I sit in Buxton, and rock on the front porch of the home of my
grandparents, Bill and Melissa Farrow Gray, I look across at what used
to be called the Dark Ridge Road (now named the Light Plant Road), at
the wire jungle of the Cape Hatteras Electric Membership Corporation.
I ask myself, why must everything change? Why is
it that our beautiful Hatteras Island, in order to become a booming
tourist attraction, has to have no semblance of the past? To become a
part of the mainland world, do we have to give up our unique island
I was born in 1931 and spent my childhood days
roaming the sand roads, soundside, and ocean beaches of the Buxton
area. Those childhood days are locked forever in my memory. I still
remember when there where few or no fences on the island, and children
were free to play anywhere. I remember the sand roads, winding through
the trees, and the vines running right to the top of the tallest tree.
In fact, the vines were so dense that my buddy, Eldon Barnett, and I
would run right up to the top of the trees on them.
Another fond memory is the dense pine straw on
the Old Dark Ridge Path. That pine straw was so deep that we would
swoop down the hillside on sleds made from cardboard that we acquired
from Halloway Gray's general store. As we became more knowledgeable, we
changed from cardboard sleds to those made from barrel slats. With the
help of my father and Elmore Gray, our barrel-slat, pine-straw sleds
became so sophisticated they had seats and handles.
The Buxton Woods were a child's paradise, full of
excitement and pleasure. In those woods, we were able to walk freely to
find treasures our elders had told us about, such as Indian pipes, wood
that glowed in the dark, and gum from the gum trees. Mystery and
excitement awaited us at every turn, not only in the Buxton Woods but
at the sound and on the beach.
The Pamlico Sound and its surroundings provided
us constant amazement. Our imaginations were kindled at the many new
adventures we found there. One memorable adventure was the day we found
a small Indian burial mound in the upper end of Buxton. Each little
piece of pottery and flint gave way to visions of the day when the
Indians roamed the island. Nature abounded in the sound area. The
waters and banks were full of new adventures. Clams, oysters, crabs,
fish, sting rays, eels, and birds — all taught us about this amazing
We learned early-on the rules of the island. You
did not bother the other person's property, such as boats, nets, or
oyster beds. The code of the island was ingrained in all of us at an
early age. We were taught to respect one another and to accept all
people for what they were and not what they had, and most of all to
keep our mouth shut about the other person's business. There was no
class system, for we were all in the same boat.
The beautiful beach was always there but never
the same. With each rolling wave, there seemed to be something new to
learn. What is this? What is that? Where did this come from? Wow! What
wonders to behold! The little things, such as those black shiny objects
with hooks on each end that wash up on the beach, brought questions
that required answers.
I will always remember on my way home from the
beach, while carrying a black shiny case, the response I got from Pearl
Midgett, my Sunday School teacher, when I asked her what it was. After
many cookies, I learned the legend of the devil's pocketbook. To this
day, I still call those black shiny objects with hooks or horns on them
the devil's pocketbook. I now know they are the skate's egg case.
One of the wonderful things about being a child
back then was that everybody took time to answer our questions. It was
as if you were everybody's child and everybody on the island was
interested in you and protected you. I could walk from the beach to my
home at the middle of Buxton on the front road, and by the time I got
there my stomach was full from cake, cookies, and pie from the kitchens
of every house I passed. I can still hear Chloe Barnett yelling, as I
walked the Old Ridge Road past her house (where Fox Watersports is now
located), "Whoo, woo, Sonny, honey, come in here." Every house had a
hug and something to eat waiting for you.
My childhood daytime activities on Hatteras were
happy hours full of excitement and adventure. Even though we had no
television and few toys except those we created, we never seemed to
have a boring moment. The evenings were probably my most treasured
memories. They were a time for reflections of the present and past
happenings. We gathered with friend and family in the old home place or
in the general store.
There seemed to be an unwritten agenda for these
informal gatherings. First, the islanders shared the most recent news
of the day, then they joked a little with each other, always mindful of
not hurting each other's feelings. My father contributed to the daily
agenda, sharing news he heard as he delivered block ice to the kitchens
of the homes on the island. By this time darkness began to set in, and
the islanders continued their daily ritual by gathering around the
wood-burning stove or near the oil lamp.
As the oil lamp began to flicker or the fire
leaped out from the wood burner, they seemed to be led to their last
and most enjoyable portion of the evening. One by one, they shared
tales from the past, often confusing fact from fiction. Now, as I look
back, I realize much of their enjoyment came from knowing their
audience of little heads nodding in the dark was listening in amazement
and awe at the gruesome, as well as the wonderful, tales of the island.
One tale they repeated occasionally, I am sure,
was for my benefit. It was the story about the oak tree in the bend of
the sand road between my home and Mr. Frank Miller's house. As they
told it, there were people who had walked in the shadow of the mighty oak
who had disappeared in broad daylight. I can remember running barefoot
in the hot sand around that mighty oak, being sure that its shadow did
not touch me. There was no way I wanted to end up being a branch on an
oak tree for the rest of my life. It did not hurt my feelings one bit
when they cut that tree down for Highway 12. I heard later that you
could hear the screams from the branches all the way to Manteo as they
put the saw to that mighty oak.
Tale time was also marked by short intervals of
silence, as the islanders stared at the light as if they were reliving
the bygone days and just basking in the enjoyment of being together. It
was in these moments that I realized they were all wealthy people
because they had everything. They had each other.
At the appointed time, the evening gathering just
seemed to dissipate and another joyful day on Hatteras Island was soon
to close. Hatteras kids would lay their heads down on pillows of
feathers and fly away to the happy land of make believe to awaken to
another day of adventure and excitement.
My 1930's recollections of Hatteras are fond
memories that not only bring me joy but also sorrow. It is sad to
realize that no longer will the future generations be able to
appreciate freely the beauties of our island as I did as a child. It
has rightly been said, "One of the most important legacies we can
provide our children and for future generations is the gift of
knowledge about the family's heritage and surroundings."
The woods, sound, and beach are not only becoming
less accessible because of fences and new rules and regulations that
also reflect man's interference with the forces of nature. The trees
and vine coverings are disappearing at an alarming rate, along with the
old homeplaces that not only stood as monuments to the past but also
marked the unique characteristics of the island. The names of the roads
and even the villages no longer reflect the past or the presence of the
people who originally settled on Hatteras. For real-estate reasons, not
only have roads been abandoned or eliminated, but many old cemeteries
have disappeared, along with the memories of the founding fathers of
The older you get, the more you realize change is
inevitable. Your choices are limited as to what you can do about it.
The good old days on Hatteras are gone forever, and no matter how much
we want them back, we cannot make it happen. The best we can hope for
is that each person who loves the Outer Banks will resolve to be a
committee of one, dedicated to the preservation of the past, and
appoint himself as a protector of the environment for the future. We
also need to equip our young people with a knowledge of their rich
family heritage and a zeal for preserving the unique island history.
As I rock and look at the asphalt road, covering
the sand road that wound through the trees to the school house, I still
cannot help but wonder why they thought changing the name of the road
from Dark Ridge Road to Light Plant Road was a mark of progress.
(Dewey Parr and his wife, Mary, owned the Old Gray House Gifts and
Shells in Buxton for 25 years. It was their "retirement" project when
they opened it up in 1991, and on Friday, Sept. 30, they closed the
store and moved on to a new "retirement." You can still check them out
on the Facebook Page, https://www.facebook.com/Old-Gray-House-Gifts-and-Shells-330934495469/?fref=ts. This article was first published in The Island Breeze in 1996.)