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An Outer Banks Guidebook Preserves Stories Of A Scenic Byway

Flickr/Creative Commons
Outer Banks, North Carolina

Part guidebook, part preservation effort, "Living at the Water's Edge: A Heritage Guide to the Outer Banks Byway" (The University of North Carolina Press/2017) takes visitors to the proverbial porches of those who live along the Outer Banks National Scenic Byway. The 21 unincorporated communities from Whalebone Junction to North River Bridge are unique.

However, they share a seaside landscape, certain customs and ways of life, and a new set of challenges due to increased immigration and development.

Barbara Garrity-Blake and Karen Willis Amspacher will read from their book at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh tomorrow at7 p.m.; at the Regulator Bookshop in Durhamon Thursday, June 1, and at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center on Harkers Island on June 23. Host Frank Stasio talks to co-authors Barbara Garrity-Blake and Karen Wills Amspacher about their book and the unique culture and history they hope to help preserve.


Barbara on the perceived isolation of the Outer Banks:

There has been a perception that the Outer Banks were places of great isolation. And, in fact, one of the grant proposals that I read for an earlier oral history project said: “These are unique people isolated for years with their strange customs,” in so many words. But when you really sit down and talk to people you realize that there was quite a worldliness of the folks back then because they were attached by the water. And, you know, the waterways were the highway. And so, sure, in some ways Ocracoke and Hatteras, and earlier Shackleton Banks and Cape Lookout, were isolated. And yet people worked on vessels that went out to the West Indies.They went all the way up the Atlantic seaboard.

Karen on the connections between Outer Banks communities:

One of the big themes that Barbara and I kept trying to stress over and over, and in other work as well, was our connections – How much alike the 21 communities of the scenic byway are. And they very much are when you dig down and you go back generations and find the people who are descendents of those people who were fishermen and boat builders and hunters and guides and all that. Each community had its distinctiveness, but it also had those commonalities.

Barbara on the lifesaving service and its all African-American crew:

There was a spate of shipwrecks in the early 1800s where just hundreds and hundreds of lives were lost. And so Congress eventually authorized the establishment of lifesaving stations....And so when the lifesaving stations were in full throttle, every inch of the coastline was patrolled by these surfmen, whether on horseback or on foot. They would leave one lifesaving station and head down the beach and meet another surfman, and they would exchange tokens to prove that they had done their beat and then go back.


Richard Etheridge was the first African-American leader of the lifesaving station at Pea Island. That was an all African-American crew. They had some pushback when that was first established, and the lifesaving station actually was burned to the ground but then rebuilt. And Richard Etheridge's crew made some amazing rescues, including the E.S. Newman rescue...And they were not recognized for that rescue until 100 years later. And so after the fact the families were awarded with the gold medal – a huge honor.

Karen on how people perceive changes in the region:

It depends on the day. It depends on who you talk to. We’re just coming off a big Memorial Day weekend and several commented it was the most people ever on Harker’s Island. It’s hard. There’s a lot of changes in the landscape. A lot of changes in the economy. A lot of struggles – territorial and policy and procedures.


But it’s always changed. My grandmother was born on Shackleford Banks, and she moved to Harker’s Island when she was 12 years old because the tide took them. Salt water got in their wells, and the dirt turned to sand, and they had to find higher ground. So they adapted and they moved on...You live with change.

Barbara on what she hopes the book will achieve:

When we started this book, one of the things that inspired us was, we have a friend who lives out on Hatteras Island, Susan West, and she used to work in the post office. And she said that one day a woman came in and said, “You mean people actually live here?” There was this idea that we’re at the beach, so everyone else here is also on vacation, right? What do you mean, people are here flung out 33 miles into the Atlantic in the winter. How can that be? There’s actually schools here? And people making a living?

If you’re traveling the length of the byway or you’re renting a cottage for a week, you can easily miss the extremely rich history, the extremely rich culture that is still vibrant in these communities. We just wanted to call attention to that, and we hope that it enriches the visitors’ experience to learn about the people of that area. And we hope that we’re making the local people proud as well.


Jennifer Brookland is the American Homefront Project Veterans Reporting Fellow. She covers stories about the military and veterans as well as issues affecting the people and places of North Carolina.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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