Tucked away on the south end of Roanoke Island, Wanchese is worth seeking out.
Photographs by Melody Leckie
There’s a place on the Outer Banks where time has somehow managed to stand still, commercial sprawl doesn’t exist and a day’s catch means everything.
Here, the rhythm of life revolves around the water. Open-air warehouses reveal boats taking form, docks are lined with trawlers and neighborhood yards are home to crab pots, clothes lines, horses and fishing gear.
In this sleepy village called Wanchese, children come out to play in the late afternoon like fireflies that appear as dusk turns to night, families have carved out homesteads for their children and their children’s children, and villagers share stories of growing up camping on the sand islands and playing on the swing in the center of town that came from a dead man’s basket off a local boat.
The village draws people from as far away as Edenton and Hatteras who for decades have driven to Wanchese to get their hair cut at one of a handful of hair salons in town. It draws visitors who travel down N.C. 345 to experience a day in a fishing community, eat at authentic restaurants, walk along the docks and see everything from yachts and shads being built or pick up fresh seafood at the market.
“We are still a fishing village but we’ve also become a boat-building village,” says Button Daniels, who was born and raised here. The retired Manteo Elementary School teacher knows every nook and cranny of this end of the island.
“By that white pole is where the best blackberries on the island grow,” says Daniels, who still uses directions like “down the lane,” “Hubby’s Road” and “the white church and the red church” when describing how to get around the village.
“We are a little clannish on some stuff, but we are always welcoming and watch out for one another here,” she says of her fellow Wanchesers.
Wherever one goes in Wanchese, whether to buy fresh seafood at O’Neal’s or visit Stetson’s Shell Shop, they’re sure to be greeted with a wave and a smile by the locals.
On the south end of Roanoke Island, Wanchese is just minutes from the Washington Baum Bridge down curvy N.C. 345, and there are plenty of reasons to spend the day or a few days here.
With a town park, community center, two churches, bustling docks to stroll down, plenty of shoreline to explore, two bed and breakfast inns, a campground, three restaurants and quaint shops, this town has a character that sets it apart and is undoubtedly one of the region’s hidden attractions.
Wanchese Marine Industrial Park, U.N.C. Coastal Studies Institute, O’Neal’s Sea Harvest, Bayliss Boatworks, Spencer Yachts and OBX Marina are some of the big names that put Wanchese on the map. But visitors will quickly discover that driving down side streets and exploring the less traveled roads are a valuable part of the experience, too. And if one’s lucky enough, they will bump into a local who will share one of the many stories that weave this community together.
Stories like Daniels tells of watching the “Wanchese boys” like Buddy Davis learn boatbuilding from the old timers who would cut up newspapers to create the patterns they’d use to build charter boats.
Or the story Millie Barkley tells. Daniels’ second cousin, Barkley shares how her great grandfather Peter Gallop was one of the Bodie Island Lighthouse light keepers and would travel across the sound daily in all kinds of weather with the oil for the light.
She and Daniels admit that Wanchese has a reputation of “rebel risers who are full of mischief.” But Barkley laughs and says it’s mostly the good clean fun kind of mischief. “Kids would pour in here on Halloween because of our reputation and I remember even my grandmother would go out with us and throw water balloons.”
If you spend enough time in Wanchese with a local Wancheser, you quickly discover that almost every street, dock, shoreline or building has a story behind it. Old railways were important for repairing boats, arrowheads have been unearthed in an old Indian burial ground, and fish camps used to dot the island.
Boat building is part of this community’s fabric. Daniels talks about how as the fishing industry grew in Wanchese, the need for boats grew and “the boys” adapted and now everything from shad boats to trawlers and yachts are constructed not only at the industrial park but also all over Wanchese.
There are 99 roads listed for Wanchese, and Daniels, who can’t hide the love she has for the village she was born and raised in, has a story for each of them. But before she begins and as she drives into town, she will affectionately say to whoever is with her: “Buckle up, because you are now entering God’s country.”