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Preserving our maritime heritage, endowing our community’s future

Community Square

Modern-day view of Community Square from the porch of The Community Store, 2014. Courtesy of Bill Birkemeier.

Ocracoke Foundation launches restoration and endowment campaign

By Kelley Shinn

“A people without the knowledge of their past, history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.” —Marcus Garvey (1887-1940)

As a writer, I can begrudgingly admit that books alone are not enough to sustain such knowledge as referenced in this epigraph.  A tactile humanity needs something it can touch and see to truly understand its past.  Architecture, the work of humanity’s hands, bears witness to the stories of our past in a way that makes the writer’s telling of it come alive.  Structures can also bear evidence to misperceptions of history.  This is substantiated in technological advances that have helped us to understand how the pyramids of ancient Egypt, the Parthenon or Machu Picchu were constructed—and within those constructions there are lessons we are continuing to learn about corruption and slavery vs. kindness and effective leadership—concepts to which Marcus Garvey nobly devoted his life.

The architecture of Ocracoke Island also bears witness to a rich and unique history—one of Native Americans, pirates, shipwrecks, and small yet significant roles in the Civil War, WWI and WWII.  Indeed, the island boasts more than 200 buildings and homes that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  And while each home and building tells its own rich and salient story, the heart of the village—the place where villagers have gathered for news, goods, and celebrations for nearly a century—is the cluster of five historical buildings that we endearingly know as The Community Square.

Community Square, 1954

The Community Square, 1954. Courtesy of the Ocracoke Preservation Society.

The Community Square was listed for public sale in 2009.  The Ocracoke Foundation, concerned about the effect of private development in the heart of the island’s maritime heritage, worked closely with the seller and was able to purchase the Square for $1.6 million in November 2013 with the aid of two interim loans.  The Conservation Fund and a private donor each put up $800,000.  The Foundation’s intent has always been to take this valuable island asset, restore and preserve it, and then put it to work for the community.

Although several small merchandise stores were maintained in different areas of the island, Amasa “Mace” Fulcher opened The Community Store in 1918, on the north side of Cockle Creek (which was renamed Silver Lake after the Army Corps of Engineers dredged it in 1939, though locals did not choose the name).  And while the building has changed form and location due to both storm destruction and growth, the gathering place remained open for 88 consecutive years until 2006.  Mace carried baking goods, cheese, dried beans, hardware, Sunday clothes, and even kept one child and two adult caskets on hand at all times. 

Though the building was used intermittently after 2006, as a store, and to sell homemade goods, it wasn’t until 2014 that The Community Store opened under the management of Joseph Rammuni and Lauren Strohl.  Once again, a large variety of goods are sold—everything from cast-iron pans and fishing rods to toys and organic produce—and it maintains an old-world charm where it is not uncommon to see folks sitting in the rocking chairs around the pot-belly wood stove in the center of the store, or on the benches underneath the covered porch–just as islanders did nearly a century ago.

In 1930, Will Willis built the Will Willis Fish House and Dock.  The structure became a hub for local fisherman.  The daily arrival of the mail boat, Aleta, drew most islanders from their homes to the dock. Later, it became a store where Ocracoke children would sip on milkshakes and jump off the docks into Cockle Creek to escape the summer heat.  Today, it houses the Ocracoke Working Waterman’s Exhibit and the headquarters for the Ocracoke Foundation.  Its docks are still used as a launching point for local charter boats and tours.

Community Store

The Community Store after the 1944 hurricane. Courtesy of the Ocracoke Preservation Society.

In 1936, The Ocracoke Power and Light Company was formed.  A generator plant and office were built next to the Community Store, along with an ice plant where ice was produced and sold.  Ronald O’Neal, whose historical home I happen to live in, was an employee of the company, and could often be seen pouring ice on top of the generator plant roof on hot summer mornings to prevent overheating.  For nearly 2 decades, the building has been home to both Kitty Hawk Kites and The Fudge Shop, now run by long-term resident Mark Justice. 

Also in 1936, a small structure was built at the edge of the Willis dock.  It was used as an office where residents could pay their electric bill, and after a public water system was introduced in the 1970s, their water bills, too.  It is now home to Community Square’s most recent enterprise—Stuff—a store specializing in handmade and fair-trade goods.

The fifth and final historical structure that makes up the square is the William Ellis Williams House, ca. 1900. In 1983, David and Sherrill Senseney acquired the house and moved it from the current site of the Anchorage hotel, to the waterfront of the Community Square.  After serving as a home for several families, it became a gift shop for many years.  Recently, it has become the Coyote Den of beloved island musicians, Marcy Brenner and Lou Castro.  There, you can hear stories and songs told and sang in a historical building by local folks such as Martin Garrish, Aaron Caswell, and Clifton Garrish—stories and songs that all bear evidence to the quick-witted survival and jovial spirit of this island and its people, despite the storms, the pirates and the wars that have threatened their survival.

Ocracoke is a historic maritime community, and access to the water is crucial for water-based businesses, as well as the enjoyment of residents and the traveling public.  Repairs and upgrades of the docks, piers, platforms and kayak launch ramp located at The Community Square will continue to provide a base for maritime businesses, local watermen and recreational boaters. Future generations of watermen will be assured of a base for their livelihood.

The Ocracoke Foundation is committed to the preservation and restoration of this historical site, and its benefit to the village of Ocracoke.  This community icon can model how isolated, rural communities can put their assets to work: by saving historic properties, providing space for locally-owned small businesses, maintaining waterfront access and public open space, being a focal point for tourism, and by using the lease income as a permanent endowment.

The Community Square is listed under The National Register of Historic Places.

The Community Square is listed under The National Register of Historic Places.

But financial help is needed to keep this vital history alive. 

The $800,000 loan from The Conservation Fund is due October 2016.  The private donor has agreed to match his investment for every dollar donated toward paying off the loan from The Conservation Fund.  That is, for every dollar donated toward the acquisition of Community Square, the private donor will forgive a dollar of his loan. 

The Ocracoke Foundation has been actively seeking grants to help with restoration costs.  The foundation anticipates that for every dollar donated toward restoration, fifty cents will be matched by grant money.  Once these goals have been met, income from the Square will be able to be put to work for the community, and easements will be put into effect to ensure that the Community Square will be protected in perpetuity.

Within the walls and on the porches of The Community Square, the history of Ocracoke—indeed, the history of America—is evident.  For the last century, these walls have remained, bearing witness to the lives and stories lived and told inside of them—and within them are lessons that we can continue to learn from the human history of corruption and slavery vs. kindness and effective leadership. 

With your help, we can make certain that Ocracoke is always a people with “knowledge of their past, history, origin and culture”—a tree with roots, even on a sandbar.

Please visit The Ocracoke Foundation website at www.ocracokefoundation.org  for more history and information, and to find out how you can help.

Iona Teeter, and her son Carl "Toad" Teeter purchase sundries from Monkford Garrish at The Community Store, 1955. Photo from the Standard Oil Collection by Martha McMillan Roberts, courtesy of Ekstrom Library.

Iona Teeter and her son Carl “Toad” Teeter purchase sundries from Monkford Garrish at The Community Store, 1955. Photo from the Standard Oil Collection by Martha McMillan Roberts, courtesy of Ekstrom Library.

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