FLORENCE GILKESON: An Intimate View of a State Treasure
Leave it to public television to open up an isolated swamp to the scrutiny of wildlife lovers.
UNC-TV opens the series on wildlife refuges in eastern North Carolina with an hourlong introduction to Mattamuskeet, a refuge covering 50,180 acres of lake, swamp and woods in Hyde County. The lake is the largest natural one in the state.
Hyde County abuts Beaufort County, where I was born and grew up. My farmer father occasionally took his rare overnight outings to Lake Mattamuskeet, where he stayed in the old lodge, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The television show by Blake and Emily Scott is a must for bird lovers and anyone who enjoys other forms of wildlife in a mysterious, romantic setting.
Photography is superb. The camera is allowed to linger at a leisurely pace as birds take flight and gather breeze above the woods and the lake. The photographer was given time to savor the flight.
Mattamuskeet is home to thousands of species of birds, from the familiar cardinal to the tundra swan. Bald eagles swoop down from tall trees, and the peregrine falcon is there, along with snow geese, ospreys, cormorants, Canada geese, egrets, blue herons and red-winged blackbirds.
Hyde County is something of an anomaly. Economically, it is a poor county, lightly populated but large geographically, although much of its area is water. Except for school personnel and retail businesses, occupations on the mainland are largely confined to farming, hunting and fishing. The picture changes when you take the ferry across Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke on our Outer Banks, where you find a small fishing and resort village of storybook charm.
People in northeastern North Carolina have long enjoyed poking fun at Hyde County residents, descendants of early English settlers whose speech retains some of those characteristics. We called them Hoide Countians, or Hoigh Toiders (High Tiders).
My opinion of Hyde County changed within a few minutes one May day in 1957. My husband and I were returning home from a honeymoon at Nags Head. We had spent a week exploring the Outer Banks, sunning on the beach, climbing Jockey's Ridge and scaling the Wright Brothers monument at nearby Kitty Hawk. When we ventured out of our room at the Carolinian Hotel, we gorged on the most delicious seafood imaginable.
As stamp collectors, however, we wandered into all the small post offices we could find on the Banks. Small post offices remain one of the best places for philatelists to pick up older stamps that larger offices have long since sold out. Howard and I were intent on completing our set of regular U.S. stamps, those in odd price ranges.
The tiny post office in Kitty Hawk was just what we thought we needed, but it turned into a dismal failure. The window clerk was obliging enough and took out her tray of stamps for our examination. But before we could determine its contents, a man, presumably the postmaster, dashed in, removed the tray and informed us the stamps were not available.
No doubt his action was illegal, but we were newlyweds and had no desire to engage in a verbal battle. The clerk simply shook her head with an apologetic shrug. We theorized that the postmaster was saving the old stamps for a collector friend from the community and was not about to sell any of them (all of minimal face value at that time) to tourists. He probably thought we were Yankees (Howard did have a Virginia accent).
A day later, our faith was restored at Swan Quarter, the little town a few miles from Mattamuskeet and the Hyde County seat. We decided to try another small post office. This time we found treasure. Not only did the postmaster and his clerk open the stamp drawer for our scrutiny, but they also asked about our interests and our background. On learning we were newlyweds, the postmaster gave us a special postcard bearing the Mattamuskeet cache and autographed it, adding to its value.
Today, one can visit Swan Quarter and Mattamuskeet by traveling U.S. 264, the same road that takes you to Raleigh along a route that passes within a quarter mile of my family homeplace in Beaufort County.
If you miss the UNC-TV series this winter, take heart. There will be reruns. The photography is great, and you will avoid the mosquitoes.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at (910) 947-4962 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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