Being an early riser is part of Carroll Williams’ job description. Since 2005, every morning between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m. (and, it must be admitted, a little later on weekends), he has situated 10 flags — five North Carolina state flags, and five United States of America flags — along the railings of the Cora Mae Basnight Bridge, which connects Manteo to Roanoke Island Festival Park. The island used to be called Ice Plant Island because, well, you can probably guess. On those early mornings, Williams sees the same early rising people out walking their dogs “and walking themselves,” along with visitors who are “up ’n’ at ’em,” as Williams puts it, to case the joint — the island, rather — before facilities officially open for the day.
Williams is proud of the flags, the way they speak to patriotism and history and tradition. They were first placed on the bridge in 1983 as part of the 400th anniversary celebration of the voyages to Roanoke Island. “Flags were everywhere in Manteo then,” Williams says. After the celebration ended, the bridge flags only came out on the Fourth of July. In 2005, during one of those, Well, why not? moments, it was decided that the flags should fly every day.
Williams was raised in Chesapeake, Virginia, and apprenticed with a shipyard as a carpenter. He moved to Manteo in 1985 as a boatbuilder, and was put in charge of the Elizabeth II, the replica of the English ship that voyaged to the New World centuries ago. As maintenance supervisor for the island and the Elizabeth II, Williams still handles the caulking and coatings for the ship, and chuckles when he remembers early challenges. “A tugboat would maneuver her. A tugboat draws 7-and-a-half feet and the Elizabeth II draws 8.” So? “Six inches may not seem like much,” he laughs, “until you run aground.”
If you’re a fisherman on Roanoke Island, “You just gotta do it all,” says Colby O’Neal, 41. “All,” in this context, means crabs to mahimahi to everything in between, but he could be talking about his family’s business, as well. At the front of their outfit on Wanchese Harbor is O’Neal’s Sea Harvest: tile floors, fluorescent lighting, and a constant line for its lunchtime-only customers. Others eye a grouper steak to take home and grill. At the rear, fishermen — anywhere from 75 to 100 private boats — dock and drop off the day’s catch. O’Neal then sells their day’s catch either in his wholesale shop or commercially all over the country. The National Geographic Channel’s Wicked Tuna does most of its filming right on O’Neal’s dock.
How does he know the best place to drop his pots when the crabs are “making a push” northward from Pamlico Sound? You just do, he laughs, “like knowing that curve the cop is always sitting behind, waiting.” Unlike feuding Maine lobstermen, Roanoke Island crabbers, who all know each other, adhere to a policy of first-come-first-served, and respect longtime territories. A really good day yields 10 pounds — about 30 crabs — in a single pot. And while O’Neal loves a crab, black sea bass is his favorite seafood. Meanwhile, back on the unloading dock, most of what doesn’t ship, sell, or get eaten in the restaurant goes to the “aggravating” seagulls. “The birds eat good,” O’Neal says.
Gene and Charlene Staples
Charlene Staples’s grandfather taught her “kitchen farming” when she was only 8: growing vegetables — plus caring for random pets and chickens — just a few feet from their kitchen door in Currituck County. They were lessons she and her husband, Gene, brought to Island Farm, a 19th-century working farm on Roanoke Island. The farmhouse dates from 1847, built by the Etheridge family, key settlers in the area. (The farm was also a convenient storage place for several of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s flyer parts when they weren’t practicing over at Kill Devil Hills.)
Island Farm opened in 2010, and the Stapleses arrived for the 2012 season as site managers, handling everything from staffing to tending the animals to pulling weeds. “It’s not just about wearing a costume,” Charlene says. The grounds cover 14 to 15 acres, and include a cow barn, a corncrib, a smokehouse, a windmill, and other reconstructed outbuildings, which don’t fix or run themselves. Just as the Etheridge family did, and based on the census records of those days, crops of sweet potatoes, corn, and peas are cultivated, and the Stapleses hoe and plow with period tools. And spread period fertilizer, too: manure.
Then there are the animals. Six sheep, with names like Fern, Lily, and Ellie Mae provide wool — hand-sheared, of course — that’s spun and woven on the farm. Appropriate to the region are the wild Spanish mustangs from Corolla; the farm has adopted — and saved — several, including one who’d been shot with an arrow. Charlene reserves her highest praise for Island Farm’s ox, possibly the only ox in the United States that is bit-trained instead of yoke-trained. Don’t worry: He has a heifer partner.
At Bayliss Boatworks, it takes two to three years and 81 employees to build a custom sportfishing boat, from setting the jig and planking the hull, to installing bulkheads and teak veneers and enough creative cabinetry to stock a small tackle shop. Owner John Bayliss began as a mate in Hatteras Village in 1975, bought his own boat in ’80, and soon became one of the most successful captains on the East Coast. By 1997, Bayliss was running Hatteras Yachts’ demo boat, the Hatterascal, which introduced him to boatbuilding. In 2002, he opened Bayliss Boatworks in Wanchese, which constructs custom sportfishing boats right on Wanchese Harbor. Since its opening, the company has launched 17 boats, including the largest one to date, a 90-footer dubbed Singularis.
“Whatever your heart desires” would be an apt phrase in the Bayliss approach. He meets with each prospective owner to discuss and discover exact needs, from storage to sleeping areas to bar space for particularly-sized bottles. (That tall, skinny, specialty vodka bottle? Six-packs of seltzer? Bayliss will build the bar to fit.) The same goes for the good china, or the Yeti mugs, so there’s no rattlin’ while cruisin’.
Bayliss Boatworks is still very much a family business, including John Bayliss the younger, at 24, and some employees who’ve been there since the first anchor was dropped. Or raised. At any given time, two or three boats are under construction in their gleaming facility by the water, a painstaking and perfectionist effort that requires, well, all hands on deck.
“Sometimes, the bush starts talking to you,” Fred Brumbach says without a trace of irony. “The totem pole began as a buffalo, but it got out of hand.” He’s referring to one of the 60 or so topiaries in his yard on Roanoke Island that he grows, trims, and maintains himself. After having vacationed since the ’60s on the Outer Banks, he and his wife, Joan, moved from Richmond, Virginia, to Manteo in 1995, into a boxy house once owned by a merchant marine captain with literally nothing in the yard. But Brumbach, 67, a lifelong gardener, has been involved in the theater for years. And drama people, as Brumbach notes, “tend to affect things.”
And how. He bought his first topiary like most of us do: at a garden center, on a two-to-three-foot wire structure in a pot. Rather than merely place it on a terrace, Brumbach decided to plant the topiary, and — surprise! — “It started growing.”
Brumbach uses hedge trimmers, hand clippers, and bonsai snippers to mold and shape his trees, most of which are native Eastern red cedar. But holly and Ligustrum have a place — and a shape — too. “A privet peacock had to go because he got too big,” Brumbach says with regret. A different fate befell the giraffe: “It’s three-legged because one of his legs died. Before long, it might be two-legged.” Still, it had better watch its height. The articulating lift Brumbach uses for trimming tops out at 36 feet.
“If I go on vacation, it’s a big deal,” says Ben Reynolds, 38. One of his customers comes in every Wednesday — that’s every Wednesday, 52 weeks a year — at 8:30 a.m. sharp. So does the fellow who comes in with coffee and waits for someone to ask, “Is it going to rain today?”
“Yep,” the man replies dependably. “Somewhere.”
Reynolds Barber Shop has been in business in Manteo since 1964, and in its current location since 1978, the year Ben was born. It has two barber chairs. One is for the customers of Ben’s father, C.L., 81, who began barbering in 1958 and still comes in to work on Tuesdays. “The rest of the time,” Ben says, “my friends sit in it.” Ben has cut five generations’ worth of hair; his father has cut seven. Eighty-five percent of the shop’s customers are regulars (not including the college students hired as Native Americans for The Lost Colony who get their Mohawks), but visitors who are tired of watching their wives shop stop in, too, “knowing they’ll find a bunch of liars in a barbershop,” Ben says. Reynolds is a full-service barbershop, with hot lather and hot shaves and straight razors. The shaggy-hair era of The Beatles about killed the barbering biz, Ben says, but the style now seems a throwback to the ’50s, with “a real hard part and whitewalls around the ears and wavy on top.” Fans of this look include Ben’s 12-year-old son Gabe, one of four sons who are usually around, either barefoot or on bicycles.
In the back of the shop, a mere two blocks from his home, is a popcorn machine, rescued and rehabbed from an old theater. Around 2 o’clock every day, Ben sends out a text: The corn is ready, and the drinks are cold. Before long, the pals begin streaming in. “If you want to hear some lies,” Ben says, “come on down.”
John McCord practically lives underwater, and for some students — up to 3,000 a year — he practically walks on it. At the UNC Coastal Studies Institute (UNC CSI), where he’s been since 2005, McCord’s in charge of educating the public about what it is, exactly, that he and the other faculty and staff do all day. The answer:
The 200-acre UNC CSI campus is a living lab for studying the coast, and the ecological and physical processes that drive its systems; processes like moving sediment. McCord is part of a team whose research projects include trying to figure out how to harness the renewable energy of the Gulf Stream — “a river with no shores” — which flows at five miles per hour just 30 miles off Hatteras. (“Picture all the rivers on the entire planet in one river,” McCord says, “and that’s the power of the Gulf Stream.”)
McCord, and everyone at UNC CSI, is trying to inspire the next generation of marine scientists, so K-12 children, grad students, and teachers who want to incorporate marine studies into their curricula, visit the institute year-round. “Marine science” includes maritime archaeology and the hundreds of ships sunk by German U-boats in 1942, “before we got our act together,” as McCord says. Don’t look for the boats in museums, though. “They’re happiest on the ocean floor,” McCord says, where, while he’s shooting videos (available to everyone on the institute’s website), he’ll occasionally see as many as 200 sand sharks, each up to 10 feet long, looking for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Sam Harriss can’t sit still. Together with the facts that she used to be a bartender in Duck and has always been interested in craft beer, her restlessness probably explains the mobile bar named Camp Cocktail that she opened in 2015, in a beautifully renovated 1969 travel trailer. She caters beverages at weddings, business bashes, barbecues, beach parties, and, yes, an Easter egg hunt. “I served a lot of pineapple mimosas,” Harriss, 33, giggles. Dedicated to ultimate freshness, Sam makes her own bitters — including pecan, smoked tea (for hot toddies), lime, and hibiscus — brandies her own cherries, barrel ages her own cocktails (“old-fashioneds get creamy and oaky,” Harriss says), and makes and kegs her own ginger beer. “I’ll brag about that,” she admits.
Harriss also admits to loving Paul Newman, and has had blue chambray shirts like the prison uniforms in Cool Hand Luke specially made for her three-man crew. A famous line from the movie — “Shake ’em up, boss” — is stitched over the chest pocket. Her own “uniform” is a jumpsuit featuring hound dogs and lime slices. Nothing is served in plastic: Jam jars with handles hold beer; regular and stemmed Mason jars work for cocktails and wine. Mojitos and margaritas are the most popular drinks, but if you’re hankering for His and Hers personal cocktails for your wedding reception, Harriss and her have-drinks-will-travel (she’s hit the road for events in New Jersey, Charleston, D.C., and, of course, Raleigh) attitude are here for you. Belly up to the mobile bar.
For three seasons and 200-some shows, Sam Whisnant has screamed “Surrender!” He becomes hysterical, and tries to throw himself off the balcony, he says, “until Eleanor Dare slaps some sense into me.” It’s the second winter on Roanoke Island, and the colonists’ situation is bleak. Whisnant, 29, plays “the fallen sentinel” in The Lost Colony, Paul Green’s play that has been running just outside of Manteo since 1937.
“The challenge is to keep the performance fresh, to try to make it different, and interesting, for the same role every night,” says Whisnant, who’s also played the roles of a red soldier and a colonist. “Which makes it one of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had in the theater.” Especially when you consider that the temperature hovers around 100 some evenings, and costumes can weigh 50 to 60 pounds. “I have my rags,” Whisnant says of his fallen sentinel costume, and he’s also worn Andy Griffith’s original armor, one of the few costumes saved and restored after a devastating 2007 fire in the costume shop. The best part about Whisnant’s job? Being able to say, “I’ve done Colony,” and, just before each evening’s performance at the Waterside Theatre, the breathtaking sight, from the backstage deck, of the setting sun.