Much has changed in my life and on Hatteras Island since I wrote my “Essay on Change and Progress” 20 years ago.
I am now 85 years old, have celebrated 63 years of marriage to Mary, and Mary and I have had 25 years of playing at our “retirement dream, The Old Gray House. We have had the pleasure of watching the waves of change roll over our island. Not only have we observed changes in our lives but also in the lives of the people who have strolled down a dead end road in Buxton to visit with us.
That road and Highway 12 are symbolic of the changes that are constantly occurring on Hatteras Island.
One of the first problems I encountered at the Old Gray House was over the Light Plant Road and my sign on Highway 12. Dare County was going to put me in jail if I did not remove my sign from Highway 12, and the state insisted on bulldozing my shrubs from the edge of the road on which my store was located.
Originally the road was a narrow sand path named the Dark Ridge Road, which led to the Buxton School. Later it was changed to Light Plant Road to signify that electricity had come to the island and we no longer would be seeing the flickering of oil lamps at night or have houses smelling of kerosene.
Speaking of kerosene, when it came on the scene and Mom switched our cook stove from the wood burner that sat in the middle of the room, we thought progress had really come to our island. Now we could have a free-standing cook stove against the wall.
For many years on the island, kerosene was king. It became the cure for many things. I can remember when my Uncle Kendrick Gray would get a cut on his body he would pour kerosene on it to heal it. I can also recall how kerosene was used to keep mosquitoes away by making a mosquito smoke. Kerosene was the panacea for everything.
That is one memory I would like to forget and yet keep. It was kerosene that changed my life, and in many ways, led to molding me into the person I am today. It was kerosene that led to me lying in the window looking outside after I burned my leg at another old house called the Ignatius Gray House. It was that experience that made me realize just how kind and wonderful island people could be.
Nary a person from Ocracoke, Hatteras, or from the CCC Camp on the beach, or the WPA camp in Brigand’s Bay passed by the sand road in front of that old house without taking time to say hello to a little boy in a window. That experience put love in my heart for all people regardless of their race, religion, creed, or color.
The Ignatius Gray house is gone, picked up and turned upside down during a Hatteras storm. The Old Gray House will probably be gone one of these days. One by one we have all watched the old houses go, or be changed beyond recognition, but the laughter and the heartaches of the families that lived in them are preserved in our hearts forever.
Electricity was welcome, but it also became an unwelcome change. Electricity changed our lives and revolutionized our entire island. One of my greatest joys, growing up on the island, was to stand in the silent darkness at night and look high into the sky to see all the constellations and the stars and a single revolving light from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse flashing across the sky. Often I was blessed to see a shooting star zooming across the dark sky. Now I see man-made flashing lights, satellites, and airplanes. Progress has come to Hatteras Island.
I am an early riser, up with the rooster’s crow, and it has been my practice to step outside to search the sky to see the Milky Way and Little Dipper pouring into the Big Dipper. With all the changes in the sky, now I often just have to imagine the dippers are there. Before they were visible to the human eye, but now human intervention has made them obscure and left us with the sounds of motors whirring in the night.
The night lights and sound have diminished our enjoyment and changed our lives and even the lives of the little baby turtles hatching out of their eggs. Misguided night lights can lead to a path of destruction for a baby turtle making its way to the sea, just as many of our human babies head in the wrong direction due to the influences of others.
Technology is wonderful but it can also be a bittersweet experience bringing unwelcome changes.
Even a little thing like maintaining a road like the one in front of the Old Gray House can make a major change in the lives of those of us who live on Hatteras Island. We are a “one-road island,” with all of our activities centered around that one road. Sorry to say, our county has put its emphasis on that one road. It is the cash cow of the county, just as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is for the National Park system.
Tourists zoom down Highway 12 never seeing the true history of the Island on the sideroads. The battle over roads and access to the island is still occurring to this day on the island. In the last 25 years, we have witnessed one issue after another concerning the maintenance of Highway 12, our life-line on and off the island. Building a new bridge they said would “solve the problem.” So we are building a new bridge, but it is as useless as burnt toast if the roads you travel to it are impassable. From where I am sitting, as I see it, the issue of roads is nothing new on the island. The only difference is now we are battling with ocean waves rolling over asphalt roads rather than sand roads.
When the state took over the road in front of the Old Gray House, they declared they now owned 30 feet on each side from the center line. At that time there was a white picket fence in front of the Old Gray House and a row of evergreen shrubs in back of the fence that remained there for years during the lifetime of my Uncle Kendrick Gray.
Ken fought to preserve his fence and shrubs. One day after Ken died, as I came driving to the house, there was a bulldozer dumping my white picket fence in a truck and getting ready to take out my shrubs that he had planted. To say the least, I was displeased and expressed my displeasure to the superintendent on the job.
He informed me that those shrubs were coming out whether I liked it or not. I, in turn, informed him that I had no problem with him taking my shrubs out if he did the same thing for everyone on Light Plant Road and the whole island. I also mentioned to him I felt this was an act of discrimination unless he enforced the road right-of-way for everybody on Light Plant Road and rest of the island. Of course, I used my old Island statement to justify my request he not take my shrubs, “What is good for the goose is good for the gander.” Note if you look at the front of the Old Gray House you will see a goose and gander flying on the front.
To make a long story short, they finally got my shrubs, but they did not get my sign. I, along with friends, fought the county’s effort to remove all off-premises signs, including the sign on Highway 12 that directed visitors to The Old Gray House.
I have concluded, from 25 years of experience at the Old Gray House, that one of the problems with the changes is that some people now feel that Mom and Pop operations like ours are a blight on the island and need to be eradicated. To me, this is one of the biggest mistakes they can make. They want tourists to come, spend their money, and then get out of Dodge, so to speak. Little do they realize that what keeps people coming to Hatteras Island is our unique heritage.
Hatteras Island is more than a lighthouse and an ocean. It is place that is reflective of the struggles and the successes of our ancestors who founded this great nation. It is on the side roads of Hatteras and Ocracoke that you find the Mom and Pop shops saturated with history and unique creations of local artists. Ocracoke is a good example. Ocracoke is in another county called Hyde. What would Ocracoke be like without it’s back roads. Howard Street has not only a unique family-owned shop but a cemetery full of history. Some folks in Dare County need to wake up and come to realize there is more to the Outer Banks than just big box stores, fancy restaurants, million-dollar homes, and foreign made trinkets to buy.
When you live on an island stuck 40 miles out to sea that is subject to the forces of nature, change is inevitable. People inland learn to roll with the punches, or it is down you go. On Hatteras Island and Ocracoke, we not only learn to roll with life’s punches but with the wind and the waves.
If you just sit on the beach, as I often do, and watch the waves roll in, you get a fresh perspective on life. I guess that is what makes our island so appealing to so many people. With each wave that rolls in, you see something new. Each wave is different.
It has been like this with the people who have visited with us at The Old Gray House for the last 25 years. No two people are the same — just as no two waves are the same. That has been the joy of our little retirement hobby.
We cannot thank all of those who chose to divert from Highway 12 to come down an obscure dead-end road to an old house to chat with us about island history and life in general. Many have shared with us how the waves of life have overwhelmed them and shown their concern for us when the ocean waves and wind have endangered or altered our lives.
Mary and I cannot predict what the future will bring for the old house on Light Plant Road known as the Old Gray House. We can assure you that the two people who have been there waiting for your visit the last 25 years will never forget you and will always be thankful our lives crossed.
(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.)