Every morning before the sun crawls out of the Atlantic, before fishermen untie their trawlers and ferry workers descend on the docks and tourists begin to blanket the beaches, Allen Burrus, 62, unlocks his small grocery to meet delivery trucks in the dark — and puts on the coffee that fuels his hometown.
You can’t order a latte or cappuccino at the Red & White. The closest Starbucks is a 90-minute drive away.
But past the Rodanthe pier and Avon surf shops, the Buxton lighthouse and Frisco campground — at the southern end of Hatteras Island — you’ll find two burners with glass pots brewing just inside the front door of the Outer Banks’ oldest store.
“Hey, Shorty!” Burrus calls to the Coke man, who’s stirring sugar into his steaming cup. “What are you up to?”
The tall man grins down at the owner. “About 6-foot-9.”
Here, baby bottles hang beside butternut squashes; flip-flops flank Frisbees; and Mrs. Winnie Williams sells her homemade fig preserves in glass jars. A bulletin board boasts fliers for fish fries. Since just after the Civil War, people have come to shop and swap stories, to talk pigs and politics, to connect on this isolated island.
The redbrick building hugs a bend on NC Highway 12, across from the volunteer fire department that Burrus’s father helped raise funds for, a mile from the free ferry that carries cars to Ocracoke Island.
From the front steps, where fat cats curl in the corner, Burrus can show you both the graveyard where four generations of his family are buried and the roofs of new high-rise rental homes across the street. He can tell you about the sandy tracks where cows used to roam, and his idea for a new causeway that he thinks could save his town. About his grandfather, who helped bring the island’s first ice plant; his brother, who helped corral the last wild mustangs; his kids, who stood on step stools to stock shelves — but have long since moved to big cities.
He can see the house where he was born, the new health center where he hopes a doctor will set up shop, the grove of sprawling oaks he still calls “the bleeding trees.”
He can explain how his island — and his store — have evolved, and what he thinks they need in order to survive.
The storm-swept past and fragile future seem to collide on his covered porch.
“We can’t go back to what we were,” Burrus says, sinking onto a wooden bench as dawn paints the sky pink. “But I’m not ready to give up, or give in.”
• • •
Hatteras comes from a Native American term meaning “there is less vegetation.” Croatan Indians inhabited the barren beaches as early as A.D. 500.
English explorer John White drew a map of the area in 1585 and marked the southernmost cape “Hattorask.” It took more than a century for other Europeans to begin moving down from Virginia to farm and fish off the thin island. Other survivors washed ashore from 18th-century shipwrecks and stayed.
“Because our end of the Outer Banks is by the inlet, and because it’s wider than the rest of the island, more residents put down roots here than on other parts,” Burrus says.
No government gave out land grants; no planners plotted straight streets. The tiny town evolved organically, first along the Pamlico Sound, then spreading east toward the sand dunes, as its residents weathered winter storms and steamy summers; pulled pound nets and planted gardens; and somehow survived invasions of pirates and Yankees, preservationists and the National Park Service, rising tides, eroding beaches, and increasing droves of summer tourists.
“Over time, just about everything on the island has changed,” says clerk Cora Ballance, 74, who has shopped at the market since 1956. “Except for this store.”
• • •
By 7 a.m., when the doors officially open, Ballance has clocked in and brewed the second batch of coffee. She has worked at the store for 30 years and, like the other nine year-round employees, greets every local customer by name and knows at least half of the summer shoppers.
“Heading out already, Joe?” she asks a bearded man in camouflage coveralls. “Got your Marlboro Reds right here. What else do you need?”
“I gotta go clean my boat,” the man says, shaking his head. “My mate didn’t do a good job.”
Ballance laughs. “He’ll be by in a bit for his coffee,” she says. “I’ll tell him you said that.”
A couple of hours later, while Burrus is checking propane tanks on the porch, a redheaded woman climbs out of a pickup, leaning on a cane. She winces as she struggles to climb the five steps to the store.
“How’s the knee, Courtney?” Burrus asks, grinning beneath his white mustache. “It’s been, what, three months since that wreck?”
The woman nods. “Thought I’d be better than this by now.”
“Well, what do you need?” Burrus asks. “Just the regular Coke? I’ll get it for you. You just sit tight.”
“Two of the two-liters,” she sighs, sliding into a rocking chair. “And thank you! They sure don’t do that for you at the Food Lion.”
The closest chain supermarket is in Avon. Since it opened in 1987, Burrus says it hasn’t taken much of his business. Who wants to drive a half-hour for groceries? “But I had to start stocking wasabi, and for a while, I hired a sushi chef,” he laughs. For almost 150 years, his family has been trying to keep up with consumers’ changing tastes.
The Civil War turned sailors into soldiers, fishing boats into fighting frigates, and the Outer Banks into some of the state’s most important battlefields.
In 1861, when North Carolina joined the Confederacy, Burrus’s great-grandfather and grandfather, Caleb and Alonzo “A.J.” Stowe, outfitted their small schooners as supply ships and became blockade runners, ferrying supplies to the forts and families on the barrier islands.
Federal forces took over Fort Clark on August 28 of that year. The next day, the Confederate commander at Fort Hatteras surrendered his 700 men — marking the first Union victory of the war. Historians say that when news reached the White House, President Abraham Lincoln danced a jig in his nightshirt.
During the skirmish, Yankee soldiers captured Burrus’s great-grandfather and grandfather, and locked them in a Union prison. “Conditions were horrible. The Yankees couldn’t feed their prisoners,” Burrus says. “Just before the end of the war, as they saw the tide was turning their way, they released my great-grandfather and grandfather and made them sign papers promising not to fight anymore.”
A historic marker across the street from his store commemorates the “first attempt at reunification,” when Hatteras residents reclaimed their village from the Union troops and agreed to follow the laws of the Federal government.
“When they got home, my great-grandfather and grandfather had to kick Yankee supervisors out of their houses. So much of the island had been taken over and destroyed,” Burrus says. Before the war, everyone was pretty self-sufficient. But afterward, Burrus’s forefathers decided to continue helping to supply neighbors — and set up the island’s first store.
Caleb had saved $750 prior to the fighting; his son, Alonzo, had $900. With wood washed up from shipwrecks, they constructed an A-frame structure near their home in the center of town.
Caleb sawed shelves for a small shop downstairs. His son built a three-bedroom apartment upstairs. A slat fence surrounded the corner lot, which included a windmill.
For many years, the best sellers at “Stowe’s General Store” were pigs. The Burruses offered their own, or butchered others as barter, hanging the carcasses to drain in the towering water oaks out back. “These were the bleeding trees,” Burrus says, walking beneath the canopy of limbs that his grandfather strung the pigs from. “The ground beneath them was always dark and sticky.”
Cows roamed freely back then. But Burrus’s grandmother always corralled some of hers behind the shop, and fed them fresh hay and grain. The marsh grass, she said, made their milk rancid, but hers was always the sweetest in town. Other pens on the property held chickens and ducks. “They never bought any meat or eggs,” Burrus says. “Almost all the food they sold, they grew themselves.”
Boats brought in everything else. By the 1870s, Hatteras’s deep inlet had become the state’s second most popular port — after Wilmington. Ships coming through were bringing supplies to mainland towns like Plymouth, Edenton, and Elizabeth City. Stowe’s Store was on the way. Residents across the Outer Banks started sailing there for their supplies.
“They sold a little bit of everything you’d need back then,” Burrus says, climbing the narrow staircase to his cramped upstairs office. He opens the top drawer of a rusty metal file cabinet, pulls out a green ledger, and flips to the first page. There, in his great-grandfather’s flowery cursive, written with a fountain pen, is an order from September 16, 1876 — a delivery slip for dry goods from Moses Patterson in New Bern. The bill, which totaled $59.09, had been paid in cash. Among other items, it included:
Two bunches of yarn @ $1.05
Two fishing hooks @ 55 cents
1 bag shot, 24 lbs: $2.45
19 gallons kerosene oil @ 28 cents
33.5 lbs of tobacco @ 54 cents
49 yards of calico: $3.55
1 pair calf boots: $6
3 dozen spools of cotton: $1.05
12 boxes brace buttons @ 18 cents
1 lamp, $1.50
“I have all the records from way back in the beginning. And, of course, they let neighbors buy on credit, until their boat was fixed or the fish started running,” he says. “I can still tell who owes us money from four generations back.”
When Alonzo’s daughter, Lucy, married Adolphus Burrus, Adolphus renamed the store. They handed it down to their son William “Bill” Zachariah Burrus, who gave it to his boys, Dale and Allen. Ever since Dale died in October 2007, Allen has run it alone. Photos of his parents and brother still smile from the market walls.
• • •
Lunch crowds start coming before noon, in trucks, on bikes, and on foot. Ferry workers starting the second shift buy barbecue sandwiches from the deli. Moms pushing toddlers in shopping carts scoop hummus from the salad bar. Sunburned fishermen order take-out containers of Mrs. Bunny’s homemade soup — a different kind every day.
After school, four boys bump skateboards down the front steps. “You keeping out of trouble, Matt?” Burrus asks a burly kid in baggy shorts.
“Trying,” grins the middle school student. All of his friends are swilling sodas from the machine.
“Where’s your drink?” asks Burrus. “Don’t you do Mountain Dew?”
The boy nods his head. “But I’m broke.”
“Go ahead and grab one from inside,” Burrus offers. “You can’t go all afternoon being the only one who’s thirsty.”
He still gives credit when folks need it, still delivers to elderly customers who can no longer drive, still hosts bake sales for churches and holds court with the old-timers. During storms, when the power goes out, he won’t close the store until the tide creeps into the parking lot — and he keeps the generators running so the coffee stays hot. When folks are forced to evacuate during hurricanes, they call the Red & White to see when they can get back on the island.
Burrus, who has served on the school board and been a Dare County commissioner since 2006, never leaves the island for weather. He drives around the village checking on people’s properties, answering calls from home-owners from as far away as Canada. And when the bridges reopen, his market is always the first place the Budweiser truck stops. “I know what folks around here will want most,” he says. “And if I don’t have it, I’ll order it.”
Burrus’s wife, Marlene, stops by the store every afternoon to do the books — and the shopping. “I have to,” she says. “Allen never brings home the right brands.” Her parents are from the village, and she has lived in Hatteras since she was 12. “There are no big stores; there’s no nightlife. But I love the quiet and the solitude,” she says. “I never dreamed about being anywhere else.”
Her husband swears he never meant to grow old here. “But he loves it all: the work and worry, all the people,” she says. “Truth be told, he loves the politics more.” The Red & White gives him — and everyone else on the island — a place to argue about ideas and ideologies, about how far a shotgun will fire and who caught the world-record marlin, about whether to develop the commercial docks or dredge the inlet again, and how to save the endangered island.
In the past 20 years, Hatteras Village has lost 150 of its permanent residents. Fishermen are leaving because of increased restrictions; families are moving out because the roads keep washing away and they can’t afford the rising property taxes. Though 50,000 visitors fill the island each summer, only 550 people now call the village home.
“All three of our kids moved away, and I don’t think they’ll come back,” Marlene says, loading bags of groceries into her car. She hopes that one day her husband will retire and sell the store. But she doesn’t know who he would be, or what would happen to her village, without it.
• • •
When Burrus was born in 1953, the grocery still had wooden floors, and the village had only had electricity for a few years. His grandfather had helped bring power to Hatteras to run an ice plant. But his store didn’t sell ice. “It was far too precious,” Burrus says. “It turned the commercial fishing industry around.”
Ferries connected folks to Ocracoke by then; sand roads were starting to be paved. There was a ball field, a handful of churches, a K-12 school up the beach in Buxton. “We even had a movie theater,” Burrus says. “When I was 8, I started heading shrimp in the store to make money. For a quarter, I could go see Doris Day.”
Many of the homes still had outhouses and relied on coal stoves for heat. There was no trash collection, and there were only a few houses on the beach. And at Cape Hatteras School, the drop-out rate was 50 percent.
“People left to go fishing, or work for the Coast Guard, or help their families. But they didn’t leave the area,” Burrus says. “More than three-fourths of my classmates are still on the island. There’s a pull to this place that was even stronger back then. You could fish, catch crabs and clams, hunt where you wanted to. We had the run of the place; we rode horses through the dunes. So much of that has been lost with what they call progress.”
The biggest changes, he says, came after the Bonner Bridge was built over Oregon Inlet in 1963 and, for the first time, folks could drive to Hatteras Island. Instead of waiting for supply boats, his dad drove to Norfolk to stock the store. He started carrying frozen food, and sweet potatoes and strawberries from Currituck. And he rebuilt the wooden grocery into the bigger brick building it inhabits now. He even joined a national co-op called the Red & White.
“After high school, I went to Wesleyan College to study political science. I loved it here, but I didn’t know where I fit in,” Burrus says. During summers, he came home to work as a charter boat mate in the burgeoning sport fishing industry. After he graduated, he took a job on a trawler and toured the north Atlantic. “I didn’t mean to come back,” he says. But after a year, he did.
For the past 40 years, Burrus has been anchored at the end of the island; married to his teenage sweetheart; raising his kids in the same store he grew up in; watching his village grow, and shrink; worrying about how to save pieces of the past while planning for the future.
He has seen condos grow on lots that used to be filled with crab pots, traffic clog the highway where his kids learned to ride bikes, and million-dollar rental mansions spring up by the marina, towering 55 feet above the sand. He has watched the bridge get knocked down and rebuilt, the road wash away and be restored, the beaches get eaten by erosion and blocked by well-meaning turtle watchers.
“We’re losing so much of this place,” he says. “The parks were set up for the people. Our grandparents sold their land for 25 cents an acre to set up the national seashore, but now big chunks of it are closed off for the birds. As a county commissioner, I try to keep an open mind. But discussions here on this porch are pretty one-sided. Folks who live around here know we need to be able to get to the beaches to make a living, to be able to keep fishing and keep the tourists coming.”
He also worries about the highway. Storms keep carving away the only access to the island. Instead of spending millions of dollars to try to keep the road clear and rebuild it, he wants the state to build a causeway from Oregon Inlet south through Hatteras. “If we can’t get people here,” he says, “the ones who are here will move.” And visitors won’t keep coming.
Every evening, after the sun sinks into the sound, after fishermen tie up their trawlers and ferry workers leave the docks and tourists fold up their blankets on the beaches, Allen Burrus locks his small grocery and says good-night to the workers he’s known for most of his life.
They don’t go out for dinner or drinks. The closest club is an hour’s drive away.
But on the covered porch of the Red & White, where fat cats yawn in the corner, Burrus lingers with his friends, sipping the last cup of coffee, watching the sky fade to black.
“I had some college students contact me about coming to work this summer,” he tells Cindy O’Neil, who has shopped at his store for 34 years. “We might have someone from Ukraine.”
With the advent of the Internet, and the store’s Facebook account, foreign students have been contacting Burrus, hoping to work on Hatteras Island. He’s had clerks from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and China. Folks from faraway lands who bring new insights and interests to his little village.
“We’ve always been isolated here, but never insular,” he says. “I just hope we can keep up with all the new needs and changing times.”
The conveyor belts that his dad installed still slide groceries to the cash registers, but five years ago, after customers complained, he added scanners to expedite checkout. A church calendar on the bulletin board still contains the birthday of every kid in town; beside it, Burrus added a stack of The New York Times. In his upstairs office, he still uses the adding machine his father bought, but out on the porch, he updates tomorrow’s soup special from his new iPad.
“I’ve been considering adding a seafood market and more organic food, and building a greenhouse out back so we can grow our own herbs. People keep asking for those,” he tells O’Neil. “I’ve had three serious offers from folks who want to buy this place. But I won’t even entertain their offers.”
“I’ve been thinking about moving inland,” O’Neil says. “But when I get old, who’s going to care? Everyone here knows me. I’d have all kinds of folks coming to check on me, and bring me food from this store.”
Here, rat traps hang near sheets of seaweed. Hamburger Helper sits beneath gluten-free quinoa pasta shells. You can buy pickled watermelon rind from Nixon’s Family Restaurant or a CD of songs from the Frisco Jubilee. And ever since the Civil War, someone in Burrus’s family has been behind the counter to ask about your mother, reminisce about the last storm, and worry about their beloved island.
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