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Text and photos by Peter Vankevich
Strolling along Ocracoke’s historic Howard Street, you may think there are a lot of cool houses, and that is true.
But there is one “cool” house worth looking at that provides a look at old Ocracoke thanks to Philip Howard and his labor-of-love restoration project.
So, what’s a cool house?
Before electricity, islanders built small screen boxes shaped like houses, mounted them onto posts and placed them in their yards.
They were used to temporarily store food such as fish, vegetables, fruits and pies for a day or two to protect them from spoiling and get them out of the kitchen.
The little storage boxes went by various names: milk house, screen house, and the coolest name, a cool house.
Howard, Ocracoke’s premier historian who publishes the online Ocracoke Island Journal, thinks this particular design was limited to the Outer Banks. He is not aware of any others existing on Ocracoke, but there are a few in adjacent Portsmouth village. One is at Henry Pigott’s house described as a Portsmouth refrigerator.
“I don’t remember my grandparents having one of those little houses,” Howard said. “They may have, but I don’t remember it. But almost everybody on the island, my age or close to my age (let’s say about 70), remembers them.”
Some years ago, Howard noticed one in the backyard of his longtime friend, the late Blanche Jolliff, down the road on Howard Street. She told him it was built by her daddy, Stacy Wilson Howard (1885-1968), when she was six years old, or built around 1925. Over the years, the cool house went into disrepair.
After Blanche died last year, her nephew and heir, Frankie Garrish, said Philip could have it, and Howard launched into the intricate restoration.
“It needed a lot of work,” Howard said. “The screens were all busted out of it and I had to re-nail a lot of it.”
Howard originally intended to put it in his yard as a historic artifact, but then he got to thinking.
“More people would see it at the Village Craftsmen,” he said.
One day it occurred to him that he could repurpose it as a little free library. So instead of just putting screens in, the only real change he made was to add windows.
“Then I covered them with screen wire on the outside so that it still looks like a screen house, but the glass keeps the books from getting wet,” he said. “I was particularly interested in doing it because Blanche’s father, Stacy, loved to read.”
The cool house, now with books, can be seen in the front yard of the Village Craftsmen on Howard Street, not far from Stacy Howard’s original cool house.