Karen Amspacher

Say you drive east, way east, to the end of the mainland. Then you take a skinny bridge a little farther. And after you’ve finally landed on a flat little island that’s east of just about everything in North Carolina, you find a big party in a museum. So you walk in. The first person you meet asks you a question:

“You from off?”

Off? I’m sorry. It’s been a long drive. What?

“You from off?”

Um, where is off? Does it have a Food Lion?

“Oh, yeah, you are,” the person says before turning to announce it to the rest of the room. “He’s from off.”

I don’t understand. Off?

“It’s OK. Just means you’re not from here. You’re from off-island,” she says, laughing. “Now get yourself a knife. Oysters are out back.”

On Harkers Island, the locals want to know two things: Where are you from? And what do you stand for?

Those answers become inescapably part of you, beating you to every conversation after that.

The answers are important because around here, people still identify with communities. What looks like a big, rural swath of land called Down East is actually a dotted quilt of little towns: Atlantic, Marshallberg, Otway, Williston, Smyrna, Cedar Island, Sea Level, Gloucester, and others.

On the edge of them all is Harkers Island, sitting in the water by itself, a simple land where people worked the sounds for a century, a place where they battle two natural instincts — wanting to be friendly and wanting to be left alone.

On the edge of Harkers is a museum, sitting near the easternmost point, overlooking two shallow-water sounds, holding inside it the deeper traditions that made the island.

And within the museum is Karen Willis Amspacher, a 57-year-old woman who’s on the edge of everything here. Amspacher is a fourth-generation native and one of the most valiant defenders of Down East, a woman who’s as comfortable playing host to an oyster roast as she is knuckling up with public officials in Raleigh or Washington, D.C.

Karen Amspacher’s story reveals plenty about the nature of this region: Down Easters have strong beliefs. And they say what they believe. And the combination of those two sentences might rub you one way or the other.

But it also reveals this:

Goodness gracious, do they care about this place.

•••

In 1986, a group of Harkers Island women, including Amspacher, put on a Christmas bazaar at the United Methodist Church. They’d planned it for nine months. When they opened the doors to begin the bazaar, they saw people lined up waiting.

They were stunned to think that people from “off” would be interested in their island. It’s just a little town on the water, they thought. Nothing special.

For whatever reason, though, the island and its stories brought people here.

Later, the women gathered again to try to think of another event. Amspacher remembered something from her time as a student at Appalachian State University.

She grew up on the traditions of Down East. She graduated from East Carteret High School in 1973. Then she got married at 19 and went off. She moved to Rocky Mount with her husband, and he went to college. But within a few years, they decided to split up. She stayed with him, though, until he finished college. “I believe if you start working on something,” she says now, “you finish it.”

After he graduated, they separated. Amspacher then enrolled at Appalachian State — even farther off — where her work-study was recording oral histories. She transcribed tapes of old-timers in the mountains talking about their traditions. And she thought, “Why isn’t anybody doing this with my crowd?”

After she earned her degree from Appalachian, she moved to Asheville — still farther off — and began a teaching career. She started dating a man from back home named Jimmy. Jimmy was a boatbuilder. He drove back and forth to Asheville nearly every weekend just to see her. After a few years of that, she says, “Wasn’t anything to do but marry him,” so she did, and she came home and started teaching.

In the conversations with the Methodist Church women, she remembered those tapes with the voices of the mountains. “We’ve got to write stuff down,” she said.

So the women made a cookbook. A big cookbook. It’s 378 pages long, plus an introduction. It has recipes for wild game, sauces, pickles, pies, dips, chicken, cakes, breads, and seafood. (It includes 12 dishes with shrimp. There’s no fancy shrimp étouffée, but there is Shrimp-a-la-Hunter.)

The cookbook has more than recipes. It has the story of the island and how people got here. It has a glossary of Harkers Island terms with their translations. It makes you realize how much people love this place.

Here’s what happens when you do something you really care about: You can make other people care about it, too. They printed 2,000 copies of the cookbook on the first run in November 1987 and sold out before the books came. A television station did a story on the success. They reprinted another 2,000. And those sold, too.

They’ve done this a few times over the years. Each time, they say, “This’ll be it.”

They’ve sold more than 75,000 copies.

•••

Before Harkers Islanders were Harkers Islanders, fighting for a way of life, they were Ca’e Bankers — short for Cape Bankers — and they were just fighting to survive.

The first literate settlers moved to the shores of the Cape Banks around 1700.

Soon communities formed on the banks. And on land that’s now a protected national seashore, people lived. One of the larger communities was Diamond City, which prospered through the 1800s. In 1896 and 1899, though, the Outer Banks took two massive blows from hurricanes. In the 1899 storm, sand swept across the land. Salt water got into wells. Trees died. It became no place to live.

So the people left. They followed the lead of William Henry Guthrie, who a few years earlier had broken his home into pieces and floated the pieces three miles across Back Sound to rebuild on the other side on Harkers Island.

Once they arrived, they did what they always did. They fished. They made boats; Harkers Islanders made boatbuilding an art form. They made schools and built new cemeteries. They left their old cemeteries to nature.

One man bought 60 acres for $60 on the west end of Harkers Island. He and his wife built a home and had children.

And then those children had children, and those children had children, and one of those is Amspacher.

•••

Amspacher stands in the family cemetery. It’s just up the hill from Back Sound. She looks at the headstones of all of those people who came before her, and she thinks about another famous saying in a town that’s full of them: “Have you got anybody in the graveyard?”

The question helps determine how long somebody’s lived here. If you have a relative in a graveyard on the island, your family dates back to the days when this place was a tangle of all nets and boats. If you don’t have someone in the graveyard, that’s fine, but don’t try to hide the “off” in your blood.

Amspacher lives in Marshallberg now, just across the bridge, in her mother’s family’s house. But she grew up on Harkers Island, where her father’s family is from.

The cemetery is on the land her great-grandfather purchased for $1 an acre. The land is now owned by someone who’s not from here. Her father and his siblings sold it in the 1980s. And in 1990, the new owner told the family that he was prepared to tear down the old house. Amspacher’s father told her the news over dinner. She kicked her chair out and stood up, looked at her husband and said, “Jimmy, we’re going over there.”

They gathered everything they could take. The flower bed of her current house is lined with bricks from the old home place. A new home, with a big back porch, stands about 20 feet from the family cemetery.

“I don’t know why I care like I do,” Amspacher says, her feet in the family cemetery and her eyes fixed on that house. “It’s a burden. I’m proud that I knew it as it was. … There’s more to [Harkers Island] than a summer weekend and a Sunday afternoon drive. There’s cool people here, and we’ve got to celebrate them.”

•••

Turns out that Amspacher was so good at developing that cookbook, her name was getting around the island.

Some local men in the Core Sound Decoy Carvers Guild wanted to start a Decoy Festival to honor the island tradition. The festival preserved the traditions of waterfowling in eastern North Carolina. They asked her to promote it. She said she would, as long as they would let her sell cookbooks at the festival. They agreed, she made a few calls, and The News & Observer ran a story that helped bring more than 1,200 people the first year.

The guild decided the craft was worthy of its own museum.

In 1992, a group of 21 people formed the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum, Inc. Amspacher became the secretary.

They spread the idea to Raleigh and beyond. They expanded the mission of the museum to include the other traditions of the region — menhaden fishing and boatbuilding and language and many others. They set fund-raising goals. They secured land from the government and smaller grants from arts councils and foundations around the state. And in 1999, they broke ground.

True to their heritage, they did much of the work themselves. Ten years passed before everything was finished, but when the gallery opened in 2009, everybody agreed that they wouldn’t have done it any other way.

“If we could do it all over again and someone offered to give us $4 million up front in a grant or do it the way we did it, I would take the struggle,” Amspacher says. “It was special because of the way we did it.”

•••

The tower on the top of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum rises 68 feet off the ground. It’s surrounded by a porch. You can see Cape Lookout Lighthouse from here. Marshlands and egrets and everything that’s beautiful about coastal North Carolina are in view. The air smells of salt, and if you listen closely and the wind’s blowing just right, you can hear the waves hitting the shores of Shackleford Banks, four miles away. It’s the best view in town, maybe one of the best in the state. And it’s on top of this museum.

Underneath the landing are the anchors of the place: the people.

On the second floor, individual exhibits represent every Down East community. Some pieces read like intimate family scrapbooks. They come in various forms: photos, old yearbooks, newspaper clippings, even military records of men who served from each community.

A video explains how the people here talk, and if you watch the full film, you can learn all sorts of new words, such as “dingbatter,” which you would be if you moved here.

The museum is run by volunteers, such as Margaret Daniels. Every day this past December, Daniels took five pounds of shrimp home to peel in preparation for a big fund-raising dinner. Daniels peeled 150 pounds of shrimp in one month.

“It just makes you proud of where you’re from,” Daniels says.

Downstairs in the museum, local anthropologist and author Barbara Garrity-Blake led the development of a menhaden fishermen exhibit. It includes descriptions of every job on a menhaden fishing boat, along with the story of a person who worked each job. The exhibit includes oral history and dozens of photos.

It also includes a video of menhaden chantey men singing at a folk-life festival a few years ago. The video plays on loop, and the volume is usually loud. So at any given moment, from just about anywhere in the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum, visitors hear the sweet harmony of men working the water.

•••

The physical situation of Harkers Island reads like a riddle.

The island is on the outer edge of Core Sound.

Back Sound is on the front side.

And Westmouth Bay and Eastmouth Bay are both to the north.

It’s a different kind of place.

Some neighborhoods consist of smaller, two- and three-bedroom houses. Other neighborhoods have homes valued in the millions. But you can find those old, local flavors easily. At one of the three local restaurants on the island, the Fish Hook Grill, women behind the counter still handpick the black parts from inside clams.

To people like Amspacher, this is home.

And while she’s most comfortable in Harkers Island, and proud of the work she’s done here, Amspacher knows when it’s time to let go, too. She’s pulled back from the museum. At 58, after 20 years working on this project, it’s time for her to let it stand on its own.

“It’s like a mother watching her child grow up,” Amspacher says.

She’s letting the volunteers take leadership roles, but whenever she shows up, people still swarm to her looking for answers.

“She brings people together, from the most powerful politician to the smallest clammer,” Garrity-Blake says. “She makes tremendous things happen. She wears us out, but thank God for her.”

•••

Here in this museum, on the wooden floors and on the walls and even in the volunteers, Down East lives on.

It’s interesting, what becomes a piece of an exhibit. Diagrams of old schools. Photos of old baseball teams. Records and pictures. And you think: At some point none of this was in a museum. At some point it was all just happening, walking and talking and living and fighting the good fight for family and community, never realizing that those simple things would one day be worth preserving in a museum.

Amspacher walks through the second floor of the museum. Then she points to a sign, which hangs just a few feet away from the Harkers Island exhibit. The sign contains a quote from writer Wallace Stegner: “Tell me where you’re from and I’ll tell you who you are.”

Karen Willis Amspacher is from Harkers Island.

Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center
1785 Island Road
Harkers Island, N.C. 28531
(252) 728-1500
coresound.com
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.-5 p.m. $5 admission fee.

This story was published on

Graff is a writer and editor in North Carolina. He is the executive editor of Charlotte magazine. His writing work has appeared in Our State, Washingtonian magazine, Politico, and on SB Nation Longform, along with many others. Stories he’s written or edited have been picked up by the Nieman Storyboard, gangrey.com, longform.org, longreads.com, and byliner.com. He was a presenter at the 2012 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference and the 2008 Poynter Institute Sports Writing Summit.

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