By Peter Vankevich and Hannah Bunn West
Time on Portsmouth Island moves more slowly than much of the world elsewhere, so they say.
But with regards to the Portsmouth Homecoming, even the most ardent supporters of the unhurried nature of village time wished it would carry them more quickly toward the long-awaited event.
Since 1992, the Portsmouth Homecoming ceremony has taken place every two years. But like many events in 2020, it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making it a painfully long four year wait to once again celebrate the island’s rich cultural and natural heritage. This year’s theme was “Portsmouth Rises,” fitting for post-pandemic life but also for Portsmouth’s recovery after Hurricane Dorian pummeled the village in September 2019.
About 400 attendees, many being descendants of the island’s families, arrived on April 23 by boat under a pristine Outer Banks sky and strolled through the historic village whose last three inhabitants left the island in 1971.
Also present was a film crew. The Tamassee Group, a nonprofit independent filmmaking group in collaboration with The Southern Documentary Fund, is producing a documentary for North Carolina-PBS on the cultural and environmental history of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. They found the return to Portsmouth Island and its restored village an ideal place to begin filming. Of the remaining 20 buildings on the island, 11 were open including the church, the lifesaving station, and the schoolhouse.
Inside the Portsmouth Island post office were Melissa Garrish Sharber, on assignment from Ocracoke’s post office, and Hatteras post office Postmaster Vivian Barnett. They processed post cards and envelopes with the Portsmouth Island cancellation stamp.
Former village caretaker, Dave Frum, was in attendance as well. While not an ancestor of Portsmouth, one could say Frum is the next best thing. For 28 years he looked after the village part-time, taking his skiff over from Ocracoke. He retired in 2016 and was pleased to have a reunion with West, his former boss, and his predecessor, acting superintendent Bob Vogel.
The homecoming has a tradition of an hour-long formal ceremony beginning with a Presentation of Colors by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Kathy McNeilly, president of the Friends of Portsmouth Island, welcomed the crowd. Jim White, author of several books on the history of Portsmouth Island, served as emcee. His grandmother, Lucy Beacham Gilgo, moved to Portsmouth in 1922 to teach, and married Tom Gilgo. His grandfather’s family’s connection to Portsmouth dates to the early 1800s.
History professor David Quinn provided a history of the island. He is the grandson of Dot Salter Willis who, until her death in 2010, was the last living person born on Portsmouth.
“Home is where you go to find solace,” he said in his opening remarks. Descendants had the opportunity to seek solace as they reunited with friends, visited former homesteads and laid flowers in family cemeteries nestled in the village.
Just as music was a vital part of village life in years past, it plays a key role at the homecoming celebrations. Folk singer Connie Mason sang her stirring composition “Marian’s Song,” in honor of Marian Babb, one of the last residents of the island. Descendant Carol Scheppard, granddaughter of Sarah Lincoln and James Archie Newton, the lighthouse keeper at Cape Lookout during WWII, sang a cappella the Mingulay Boat Song for the crowd before performing it on bagpipes.
Jeff West, superintendent of Cape Lookout National Seashore that administers the village, provided an update on its current state and the many building repairs following Hurricane Dorian. He extended a heartfelt thank you to his staff and volunteers for their dedication to saving the village while others would have written it off.
In a bittersweet moment, Jeff West acknowledged longtime volunteers Ed and Renee Burgess for more than 20 years of service in the village, noting that this year will be their last.
Though ending their many years of service to Portsmouth Island’s preservation, these and other devoted members of the older generation have illuminated the way for the next.
Earlier in the morning, Pastor Ivey Belch of Ocracoke’s Life Saving Church performed a christening, and the long silent sanctuary of the Portsmouth Methodist Church was once again filled with a chorus of voices young and old for the traditional hymn singing that took place afterwards.
Following the ceremony, the return of a traditional and enormous potluck was welcomed by the many hungry revelers, concluding a festive day.
For more information on Portsmouth Island and how you can contribute, visit Friends of Portsmouth Island.
Hannah Bunn West is a writer and educator. She has just published her first book, Remarkable Women of the Outer Banks.