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Rated: E · Essay · Experience · #1625586
The mystery and the history behind an old B&B on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.
Secrets of Old Boards

Ocracoke Island is a beautiful place, with a rich and romantic history. Accessible only by boat, ferry or by private plane, most of the island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.  It is tiny, with miles of pristine, undeveloped beaches and one quaint village.  It’s history centers around water and weather, wild ponies that roamed the island for centuries, the oldest working lighthouse in North Carolina, erected in 1832, and pirates.

Established as a port in 1715, most of the islanders were fishermen or pilots, who guided trading vessels, heading for mainland North Carolina, through the treacherous shoals of Ocracoke Inlet.  Many of their descendants occupy the island to this day.  Surnames like Midgette, Scarborough, Garrish, Jeanette, Barnett, Oden, Howard, and Gray have been a part of this island since colonial times.  Another famous name tied to the island is Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard, who used the island as a hideout and a place from which he launched attacks on cargo ladened ships.  He was eventually captured and beheaded on Ocracoke Island in 1781. 

We first visited Ocracoke Island on our honeymoon.  It was just a 45-minute Ferry ride from Cape Hatteras, but I felt like we had traveled 200 years back in time.  There were no fast food restaurants, chintzy tourist trap gift stores, or amusement parks.  The village streets were narrow, some unpaved; the homes were weathered bungalows, fishing boats were docked in the harbor.  The charm and authenticity of the village, and the isolation of the island attracts a special kind of visitor looking for a peaceful, private get-away.  That is what brought us back 25 years later for a four-day stay at the Berkley Manor Bed and Breakfast, one of the oldest properties on the island.

Our room was rustic, completely paneled, from floor to ceiling, with rich dark wood planks. As we were drifting off to sleep that night, I noticed something very faint on the ceiling - the distinct impressions of hand and feet prints on each board.  Some prints were large and some were small, like those of a child or young adult.  A mystery.  Why were the prints there?  How did they get there?  Who left them?  What were the secrets that these boards held?

The next morning, I asked the owner about the footprints and handprints and he told me the story of the manor.  The structure was built at the turn of the 20th century by a mainlander who wanted a hunting lodge on the island for himself and his buddies.  As there is no source of wood on the island, lumber needed to build the lodge had to be shipped over from the mainland.  The owner had a difficult time getting anyone to help unload the boat as most of the men and boys who lived on the island were either fishermen or worked in the local fisheries.  So, he came up with a plan to entice the fishery workers to unload the cargo after their workday had ended.  He buried barrels of beer deep with in the hold, under the lumber.  He then told the workers that they could have this reward after the cargo was unloaded.  The plan worked.  However, since these men and boys had worked with fish all day, their hands and feet were covered in fish oil.  As they handled the boards, the imprints left by the fish oil soaked into the wood.  Regardless of what the builder and subsequent owners did, these imprints were permanently embedded in the wood.

That night, as I lay there looking up at the ceiling, I realized that within each of those handprints and footprints was a life story.  Who were these people?  What did they look like?  How did they live?  In my mind’s eye, I visualized that day when they unloaded that boat - the sounds, the smells, the frenzy.  The history of the manor and the island itself came alive in these old boards, speaking through the haunting handprints and footprints of those long gone, who lived, loved and worked in this tiny, secluded place lost in time.

I recently learned that Berkley Manor Bed & Breakfast was severely damaged during a hurricane a few years ago.  It was abandoned, went into foreclosure, and finally bought by a developer.  It makes me sad to think of what might happen to the old place and to the history it holds. Will the building be preserved or will the handprints and footprints of the islanders be silenced in the name of progress?  A little of the romance and mystery of the island destroyed.  What a loss.

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