Island Living on Ocracoke and the Hyde County Mainland
"She lived on this island for 77 years and never left, not even for a day," Alton Ballance told us about a woman who spent her entire life on Ocracoke Island, N.C.
Except for the small village of Ocracoke, the entire eight-mile-long island is part of protected national seashore - one long, wide, undeveloped seashore on the ocean side.
In the village, the permanent residents trace their history back to the days of the pirate Blackbeard. Accessible only by sea or air, the village holds on to its special history and island character even though it is overrun with tourists in the summer season. They share an independent spirit and are proud of their special legendary "Hoi Toide" accents.
Ballance's audience was a group of public school teachers who were part of a seminar sponsored by NCAT (The North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching). In part, NCAT's five-day seminars are small rewards for the extraordinary service of superior teachers. But mostly they are part of an effort to improve retention of our best teachers and to renew their excitement for learning and teaching.
Ballance was introducing the peculiarities of island living.
"Never left the island, even for a single day," he continued. "What do you think about that?"
Among the peculiarities of island living for those who come and go is the ferry schedule. For instance, the ferry between Swan Quarter, the county seat of Hyde County, and Ocracoke (also a part of Hyde) is two and a half hours. The ferry runs just two times a day in winter.
The day before, while my friend Bob Anthony and I waited for the ferry to take us to Ocracoke, he showed me around the towns and landscapes the of the mainland part of Hyde County he came to know growing up on visits to his mother's family.
Hyde County, I learned, has no traffic lights and not a single incorporated city, town or village. But it does have Lake Mattamuskeet with its swarms of tundra swans and geese.
There were also no elevators in Hyde County until the R.S. Spencer store in Engelhard installed a freight elevator when Anthony was a little boy. He and the other children in the area would come to make the scary ride up to the second floor of the store.
Today R.S. Spencer Jr. maintains the store, minus the elevator. It is a community institution that survives because the big box stores have not found their way to Hyde County.
At his nearby home, Spencer maintains a Hyde County history collection and research library of museum quality, something that caught the envious eye of Bob Anthony, the curator of the North Carolina Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Down the street in Engelhard you can find a working fishing port with at least 30 or 40 small fishing boats lined up as if for an oil painting from scenes 150 years ago. Not far away are the fish houses where smart North Carolinians know you can get fresh "just off the boat" catch.
"I would like a couple of pounds of shrimp. Have you got some?" I asked the manager of a fish house at nearby Swan Quarter.
"I got shrimp," he said, "but you don't want 'em. They came from the Gulf. The only thing I got that's local is oysters and they came in today."
After the long ferry ride to Ocracoke, Anthony and I settled in with Ballance's seminar group to learn more about island living.
More about that experience in a later column, but I had already learned that the mainland part of Hyde County is something of an island unto itself, a very special place I would like to visit again and again.
D.G. Martin is hosting his final season of UNC-TV's "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. This Sunday's (Feb. 21) guest is Michael Davis, author of "Street Gang," a history of public televison's "Sesame Street."
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