Friday, June 10, 2011


A reader made this comment recently: "The Our State article quoted someone regarding change-- words to the effect don't come to OI and change things.... Why would someone say don't change this or that. Did OI have any resistance to change from whale oil lamps to electricity?"

The issue of change and Ocracoke surfaces regularly. This morning I re-publish comments I made about change almost four years ago.

Friday, September 28, 2007
Comments from Philip

Heraclitus declared that we can’t step into the same river twice. Others have noted that the only constant in life is change.

Time and time again I have heard visitors to Ocracoke express the same sentiment we read in the comments to a recent post: “Don’t let Ocracoke change!” I have often remarked that most people who voice this thought are actually advocating for an Ocracoke like the one they first encountered (30 years ago? 20 years ago? 5 years ago?). Everyone, it seems, wants to close the gate behind them. And yet no one I’ve spoken with wants to return to an Ocracoke before their own time.

Although I fully agree that we must work to preserve the best qualities of our unique, beautiful, and often threatened island and community (more on that below), it is na├»ve to believe that Ocracoke can ever persist in some artificial time warp. Furthermore, whose “first encounter” will we use as the benchmark?

When confronted by good-intentioned folks who yearn for the idyllic Ocracoke that never changes, I sometimes point out to them what it might be like if things had not changed in the last fifty – sixty years.

When I was a young boy,

· Ocracoke had no ferries. What few visitors came to the island arrived by mailboat. Later on, we had a three-car private ferry (with no railings, no ramp, and no dock). Although this was a wonderful period of island history, be honest with yourself: most of our readers would never have even heard of Ocracoke; and most of the rest would never have considered traveling to this remote outpost.
· We had only one paved road (a short section of one-lane concrete used by the Navy). What few vehicles were on the island were frequently stuck in the soft sand; and virtually no one had any reason to venture as far as Hatteras Inlet.
· A day at the beach (an infrequent outing) meant a long, hot walk across the sand flats -- unless someone had access to a surplus Army jeep.
· Water (rainwater caught in wooden cisterns) was rationed carefully, especially in hot, dry summer months. Baths were infrequent, and drinking water was strained through cheesecloth to filter out (most of) the wigglers (mosquito larvae).
· Fires were extinguished (or not) by neighbors manning a bucket brigade.
· Medical emergencies were handled by family, friends, and maybe a resident nurse. There were no ambulances, helicopters, or clinics.
· Electricity was basic, minimal, and often unreliable.
· Telephone service was spotty and irregular.
· Indoor bathrooms were almost unheard of.
· Air conditioning was non-existent.
· Most homes were heated by kerosene space heaters.
· Cable TV, the Internet, and mobile phones were un-dreamed of.

It is not that I sing the praises of all modern “conveniences.” I do not have a television, and I was even one of the few islanders who voted against the installation of a municipal water system in the 1970s. I knew it would spur growth; and it has. I loved the Ocracoke of my youth – a magical place unlike any other.

However my home and business have air conditioning and central heat. I am connected to the Internet, and use a mobile phone. I even enjoy the convenience of the water that flows through my tap from our sophisticated reverse-osmosis water system.

At the same time, I am committed to preserving the best of what Ocracoke has to offer. Instead of longing for an island that will never change, I hope for an island that can somehow manage to balance a rich, colorful, and vibrant history with the demands of a modern society.

There are many things that are beyond our direct control. Federal, state, and county regulations determine property values, taxes, highway decisions, school particulars, Park Service decisions, and many other issues. Property is bought and sold; and again, federal, state, and county laws intervene, often to protect property owners’ individual rights.

As I’ve said so many times, Ocracoke is no artificial attraction, like Disney World. This is a year around community of about 750 people, and we all have a voice in Ocracoke’s present and future. And we don’t always agree. Compromise is necessary.

Every person who moves to Ocracoke brings a slightly different voice. Every baby born here is a unique individual. Every adult from the island sees the world through a slightly different lens.

Those of us who want to preserve what we see as the best of island life can do so in a number of ways. Elected office is one way. Voting is another. But there are others. Some in our community serve tirelessly as volunteers in the school, the churches, the fire department, the civic & business association, on various boards and committees, and in many other ways.

Many islanders have spent countless hours preserving stories, history, and genealogies; as well as trees, plants, open spaces, buildings, and traditional culture.

One of the reasons I personally collect island stories, and share them whenever the opportunity arises, or call a traditional Ocracoke square dance, or host a wintertime pot luck dinner, or restore a typical island home, or even brew an occasional batch of meal wine, is not only to hold on to a bit of the sense of shared history and culture that binds us together as a community, but also to encourage others to do the same.

To call for our island to never change is to call for our island to die. We have no better example of that than Portsmouth, the ghost town across Ocracoke Inlet. So instead I challenge us all to accept with good graces the inevitable changes, the new neighbors who move onto our island, the new technologies that can enhance our lives, and the innovations & creative activities that bring excitement and joy into our lives.

At the same time, I challenge us all to do a few simple things to help preserve our precious island home. Turn off your TV and walk to a neighbor’s home for a visit. Invite friends over to play cards, quilt, play music, or just to talk. Plant a garden. Take your family or friends out fishing. Let it be known that your neighbors can borrow your tools, or ask for your help with a project. Walk more, or bike. Stop along the way just to chat.

Of course, more needs to be done. There are real challenges and threats to a simpler, more relaxed way of life. We need to support our elected officials who work to preserve our unique and wonderful island community with far-sighted legislation that celebrates our heritage and prevents the destruction and degradation of our community.

We also need a practical and realistic view of our island that can balance all that is good and rich and beautiful from the past with whatever good we can extract from the outside. Change is inevitable. Without being passive, I hope we can glean from the changes what we choose, and combine it with the best of the past and present to create a living community that residents and visitors can all embrace.

PS: To all those good folks who have called for Ocracoke never to change (both in this journal, and in person), I do understand your sentiments. I no more want Ocracoke to end up like so many other coastal resort communities than you do. We must work to prevent those changes that threaten our very special community and way of life. I thank you for your heartfelt concern.


Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is the autobiography of Frank Treat Fulcher. You can read it here:


  1. bill kostar7:29 AM

    Those are wonderful and thoughtful comments and apply equally well to all those folks who think they pine for "the good old days" in the US. Those days when in fact we had polio epidemics, seniors llving in poverty, and racial segregation.
    As Americans, we've always moved forward and the island is no exception.
    PS: Just not too much, please!

  2. debbie s.7:36 AM

    Well said, Philip.

    I think part of the attraction of Ocracoke is the 'non commercialism'. The fact there is no movie theater, mini golf or mcdonalds. The fact that the joys of being on the island are made by the island and nature itself. Whether its fishing or boating or laying on the beach and playing in the surf and sand.

    I've never said I don't want Ocracoke to change, because, as we all know, change is inevitable. What I DO say, is that I hope Ocracoke doesn't become a Virginia Beach or Myrtle Beach - with high rise chain hotels and poor service and a 'Wings' on every corner.

  3. Wesley9:50 AM

    Excellent article Philip... I think Ocracoke has done a pretty good job of retaining its wonderful qualities. Compare that with Hatteras island that seems to be slowly gaining all the stuff that ruins the charming nature of the place.

    On Ocracoke, the things that are changing that I dislike the most are the things that are inevitable - the commercial business and restaurants. For as long as I can remember, a trip to Ocracoke meant a stop for lunch at Captain Ben's for a Blackbeard special. I'd love to spend another summer evening on the 2nd floor of the Creekside Cafe (at their old location) having a nice supper while watching the sunset over silver lake. I could go on with other places that no longer exist, or at least no longer in the same location that made them what they were.

    And it's not just Ocracoke...many (if not more) such changes have happened to Hatteras island, mainly thinking around Buxton where my family spent a week camping at Cape Point every year when I was growing up.

    I live in a college town in VA that has been booming and growing hard for as long as I have been alive. Makes the changes on Ocracoke seem like nothing. But...if it wasn't growing, I fear it would be dying. Do a Google search for "Everett Kuntz"...he took lots of photos just prior to WWII in a small town in Iowa, but never printed them. Prior to his death due to cancer a few years back, he pulled out the negatives and relived his youth in the small town - some awesome photos, probably not unlike what Ocracoke was in a similar time. What struck me most was that in reading some news stories, at least one of them showed photos of the town as it is today. It didn't grow...and it is not better for it. I think Ocracoke has a unique challenge to try to maintain the charm of what it is (and the fact that it can't grow but so much) and to not die in the process...

  4. Anonymous10:38 AM

    One of the first things we do when we get there is drive around to see what is new! I have may favorites for shopping and dining,but will "poke in" to the new one's. I have seen many changes over the years in the way the village looks, but the people have remained a constant. Friednly,caring and out going. I will always love OI. But I won't shop at "Wings" or dine at "McDonald's" if they come to the Island. I will continue to support the "locals" as I have for the last 20 some years. Phillip has it right. You can move forward while at the same. time preserve what is precious

  5. Anonymous11:19 AM

    Philip, well said "then" and most appropriate for 2011. Ocracoke Island is still a "magical place" for me, but it's the "real deal" as Disney isn't. I have never been to any of the Disney corporate theme parks, etc. I realize I'm a "rare bird" as so many people "flock" to Orlando, etc on a regular basis. I am not the Myrtle Beach or Virginia Beach type either. I want "natural" beaches and swamp lands. I want the local businesses to be authentic "Mom and Pop", one-of-a-kind restaurants & shops to enjoy. No chain hotels either.

    I can only imagine that it takes a lot of dedication to keep Ocracoke "pure, real and natural", but I know there are so many people who side with us. There are plenty of "resort places", but Ocracoke is a rare, precious gem....truly a "diamond in the rough" and I pray it will always maintain that way, mildly changing only when it is truly necessary.

    Loving our quaint Ocracoke Island gets very personal. I don't live there, but I would fight for it. I know there are many others who feel the same way.

  6. Pat Perks12:05 PM

    Point taken, Philip. Where is Creekside Cafe now located? I also like sitting upstairs and watching the harbor and people walking and biking.

    I admit to getting upset when I realized the Pelican restaurant had a name change, but its the buildings that I love. The old houses with businesses in them.

  7. Anonymous2:23 PM

    As they say everything old is new again. That was very interesting...brand new insight for some of us & a good reminder to those who read it before. Recycling is GOOD.

  8. Hi Philip,

    Dare Wright's photographic tribute "Ocracoke in The Fifties" shows island life in that slower, gentler era.

    Thank you for continuing to carry it in your store!

    All the best,

  9. Quoting Heraclitus! Nice! Your seminary years are showing. Thoughtful, reflective post.

  10. Anonymous8:05 AM

    Does this mean no one is voted off the island?

  11. Back in the 1970s the deputies would sometimes carry miscreants to the ferry, put them aboard, and warn them not to return! That doesn't happen any more. But I did hear of one resident who recently gave the same treatment to the abusive boyfriend of one of his employees. It worked!