By Gael Hawkins
The first thing I remember learning about Chester Lynn is that he is immune to poison ivy. This, in itself, may not seem to be extraordinary, but in the late 1980s on Ocracoke if rambling around old gravesites was the order of business it was a very big asset.
Chester is a local expert on all of the marked and unmarked graves (about 89) on the island and led me on a tour to see these sites.
Poison ivy was everywhere, but Chester could grab a vine and uncover an old marble tombstone with his bare hands.
He also knew who was buried where and a bit of history about each family. All of this information was delivered in his Ocracoke “brogue,” an added bonus.
Later that night, I was having dinner at the old Island Inn. Out of the kitchen came Chester to greet some diners. It turned out that he was running the restaurant.
Fast forward to 2015. Chester now owns Annabelle’s Florist and Antiques on Back Road in the house in which he was raised.
Every room of the shop is full of treasures, both local and North Carolina related. He has a set of pewter plates that have been attributed to the style and date (1709) of the famous pirate, Blackbeard.
There are ship’s anchors, exquisite French porcelains, cast iron pots and skillets, crystal, oil lamps, wonderful old jewelry, Portsmouth Island memorabilia, and, of course, flowers and fig trees.
Chester has been sleuthing the history of figs on Ocracoke for years. He knows the varieties, the growing techniques, the attributes of each. He can guide you to the right tree for your environment and assist you in successfully reaping fruit.
Until her death, Chester and his mother, Audrey Carol O’Neal Lynn, shared the house following his father John Edgar Lynn’s death.
Chester’s grandfather, George O’Neal, was part owner of the mail boat Aleta and ran a dredge that pumped out the old creek in 1942 to make the Navy base that is now Silver Lake Harbor.
Annabelle Fulcher O’Neal was his grandmother and his shop bears her name as a tribute.
His link to Portsmouth Island comes through his granny’s genes. He can date his heritage from the 1700s through her back to the settling of Portsmouth.
Chester is a founding member of the Friends of Portsmouth Island who maintain the structural and cultural integrity of that island.
Although there are no longer inhabitants, Chester lauds the National Park Service which has kept the village structures in good repair. The Methodist Church that had been precariously tilting for years was shored up and righted, thanks to the Park Service.
Often, Anabelle’s smells heavenly with something cooking in the kitchen.
“People come by just to find out what he is fixing on the stove,” he said.
When he went to live with Mrs. Liz Styron (Down Point) at about age 12 his love for cooking began.
Mrs. Styron, who owned one of the first eating places on Ocracoke years earlier, taught Chester all of the basics. Her old kitchen was full of beautiful dishes and paintings the likes of which Chester had never seen.
After his chores were finished, she’d let him roam in that old room. That was the beginning of his love for things old and pretty.
About his florist beginning, he has story after story about his green thumb from a very early age.
Once he grafted a Rose of Sharon bush before he could read by looking at the pictures in a book.
There was nobody doing flowers on Ocracoke for special occasions back then. So Chester made some floral arrangements for an Ocracoke School alumni banquet and ever since, he has been a florist.
Catch Chester giving a Porch Talk on figs this summer at the Ocracoke Preservation Society.
You can also hear him speaking the local dialect on the CD, “Ocracoke Speaks the Distinct Sounds of the Hoi Toide” available at the OPS gift shop.
Chester is a story-teller, historian, fierce protector of the heritage of Ocracoke and Portsmouth Islands, naturalist, very good cook, creative florist, knowledgeable antiques dealer.
And he is still immune to poison ivy.