In Search of Old Buck: Old Christmas on the Outer Banks

“I know someone in Rodanthe,” a Hatteras fisherman confided, “who has Old Buck’s head in a box in a closet.” I had heard that the mythological bull made his Old Christmas appearance late in the evening, rope-led by a handler. His long horns were shiny and formidable, his hide speckled and tough, and his four legs? They were pants-clad and wearing shoes! Tales of shrieking children, encouraged by their parents to touch Old Buck for good luck, indicated that they were none the wiser about the two men crouched under the cow hide.

I called the “keeper of the head,” probably sounding a little too eager to chat. She hung up on me after exclaiming, “Outsiders make fun of us.”

Fortunately, other banks residents were more than willing to talk about Rodanthe’s unusual ritual, and many had fond memories of participating in the annual event. So just what is Old Christmas?

Read more at South Writ Large.


The Power of Story: The Linking Generations Project

Outer Banks storytelling traditions and digital technology have joined together in Coastal Voices: Linking Generations, a collaborative project that has transformed access to interviews with Hatteras and Ocracoke residents.

Linking Generations is an online collection of 49 oral history interviews conducted between 1978 and 2004 for the Southern Oral History and the National Park Service Cape Hatteras National Seashore Ethnohistory Project. The exhibit includes audio recordings and written transcriptions.

Coastal Voices, a regional oral history program of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center, provided digitization of the interview recordings on loan from the Outer Banks History Center and developed the online exhibit. The Outer Banks Community Foundation funded the project.

The transcriptions are popular with researchers interested in specific places, people or events described in the interviews, but the voice inflections and pauses heard in the recordings convey emotion and meaning. Listeners also hear local dialects that have largely disappeared.

Linking Generations is a rich source of first-hand accounts of events and experiences that aren’t recorded in official documents. Narrators tell their stories in their own words, generously sharing deeply personal accounts that build a powerful picture of community life, as evident in the following edited interview excerpts.

Margaret Willis, Frisco:

“My dad sent us upstairs with my mom. And then the sound tide started coming. And it got so bad that the waves were breaking on the back of our house and spattering in the upstairs window. It washed everything out of the house. And Ronald Stowe’s party boat went through our yard. Looking out the window, you couldn’t see anything but water. I was so scared, I thought we had washed out into the sound. Our house washed off its blocks and the Red Cross came and put it back for us.”

David “Lance” Midgett, Waves:

“In the old days, the doctor would come down from Manteo. He’d fly down. There was an old landing strip and cow pen between here and Salvo. The cow pen had fifteen cows. It was fenced off on three sides and then the water. The piper cub landed in that. The pilot stayed to keep the cows from licking it to death while the doctor made calls.”

Gibb Gray, Avon:

“I saw one big explosion in the middle of the night. The house shook bad and my dad said a ship had been hit. I could see the red glow. We learned later it was the City of Atlanta. Another time the school got lashed with another violent explosion and looking down towards the lighthouse, we saw the smoke, the black smoke boiling up. That was the Dixie Arrow. It was an exciting time that happened all of a sudden, with the war right at our doorstep. The Army cavalry on horses was here for patrol duty between the stations. That was the last time the cavalry horses were used. They’d come on train from Little Washington and they’d put the horses on a barge when they got to the Pamlico.”

Douglas “Chubby” Dorris, Frisco:

“One thing that sticks out in my mind was Monday, regardless of the weather, was always wash day and bean day. Grandmamma didn’t have the scrub board no more, she had the wringer washing machine. That wasn’t only at our house, that was the whole neighborhood. Monday was washday, it was like a tradition. You didn’t do nothing on Sunday. If you wanted a blouse or a shirt ironed, you better have it done Saturday. Granddaddy hardly ever raised his voice, but he’d better not catch you plugging the iron in on a Sunday and he wasn’t a real religious, church-going man. Now you couldn’t plug the iron in, but he always had a poker game every Sunday afternoon at his fish camp where he kept his nets stored.”

Lucy Stowe, Hatteras:

“Instead of getting to Atlanta, Georgia, they put me right on the weather station here at Hatteras. Gave me about a week’s training. This is a thermometer and that’s a barometer and this is a barograph. The next year we put in pilot balloons that we tracked with a theodolite, getting wind direction and velocity aloft. Then maybe the next year they put in the radiosonde. Then after World War II when radar became available, that really changed the ways of reporting weather.”

Elizabeth O’Neal Howard, Ocracoke:

“My grandfather was an old sea captain. He was in Charleston, South Carolina, in the very beginning of the Civil War and he decided that he was going to make a run for it. The port captain told him that he didn’t have a chance, that he’d never make it. But he got on the boat and snuck out of Charleston during the heaviest of the bombardment. Came to this inlet and went on up to the Roanoke River and sunk the boat. Only the top of the mast was sticking out, and he took the sails ashore and buried them. He said no damn Yankee was going to get that boat. Then he came home and the boat rested there until the Civil War was over. Then he took barrels and pontooned it. I guess that’s the right word, but that’s how he got it out.”

From Coast, by Susan West, contributing writer


David "Lance" Midgett, photo by Barbara Garrity-Blake

David "Lance" Midgett, photo by Barbara Garrity-Blake

Eph O'Neal - a true Hatterasman

Ephraim “Eph” O’Neal was a true Hatterasman –a scholar of the sea, humble about his accomplishments, and fiercely proud of his family and his hometown.

“I’ve never been one to place much stock in medals or awards or citations,” Eph said in 2005 after he received a package in the mail that contained his Bronze Star, earned in recognition of his heroic deeds as an infantryman at Anzio Beach in Italy during World War II. 

“I knew that it said on my discharge papers that I was to receive the medal, but I never thought too much about it. I guess I was in too much of a hurry to get back to Hatteras and go fishing again,” he explained. 

His young wife, Daisy Stowe O’Neal, was also anxious to return to the village where she had been born. The couple had married in 1944, and Daisy had joined Eph in Biloxi, Mississippi when he returned to the states. 

Born in Hatteras village in 1920, Eph was just nine years old when he started gill-netting in the mornings before school. He also worked at one of the fish houses in the village, unloading fish from fishing boats and packing the catch for transport to Elizabeth City, North Carolina on one of the freight boats running out of the village.

Before long, he captained his own boat, a 17 feet long sailboat, fishing for mullet, trout and drum. His formal education came to an end when he was in the ninth grade at the village school and decided he could learn most of what he needed to know plying the waters of Pamlico Sound. 

“There’s never been a better place to live and we fared pretty well. We had fish, clams, oysters, and sea turtles that we ate. We had three meals a day and clothes to keep us warm, but we didn’t have money,” Eph said, reflecting on life on the island during the Great Depression. 

In addition to gill-netting, Eph pound-netted, haul-seined, oystered, crab-potted and ran charter-fishing trips during his career as a fisherman.

In the early 1970s, sensing that Hatteras Island’s growing popularity with tourists offered a way to bolster his reliance on fishing with other ventures, he opened two marinas, a campground and a motel, either alone or in partnerships. It was around that time that he also became a Dare County magistrate, a position he held for thirty years. 

“I had had two years of bad fishing and that’s when I decided to build Village Marina,” Eph said. “But I still fished a little then and I packed fish there in the winter after the tourist season ended each year.”

O’Neal then placed more chips on his faith in the future of the island’s commercial fishing industry and built a fish house on the harbor in the village. Cape Hatteras Seafood flourished with more than twenty boats unloading there. Most were drop-netting boats fishing for croakers, trout and bluefish in the winter but some Core Sound trawlers also used the facility.

When new state and federal fishing regulations began to rapidly multiply, swamping the business with a flood of paperwork, aggravation and reduced profits, Eph closed the fish house. 

But he continued to fish and crab and oyster, and continued to advocate for the village’s commercial fishing industry. For many years, he showed visitors how to build a fishing net at the Day at the Docks celebration and participated in the annual Blessing of the Fleet.

“My grandfather taught us the importance of seeing what you can make of life, of not stopping when you’ve accomplished a goal but of using that experience as a stepping stone in finding your purpose,” said Natasha Farrow, Eph’s granddaughter.

(Editor's note:  Hatteras Island writer and historian, Susan West remembers Ephraim “Eph” O'Neal who died on February 17, 2017.)  (From The Island Free Press.)



Locking Horns with the Future

Though commercial fishing is an uncertain bet, a new generation of Hatteras watermen is willing to take the chance.

The headlines tell the story of an American industry on the brink. Pounded by tightening regulations, escalating expenses, stagnant or declining fish prices and shrinking working waterfronts, the future of commercial fishing seems caught in a seismic wave of uncertainty.

Yet even as old fishermen lament the passing of the industry they have known and loved, a new generation of commercial fishermen has emerged in places like Hatteras Island.

These younger men aren’t afraid to lock horns with the future. They adopt innovative ways to run businesses that provide fresh, wild-caught seafood, and they scale their operations to meet regulatory, environmental and economic challenges.


Jeremy O’Neal is 28 years old and the father of two little girls. He started fishing shortly after graduating from Cape Hatteras Secondary School; he was offered a job as mate on the Miss Megan, a gill net boat working out of Hatteras village.

Last year O’Neal bought his own boat, the Goose, a 25-foot Downeaster that he uses to net Spanish mackerel, bluefish, dogfish, king mackerel, croaker and sea mullet in the Atlantic and in Pamlico Sound.

Read the rest of the story in Outer Banks Magazine.


Business As Usual: Fishing for a Living

Few women in North Carolina set their sights on fishing for a living.

Current statistics show only 5.5 percent of the 5,449 commercial fishing license holders in the state are women. That rate varied little over the past decade, according to the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries. Anecdotal evidence also indicates that female deck hands, much less captains, are rare.

Women working in commercial fishing, however, see few obstacles unique to their gender. They say they face the same challenges as their male counterparts — long hours, hard work, rough seas, mechanical problems and fluctuating catches.

“Commercial fishing is punishing and dangerous work, and many ‘greenhorns’ — men or women — quit after the first trip,” notes Sara Mirabilio,  a North Carolina Sea Grant fisheries specialist.

“But if a woman proves herself not weak of spirit and a quick learner, she will be accepted. I don’t think there’s gender inequality.”

Yet women’s varied roles may not be as visible. Along the North Carolina coast and beyond, women have a tradition of working in the commercial fishing industry — hanging nets, picking crabs, shucking scallops, building pots, selling fish, attending fishery management meetings, and working nets and lines.

“Fishing is often seen as a male activity, but the paid and unpaid labor of women that goes toward sustaining fisheries and fishing communities often is not recognized,” Mirabilio adds.

Some women working in the industry come from generations of fishing families, while others are newcomers. Take some time to meet a few who work the waters for a living.


Shannon Dunn skippers her family’s 32-foot fishing boat from a creek-side berth in Hatteras Village to offshore fishing grounds in search of Spanish mackerel, king mackerel and other fish.

Read the rest of the story in Coastwatch, a NC Sea Grant publication.