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By Connie Leinbach
Before pirates became all the rage, Teach’s Hole Blackbeard Exhibit was telling the story of the infamous pirate killed off Springer’s Point Nov. 22, 1718.
Now in their 27th season, it all started in 1990 when George Roberson met Mickey, who had just arrived on Ocracoke. Mickey worked in the NPS Visitors Center and fielded many questions about Blackbeard and his history on the island.
“People asked where the Blackbeard museum was or where they could find something out about Blackbeard,” George said as Mickey greeted customers in their exhibit and souvenir shop on Irvin Garrish Highway. “That was before the Internet.”
All those visitor questions sparked an idea for a business.
George, who majored in interior design at the Ringling College of Art and Design, Sarasota, Florida, in the 1970s, supplied the know-how to put together a museum-quality exhibit, which opened in May 1992 in the front part of Tony Sylvester’s studio on Back Road.
George created framed information pieces and plaques that tell Blackbeard’s story based on the book by Robert E. Lee.
“That was the only modern source,” he said about that time. Since then, a flurry of research has prompted the publication of more books on Blackbeard.
Small but comprehensive, the exhibit includes all kinds of original art that the couple has collected over the years. Among the art is one of only 25 original woodcut prints of Blackbeard by artist Glenn Eure.
A life-size figure of Blackbeard is not simply a decorated mannequin.
Thomas Tucker, the costume consultant for the film “Master and Commander,” hand sewed Blackbeard’s clothing. His surgical-grade glass eyes gaze menacingly on visitors.
George’s video of Springer’s Point was made to look like an old film.
Renowned ship-in-a-bottle maker Jim Goodwin created scale models of Blackbeard’s boats, “The Queen Anne’s Revenge” and “The Adventure,” the latter on which Blackbeard and his crew sailed when they were trapped off Ocracoke and vanquished by British Royal Navy Lt. Robert Maynard.
There are authentic period weapons, antique medical instruments and other items from the 1700s, including a real piece-of-eight silver coin.
“Various countries have made coins and stamps of Blackbeard,” George said. “He’s the most commercialized pirate ever.”
Interactive exhibits for children include a video and knot-tying.
Along with the obligatory T-shirts, mugs, stickers (“The compass rose coordinates are our parking lot,” Mickey said) and flags, the souvenir shop is filled with dozens of books on Blackbeard and also authentic weapons and coins.
A pressed-penny machine will change the copper coin to a two-sided impression of the shop.
The couple chuckles about their difficulty finding pirate souvenirs back when they began this venture.
Then, in 1996, the sunken “Queen Anne’s Revenge” was discovered outside of Beaufort to much national frenzy.
“That’s when it all started,” Mickey said about the pirate fascination.
After several years on Back Road, the couple moved to their current spot for which George designed the building.
They opened the new exhibit in April 2006 and that year rode a crest of pirate excitement as the first of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies came out.
“As soon as the movie hit, everyone at the (gift) shows had pirate stuff,” George said about the souvenirs.
That first year was their best ever, George said.
The business prospered for the next two years until the recession hit in 2008, affecting all island businesses.
A spate of further regulations and situations—fishing licenses, then beach driving permits in 2012 and issues with ferry access—began eroding the daily visitor tally and income.
Now, the Robersons would like to retire and are looking for someone to carry it forth.
In the meantime, they carry on with their exhibit, open from April 1 until the Saturday after Thanksgiving each year.
“Are you going to pillage the village?” Mickey asks a happy youngster with his new plastic cutlass. “I like to make everyone smile and laugh.”