Remembering A Vanishing Way Of Life On Virginia's Barrier Islands (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Remembering a Vanished Way of Life on Virginia's Barrier Islands

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and we're calling this week's show "Barriers." Now, here in our fair federal city, you'll find physical barriers all over the place, fences, roadblocks, those ubiquitous bollards. But as we'll hear over the next hour, not all barriers are so tangible, so concrete. Like the barriers to housing or jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1

00:00:32
This sends a message that hopefully will put people in a better position to lead safer, more stable lives.

SHEIR

00:00:41
Or the barriers that determine who and what is represented on the theatrical stage.

MS. THEMBI DUNCAN

00:00:46
For that conversation to continue happening, that is the key. When we stop talking about it, that's when we're lost.

SHEIR

00:00:53
But to start off today's "Barriers" show…

MR. BARRY TRUITT

00:00:55
Let's go see how rough it is out in the bay.

SHEIR

00:00:59
…we're going to take a little boat trip.

TRUITT

00:01:03
Fire in the hole.

SHEIR

00:01:05
We're zooming through Hog Island Bay, off the finger peninsula known as Virginia's Eastern Shore. Our driver…

TRUITT

00:01:10
Everybody warm enough?

SHEIR

00:01:12
…is Barry Truitt, chief conservation scientist with The Nature Conservancy. The nonprofit owns and protects more than half of Virginia's barrier islands, the 23 naturally-shifting land masses that help buffer the mainland from storms. Barry co-edited a book called, "Seashore Chronicles: Three Centuries of the Virginia Barrier Islands."

TRUITT

00:01:31
And if you see that tower out there on the horizon, that's where we're going. That's where the town used to be.

SHEIR

00:01:38
That town was Broadwater. A village of about 100 to 200, 250 people -- depending whom you ask -- on the lower end of Hog Island. Hog Island is four miles long and, because the barrier islands naturally shift and change so much, it can range from one to two miles wide.

TRUITT

00:01:54
This end of the island used to be like a mile and a half wide, and now the ocean is right on the other side of that bush line there. It's pretty narrow.

SHEIR

00:02:04
Thanks to Hog Island's natural erosion, coupled with a hurricane that pummeled the place in 1933, the village of Broadwater was pretty much abandoned by the early 1940s. Nowadays, it's little more than an expanse of sand dunes and ruins.

TRUITT

00:02:18
There's a couple of sidewalks up in the sand dunes that if you look real hard you can find.

SHEIR

00:02:23
But back in the day, like the late 1800s/early 1900s, you would have seen a thriving little community here, leading a simple, rural life. They had a post office, a general store, a Coast Guard station.

TRUITT

00:02:34
A school, a church, a lighthouse. There was a hotel at one point, a hunt club, a government wharf here, lined with shucking houses, scallops, oysters and clams.

SHEIR

00:02:46
Not to mention a few dozen…

MR. KENNY MARSHALL

00:02:48
We're going to go over what we call Little Hog Island.

SHEIR

00:02:51
…houses.

MARSHALL

00:02:52
I think every house here came from Hog Island originally, except the very last one on the road.

SHEIR

00:02:58
And as 72-year-old Hog Island descendant Kenny Marshall is showing us from the front seat of his pickup truck, a number of those Hog Island houses are now in communities on Virginia's mainland, including Oyster, Wachapreague, Nassawadox, and this seaside village, Willis Wharf.

MARSHALL

00:03:13
Let me show you this. This was my mother's brother's house. That old gray house over there is where I live. That's my house. That was two separate single-story rooms, a room upstairs and a room downstairs, on Hog Island. And I tell folks that my house has more miles on it than my pickup.

SHEIR

00:03:31
Indeed, when Hog Island's residents packed up their stuff, they made a point of rolling their houses on to barges, and towing them to the mainland. Some families even exhumed and transported their dead -- a prescient thing to do, since these days, Kenny Marshall guesses that the Hog Island cemetery…

MARSHALL

00:03:47
That's probably close to a mile out in the ocean now.

SHEIR

00:03:49
Kenny Marshall wasn't born on Hog Island, but his 76-year-old sister, Yvonne Marshall -- now Yvonne Widgeon -- was. The family moved to Willis Wharf when she was two years old.

MS. YVONNE WIDGEON

00:03:59
I don't remember anything about actually living on the island since I was such a small child. But I've just been told by my parents. My mother was born there and all of her family from generations. At least seven generations I can go back and probably more than that. I just haven't done all the research yet.

SHEIR

00:04:16
Yvonne may not have collected that information, but she's definitely collected something else -- artifacts from her island home.

WIDGEON

00:04:23
After my parents died, I really realized the importance of the history of Hog Island and our family. My parents, my grandparents, they were gone. I could've asked them many, many questions that I didn't. So I had a little house that had come from Hog Island. It was the first post office, as a matter of fact. And we turned it in to a museum.

SHEIR

00:04:45
Through the years, surviving Hog Islanders offered up items like household supplies and tools to Yvonne's museum. When she eventually closed up shop, she donated all of the stuff…

MS. LAURA VAUGHAN

00:04:54
We have over 7,500 artifacts.

SHEIR

00:04:56
…here.

VAUGHAN

00:04:57
And we've never bought or asked for anything. They've all found their way individually.

SHEIR

00:05:01
We are in Machipongo, Va., at the Barrier Islands Center, where Laura Vaughan is executive director.

SHEIR

00:05:07
I would love to look at some of the artifacts that have been collected from the islands.

VAUGHAN

00:05:12
They're beautiful. So let's go upstairs.

SHEIR

00:05:16
Since 1996, the Barrier Islands Center has been preserving the heritage of Virginia's barrier islands through exhibits and educational programs. It's situated in a late 19th-century farmhouse, and once you ascend the creaky wooden stairs, you encounter a bunch of galleries, one of which is dedicated entirely to Hog Island.

SHEIR

00:05:34
You'll see chairs from the short-lived Hog Island Hotel, the lighthouse keeper's journal from 1872 through 1897, and on one wall you can read typed and hand-scrawled family recipes from the island's biggest holiday celebration, the Fourth of July.

SHEIR

00:05:49
What are some of the recipes for?

VAUGHAN

00:05:50
Oh, well, here's one for oysters. It says, "We'd steam them, stew them up, fry, dip in egg, then flour. You get to know the person by reading their own words.

SHEIR

00:06:02
Other recipes include scallops, crackling bread, terrapin, clam fritters and marsh hens.

VAUGHAN

00:06:08
"You kill the hens on a real high tide. The higher, the better." So I mean, you know, there's some wisdom. "And then you clean them and you skin them, cut them up and fry them." And that's -- who is that -- Eugene Bowen.

SHEIR

00:06:23
Like the Marshalls, the Simpsons, the Doughtys, Bowen is a name you'll see a lot of in the Hog Island gallery.

VAUGHAN

00:06:29
This is some of the furniture they literally stood on to survive the storm of '33, May and Wendell Bowen. And they had just bought this furniture for $39 from Sears.

SHEIR

00:06:42
Another Bowen family artifact is the silk scarf that Eli Bowen wore with a gold clip as part of his U.S. Coast Guard uniform. But there's one piece of Bowen memorabilia…

SHEIR

00:06:52
Can you show us what you brought with you today?

MR. NORRIS BOWEN

00:06:54
Yes, I can.

SHEIR

00:06:55
…that you won't find on display.

BOWEN

00:06:57
This is a drum spear or a fish spear. And what it is is a scaled-down harpoon head. My great grandfather cast that out of bronze, and he used to use it on Hog Island.

SHEIR

00:07:12
Norris Bowen was born on Hog Island on May 9, 1939.

BOWEN

00:07:16
As a matter of fact, I was the last person born on Hog Island.

SHEIR

00:07:19
And he says he's thought about donating his great grandfather's fish spear to the Barrier Islands Center.

BOWEN

00:07:24
But it has a lot of sentimental value. So I'd like to keep it with me. When I die, either my wife or my grandkids, they can bring it down.

SHEIR

00:07:36
Because I was going to say, there are so many Bowen family artifacts here, but this one's not in the collection.

BOWEN

00:07:40
No, it's not.

SHEIR

00:07:41
Norris left Hog Island in fall 1940. He wasn't even a year-and-a-half old. So, like Yvonne Widgeon, Norris doesn't really remember life on Hog Island. But after his family relocated to Willis Wharf, for a while they made a point of visiting Hog Island each year.

BOWEN

00:07:56
So as soon as we got out of school, we'd pack up -- Mom, my little sister, my two brothers and I, and my father -- and we stayed all summer. And he worked. And actually we worked, too. We didn't realize it, but we would help him with the oysters and with the clams and so on and so forth.

SHEIR

00:08:15
After the family stopped their yearly excursions, Norris would still return to Hog Island every now and again. In fact, coincidentally, he was sent there for a spell while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard. But if you ask him what it's like to go back to his childhood home now…

SHEIR

00:08:29
So is there any bittersweet feeling?

BOWEN

00:08:33
A lot of longing, a lot of sadness, you know. But overriding that was like this is where I belong. This is where I came from.

SHEIR

00:08:42
And it's important to keep that in mind, he says, and to honor and preserve his home's history. Even if today, it looks nothing like it used to. But then again, he adds, neither does much of Virginia's Eastern Shore.

BOWEN

00:08:54
Life on the Eastern Shore as it was, is fast becoming a thing of the past, because it's becoming so commercialized. There's more to living than trying to please people or having things. It all boils down to the way I was raised, and I was raised the way most Hog Islanders were raised. Be happy with yourself and what you do. And I am. I am.

SHEIR

00:09:30
Want to see Virginia's barrier islands then and now? We have historical photos, as well as present-day shots, on our website, metroconnection.org.
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