In honor of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse’s 150th anniversary, which will be formally celebrated on December 16, 2020, the Island Free Press will be featuring new and archived stories about the famous Hatteras Island landmark all week long. This article is republished from an August, 1999, special section of The Island Breeze on the move of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. In this article, island historian Danny Couch includes interviews he has had over the years with many older islanders, some of whom are now deceased.
Hatteras islanders cherish their memories of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, a monument that has become part of the fabric of their daily lives. For many generations, the grand old beacon has stood as a stalwart symbol of a way of life of people who pride themselves on a unique history and heritage.
Generations young and old have used the lighthouse as a gathering spot, a popular place to meet friends and socialize. Teen-agers and young people out for the day or evening checked the lighthouse to see where everyone was and what was going on. Daytime gatherings meant swimming, fishing, and nearby baseball games years ago. Soon, surfing for the guys and lying on the beach to suntan for the girls became the popular activities.
Evenings meant parking at the lighthouse with a girlfriend or boyfriend to relax and enjoy the subtle, soothing swing of the beacon’s beam. “Courtin’” is what the girls called it, and the guys called it “Gallin.’”
Both are island-speak for dating. It’s an unromantic soul indeed who would deny the lighthouse’s appeal to young lovers everywhere.
HANGING AROUND THE LIGHT
Ray L. “Laymon” Williams, 60, is a well-known Buxton native who is as intimate with the lighthouse as any islander. It has been a part of his life as long as he can remember.
“Before the Park Service put the road to the lighthouse in, we used to have to drive out to the beach by where the motels are now and head south on the old sand road. There was no Navy base there then, just a big sand hill, right before you got to the lighthouse. You had to have your speed up and tires pretty well slack to get over it,” he remembers.
Edgar Hooper, 78, of Buxton is remembered as quite a good baseball player. He could field a hard-hit ball in the infield and throw even the fastest Kinnakeeter out at first base — and just about anybody else who’s ever played the game here on the island.
For nearly 100 years, the area near the lighthouse has provided a great place to play baseball. Buxton, Kinnakeet, and Hatteras have played against each other as long as anyone can remember.
“The games were not actually at the lighthouse, and never were, although many people like to say that the beach in front of the lighthouse was wide enough that baseball games were played there,” Edgar Hooper says. “We played about where the area between Tower Circle Motel and the Coast Guard base is, east of the sand road. Lots of people turned out: parents, kids, couples, visitors.”
Laymon Williams remembers the old paved road that extended on through the lighthouse intersection to the beach and circled down to the Ramp 43 parking lot. Erosion ate this away steadily, beginning in the 1960s. It was completely washed away by the early 1980s, about the same time that a storm washed away what was left of the foundation of the 1802 lighthouse.
“The surf fishing along that old road was just fantastic. You could park alongside of it anywhere you wanted, walk over a big old duneline and lay into the fish — all right there just down from the lighthouse,” Laymon William says.
“I miss those days hanging around at the lighthouse. Sometimes somebody would bring a guitar and we’d sit out on the beach, build a fire,” he adds. “To me, that lighthouse is what life’s about here — peaceful and friendly. Crime is so bad everywhere else. You can’t get caught stranded most places after dark without fearing for your life. Here, the worst thing about getting caught out after dark is worrying about whether or not someone is going to come by to pick you up. I’ve walked many a night home because there wasn’t a soul out,” Laymon recalls.
COURTIN’ AT THE LIGHT
Rae Styron Farrow, 67, of Buxton, is one of many people who fondly remember the lighthouse as part of the courtship between island men and women who went on to marry and have families. Born in Hatteras, she and her late husband, Rod, raised two children, Gail and Roger, in a house on Buxton’s Back Road, within reach of the lighthouse’s beam.
“When Rod and I first started courtin’, I was about 16, I guess,” she says. “The thing going then was to park out to the lighthouse. Rod had an old ’40 Ford. I called it a sharpback. I reckon now they call ’em coupes. He’d pick me up evenings. We’d go right over the beach at Hatteras, come right up the beach — if the tide was low, it took no time at all — and cross over to the sand road at the Loran Station, or just come on down past the lighthouse about where the ball field was and cross over at Tower Circle Motel.”
Lots of young couples could be found at the lighthouse in the early evenings. They’d gather and either hang out awhile or follow each other to other popular hangouts on Flowers Ridge or Doctor’s Road, where everyone had bonfires or weenie-roast cookouts, particularly if the wind was blowing too hard to be out at the beach.
“Once, I was a little girl then, about Aug. 4, early in August, they had what was called Coast Guard Day. One time they had it out to the lighthouse. Dory races, car races, horse riding, crafts. Later on it was in Hatteras. It was a big celebration. One, in particular, I remember. Mr. Damon Gray, he had this big truck with rail backs and we rode on it, a bunch of us children. There was all sorts of food. All the villages were there. The Coast Guard was there in their best uniforms.”
The light wasn’t on then. In 1936, the Coast Guard abandoned Cape Hatteras Lighthouse because the beach in front of it was eroding so badly. The light was relocated to the Back Road where the Weather Bureau was until 1950, when the lighthouse was reactivated.
“Rod helped build that temporary tower. He was a machine operator. This was before he went in the service for a short time. That man could fix anything, whether it had wheels or not,” Rae says of Rod.
“I’ll never know a more romantic, a more wonderful experience than being out to the lighthouse on a clear night, seeing a moon — big, bright and orange — rising up behind the lighthouse with the lens shining bright. It’s one of the most powerful, most gorgeous sights I think I’ve ever seen,” she recalls.
TRADITION AT THE LIGHT
Beatrice Barnett McArthur, 75, of Buxton, has a rich and remarkable heritage that includes the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Her ancestors, the four orphaned children of William and Christian Jennette, sold the four acres that became the lighthouse grounds to the federal government in 1797 for $50.
“Miss Beatie,” as she is known on the island, is a historian, genealogist and authority on Hatteras Island history, heritage and culture. She is perhaps more knowledgeable than any local person on the lighthouse. Beatie provided lighthouse memories not only of her own, but also memories passed down to her from her grandparents, Oliver N. and Lonie Jennette Barnett.
“In the old days, before the turn of the century, if there was a shipwreck, then the news immediately spread like wildfire,” she says. “Everybody went to the beach, in all kinds of weather, not just the lifesaving surfmen, but all men, women and children. Entire families were at the beach. Cape Hatteras Lifesaving Station was less than a mile from the lighthouse, and they gathered there or at the lighthouse.”
Shipwrecks were exciting times for kids, because there were numerous children to play with. The women bundled up the children for the horse-and-cart ride from the village to the beach, since they couldn’t leave them at home. Women were needed at rescues because they could provide food and care for shipwreck victims.
“Often, women gathered in the lighthouse and babies were put to sleep on blankets on the floors. Most families had children every two years, and they needed to be nursed by their mothers. Women took turns caring for children and watching the beach for the surfmen’s return. The men intentionally landed near the light so that the women could tend to the survivors and victims. Families brought food, bulky clothing and blankets because they were needed. Families stayed the whole time.”
Beatie’s father, Walter Loren Barnett, received a Silver Lifesaving Medal and a commendation from the German government for his part in the rescue of the German steamship Brewster in November, 1909. Her mother, Arvilla, waited at the lighthouse with other families until Barnett and the other surfmen of Cape Hatteras Station beached their lifeboat between the lighthouse and the station.
One of Beatie’s treasured memories of the lighthouse involves being a child between the ages of 6 and 10. Sybil Miller Folb, wife of Dr. Maurice Folb, the local doctor here in the 1920s and ’30s, provided an Easter egg hunt for island children. To Beatie and other children her age, including Ormond White Fuller and Rany Jennette, the Easter egg hunt was the grandest time, almost as special as Christmas.
“I feel like all those memories are being thrown away. I’m going to miss the lighthouse where it was. Some people have said we were apathetic about the move. The islanders were like the ‘mouse that roared’ — it was a done deal and a day late before we ever made our feelings known about the move.”
GROWING UP AT THE LIGHTHOUSE
The keepers of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse were almost exclusively Hatteras islanders, who were members of the United States Lighthouse Service. Family names of the assistant and principal keepers from 1870 to 1933 include six different Jennette families, four each from the Fulcher and Williams families, three each from the Whitehurst and Smith clan, two each from Robinson, Farrow, Quidley, and Simpson families, and one each from Gray, Tolson, Baum, and O’Neal clans.
In a June, 1983, interview with Ray and Danny Couch, Buxton residents Leonora Quidley, Rany Jennette, and Edna Gray spoke of happy lives and childhoods living and growing up in the double keepers’ and principal keeper’s quarters during the 1920s and ’30s.
Mrs. Quidley, 90 at the time, lived in the doublekeepers’ quarters from 1923 to 1933 with her husband, assistant keeper William “Bill” Quidley. Rany Jennette was born in the principal keeper’s quarters as the son of the last lighthouse keeper, Unaka Jennette, and lived there from 1922 to 1933. Edna Gray lived in the double keeper’s quarters from 1921 to 1928 when her husband, James “Jim” Casey, was first assistant keeper.
“We never had a want among the children for company,” Mrs. Quidley said. “In addition to our two, there were seven Jennette children and six Casey children.”
“It seems to me,” Mrs. Gray said, “that children don’t have the kind of good times we had. I can’t ever remember a child then saying, ‘There’s nothing to do.’ Part of the reason was that our families were large and we provided our own entertainment. We made up our own games. We played on the beach. We led very active outdoor lives. At night, we listened to a wind-up Victrola. It didn’t sound too good, but to us it was a wondrous thing.”
“We went to school in a building over by the Angler’s Club,” Rany Jennette said. “We often walked because there was not always someone going by that we could hop on the running boards for a ride.
“Each building had a fence around it. Now these weren’t for beauty or keeping kids in the yards, they were for keeping the livestock out. Goats, cows, horses, pigs, chickens, and sheep ran wild all over the place. We had our gardens over by where the Navy Base was and these were fenced too. The livestock kept the vegetation cropped down close, but they liked nothing better than our fresh vegetables.”
A GLASS JAR OF NAMES
Banister Barnes Casey (1848-1923) is remembered in Buxton as a delightful spinner of yarns. He loved to tease children with his tall tales, and as the uncle of lighthouse keeper Jim Casey, who had a family of eight children, he found eager young ears to absorb his wild stories after Sunday supper. He dearly loved his nieces and nephews and had pet nicknames for them all.
A Union veteran of the Civil War, Ban Casey held his young audiences spellbound with stories of his cousin, Johnnie Barnes, a hearing-impaired youth who became the only island casualty during Union occupation. Other stories came from his experiences as a popular character with Union officers and soldiers stationed at Fort Hatteras.
His best stories, however, centered around his times as a laborer helping build the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from 1868 to 1870. He was involved in many tasks, from tending oxen and work horses to loading stone and brick to toting water and materials to his co-workers. His quick wit and upbeat attitude made him well-recognized at the lighthouse.
Edna Casey Gray, 91, a native of Buxton and the daughter of keeper Jim Casey, was one of Ban’s favorites. Sitting on the porch with her brothers and sisters, Edna listened to her uncle’s stories.
Edna remembers Banister speaking with pride about his helping construct America’s best known lighthouse. One thing he didn’t josh about was a jar of names placed in the lighthouse containing the names of not just local people, but names of everyone who helped build the lighthouse.
“We questioned him a lot about it,” Edna says. “It is cemented over the door.”
The jar of names is not a new story to islanders. Every generation since its construction has heard the story of this labor-of-love tribute.
Iris Barnett Anderson, 78, of Buxton, recalls her grandfather, Capt. David F. Barnett, speaking of the jar of names. He was an “easy going, sweet man” who lived with Iris’ parents, Thomas and Martha Barnett, after the death of his wife, she says.
“He was very serious, matter of fact in telling us about helping build the lighthouse. He was a young man, 17 at the time, and as he grew old, he had a terrific memory,” Iris says.
Capt. Dave told his young grandchildren that the jar was over the door, between the inner and outer shells of the tower. It was placed there and sealed in with the knowledge of the construction superintendent, Dexter Stetson, after the lighthouse was almost complete.
Although this bit of island lore may never be substantiated without an effort to look for the jar, it is reminiscent of an old boat building tradition on Hatteras Island. Often a gold coin for good luck was placed underneath when a mast was stepped on a vessel.
The informative work on the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, “A History of the Cape Hatteras Light Station,” an in-house Park Service report by Francis Ross Holland, Jr. in 1968, does not address the jar of names. It mentions that a tablet erected by the district engineer, J. H. Simpson, and Dexter Stetson, and engraved with their names was ordered taken down by the Lighthouse Board in favor of a generic inscription lacking individual names in 1874.
We may never know if the jar of names does indeed rest in the lighthouse. Islanders and the Park Service, caretakers of the light, know that the lighthouse harbors many secrets. Part of the thrill in all the excitement surrounding the lighthouse these days is the new revelations that are emerging after all these years.
“They appreciated their work — not just the islanders. There was a sense of camaraderie out there. I knew it from hearing my grandfather talk about it. They took tremendous satisfaction in their accomplishments, in spite of the difficulties they faced, isolation, bad weather, and all. With all that pride, I don’t doubt that there’s something in there where they say it is,” Iris believes.
WORKING AT THE LIGHTHOUSE
Many traditions in the U.S. Lifesaving Service and the U.S. Lighthouse Service were introduced on Hatteras Island as they were in other parts of the coastline. The credibility of the Lifesaving Service within the international sailing community was established by the skills and courage of men like Capt. B. B. Dailey, Capt. Pat Etheridge, the Midgetts, and the surfmanship of generations of Kinnakeeters.
Likewise, islanders who served in the Lighthouse Service contributed efficiency and respect of duty.
Unaka Jennette kept probably the cleanest lighthouse station around. He is certainly remembered on the island as a stickler for detail, cleanliness and responsibility. The Jennettes brought capability and common sense to what to some might seem like everyday tasks.
Unaka Jennette was also the last keeper of the lighthouse. In 1936, the Atlantic Ocean was lapping at the base of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The Coast Guard abandoned the tower and moved the light to a skeleton tower in the Buxton Woods, where it was operated by an electric lens. In 1950, when the light was restored in the lighthouse, a new electric lens was installed in the tower.
When the light was restored to the tower, Hatteras Islanders in the U.S. Coast Guard continued the traditions their ancestors in the Lighthouse Service had started. There was probably no greater dishonor for the men who served at Cape Hatteras Lifeboat Station than to let the light go out on their watch.
“If the light went out and stayed out, we’d never have heard the end of it,” Vance Midgett, Sr., 83, a Chicamacomico native who maintained the light in the 1950s, said. “We took care of that lighthouse no matter what.”
“That light had to be on,” recalls Vance’s brother, Graves, 71. “If it wasn’t, and you were on duty, man, you can’t imagine the grief the duty officer was going to lay on your doorstep.”
Taking care of the lighthouse often revolved around routine maintenance. Cleaning, painting, repairs, upkeep, and monitoring the structure might seem mundane to the average person, but at Cape Hatteras, routine is hardly ever mundane.
“It seemed like every time the weather got rough, there’d be problems,” Graves says. “Thunder squalls, electrical storms, you could count on something happening to the light. For years, there were problems with the power going off all the time, and it caused the light to go off a lot.”
“You had to go, often several times a night. It was pitch black in there, I mean darker than dark. You had a flashlight, but even then you’d better be paying attention,” Graves recalls. “A crack of lightning would go off and light up through the windows for a second, and the thunder would roll through her like being in a gun barrel.
“Sometimes it was kind of eerie, having someone with you made it a little more comfortable.”
Often, during storms, before the Coast Guardsmen got back down the steps, the light would go out again. A back-up generator with battery power sometimes wouldn’t do the job. Switches burned up or batteries fried, or for whatever reason, generators are often the disease rather than the cure.
“I climbed that lighthouse one night seven times,” recalls Buxton native Johnnie Williams, Sr., 67. “No sooner would I get down the steps, the light went out. It was just a bunch of malfunctions, one after the other. The first couple of times, I ran up it. After a while, well, I could hardly walk the next day.”
Before electric lenses, the lighthouse had a first-order Fresnel lens that was something beautiful to behold. It was a kerosene-burning mantle lamp and the actual light was a burning vapor. The lens was about 12 feet tall on a frame made up of over a thousand pieces of heavy glass prisms surrounding 12-inch bull’s eye magnifying glasses.
Rany Jennette described it this way:
“Going to the top at night was a special treat, and it is hard to describe the feeling,” Rany explained. “The beauty of the prisms that cast thousands of multi-colored lights danced on the deck below. There was complete silence except for the soft hissing of the vapor mantle lamp and quiet whirring of the governor that controlled the speed of the clock mechanism and weights. Everything was spotless, and the odor of clock oil is something I’ll always remember.”
AYCOCK AND THE LIGHTHOUSE
The Outer Banks’ greatest promotional symbol for tourism is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. It combines all the elements a visitor could hope to find in a seashore vacation spot: sand, sea, sun, and a representative symbol of cultural history.
Nobody knew this better than the late Aycock Brown, a publicist and long-time director of the Dare County Tourist Bureau who almost single-handedly established the Outer Banks as one of our nation’s premier seashore vacation spots. He recognized the value of the light during service to our country in World War II as an investigator for Naval Intelligence. He married a woman from
Ocracoke Island, Esther Styron.
Aycock was a familiar face around Hatteras Island, visiting with folks and taking pictures for newspapers to promote the Outer Banks. He was never too busy to stop in and say hello and catch up on the latest news around the villages.
People in Hatteras liked to tease Aycock that he spent more time taking pictures of pretty girls in bathing suits with a gimmick like a beach ball to spread the word about the coastline than he did photographing catches of fish. On Hatteras Island, known for its pretty girls, Aycock was never short of subjects.
One local beauty that he photographed was Barbara Barnett Williams, daughter of Jarvis and Edna Barnett, and the wife of Johnnie Williams, Sr.
“That Aycock Brown,” Barbara, who was 16 at the time, recalls with laughter, “what a character he was! I’ll never forget — he had me, my sister Shirley, and Agnes Fulcher standing out on the beach at the lighthouse, taking pictures to send out.
“It was January 1, 1952, blowing, about 45 degrees out. We liked to froze to death. He had us out there, setting up these pictures like it was 80 degrees out. Shirley said if you look hard enough at her picture, you can see the goose bumps on her legs!
“Later on, Aycock had the three of us tossing a beach ball around, and we got to laughing so hard about the craziness of being out here in this weather in swimsuits. It looked like we were just having a grand old time playing on the beach, but we were laughing because it was cold.”
Barbara remembers that the picture ran in several papers around the East Coast. She even got mail and a gift from a woman who sent her some crochet work.
Barbara’s family includes many members of the Lifesaving and Lighthouse services, as well as the Coast Guard. History and heritage on Hatteras Island contribute greatly to its appeal, she believes, and she is not sure yet if the relocation of the lighthouse will have an impact on people’s perception of history.
“I know the promotional end of it will be different — the sea and beach is out of the picture now. Somehow, to me, it’s not going to be the same,” she says.
“Those days and memories are going right on down the beach, gone with the lighthouse. We’ll have to wait and see.”