Orville and Wilbur, you know. Everyone does. But what about Richard Etheridge and Dave Driskill? Or Herbert Collins and Ray Beacham?
The Wright Brothers loom large over the Outer Banks, but historic and heroic figures have dotted the barrier island for years, centuries even. Some of their stories are tucked away in libraries, local museums and commemorative sites, readily available for the curious and interested.
“One person said that history is like a mirror — you only look back,” says Darrell Collins, President of the Pea Island Preservation Society and a retired historian with the U.S. Park Service. “But there’s great value to pause and look back. Because only with a great appreciation of where we have been can we ever hope to understand where we are headed.”
Collins and his group oversee the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum, one of a couple of sites in Manteo that are small in space, yet significant in local history. The Cookhouse Museum, on Sir Walter Raleigh St., west of U.S. Highway 64, honors the Pea Island Lifesaving Station, the only station in the country manned by an all African-American crew.
Etheridge was the first black officer in charge of a U.S. Lifesaving Station, the Keeper in the vernacular, and held the position from 1880 until his death in 1900. The Pea Island station, with African-American keepers and crew, developed a reputation as one of the best on the North Carolina coast, performing hundreds of rescues and saving thousands of lives until it was decommissioned in 1947.
Etheridge oversaw its most famous rescue, the Oct. 11, 1896, saving of all nine people on the schooner E.S. Newman, caught in a hurricane and blown a hundred miles south and ran aground south of Pea Island.
Etheridge and his crew were finally honored posthumously in 1996 by the U.S. Coast Guard, which called it one of the most heroic rescues in the history of the service. A Coast Guard cutter was named in his honor.
The museum is the original cookhouse that was part of the Pea Island station. In 2006, it was moved to its present location, Collins said, because that was the neighborhood in which most of the Surfmen who manned the station lived. Two years later, after renovations and upgrades to the building, the museum opened. It contains memorabilia, pictures, correspondence and artists’ renderings of the men who served. A life-sized bronze statue of Etheridge, holding a long oar of a surf rescue boat, stands on a platform in the traffic roundabout just steps away from the museum.
Alongside the museum is the Herbert M. Collins Boathouse, which opened in 2010 and honors the last Surfman at the Pea Island station. He was Darrell Collins’ uncle and served at the station from 1940 until it closed in 1947.
After that, he served 34 more years with the Coast Guard, extending a legacy in which members of the Collins/Berry families of Roanoke Island logged more than 400 years of lifesaving and Coast Guard service.
Museum hours from September through May are Saturdays from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. From June through August, the museum is open mid-day on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
“A lot of this was lost for many, many years,” Darrell Collins said. “We’re trying to shed light on it.”
John Ratzenberger can relate. For more than a decade, he has been curator of the Dare County Regional Airport Museum in Manteo, located in the terminal building at the end of Airport Road just past the aquarium.
“The mission of the museum is to show the history of aviation in Dare County, less the Wright Brothers,” Ratzenberger said.
The Manteo airfield, built in the early 1940s through efforts from county commissioners, was home to a Civil Air Patrol base and Naval Auxiliary Air Station during World War II. Civilian pilots, overwhelmingly from the state of North Carolina, helped patrol the coast for German submarines in the early days of the war. Once the U.S. military ratcheted up its effort, the U.S. Navy took over, and the airfield hosted essential, final-stage squadron training before pilots shipped overseas.
NAAS Manteo saw squadrons of F4F Wildcats, F6F Hellcats and F4U Corsairs, among others. A squadron of F4U Corsairs under Lt. Commander Tom Blackburn, the VF 17 Jolly Rogers, became the most famous Navy squadron of its time. It recorded 154 victories in 76 days, the very first from Kitty Hawk native Sheldon R. “Ray” Beacham, nicknamed “The Kitty Hawk Kid.”
Beacham and others are commemorated in the museum.
Outside the terminal building is a combination monument to the founders of the airport, and a large plaque listing the people who worked at the CAP base during the war.
Inside the terminal lobby, models of planes that flew in and out of the airfield through the years hang from beams. Down a side hallway are the museum’s two main display areas: a larger room with glass-enclosed cases of memorabilia, uniforms, equipment and photos, as well as binders of research materials; and a smaller operations or ready room named for and dedicated to Driskill.
John David “Dave” Driskill was arguably the seminal figure in local flight circles. Born in rural Tennessee in 1897, he served briefly in World War I, and then moved with his family to Hampton, Va. He learned to fly in the late 1920s, first by observing another pilot and then attending flight school. He started air services, gave flight lessons and flew for the National Park Service in the 1930s, carrying people, groceries, supplies and even worker pay between Norfolk and Beaufort, with regular stops on the Outer Banks.
Driskill partnered with a locally born businessman for the Ocracoke-Manteo Transportation Company and introduced dozens of Outer Banks natives to flight.
A respected and accomplished pilot of multiple aircraft, he test-flew autogiros, the precursor to the helicopter, and early versions of helicopters. He was killed Oct. 3, 1949, in Moorestown, New Jersey, when a helicopter he piloted crashed due to a mechanical malfunction, and he was unable to parachute away safely. His death was deeply felt by the local community, and he is credited with helping to open the Outer Banks to commerce and tourism.
All of this and much more are chronicled at the museum and faithfully re-told by Ratzenberger, who is often at the site seven days a week. Much of the clothing, photos and memorabilia were originally collected by Harry Bridges and several other men.
Bridges’ father was in the Civil Air Patrol here, and for years the younger Bridges operated a nearby cloth barn with rugs and fabrics. Ratzenberger, who transplanted from the Midwest to the Outer Banks in 2003, began volunteering at the museum in 2005, and he took over curator duties a couple of years later.
“It’s not about me,” Ratzenberger said. “I’m taking care of what Harry did. I just try to enhance and improve things a little.”