduous yet romantic — a way of life that sustained our parents and grandparents, and their parents, and is now rapidly succumbing to change and challenge. These houses, and their companions — the old boats and the family cemeteries — have stories to tell us. The roles they played in the history of Hatteras village deserve recognition. Their preservation honors our heritage and carries the spirit of the past into the future.”

--Linda Nunn in an Island Breeze article from July, 1999

March 10, 2012 -- 7 a.m.

With all the joys of life, it is inevitable that we will experience times of sadness as well.   And it was sadness that I felt this morning just after daybreak as I grabbed my camera and headed out the door to visit an old friend.  I knew it would be our last time together.   

I can’t remember the first time I met her.  Time has taken care of that.  But I do recall my grandmother, Maggie, taking me by the hand on a hot summer’s day back in the 1940s and setting out on what seemed like an unending one mile walk on the soft sandy road from our house to visit her down at “Sticky Bottom.”   We lived “up the road,” the northern end of Hatteras village.  My friend spent her life in “Sticky Bottom,” the southern end of the village.  

This morning as I wandered up her lane, the only sound was that of an unrelenting, cold north wind blowing through the trees. Framed by gnarled oaks, yaupons, and water bushes, she slowly came into view, sitting in the same place she had occupied for more than 150 years.  She is a proud lady and rightfully so.  Today she is the oldest house in Hatteras village, but tomorrow she will pass that title on to another.

She was built by Henry and Christina Stowe sometime around 1860.  The house was substantially remodeled ca. 1890-1910 when the one-story structure became two stories with a detached kitchen.  Later in the 1930s, a kitchen, dining room and a bedroom were added.  Like many Hatteras houses, holes were bored in the flooring to allow tide water to easily enter and leave the structure in time of storms.  This prevented her from floating off her foundation.

One of Henry Stowe’s daughters, Janette, spent her 99 years living in this old house.  It was here where she and her husband, Irv, raised a family.  Mr. Irv, in his younger years, was captain of the Ethel, a freight boat that ran from Hatteras to Elizabeth City.  He was also a boatbuilder, and later in life, he fished for a living.  Miss Janette stayed busy raising seven children and serving as the island midwife, birthing three generations of children on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, many of whom bear her name.  

(Click here to read a 1976 article that appeared in the “Sea Chest,” a publication of Cape Hatteras School.  It is about Miss Janette and her days as the islands’ midwife.  It was published six years before the bell at Hatteras United Methodist Church tolled to honor her life and announce to the village her death.)

This morning, the Henry and Christina Stowe house, Number 16 in the Hatteras Village Historic Homes Walking Tour brochure, didn’t appear to have the same determination to defy the elements that she had withstood over the last century and a half.  

Neglect and time had taken their toll.  Her foundation sagged, her timbers bowed, and her paint had cracked and peeled.  For the past decade, she had been pretty much left alone.  Occasionally, a curious passerby would peer through her windows, walk around her footprint, and wonder what tales she had to tell.  However, there was no reversing the damage of tide, time, and termites.  She was dying and nothing could bring her back.

I clicked a few photos, touched her walls, remembered my visits with Miss Janette, and slowly turned my back on my tired old friend, knowing that tomorrow she would be another of my heartfelt Hatteras memories.

March 11, 2012 -- 10 a.m.

Another of the village’s landmarks is going up in flames -- and not just any landmark, but the oldest one.   

The Hatteras Volunteer Fire Department arrived early.  With the precision of a surgeon, they went about their task of training new recruits in the ways of handling fire under different situations.  My old friend stood proudly while she made the last contribution of her life in Hatteras village.  
Quickly she became engulfed by the inferno, and with a gentle crash, she succumbed to the flames.  The north wind carried her ashes across the island and out to sea.

Miss Janette’s great-grandson and his wife, who are the owners of the old house, stood by wiping away tears as their family treasure became smoke and smoldering embers. They inherited a heavy burden, but their valiant efforts to restore the old place soon gave way to the reality that nothing is forever.  

The role this house played in the history of Hatteras village deserves no more credit than any other old house here.  But she does deserve to be honored -- for she provided a place of comfort to those who lived within her walls and a place of beauty for those who passed her by.  

We will miss you, my old friend.

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