On a sunny and breezy Saturday, a crowd of hundreds cooled off under a shaded tent in front of the Portsmouth Island Methodist Church as history professor and grandson of Dot Salter Willis, David Quinn, shared his grandmother’s thoughts on life in Portsmouth village.
“My grandmother did not like Portsmouth Island to be called a ‘ghost town,’” said Quinn. “She said it is the ‘Paradise of the Outer Banks’ – It is not a ghost town; it is alive.”
On this day, this was undeniably the case.
The Portsmouth Island Homecoming is a tradition that occurs every two years in April. During this event, hundreds of descendants, friends, volunteers, and anyone with a fascination with the deserted island just south of Ocracoke descend on the island to celebrate this rich heritage, and to rekindle the island’s inherent sense of community.
Friends of Portsmouth Island (FPI), which was formed in 1989, sponsored its first homecoming event on April 25, 1992. (Although similar Homecoming gatherings have occurred since 1973.) Since then, the biennial gathering has attracted hundreds of family members as well as newcomers, who tend to return year after year.
“This is our second Homecoming,” said Marcia Miller of Statesville, N.C. “We were always fascinated with Portsmouth Island, and signed up as members of Friends of Portsmouth Island. And when we went to our first Homecoming, we knew we were going to come back.”
The history, as well as the enticing aesthetic of the small Portsmouth village, is indeed what attracts many visitors who have no direct familial ties with the residents who carved out a hard life on the island for generations.
Established in 1752, Portsmouth Island was once the biggest port community along the Outer Banks. At its peak in 1860, Portsmouth village had roughly 700 residents, which included 200 enslaved African Americans, 100 school-aged children, and two teachers.
“Portsmouth Island was the metropolis of the Outer Banks,” said David Quinn.
But a series of events in the following years after this peak would signal the village’s downfall. The Civil War led to two invasions of the island – first by the Confederates, and then by the Union forces – which in turn caused the temporary abandonment of the village. After the war, only one black family – Rose Ireland Pigott and her children – returned to the village.
A number of hurricanes that followed also hastened the decline. As new inlets opened on Hatteras Island and the northern Outer Banks, and a 1933 hurricane drove away many residents, the village dwindled. The U.S. Coast Guard Station was decommissioned in the 1930s, the school closed in 1943, and only the Post Office continued to function.
By the late 1960s, the village had just three residents: Henry Pigott, (grandson of Rose Pigott), Marian Gray Babb, and Nora Dixon. Henry ran the mail boat from Portsmouth to Ocracoke, and took care of the last two elderly ladies, until he fell ill in 1970. He moved to Ocracoke Island and passed away in 1971, and the women moved away soon after.
But despite the fact that the village has been deserted for nearly 50 years, its legacy is still very much alive.
This year’s theme was “A Step Back in Time,” and focused on the simple times and activities that were common to the people of Portsmouth. Legendary resident Henry Pigott quietly took center stage at the event, as an image of him rowing his mail boat back to the village, with his original pink house in the background, was the logo for the event’s biennial pin, as well as the special postmark that is activated, stamped, and used every two years via the village’s post office.
Though there is no headcount available yet on the total number of attendees for 2018’s event, volunteers who manned the sign-up sheets reported that was never a pause in activity since they started working at 7 a.m., as visitors streamed into the island via boat shuttles from Ocracoke.
2016 was the Homecoming’s biggest event yet with 450 attendees, and the crowd at 2018’s event looked to be of a similar stature, as visitors wandered around the dozen or so homes and buildings open to visitors, and looked for clues to their familial ties.
“That’s my great grandfather!” said Carly Smith of Greensboro, N.C., after seeing a class portrait hung on the wall of the Portsmouth School House, and recognizing Charles Salter.
Most of the descendants have attended many Homecomings in the past, like Russ Carter, who is Henry Pigott’s cousin. “I have been coming since 1998,” he said, noting that he previously came with his dad, Rudy Carter, until he passed away last year at the age of 95. “There are 19 of us here, with folks coming from as far away as California. One year, we even had someone come here from France – It’s just a great reason to gather as a family.”
Henry Pigott’s nephew Spencer, who first started coming to the event while in college eight years ago, agreed. “I came down from Washington, D.C.,” he said. “It’s a long drive, but I feel invigorated as I get closer to Portsmouth Island.”
Russ Carter also noted that his sister and Henry’s cousin, Debbie Carter Fontaine, had been coming to the Homecoming since 1996, and was the unofficial keeper of the family history. “She’s the one who is decked out with all the Portsmouth Island pins like a General,” he said.
Debbie explained that her family had ties to the island that date back to 1820, when Dorcas was born as an enslaved person. “She was the original matriarch,” said Debbie, confirming that her family had roots on the island that extended for 161 years. “We were the only black family that stayed after the Civil War, and we have a great history here. Lizzie, Henry’s sister, was the town barber, and Henry was the last man to live on the island. This is our family home, and we always have a great time every time we come to [the Homecoming.]”
“It’s quite an honor to have Henry’s family here, and the park is so appreciative that they come” said Ed Burgess, a Homecoming volunteer for 18 years from Burlington, N.C. “Henry had such a major impact on the village. On Sundays, he would ring the church bell, and the pin and postmark are replicas of a photo of him by famous photographer, Bruce Roberts.”
And in an appropriate tie-in with the past, Henry’s cousin Russ Carter stepped up to ring the Methodist Church bell on Saturday morning to indicate that it was time for the day’s program to begin.
The schedule for the Homecoming event is fairly flexible, with folks touring the varying buildings during the morning, followed by a program / service, and then a huge potluck lunch that requires countless tables and coolers to contain. Signs indicating “veggies,” “pastas,” “meats,” and “desserts” helpfully marked the barrage of dishes, and volunteers worked tirelessly to set up more tables and drinks as dishes rolled in all morning long.
But the highlight of the event is arguably the Homecoming Service, where everyone gathers in the giant shaded tent in front of the church to honor the village and its families.
Colt Goodwin, the great, great, great grandson of Annie Salter, led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. Connie Mason shared a beautiful rendition of her original “Marian’s Song,” and various speakers, like Cape Lookout Park Superintendent Jeff West and Rev. Richard Bryant of the Ocracoke United Methodist Church, addressed the crowd.
David Quinn, who noted that it was the fourth time someone else had delivered the history of Portsmouth Island at the service since his grandmother Dot Salter Willis passed away, gave an insightful overview of Portsmouth’s story – as Dot had done for years. “I’m not here to fill her shoes, but to continue her tradition,” he said.
A roll call of the families was also orchestrated, and roughly 30 different families were represented at the event, with lots of applause as their names were called.
After the service, the crowd steadily moved to the outdoor banquet stationed behind the church to dig in, and to meet and greet with family members and friends that they hadn’t seen in years, or that they were just meeting for the first time.
After a long and lingering lunch, people shuffled back to the line of boats waiting to make the roughly 15 minute ride back to Ocracoke Island, and back to civilization. But nevertheless, for a few hours on Saturday, April 21, Portsmouth Island was most certainly alive, and it remains vividly alive for the hundreds of people who attended, and who have deep ties to the small island village.
“Thomas Wolfe said you could never go home again,” said Master of Ceremonies, FPI Board Member, and Gilgo descendent Jim White. “But once again, we prove him wrong.”
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