Who would dare take on the task of compiling a visual history of Ocracoke? It’s a story that stretches back to the European settling of the Americas, through the age of piracy, shipwrecks, sea battles, killer storms, and, today, a vacation paradise. An epic saga by any standard.
It turns out that one Ocracoke schoolteacher was up to the challenge. Jeanie Owens compiled "Ocracoke: Images of America" for Arcadia Publishing, which is now available to the public.
“It was always on my bucket list to get published,” says Owens, whose previous writing experience was children’s stories. “On my 47th birthday, I applied to do this book and got accepted. I have always loved both writing and history.”
Arcadia Publishing is an American company that publishes a popular series of neighborhood, local, and regional histories of the United States in pictorial form. The most challenging part of putting the book together for Owens was not the writing but tracking down the material. She haunted museums and history centers digging up historic photos. She spent countless hours interviewing Ocracokers — including Vince O'Neal, Chester Lynn, and local historian Philip Howard — in order to get a faithful account of Ocracoke's past. She grouped this base material into thematic sections that mirrored Ocracoke history, then wrote the text to tie it all together.
“I tried to weave a story in a book where a story didn’t necessarily lend itself,” she says. “That became important to me. I tried to connect all the stories I was lucky enough to hear and to research. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but the story is its soul.”
Owens, who has been visiting the area since she was 10, and now lives on the island, called upon all of her education and experience in putting together the 126 pages of historic photos and stories. She has taught every subject and level from elementary to high school, from language arts, social studies, math, and German. She earned her college degree in history with minors in French and German.
Although Ocracoke is very small — the village of Ocracoke comprises 2 square miles of a total of 8.6 square miles of land — it has played an oversized role in world history. As testament, she shares a sampling of vignettes from the book:
- Blackbeard’s final battle: The legend of the defeat of the Edward Teach, that some say ended with his decapitated body swimming round the ship.
- Delivering the mail: The creative and almost heroic efforts to bring mail to Ocracoke residents, including driving a mail truck through the surf from the ferry to the beach.
- The last lighthouse: The story of the last lighthouse keeper, who stepped down from the tower in 1954 when the Coast Guard assumed control from the Lighthouse Service and automated the beacon.
- The Banker ponies: The story of the Banker ponies when they roamed free on the island in the early 1900s, including photos of the only mounted Boy Scout troop in the country astride their backs.
- The war offshore: The story of the World War II Naval station built on the southern end of Ocracoke, and the ensuing battles between U.S. ships and Hitler’s U-boats off the coast that resulted in the sinking of 87 vessels. One photo shows the inky black plume of smoke from the torpedoing of a tanker filled with 96,000 barrels of Texas crude oil.
Then there is the documentary evidence of the region’s role on another front, the photos of hurricane destruction and stranded boats. Putting all this information in front of her students was one of the motivators for Owens.
“I want my elementary students to see that history was made right in our own village,” she explains. “I want them to view these photographs as primary sources; as a part of their own past and not just something that has no connection to them.”
Change has been especially rapid the past few decades, due to technology, mobility, and the area’s rise as a vacation destination. Providing a historical perspective helps her students appreciate what came before.
“Many of the old landmarks have closed or been removed, such as the Ponder Hotel. The military base, established in 1942, is gone. So, too, is the Doxee Clam Factory, and the old schoolhouse. Many people living here now may not even be aware that these existed.”
Sometimes outside forces rearranged the landscape, and, consequently, the culture.
“We used to have two streams that ran through the village that islanders called ‘guts,’” she notes. “The streams divided the islanders into Pointers and Creekers from which a good-natured rivalry grew. These streams were filled-in when the harbor was dredged during World War II.”
Owens likes how the book lets her share these historical facts in a way accessible even to casual fans of history.
“This book allows tourists to step back into the past and see Ocracoke the way it used to be; to see pictures of the people and places that have made the village special. It’s a book for everyone who loves Ocracoke to look at and enjoy. It means so much more when you are at the spot and you know what you are looking at. That brings it to life.”
Proceeds from the book will help fund the needs of the children at Ocracoke School. It is selling well at the local bookstore since it came out two years ago. Owens hopes to continue her writing, with an as yet unnamed project. She knows there will be one.
“I loved writing it," Owens says. "Being part of this project has been one of the greatest honors of my life.”