A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

I grew up in the western part of North Carolina, roughly 400 miles away from the Outer Banks. For me, the state’s barrier islands always existed largely in images remembered

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

I grew up in the western part of North Carolina, roughly 400 miles away from the Outer Banks. For me, the state’s barrier islands always existed largely in images remembered

Framing the Outer Banks

I grew up in the western part of North Carolina, roughly 400 miles away from the Outer Banks. For me, the state’s barrier islands always existed largely in images remembered and imagined and, perhaps mostly, seen in pictures: Joel Sternfeld’s color photos made in Nags Head in the 1970s. The enigmatic black-and-white narratives that artist Dare Wright staged of her Lonely Doll and attendant stuffed bears on the shore of mid-century Ocracoke. Those images lodge in my head along with my own memories of the area — particularly, my first flight as a kid in the late 1980s in a tiny plane over Jockey’s Ridge, feeling as if I’d traveled to a planet of sand.

Brown’s Moon and Wright Memorial (1969) was inspired by the Apollo 11 landing. Photography courtesy of THE OUTER BANKS HISTORY CENTER, STATE ARCHIVES OF NORTH CAROLINA

Last fall, I returned to the North Carolina coast with even more images in my head — a whole current of them, decades of frames by Aycock Brown in his archives at the Outer Banks History Center in Manteo. A restlessly dedicated photographer and local tourism director with a huckster’s charm, Brown made it his life’s work to beckon travelers to his beloved, otherworldly stretch of coastline. Were it not for him, many of those visitors would not have known that the Outer Banks even existed. He was as attuned to the uncanny everyday life of the place — its street parades and fashion shows and oyster shoots and pirate festivals — as he was to its wildlife: the pelicans and fiddler crabs and wind-beaten tree skeletons, the ancient shipwrecks that washed up on its shifting shores. Brown loved to mingle the two worlds, posing majorettes and marching bands on the Jockey’s Ridge dunes and costumed members of The Lost Colony cast dancing on the beach.

One of Brown’s best-known pictures — the lunar crescent that he framed rising over the Wright Brothers National Memorial just as he heard the news of the moon landing on July 20, 1969 — captures place and time in a way that the photographer, writer, and one-man press bureau did himself, almost single-handedly introducing the rest of the world to the Outer Banks in the mid-20th century. Fellow North Carolina photographer Hugh Morton once called him the “barker of the Banks.” A New York Times photographer referred to Brown, warmly, in a tribute, as the “con man of the Outer Banks” for his legendary ability to lure a group of photojournalists out to the barrier islands on the vaguest, thinnest of promises — to wait for a porpoise to swim by, say, or to witness a hurricane that never materialized.

Brown’s office was a mountain of photos and press releases. Photography courtesy of THE OUTER BANKS HISTORY CENTER, STATE ARCHIVES OF NORTH CAROLINA

Brown’s response to such ribbing was likely some form of the perpetual, good-natured grandpa grin that he sported in the many pictures of him. Photos show him in variations of a uniform that he wore on his rounds — typically, a Hawaiian shirt, a straw boater hat, and several cameras slung around his neck. In others, he’s perched over his typewriter, the backdrop a wall of pictures of attractive models, in a cluttered office that regularly communicated with hundreds of newsrooms around the country.

“A Neat Desk Is the Sign of a Sick Mind” read a piece of paper attached to the Venetian blinds next to Brown’s workspace, and surrounded by evidence of that constant correspondence with newspapers and magazines everywhere. In Aycock Brown’s Outer Banks, a photo book published on the occasion of Brown’s semiretirement in 1976, Morton wrote of the photographer’s colleagues, “Each editor had been made to feel by Aycock that Aycock was serving as his extra staff member …”

• • •

Charles Brantley Aycock Brown was born in 1904 in rural western North Carolina: Happy Valley, in Caldwell County, not all that far from where I grew up. It also wasn’t far from the birthplace of the Outer Banks’ other most famous resident, Andy Griffith. And what Griffith would do for Mount Airy, Brown did for the then-largely unknown barrier islands. Dare County, where he was hired as the director of a newly formed tourist bureau in the 1950s, became Brown’s Mayberry-on-the-coast — a quaint idyll that he presented in photos, captions, and stories sent all over the country, detailing its pirate history and fishing lore, its vast dunes and wild ponies, and the funny and strange and lovely rituals of small-town life.

Aycock Brown was well known around the Outer Banks for his personalized license plate and cameras draped around his neck. Photography courtesy of THE OUTER BANKS HISTORY CENTER, STATE ARCHIVES OF NORTH CAROLINA

It is perhaps because of Brown that this image remains many people’s perception of the Outer Banks — down to the Dare Coast Pirates Jamboree, an annual festival that he loved. In his archives: Jamboree programs dating back to early handmade-looking pamphlets touting events like “the world’s largest outdoor fish fry,” a caravan of decorated beach buggies, and a jumping-frog contest. Also in his archives: a personal invitation from Calaveras County, California, home of the original jumping-frog contest and subject of a famous early short story by Mark Twain.

Brown’s own biography is worthy of one of Twain’s hucksters. An early apprenticeship with a printer in Hillsborough put him on the path to becoming a newspaperman — a line of work that he continued in Elizabeth City and Durham, and polished in classes at Columbia University. He remained, by his own admission, an incorrigibly bad speller. By his 20s, he’d landed in Ocracoke on vacation — or to bootleg booze (as he sometimes later admitted), or both — and was planning to go next to Cuba to take a job as press agent for a carnival. Two things stopped him from making it there: He was offered room and board at the Pamlico Inn in exchange for promoting stories to lure visitors to Ocracoke, and he met his future wife, Esther Styron, whom he married in 1929.

Brown tapped into the spirit of the community in photos like his shot of the Elizabeth City High School band onstage at The Lost Colony in 1949. Photography courtesy of THE OUTER BANKS HISTORY CENTER, STATE ARCHIVES OF NORTH CAROLINA

Anyone else might have bottomed out in tourism amid the Great Depression and World War II, but again, Twain wouldn’t have written it that way, and a person possessed of Brown’s doggedness wouldn’t have stood for it. He struggled but rebounded gamely. As a civilian intelligence agent during the war, his grimmer duties included identifying bodies, human and animal, that washed up on the coast. His nascent press agent efforts helped make famous throughout the state a then-fledgling seafood place that, 85 years later, remains a beloved icon: the Sanitary Fish Market and Restaurant in Morehead City. And when attendance dwindled about a decade into the life of The Lost Colony, in 1948, Brown stepped in as publicity director and helped revive the symphonic outdoor drama.

He was hired full-time to run the Dare County Tourist Bureau in 1952. That was another fortuitous merger of person, place, and time: Brown’s intuition for improvised promotion and his innate love of the Outer Banks converged with the start of the golden age of the American road trip. His column “Covering the Waterfront” was syndicated across North Carolina, and he also placed hundreds of photographs in newspapers nationwide.

By 1952, as Dare County’s tourism director, Brown was posing people at the Bodie Island lighthouse. Photography courtesy of THE OUTER BANKS HISTORY CENTER, STATE ARCHIVES OF NORTH CAROLINA

When he first moved to Ocracoke, Brown possessed perhaps the only typewriter on the island, but he was canny enough to understand that his words would be enhanced by pictures. Soon, photography was an equal, if not predominant, aspect of his work. His press clippings, now pasted haphazardly in stationery-store photo albums and scrapbooks in his physical archives, show rows and rows of the same image in newspapers from Iowa to Los Angeles. Alongside each other, the everyday models that he posed with record-size fish have a Warholian effect: the pretty young woman and the boy — each posing for scale — were Brown’s Marilyn and Elvis.

Over the years, more than 100,000 Outer Banks photographs and stories were published across America, thanks to Brown’s persistence. He sold his own Outer Banks articles to publications like The Saturday Evening Post, and he fact-checked a “Lonely Hatteras” feature by a National Geographic journalist whose story was very likely prompted by Brown’s work. He repeatedly fed the “Wood, Field and Stream” column in The New York Times, and he even merited a mention in at least one headline: “Aycock Brown’s Got the Outer Banks Blues.” A June 1958 article drew on telegrams that he’d sent to the writer, documenting the return of bluefish in numbers unseen in two decades. “He is a writer with fresh material and the divine flush of inspiration,” John W. Randolph wrote in his column. Brown had become as much of a character as his place.

• • •

Though he wasn’t a fisherman, Brown photographed the members of the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club so often that they awarded him an honorary embroidered patch. “He Caught Marlin While Honeymooning,” a Brown headline recounted of a groom fishing aboard the Stormy Duchess. No marching band went unphotographed when Brown was around, and no subject was too small for a story, whether the First Flight Society or a convening of the Southeastern Potato Committee (“Experts Discuss Spud Problem During Nags Head Meet,” headlines another clipping).

In 1943, Brown photographed a fisherman casting his net at Silver Lake Harbor in Ocracoke. Photography courtesy of THE OUTER BANKS HISTORY CENTER, STATE ARCHIVES OF NORTH CAROLINA

Before my visit to the Outer Banks History Center, what struck me when I looked through his prodigious online archive was how naturally and seamlessly his personal photographs of his family blended with his public pictures of the Outer Banks. “I think that Aycock Brown promoted this place as a family-oriented area — not some hot, wild, exciting place,” archivist Tama Creef says. “Come on, it was quiet, it’s peaceful, these are the people who live here.” She hands me boxes filled with scrapbooks of his glued-on photographs and clippings; handmade brochures; marked-up, typewritten letters, pitches, and drafts. “And I think that because of that, he slowed the overdevelopment. The people who came here weren’t looking for parties; they were looking for a quiet place to fish.”

Framed in Brown’s pictures, too, is an awareness of the coastal natural world that most beach development tends to strip away. “In an age before macro lenses were widely used, he’d get down on his hands and knees to take a picture of a flower,” Creef says. His prose ran from fervent — a thicket of live oaks near Salter Path, he wrote, was a “verdant magic carpet floating through a sea of blue and green” — to droll: “Helpless new-born egret glares unhappily at photographer from nest at Pea Island refuge,” read one of his captions. It accompanied an image of a downy, scowly bird that, in 1948, ran in papers in Oil City, Pennsylvania, and Burlington, Vermont.

• • •

In the colder months, the waves rise higher on the Outer Banks, and the latest generation of those scowly birds has the run of the beaches. The morning after I visit Brown’s archives, I drive through Hatteras, passing motels shuttered for the season and embodying the frozen-in-time feeling of his photographs from more than half a century before.

On Ocracoke, just down the road from the ferry, I pull off on the sound side to visit the Banker ponies, possibly descendants of the horses that 17th-century ships left behind when they set sail back to Europe. Unlike their northern counterparts, the wild horses of Corolla, and their southern ones, the Shackleford ponies — both of whom roam freely, protected by steep fines and potential jail time for any human who violates their physical boundaries — the Ocracoke Banker ponies have resided in a maritime pasture since the late 1950s.

Brown often took photos of people in unexpected places, like these majorettes on Jockey’s Ridge in 1954. Photography courtesy of THE OUTER BANKS HISTORY CENTER, STATE ARCHIVES OF NORTH CAROLINA

A tall fence surrounds their range. Egrets and herons wade through the nearby marsh, but the squat, sturdy ponies — dun and brown and spotted ones, all meditatively feeding near their stables — pay them no mind. Though you can clamber atop an overlook for another view, it’s impossible to get physically close to the Banker ponies. Except, of course, via a photograph. I shouldn’t be surprised to encounter reproductions of Brown’s photographs of the Banker ponies here. Displayed on a placard just outside the corral that safeguards the horses from humans while also allowing us to look closer, the photos serve as both shield and invitation.

It strikes me that this is the real legacy of Brown’s work. In his own time, his photographs were a beacon, drawing people from all over to a strange, remote wilderness, and the small communities that had grown up on its edges. The images were instrumental in molding both the identity and the spirit of a place. They are still beacons, reminders that we are all tourists in a wilderness, calling on us not just to come here but also to protect it and let it be. This is the lesson of his pictures, which are so intrinsically of the world they depict that they are now a living part of its landscape.

This story was published on Feb 27, 2023

Rebecca Bengal

Rebecca Bengal is the author of Strange Hours: Photography, Memory, and the Lives of Artists, published by Aperture. Originally from western North Carolina, she lives in Brooklyn.