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In the backyard of a cedar-shake cottage on NC Highway 12 in Ocracoke Village, strings of wooden flying pigs sway in the breeze beneath the branches of bushy fig trees.

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In the backyard of a cedar-shake cottage on NC Highway 12 in Ocracoke Village, strings of wooden flying pigs sway in the breeze beneath the branches of bushy fig trees.

In the backyard of a cedar-shake cottage on NC Highway 12 in Ocracoke Village, strings of wooden flying pigs sway in the breeze beneath the branches of bushy fig trees. Blue bicycles, parked side by side, await riders who will steer them down sandy island roads, past Silver Lake, to the state’s oldest working lighthouse. The cottage’s wooden door swings open gently, letting out the murmur of voices and the rich scent of banana bread.

Just inside, Robin Macek greets her guests, their faces sun-kissed and sleepy, as they gather around the table. Meanwhile, her husband, Chad, commands the open kitchen, brewing another pot of coffee and putting the finishing touches on breakfast.

Front door of Oscar's House and bicycle with a basket

Guests staying at Oscar’s House Bed & Breakfast — located in a 1940 cedar-shake cottage — are just a short walk or bicycle ride away from the Ocracoke Lighthouse. photograph by Baxter Miller

“His banana bread is a whole thing on the island now,” Robin says with a touch of exasperation. “Anytime there’s a function, people expect the banana bread. Even his Friday night poker games — he’s bringing banana bread!”

And sometimes, to the delight of the Maceks’ guests at their bed and breakfast, Oscar’s House, Chad turns that famous banana bread into sweet and sticky French toast.

The innkeepers know just how to make their guests feel at home. After all, they were once guests at this table themselves. But much of the magic of the old house with the white picket fence goes beyond its caretakers, beyond the creaky hardwood floors and cozy guest rooms, beyond its deck railings lined with shells and fig trees heavy with fruit. The historic little cottage, originally the home of one of Ocracoke’s last lightkeepers, seems to hold the soul of the island.

• • •

In 2012, the Maceks, who lived in Wilmington, were selling Robin’s handmade jewelry at a market when a customer in their tent overheard them discussing their lack of plans for their upcoming anniversary. She suggested that they visit Ocracoke and stay at Oscar’s House Bed & Breakfast. “What’s Ocracoke?” they wondered. But they took the woman’s advice, calling innkeeper Ann Ehringhaus to set up their stay.

“We’ve never gone anywhere else for our anniversary since,” Robin says. “We just fell in love with the island. I was blown away. I’ve been all over the world, and I’ve never seen a beach like this — and Oscar’s just felt like home.”

The house was built in 1940 for Capt. Joseph M. Burrus, the second-to-last keeper of the Ocracoke Lighthouse and the last to serve under the U.S. Lighthouse Service before the Coast Guard took over. It was meant for his retirement.

Overhead view of Silver Lake in Ocracoke Island

Though roughly 16-miles long, life on Ocracoke is anchored by the village that surrounds Silver Lake. photograph by Chris Hannant

The veteran lightkeeper, Hatteras native, and son of a sea captain had arrived on the island in 1929, the same year that the Ocracoke Light was electrified. Like the moves of a dance, he knew where to place each foot on the 75-foot-tall beacon’s wooden spiral steps, having climbed them for 16 years at dawn and dusk. He’d watched spectacular sunrises, sunsets, and storms, and seen ships ablaze on the ocean during World War II. He’d spent weeks at a time, often in the summer, posted at light stations in the sound, surrounded by water as far as the eye could see.

When he retired in 1946 after more than 40 years with the Lighthouse Service, Burrus, known to many as Captain Joe, and his wife, Eleanor, affectionately called Miss El, finally left the light keepers’ quarters to move into their own cottage just down the road. After Burrus died, the house went to his son, Oscar, who in turn passed it down to his daughter, Alta.

Ehringhaus, an artist and writer who first came to the island in 1971 to teach at Ocracoke School, bought the home from her friend Alta in 1982. Two years later, Ehringhaus turned the house into a bed and breakfast, a relatively new concept in the U.S. at that time. She decided to name it what everyone else on the island already called it: Oscar’s House.

Living room and guest room in Oscar's House in Ocracoke Island

At Oscar’s House, guests can relax in the former home of one of Ocracoke’s last lighthouse keepers, Capt. Joe Burrus, and his wife, Eleanor. photograph by Baxter Miller

“Everyone who came to stay for the first three years had no idea what it was supposed to be like — and neither did I,” Ehringhaus remembers with a laugh. “But if I didn’t have a full table for breakfast, I would occasionally invite an islander to join us so that people could meet them. Captain Joe, and then Oscar and his daughter, had been integral to Ocracoke. I wanted Oscar’s to be interwoven with our community, not set apart.”

On cold winter nights, when Ehringhaus was curled up in the living room alone, she would often hear unexplained footsteps above her in Captain Joe’s old room on the second floor. One evening, a relative of Captain Joe’s called to ask her if she’d ever seen anything strange in the house. She could hear relief in his voice when she told him that, yes, she’d heard someone moving about up there many times. As a 5-year-old boy, the relative had visited the island with his family for Captain Joe’s funeral. After the service, he saw a man at the top of the stairs, dressed in full uniform and smiling kindly — a vision that nobody really believed until Ehringhaus shared her own experiences. It didn’t seem so strange to her: Captain Joe’s love for his home, his lighthouse, his island life was so strong that it simply carried on after he died.

• • •

But it was at the breakfast table with her guests that Ehringhaus truly felt the magic of his house, of the island, come alive. She’d start each breakfast with a question: What’s the most powerful book you’ve read in the past year? If you could travel anywhere in the world, where you would go? Openness and playful creativity would flourish. Musicians would pull out guitars or get up to play the house piano. A guest might go out on the deck to show off a new dance they’d learned.

“My motto at Oscar’s was ‘Big world, all connected,’” Ehringhaus says. “I made it into a bumper sticker. Whenever someone at the breakfast table would say, ‘Small world,’ I’d say, ‘No! Big world, all connected!’ And they’d win a bumper sticker.”

When Robin and Chad first visited in 2012, Ehringhaus was approaching her 30th year as innkeeper, and she watched the couple’s love for the house and for Ocracoke bloom, just as hers had decades before. The Maceks began staying at Oscar’s each June for the Ocrafolk Festival, where Robin would sell her jewelry, and each September for their anniversary. “We became super close with Ann, and we always met awesome people around the breakfast table,” Robin says. “Every time we stayed, it became harder to leave.”

Robin and Chad Macek inside the kitchen at Oscar's House

It took two moving trucks on the Ocracoke ferry to get all of Robin and Chad Macek’s belongings to Oscar’s House in 2018. “By the time we got unpacked, there were no more ferries,” Robin says. “We had to put up the moving guys and make them breakfast in the morning.” photograph by Baxter Miller

When Ehringhaus decided to sell Oscar’s, she knew that the historic house needed a caretaker. Someone who would love it as she had and preserve the spirit that she’d cultivated around the breakfast table — and she knew whom to ask. Before the contract was even drawn up, she got Chad and Robin their own post office box. In 2018, after 33 years, Ehringhaus handed over the title of innkeeper at Oscar’s House.

It was something that Robin and Chad had long dreamed about. “On that first day we got here back in 2012, we arrived before check-in, and we were sitting across the street, having a drink, looking over at Oscar’s, and we said, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be cool to live here and own that?’” Robin says. “Now, we’ve put up the woman who first told us about Ocracoke and Oscar’s many times, and most of our guests have stayed here before. We have some people who have stayed with us 15 times, so Chad and I will do something special for them when they come, like book a sailboat for sunset, just to say thank you.”

Perhaps the magic of Oscar’s House — where no one leaves a stranger, and everyone is connected — was sparked by Captain Joe himself. The quintessential islander and keeper of its beloved light wove himself into the fabric of Ocracoke. When guests stay in his home, they become a part of that fabric, too.

Conch shells on the porch beam

Elements of island life serve as decor throughout Oscar’s House.  photograph by Baxter Miller

Ocracoker John Simpson, Captain Joe’s great-grandson, never met the man, but he recalls countless stories about “Pops” that his father, Lawrence Olin Simpson Jr., shared with him over the years: climbing to the top of the light under the cover of darkness during World War II, drilling holes in the floor of the keepers’ quarters before a hurricane so that the water could flow in and out without carrying the building away. As a child, Lawrence and his mother, Sybil — one of Oscar’s sisters — lived for a time in the keepers’ quarters, and Captain Joe became a father figure to him.

Captain Joe spent about five years in the little cottage that he’d built on the beach road before he died there in 1951. But his legacy — as an islander both hardworking and welcoming, virtuous and playful — lives on. In his descendants. In his home. In the lighthouse itself.

“This lighthouse is near and dear to my heart,” Simpson says. “Growing up, I lived almost due north of it, and my bedroom was upstairs on the second story. I never needed night-lights because I had the light from the Ocracoke Lighthouse shining in through my windows every night. I was fortunate to have that guiding light reflect on my life in so, so many ways.”

• • •

At breakfast, Chad leans back against the counter and takes a sip of his drink. A guest wanders down from Captain Joe’s old room, and Chad asks, “See anything strange last night?” Sunlight streams in through the kitchen windows, lighting up the stained glass and spilling across the table. “No,” the guest replies, “but I’ll keep looking.”

After the guest checks out, Robin or Chad will head up to clean the empty room. But they’ll knock on the door before they enter, calling out to Captain Joe, thanking him for taking care of the house, the guests.

“I know now why he didn’t want to leave,” Ehringhaus says. “I’m probably gonna be there when I die, too.”

Later, when the sun sinks into Pamlico Sound, another guest will hop on a blue bike and pedal over to Lighthouse Road in time to see the light at the top of the old beacon flicker on, just as it has for 200 years. It no longer needs a keeper, but it still lights the way home.

Oscar’s House Bed & Breakfast
660 Irvin Garrish Highway
Ocracoke, NC 27960
(252) 928-1311

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This story was published on May 14, 2024

Katie Schanze

Katie Schanze is an associate editor and digital content editor at Our State.