The Ocracoke Strong sign, that replaced the Variety Store sign after Hurricane Dorian, will be raffled as a fundraiser for the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department. Photo by Tommy Hutcherson

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Ocracoke Observer staff report

For the second year in a row, the annual Firemen’s Ball is canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, but a special fundraising effort will conclude on what was to be this year’s event on May 29.

“We are confident that this is the right thing to do, our highest priority being the safety of everyone involved,” according to a press release by the sponsoring Ocracoke Fire Protection Association (OFPA). 

In lieu of the ball, to raise some funds, the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department (OVFD) will raffle the chance to win one side of the two-sided “Ocracoke Strong” sign that was installed at the Variety Store two days after Hurricane Dorian inundated the island on Sept. 6, 2019.

Mandy Jones, a longtime Variety Store employee, hastily spray painted the signs since the hurricane had torn off the outside sign, said Tommy Hutcherson, Variety Store owner.

The two-sided sign served as a beacon of hope for months while the island recovered from the worst flooding to date.

“I’m keeping one and we’re raffling the other one,” Hutcherson said.

Tickets are $5 and can be purchased either at the Variety Store or with PayPal online at http://www.ocracokevfd.org. The drawing will be held Saturday, May 29.

The all-volunteer department received good news in March when Mike Causey, the state fire marshal, announced that after the annual inspection, the OVFD improved its fire district rating from a six to a five. A lower number is a better rating, and a five for an all-volunteer department is a coup for Ocracoke.  (See editorial, page 15).

The importance of the OVFD goes beyond putting out structure fires and assisting in medevacs when medical helicopters arrive to transport patients to hospitals.

After the immediate Hurricane Dorian crisis, the fire house served as the command center until mid-November. The fire trucks were moved across the street and the bays were filled with much-needed items for residents.

The fire house is the location for voting and various meetings.

To finance all of this, the Firemen’s Ball, begun in 2006, has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years–about $70,000 in recent years.

In 2019, the ball moved from the Community Center to the Berkley Manor and took in a record of more than $100,000, so plans were underway to make that more spacious location permanent.

The cancellation disappointment is not just financial as it is one of the most popular festivities of the year for both islanders and visitors and includes a barbecue meal, silent and live auctions and dancing to music by the ball’s original founders–the Dune Dogs–and also the Ocracoke Rockers.

Many people and businesses donate a variety of classy items for both auctions and the volunteer firefighters serve as hosts chipping in to ensure the success of the event.

Part of the event’s folklore is the amount of money the cakes baked by Ruth Toth will fetch during the live auction. 

She is fondly remembered by many as the proprietor of the former Atlantic Café and author of its eponymous cookbook.

Auctioneers/MCs Bill Cole and Philip Howard at the last event had their work cut out for them with the constant raising of the bidding paddles as the competition grew fierce for the 72 items that ranged from highly prized hand-carved duck decoys, stays at some of the island lodgings and even a week in Vail, Colorado, along with artwork, offshore fishing trips and gift certificates from island businesses.

But it was Toth’s cakes strategically placed at the end that kept the crowd from leaving early. Cheers arose as each paddle was raised and the bids increased.

Firemen’s Ball fans, seen here in 2019, will have to wait until May 28, 2022, for a chance to bid on one of the cakes by Ruth Toth, standing. Photo: C. Leinbach

By the last cry of “sold” by the auctioneer the three cakes raised a total of $4,200.

Two cancellations in a row of the Firemen’s Ball are a major financial setback.

Money from this yearly event brings in much needed funding to keep the OVFD running. To donate, go to the website: https://www.ocracokevfd.org/ or mail a check to the Ocracoke Fire Protection Association, P.O. Box 332, Ocracoke, NC 27960.

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