In the spring of 1924, New York Times correspondent G. S. Carraway ventured to Harkers Island in search of some truths.5 It was a key moment for his visit: after the close of World War I, midway into the Jazz Age, and prior to the Great Depression. Visiting such a place, “removed decades and leagues from the coast [Beaufort] in habits and customs,” Carraway said, “a visitor . . . might easily think that he was in a foreign country.” “Very few Americans,” he continued,
have ever heard of the place; fewer have ever been there. Up until ten years ago the inhabitants were isolated, illiterate and almost barbarous. There were no laws, no roads, no schools. The natives [have] squatted on the little land that they desired for their rude shacks . . . . Marriage with outsiders was so rare that the race was beginning to lose its strength and vitality.
On the other hand, Carraway granted, the area was a nearly idyllic “haven of beauty,” with low-growing water oaks, “their branches sloping gradually higher in perfect ascension . . . .jungles of yapon [sic] trees with . . . scarlet berries . . . undergrowth with wild flowers . . . [and] winding byways . . . meander[ing] invitingly through the woods.” There were few crops, he observed, but some people had good gardens and a few chickens.
The idyllic natural scene was in some respects matched by a healthy social order. The “old-fashioned natives,” he reported, “are original and interesting . . . wholesome and kind-hearted people.” Their health was good, except for some malaria and hookworm (a nearly universal plague of the time) among the children. Early marriage and large families were the norm, longevity was common, and the death rate low. The adults, he said, “are easy-going, good natured, congenial and contented. As a rule . . . [they are] intelligent and shrewd, with hard common sense and a keen sense of humor.” They are “peaceful, law-abiding citizens, rarely ever getting in trouble or court,” little whiskey is made or drunk, and they know “Bible stories and old legends.”
Music (played on parlor organs, a lone piano, a couple of fiddles, mouth harps, and an accordion) forms Harkers Islanaders’ “chief pleasure.” The richest inhabitants, Carraway observed, own Edison cylinder phonographs.6 Some have organs, and there was at least one piano. At local square dances; Carraway was surprised to observe, “the whiskered old fishermen with their thin, wiry wives are marvelously light and graceful.”
But Carraway was more skeptical and ambivalent than he thus far sounded. Parlor organs not withstanding, the “main musical instrument” on Harkers Island, he was careful to point out, “is the tin dishpan . . . beaten rhythmically with both hands,” accompanied with combs covered with tissue paper and sometimes a kerosene funnel used as bugle.
As it turned out, dishpan drums, tissue-covered comb trumpets and kerosene funnel bugles pointed the way – for Carraway, at least – into a dark underside of Harkers Island culture. Fishing is the only industry, he reported, and it could be very lucrative, but “all of this money is spent, extravagantly and foolishly at times, or is buried.” Men spend so much of their time fishing, Carraway said, that “the heads of many are box-shaped, cut square, with the forehead sloping abruptly backward” (rather ape-like, one wonders if he was thinking).
Back at home, the men were idle, “usually whittling or loafing” while the women did all the work. Worse, “[m]any of the fishermen go dirty and unkempt,” and shoes “are only a recent acquisition." Tobacco “often takes the place of food,” with the men smoking and chewing, and the women (and even four- to five-year old. children) dipping or using snuff. “Hardly any of the adults are educated,” Carraway said. Superstitions were rife, and people were “great believers in ghosts, ‘h'ants,’ and the like. There were church services, but “babies squall, boys eat oranges, peanuts and candy, the girls primp and giggle, and the adults talk or chew, occasionally spitting on the floor.”
With regard to Harkers Island culture, then, Carraway judged that it was a very mixed bag of good and bad news. “During the last decade,” he reported, “rapid strides have been taken in the direction of progress and prosperity.” Although there were “none of of the so-called modern conveniences and no prospects of any, . . . [there] was a regular mail and passenger boat from Beaufort, and a school in a modern, new building.” Older inhabitants “heartily disapprove of these changes,” he said, preferring to “retain their primitive and peculiar customs and manners of living,” but there were ten automobile owners, “the flappers are demanding the latest styles in clothes and bobbed hair,” and the children are doing “remarkably well” in school.
Hoi Toide (or Not): Defining and Promoting the Culture of the Southern Banks After World War II
The decades following Carraway’s New York Times article were times of great change for the southern Banks, and not necessarily in a positive direction. Portsmouth had been in decline ever since the Custom House closed in 1867, and all but a few stalwart residents had left after major hurricanes in 1933 and 1944. Diamond City was completely wiped out by the San Ciriaco hurricane of 1899 – a year or so after the last the last whale had been caught. Life-saving and Coast Guard stations had come and gone, as had war-time population surges. A planned tourist development on Shackleford Banks had never materialized. The mostly post-Civil War commercial fishing industry had waxed and waned; menhaden production had continued to rise, but shad fishermen were catching only a fraction of what they had found in 1900. And Core Banks was littered with the rusting hulks of automobiles converted to fishing buggies by rising numbers of sports fishermen. And at least from World War II onward, many long-time residents had been drawn away from the Banks to steady jobs at military installations in the surrounding area.7
During the more than three-quarters of a century since Carraway presented his at best ambivalent picture of Harkers Island, the popular image of Outer Banks culture has shifted in a more positive direction. Several factors have contributed to the shift: The post-World War II emphasis on tourism and the intensive tourism promotion efforts of coastal counties, towns and Chambers of Commerce (especially those of Aycock Brown in Dare County); the arrival of two major national seashore parks; the rise of multiculturalism with its emphasis on the value of non-mainstream cultural systems; and the growth of heritage tourism in the 1990s.8
Contemporary tourist promotion sites on the Internet invite visitors to make “a historic and cultural pilgrimage through the [area’s] rich past,” to explore its “rich maritime legacy,” and to understand its “unique place in American history.”9
At one level such language is no more than the standard tourist-attraction boilerplate, of which examples abound from innumerable “attractions.” But like many such promoters, Outer Banks marketers advance a historical basis for their claims. They posit, for example, that through much of its long history, the area’s “isolation” contributed to its uniqueness. And indeed the area is almost always described as isolated. During the Civil War, a Colonel Hawkins, Union commander of the area between Ocracoke and Oregon inlets after the battle on Hatteras Island, observed that “The islanders mingle but little with the world. . . . [A]pparently indifferent to this outside sphere, they constitute a world within themselves.”10 A century later, local Carteret County ferry operator Josiah W. Bailey described Cape Lookout as “isolated, wave washed, and windswept . . . unfamiliar to present generations.” By-passed by time,” he said, “[it] remains largely as it was when first observed by the . . . explorers of the sixteenth century.”11 And one could cite innumerable other examples of the claim.
Another frequently invoked basis for popular characterizations of Outer Banks culture is the existence of putatively stable, multi-generational maritime occupations (frequently family-based) including fishermen, lighthouse keepers, and Life-Saving Service and Coast Guard crews – the latter two groups especially appealing because their occupations frequently required heroic action. And there is indeed some historical basis for these claims of culture-defining importance, as we have noted in previous chapters. The 1790 Carteret County census includes many family names (Davis, Roberts, Dixon, Fulsher/Fulcher, Gaskin, Lewis, Salter, Styron, Wallace, Willis) still in evidence more than two hundred years later.12
There are, however, several problems with these definitional and promotional claims. One is that the claim of isolation is easily falsifiable for every period of Outer Banks history, especially from the eighteenth century onward, as we have been at pains to point out in the foregoing chapters. The arrival of the first slaves – who, whatever else they were, were cultural others – ended anything that might legitimately have been called cultural isolation on the Banks. And Cecelski’s analysis of the world of slave watermen shows conclusively that the area was anything but isolated or monocultural afterwards. Slavery was, and remained throughout its existence in the maritime world, a domain of cultural exchange at odds with any notion of isolation. Persistent Atlantic world trade and communication – in which slaves played a key part – created and sustained important and durable linkages that worked against isolation.
Even though one might justifiably observe that the coastal counties of North Carolina were – as we pointed out in a prior chapter – excluded from the growth of textile mills, tobacco factories, or furniture manufacturing that shaped so much of the history and social structure of the adjacent Piedmont, they were the locus of the naval stores industry which developed after 1700, and of much of the state’s forest products industry (especially shingles, staves, and sawn lumber) – both of which were de-isolating in their effects.13
Claims for a stable, coherent and durable Outer Banks culture (however defined) are also historically problematic. This is true, the record makes clear, even within the commercial fishing industry itself, long-lived as it has been. As we pointed out in a previous chapter, commercial fishing did not arrive to any extent on the Outer Banks until after the Civil War, and its various sectors – each with its own identifiable season, fishing technology, labor patterns, and work culture – have waxed and waned continuously and dramatically.
As we explained in an earlier chapter, four of the major commercial fishing sectors (clams, menhaden, mullet, and shad) arose in a clump at the end of the century, but followed distinct developmental curves. Clam production peaked very quickly and declined fairly slowly, to less than one-half peak production levels by the 1970s. Similarly with commercial shad fishing: early emergence (ca. 1895), quick peak, and steady decline from the 1930s on, falling to about one ninth of its highest level by the 1970s. Mullet fishing also arose in the nineties, peaked early (around 1900), and by the mid-30s was on a steadily decline toward about a sixth of its peak level. Menhaden fishing, present to some degree in the mid-nineteenth century, became a major industry in the 1890s, reached its highest level around 1918, and by the 1960s had dropped to about half that level. Its technology – much larger vessels and consequently larger crews, onshore factory processing – was quite distinct from that of any other sector.14
Thus, although one might legitimately claim that “commercial fishing” has long been a basis for certain aspects of Outer Banks life and culture, an even cursory analysis of that generically totalized industry leads quickly to an awareness of change and diversity of types that have profound social and cultural effects. To expand the time frame to its maximum extent, the lives and work and culture of shore-based whalers in the eighteenth century were about as different as they could be from those of the menhaden crews more than 250 years later.
Other change factors have also been persistently in evidence for at least that length of time. With the rather capricious opening and closing of inlets from storms and hurricanes, piloting and lightering became less frequent occupations, and many men took up fishing instead. Travel and trade patterns as well as means of livelihood altered as canals opened (and closed); the coming of roads, bridges, and ferries had similar effects. Even tourism – now pervasive on the Banks – arrived at different times, brought different clienteles in different places, produced different developmental patterns, and impacted whatever cultural distinctiveness existed at different locations in different ways, to different degrees, and at different rates.
Broad claims of cultural distinctiveness, stability, and durability also mute critically necessary attention to race and class, as we have argued in a prior chapter. Necessary attention to gender is also backgrounded or omitted. As Garrity-Blake was careful to point out in her study of the menhaden industry, the lives of fishermen’s wives (and of women more generally, including those who worked in the processing factories) were impacted by the industry in ways quite different in some respects from those of their husbands.15
Paradoxically, evidence of the ultimate insupportability of any claim to a unique, stable, tradition-based Outer Banks culture emerges most convincingly from careful study of its most often cited feature: “hoi toide” speech.