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At 39 years old, Chandler Sawyer represents his family’s 11th generation to make their living on Currituck Sound on the Outer Banks. Known for his hand-carved duck decoys, elegant in

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At 39 years old, Chandler Sawyer represents his family’s 11th generation to make their living on Currituck Sound on the Outer Banks. Known for his hand-carved duck decoys, elegant in

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At 39 years old, Chandler Sawyer represents his family’s 11th generation to make their living on Currituck Sound on the Outer Banks. Known for his hand-carved duck decoys, elegant in

Soundside Tradition: Exploring Currituck’s Maritime Museum

At 39 years old, Chandler Sawyer represents his family’s 11th generation to make their living on Currituck Sound on the Outer Banks. Known for his hand-carved duck decoys, elegant in their simplicity, Sawyer shares his family’s duck-carving legacy with visitors at the Currituck Maritime Museum. Here, tourists watch him carve traditional, block-style decoys the old-fashioned way — with a draw knife and a spoke shave.

“Currituck decoys aren’t fancy or extravagant — they didn’t have to be,” Sawyer says. He finishes each decoy with simple, block-style painting. Most don’t even have eyes. “They’re just big and they show up in the water,” he says.

Known for his hand-carved duck decoys, Chandler Sawyer represents his family’s 11th generation to make their living on Currituck Sound on the Outer Banks. photograph by Currituck County Department of Travel and Tourism

Currituck’s Maritime Museum sits in Historic Corolla Park and is surrounded by the Currituck Sound to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The park is Corolla’s hub and home to cultural gems like the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education, Whalehead— a 1920s art nouveau hunt club mansion-turned-museum and boathouse — and the Currituck Beach Lighthouse.

“The Maritime Museum tells a story of how Currituck got where we are today,” Sawyer says. “You can see the boats, which is how all commerce started here. You can learn why fishing and hunting is still what we do. For some visitors who aren’t from here, it blows their mind.”



On the Water

Boats built by legendary local craftsmen stand as a proud display of Currituck County’s maritime heritage. “Everything we have here started with these boats,” Sawyer says. “They were our livelihood.”

Like two shad boats, restored by Bobby Sullivan, who, at 13, started working in a boat shop with his grandfather. “Allen Hayman was my grandfather, and his daddy was a boat builder, and his granddaddy was a boat builder,” Sullivan tells museum visitors.

Sullivan’s son, Doug, shares his pride in his family’s legacy: “You know somebody has done something right when, 30 years after a boat’s built, a new captain buys the boat and tells the builder, ‘Your boat is the most wonderful boat I’ve ever been in on the roughest seas.’ My father saw what it would take to create a safe vessel and stood behind it,” Doug says. “Because of that, a Bobby Sullivan boat is worldrenowned. They’ve been everywhere from Costa Rica to Florida to overseas. These are charter boats that are meant to go out for a daytime fishing trip that have turned into vessels that have circled the world.”

Boats built by legendary local craftsmen, such as Bobby Sullivan, stand as a proud display of Currituck County’s maritime heritage. photograph by Currituck County Department of Travel and Tourism

 

A Lavish Retreat

When wealthy Northerners discovered Currituck in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they discovered what local fishermen, hunters, and farmers already knew: Not only was the area magnificent in its maritime forests filled with live oaks and bay shrubs, but it also had a brackish estuary brimming with delicious ducks and fish. (“Currituck” is a Native American word meaning “land of the wild goose.”)

“Duck hunting really put Currituck County on the map,” Sawyer says. “When the Northerners realized how good the duck hunting was here, they started to build lavish hunt clubs on the marshes.”

With those hunting clubs came jobs for cooks, guides, and caretakers.

Today, visitors at the Maritime Museum can stand at a giant interactive map and tap to view points of interest, like the region’s dozen hunting clubs.

Visitors can also listen to personal stories of hunting club staff, such as Rodney Kight, who worked as a guide for Dews Island Hunting Club from 1974 to 1979 during the winter months. His job included setting up the blind for hunters, retrieving any killed birds, and getting the hunters back to shore in the evening. “If you were an early inhabitant in Currituck, you had to be a pretty hearty individual, because you either fished, hunted, or farmed a little — or you did not eat,” Kight says. “Hunting clubs provided income for a lot of people here.”

When wealthy Northerners discovered Currituck in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they discovered what local fishermen, hunters, and farmers already knew: Not only was the area magnificent in its maritime forests, but it also had a brackish estuary brimming with delicious ducks and fish. Duck hunting put Currituck on the map. photograph by Currituck County Department of Travel and Tourism

 

Lifesaving Stations and Lighthouses

In the late 1800s, North Carolina’s Outer Banks was infamous among sailors for two things: dangerous winds and treacherous sandbars. To help shipwreck victims in this “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” locals who lived in Currituck and along the shores of the region opened lifesaving stations — precursors to today’s Coast Guard.

From the tower of their lifesaving stations, which lined the coast six to eight miles apart, watchmen alerted men called surfmen to ships lodged on the sandbars. The station’s surfmen, in turn, waded into the surf and swam out to rescue the shipwreck victims.

“In many cases, the lifesaving stations themselves became the heartbeat of the community,” explains Currituck local Clark Twiddy, through one of the museum’s interactive exhibits. “They had kitchens, they had family members, they had surfmen, who in many cases lived in the station seasonally — fall, winter, and spring — when the weather was bad. But the stations were very much the educational system and social center of the community.”

Just across from the museum stands the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, the only North Carolina lighthouse that remains unpainted — and one of the only lighthouses in America that still contains its original Fresnel lens. The museum shares the story of this tower, first lit on December 1, 1875, whose beacon can still be seen for 18 nautical miles.

To help shipwreck victims in this “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” locals who lived in Currituck and along the shores of the region opened lifesaving stations — precursors to today’s Coast Guard. photograph by Currituck County Department of Travel and Tourism

 

A Fresh Catch

The Maritime Museum also shares the stories of fishermen like the Twifords, four generations of one family that have practiced the age-old method of pound net fishing — submerging logs to capture fish in nets — on the Outer Banks.

“Dad got me started early, when I was like 12,” says Wayne Twiford who, by the age of 13, had his own boat and was fishing his own crab pots and gill nets. “It just progressed from there. It’s pretty cool to do what my dad did, and granddad did, and great granddad did — fishing the same places they used to fish 60 years ago.”

The Maritime Museum also shares the stories of fishermen like the Twifords, four generations of one family that have practiced the age-old method of pound net fishing on the Outer Banks. photograph by Currituck County Department of Travel and Tourism

Another one of the museum’s exhibits shows its visitors how to do an old-fashioned mullet roast, a Currituck tradition that roasts mullets on stakes around a roaring fire. “It’s good eatin’, and it’s a good outdoor activity,” explains Kight. “Everything we’re eating is provided by the resources of Currituck.” And all of it is part of Currituck’s storied maritime tradition.

This story was published on Aug 24, 2021

Robin Sutton Anders

Robin Sutton Anders is a writer based in Greensboro.