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

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If you head about 30 minutes across Hog Island Bay, off the finger peninsula known as Virginia’s Eastern Shore, you’ll reach Hog Island. It’s one of Virginia’s 23 “barrier islands”: naturally-shifting land masses that help buffer the mainland from storms.

Hog Island was once home to Broadwater: a village of about 150 people on the island’s lower end. 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.

“[One] end of the island used to be 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,” says Barry Truitt, who recently drove a group out to the Island.

Truitt is Chief Conservation Scientist with The Nature Conservancy, the nonprofit that owns and protects more than half of Virginia’s barrier islands. He also co-edited a book called Seashore Chronicles: Three Centuries of the Virginia Barrier Islands.

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.

“There’s a couple of sidewalks up in the sand dunes that if you look real hard you can find,” Truitt says.

But back in the late 1800s/early 1900s, you would have found a thriving little community, leading a simple, rural life. They had a post office, general store, Coast Guard station, school, church, lighthouse, hotel, hunt club, as well as a government wharf lined with shucking houses for scallops, oysters and clams.

The island also had a few-dozen houses, many of which now stand across the bay, in communities on Virginia’s mainland, including Oyster, Wachapreague, Nassawadox and the seaside village of Willis Wharf.

That’s where 72-year-old Hog Island descendant Kenny Marshall lives. He explains that his two-story gray house was two separate single-story rooms back on Hog Island, before it was transported.

“I tell folks that my house has more miles on it than my pick-up!” he says with a laugh.

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, Marshall guesses that the Hog Island cemetery is “probably close to a mile out in the ocean now.”

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 just two years old.

“I don’t remember anything about actually living on the island since I was such a small child,” she says. “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.”

Widgeon may not have collected that information, but she’s definitely collected something else: artifacts from her island home.

“After my parents died, I really realized the importance of Hog Island and our family,” she explains. “My parents, my grandparents, they were gone. I could’ve asked them many, many questions, and 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.”

Through the years, surviving Hog Islanders offered up items — like household supplies and tools — to Widgeon’s museum. When she eventually closed up shop, she donated all of the stuff to the Barrier Islands Center in Machipongo, Va.

“We have over 7,500 artifacts, and we’ve never bought or asked for anything. They’ve all found their way individually through the door,” says Executive Director Laura Vaughan.

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 come upon a bunch of galleries, one of which is dedicated entirely to Hog Island. 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 handwritten family recipes from the island’s biggest holiday celebration: The Fourth of July.

The recipe for oysters reads as follows: “We’d steam ‘em, stew ‘em up, fry, dip in egg, then flour.”

“You get to know the person by reading their own words,” Vaughan says.

Other recipes include scallops, crackling bread, terrapin, clam fritters and marsh hens: “You kill the hens on a real high tide. The higher, the better. And then you clean ‘em and you skin ‘em, cut ‘em up and fry ‘em.”

The marsh hen recipe is from Eugene Bowen. Like the Marshalls, the Simpsons, the Doughtys, “Bowen” is a name you’ll see a lot of in the Hog Island gallery.

“This is some of the furniture they literally stood on to survive the storm of ’33,” Vaughan says. “May and Wendell Bowen. And they had just bought this furniture for $39 from Sears.”

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 that you won’t find on display: a drum spear made by Norris Bowen’s great grandfather.

“This is a fish spear,” Bowen says. “It is a scaled-down harpoon head. My great grandfather cast it out of bronze, and he used to use it on Hog Island.”

Norris Bowen was born on Hog Island on May 9, 1939: the last baby to be born there. He says he’s thought about donating his great grandfather’s fish spear to the Barrier Islands Center, “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.”

Bowen left Hog Island in fall 1940; he wasn’t even a year-and-a-half old. So, like Yvonne Widgeon — Bowen 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.

“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,” Bowen recounts. “And he worked. And actually we worked, too! We didn’t realize it, but we’d help out with the oysters and with the clams and so on and so forth.”

After the family stopped their yearly excursions, Bowen 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, he says there’s “a lot of longing, a lot of sadness. But overriding that [is] like ‘this is where I belong. This is where I came from.’”

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.

“Life on the Eastern Shore as it was, is fast becoming a thing of the past, because it’s becoming so commercialized,” he says. “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.

“Now, I’ve done some things I’ve not been really proud of,” he continues, “but we won’t go in to that!”

[Music: "Island Letter" by Shuggie Otis from Inspiration Information]


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