My Grandfather’s House

“The house was built on the highest part of the narrow tongue of land between the harbor and the open sea. It had lasted through three hurricanes and it was built solid as a ship.”

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway

The houses in the village of Avon have lasted through many a hurricane and stood strong. But many are no longer standing the test of time. As surely as the owners have passed away, so the houses are passing away as well. Fewer and fewer of the old homes of Avon, indeed of Hatteras Island, are left.

Both of my grandparents’ homes were in Avon.  As a child I spent many summer vacations here.  My Grandfather Ignatius’ house was typical of the old homes here. It had a large, roofed front and back porch with a large dining room, kitchen and one bedroom downstairs. The downstairs bathroom had once been a bedroom before indoor plumbing made its late arrival to the island. Upstairs were three large bedrooms, with plenty of room for us grandkids.

The interior walls of the entire house were paneled in tongue and groove woodwork. The outside was covered by cedar shakes, turned blackened gray over time. There was no fireplace, but a coal stove in the living room, later replaced by an oil burning stove. Central air or heat never was put into that house – for that matter, it never had any air conditioning at all. It always seemed cool in there to me, no matter how hot the summer day. But a cold winter night was another matter. No amount of heavy homemade quilts kept me warm.

My Grandfather Alvin’s house was larger, because he had six children, compared to three children on my mother’s side of the family. His house was painted white. It had a roofed porch and another porch that was later made into a sunroom. His front porch always had three or four rocking chairs where the grownups would rock and talk the summer evenings away. His house had an eat-in kitchen, a sitting room and a living room. It had four large bedrooms.

One of the best things about both of my grandparents’ homes to me as a child of the suburbs was their close proximity to the neighborhood stores. I could walk to either store on my own to buy honey buns or Pepsi-Colas. My mother would also walk us down the road to the soundside, a place we called “the landing”.   We’d walk the hot black roads to the hotter white sand and jump into the oh-so-shallow salty sound water.

I checked out a book from the library called North Carolina Architecture by Catherine Bishir, hoping to find something about the houses of Hatteras Island. But the author never ventured far enough into the ocean to find and research the old houses on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. The houses that are researched are in Nags Head. These houses, although built in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, were beach cottages, catering to those who vacationed on the Outer Banks.

But few vacationers made it past the isolation of Hatteras Island in the early 1900’s. The homes built here were built for permanent residents. I did learn from this book that shingle style architecture became popular in North Carolina in the 1890’s and early 1900’s. This style featured “organic forms, naturalistically textured surfaces, and informal plans”.  It goes on to say that the U.S. Lifesaving Service started replacing their older cottage style stations with the shingle style. Because this style featured wood shingled walls and roofs, it was great for the harsh weather of the Outer Banks. The Little Kinnakeet Station, which is still standing, was built in 1904 as a “hip-roofed bungalow shaded by deep eaves and attached to a tall, square tower”.

The shingle style homes of Kinnakeet were built to withstand the wind-driven rains and flooding tides of hurricanes and nor’easters. They were not built on pilings, but the simplicity of the interior afforded relatively easy cleanup of occasional tidal flooding. For a while, one of my grandfather’s homes had a tide mark halfway up the staircase. After a storm that had caused flooding, residents would unceremoniously tote their furniture and linoleum out into the yard for a good washing down. The walls and floors of the house would be swept clean of the smelly brackish mud and scrubbed and mopped clean once again. Life would go on.

I remember one storm in particular quite a few years back that had flooded homes. A flooding tide causes so much more damage now because of insulation, electrical appliances and carpeting. I was one of many volunteers who went door to door seeing if people had need of anything. What amazed me was the state of the homes after being flooded. They were completely clean of mud and grime. The owners had worked quickly and thoroughly to restore their homes to cleanliness. I was astounded. But the storms took their toll and many people began raising their houses, unable to face another storm season on the ground.

It seems like I’ve been to a lot of funerals in the last few years. Some of the old homesteads are being kept up, many more are falling victim to time. Unfortunately, the past cannot be held on to, change cannot be resisted for long. What remains of old Kinnakeet is fast passing away, only to live on in our memories.

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11 comments

  1. Thanks for the memories. It’s sad that our children and grandchildren will never be able to experience or imagine life as we knew it on Hatteras Island.

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  2. Rhonda, I am enjoying your stories. Wonderful collection of memories. I am doing my best to preserve two of the wonderful older houses in Buxton. They are treasures to me and I hope to many others. Gee Gee Rosell, Buxton Village Books

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  3. Loved reading this!!!!! We live in Salvo in a house built in 1925. Reading the description of your grandparents houses felt like someone was describing our house. We are so honored to call this house home & hope we’re making all the families that lived here before us proud 🙂

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  4. Like you, I have so many wonderful memories of spending summers in Kinnakeet. My grandparents and great-grandparents houses are some of those that have stood the test of time and many storms. My father and uncle, with the help of their wives and my step-brother, have worked so hard over the years so that we can keep the house in the family for future generations to enjoy. Really loved reading your story– Thank you!

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  5. Our grandfathers were brothers. When we sadly had to sell my grandparent’s house, we found the hand drawn plans for the house. I think they used them universally. I remember crawling in the coal bin when we were little and mama yelling at us to get off because it would get all over our clothes. But it didn’t because it was hard and smooth and, now I know, anthracite… One of the things I took from the house was the coal bin.

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