Text and Photo by Peter Vankevich
There are many reasons to visit the Ocracoke Preservation Society’s David Williams House Museum. Passing the white picket fence, stepping onto the porch with the great old rocking chairs, you get a feel that you are walking back into time. Inside, there are furnished rooms with the look and feel of a bygone era. Carefully displayed on an old bed is the quilt made by the Ocracoke Quilters. Raffle tickets are on sale until the drawing that will take place at the Ocracoke Preservation Society’s annual membership meeting in early November. Historic photographs adorn the walls. What you will also see – and that many may not be aware of -on your visit is a wonderful display of well more than a hundred seashells. These identified specimens representing about 72 species are shells that could be spotted on Ocracoke. The collection was donated by Ruth and Bill Cochran, a friendly and outgoing couple who moved to Ocracoke in 1957. Bill ran a flight service on the island and together they also operated the Silver Lake Inn, a gift shop and shuttled fishermen and hunters along the beach in their jeeps affectionately named the Good Hunter, The Flying Fisherman and the Beach Comber. Ruth took great pride in her beach driving skills. It was during these forays that they would often collect shells.
I love looking at this collection and much prefer it to looking at images on the Internet or in the field guides such as Nancy Rhyne’s Carolina Shells and the popular Seashells of North Carolina by Hugh J. Porter, Lynn Houser and Scott Taylor. It’s kind of like preferring a visit to the zoo rather than looking at a National Geographic magazine. One reason I like looking at the collection is you can see the actual size of the shell. Be aware though that specimens of the same species can vary in size depending on the age that the mollusk died and the collection reflects that. For example, in spite of dimensions provided in a book, I was nevertheless surprised to see how small the dreaded Atlantic oysterdrill is. Oyster drills are destructive – yet devilishly handsome – little snails that prey directly on other often much larger shellfish, most notably the Eastern Oyster.
Ocracoke has been noted by Coastal Living Magazine to be the second best place to find seashells along its beach. First place, of course, belongs rightfully so to Florida’s Sanibel Island. I find it amusing that there are so many beach combers there that their shell gathering technique has taken on a name that is known as the Sanibel Stoop. One reason for Ocracoke’s high rating can be attributed to the not too far offshore Labrador Current that descends from the Arctic Ocean and the Gulf Stream that rises from the Caribbean. Both of these systems may carry shells from great distances that may wash up onto the beach, especially after big storms. There are also plenty of shells of the local mollusks that may be found such as moon snails, angel wings, calico scallops, the common sundial and the official state shell, the scotch bonnet. If you find a shell on the beach that you have trouble identifying, you could take it to the museum and see if there is a match.
This seashell collection is well suited to be at the Ocracoke Preservation Society as seashells have been and still are an important part of the island’s culture. To illustrate this point, two large univalve shells you will see are the knobbed and lightning whelks. One easy way to distinguish them is that the knobbed whelk has an opening on the right side and the lightning whelk has its opening on the left side. Philip Howard remembers as a child that these two shells were kept at the family house and used to dip the water out of the old wooden cistern, one shell for the convenience of right handed persons and the other for us lefties.
The David Williams Museum is located in the village near the large parking lot adjacent to the Cedar Island/Swan Quarter ferry docks. It is open from Easter till Thanksgiving. Hours are M-F 10:00 – 4:00 and 11:00 – 4:00on Saturday.
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