Harkers Island, NC Brief History

Fifty Years of Change

50th Anniversary of the Harkers Island EMC, 1939-1989

The “coming of electricity” was but one of the many changes that came to Harkers Island during the first half of the 20th century. However, no other event had a more direct effect on people’s day-to-day lives than the power of electrical energy. Even through ferry service, and later the bridge, made accessibility to and from the island easier, its eventual effects on the island were not felt until much later. But with the bringing of electricity literally within arm’s reach, the lives of people immediately changed.

Changes in the home

Light bulbs were purchased for 5 cents from Luther Yeoman’s store. And what a difference a bulb could make. The first goal – after light itself – was to purchase a refrigerator or “ice box.” This seemed to be the greatest priority of all. Few families were able to purchase this immediately, but in time electric ice boxes became commonplace. Loans through the REA made this possible for many.

The first refrigerators to come on the island were purchased in Beaufort or Morehead City and brought over on the ferry. Neighborhoods would share in the excitement as families welcomed this new convenience. Later, Mr. Yeoman’s store carried a wide selection of refrigerators, cook stoves and other appliances.
Radios had been part of the community for many years, but had been battery powered or used with a Delco generator. Now, with electricity, the desire for a family radio became foremost in many households. Many family memories include gathering around a radio after supper to listen to news or many of the popular radio shows of that time.

The long-awaited luxury of an electric washing machine came slowly to the women of Harkers Island. This was indeed a luxury and an expensive one, but one that proved to be well worth every sacrifice. F or women that lived during this period of transition from the “old” to the “new,” the thrill of their first washing machine remains very real. The move from open coals and boiling pots outside, to automatic wringers was as dramatic as it was practical. Wash day would never mean the same…

But only a few years after electricity came, World War II began, putting every other public and private concern on a back burner for half a decade. Meeting the wants and needs of rural America, including those of Harkers Island, had to be delayed. The availability of the new appliances – including materials for new construction – slowed such that most were obliged to wait a bit longer for the gadgets that would bring a new way of life. Electric cookstoves, irons, water heaters, all eventually found their way into the homes of Harkers Island, but their influx was slow and gradual. These modern conveniences were expensive and the people of Harkers Island were still “working people,” for whom anything beyond sustenance might be considered extravagant. Yet the changes eventually came and were profound in their impact.

Changes in the community

Even as electricity was gradually transforming homes and lives into a more “automated” lifestyle, other changes were occurring. The community itself was quickly changing from a remote fishing village (with only minimal contact with the mainland) to a growing, thriving community with ever-increasing ties to the other villages in the area.

With the ferry service in operation since 1926, and the hard surfacing of the roads that same year, the number of vehicles on Harkers Island increased steadily. Then, the construction of the permanent bridge in 1940 and its opening on Jan. 1, 1941, secured the link between the island and the mainland forever.
The change was ultimately as dramatic as had been the advent of electric power. Both the coming of electricity and the building of the bridge occurred within the same few years. Both improvements were very much south after and welcomed by most. And the changes they wrought would “open the door to the world” for the people of Harkers Island. As a result, the years from 1939-1941 proved to be a turning point in the history of Harkers Island.

Becoming the Harkers Island of Today

From the two year period that would bring electricity and a bridge to this community, Harkers Island emerged ready to take advantage of these new opportunities that became available. No other single development would equal those of 1939 and 1941. Together they set the stage for later progress that has continued unabated. IN fact, much of what has happened since had its roots in the coming of electricity and the construction of a bridge. During the first years of the 1940s the war effort virtually brought to a halt all construction projects across the United States, including those at Harkers Island. However, with the completion of the bridge in 1941, plans were underway to move the power source from the underwater cable to a substation and line off Highway 70. The submarine cable had quickly proved to be inefficient, with frequent interruptions in service that often lasted for days. In bringing the mail line from Highway 70, poles were placed across Straits Channel and lines were brought onto the island alongside the newly paved road from the foot of the bridge. The initial underwater connection had extended from the mainland to the east end of the island at Nuckle’s Point. It continued southward across the mouth of a small creek to the area northwest of what is now Fisherman’s Inn (Rush Point). The new above ground connection from Highway 70 proved much more dependable and efficient. As a result, the REA continued to grow in membership and electrical consumption.

“Right after the war ended, (the REA) got another loan for plumbing… They were going to have a mass plumbing installation and Rural Plumbing and Heating Company out of Raleigh got the contract. They did the plumbing just like they did the wiring. I reckon half the houses got inside plumbing at that time,” (interview with a charter member.)

After the war, progress continued and the pace of improvements increased. The office of the REA, which initially was housed in the Odd Fellow’s Lodge and Charles Davis’ store, outgrew the available space and moved again, this time to what had been Henry Davis’ store.

In 1946, Earl C. Davis resigned as manager and Maxwell Willis was promoted from clerk to manager. In the meantime, other employees had been added to the full-time staff giving tangible indication of the success and expansion of the Co-op. During the period from 1945-1950, the Co-op added 156 new members, reaching a total of 330 members and 16 miles of line. This was a three-fold expansion over the preceding five years.
In 1948 the first telephone service was installed on Harkers Island with one 10-party line. This service was brought on the same poles that carried the electricity. Before long other lines were added, reducing the number of families per line to five.

In 1949 the high school on Harkers Island was consolidated with the high school at Smyrna. Through the elementary remained, high school students were bused off the island for the first time. This change was not entirely welcomed and took many years to be fully accepted. Never before had the young people of Harkers Island been obliged to associate with those of another community on a regular basis. Even through for educational purposes the change offered greater opportunities, it served to hasten the process of weakening the close community relationships that had been very much a part of Harkers Island’s culture.
In 1951, the post office, which had originally been located on the south shore near Cleveland Davis’ store, was moved to its new building on the main road.

The REA moved into its new office building at its present location in 1957. Once again, loans offered through the REA made this possible. Harkers Island took great pride in the completion of this project. This building served to be a permanent reminder of the progress of the preceding 15 years since the REA had become a part of the community.

The present elementary school opened in 1953, an event that brought with it great excitement throughout the community. On the day that the move took place, students marched in single file from the old school to the new facility while parents, family and neighbors – practically the whole community – watched. Those who experienced this proud moment fondly recall the excitement of that day even now, some 30 years later.
By 1960 life on Harkers Island showed little resemblance to the way of living that had been known during the first decades of the 1900s. Though only two generations had passed very little remained the same. No aspect of life had been left untouched.

The family structure remained intact, but not without having been somewhat altered by the pressures of a broadened lifestyle. Children no longer grew up to build their homes alongside their parents, brothers or sisters. Some were no longer forced to carry on the trade of their parents. Even though, many still chose to follow the age-old pattern, they now had the privilege of a choice.

“During the 1940s and 50s with the bridge, electricity, better roads, improved schools, and the war, m any island men began to leave the island to make their living,” (Island Born, pg. 188) Traditional boatbuilding by this time had become much more the support for the fishermen of the area. Word of the quality of craftsmanship and the distinctive style of Harkers Island boats soon spread. In 1954, the Original Rose Brothers Boatworks was founded. This brought not only increased business to the establishments but the overflow reached out to all island boatbuilders.

The fishing industry had grown as a result of the progress taking place around it. Electricity immediately provided improved refrigeration for fish dealers and fishermen alike, allowing them more time to transport seafood to its destination. Improvements in transportation brought access to markets inland, increasing demand and salability of the precious seafood commodity.

The social fabric of the island reflected all these changes as well. Interaction with other communities became commonplace. Schools were consolidated and workers from the island commuted daily to others parts of the county. As people from the island began to marry among the other communities, families were separated. Immediate families and neighborhood were no longer tied to each other for their livelihood and companionship. By now life on Harkers Island included day to day contact with the world that lay beyond the bridge.
With the 60s came many changes, not all of which related to the addition of new facilities and conveniences. Early in that decade weekend fishermen and seasonal visitors began to discover Harkers Island. The occasional “summer people” of the years before, soon rose to almost a flood as motels and marinas quickly grew to meet the demand. Thus was born the terms “dingbatters” and “dit-dots;” names affectionately given to the new visitors. Some of the newcomers enjoyed the island so much that they chose Harkers Island as their permanent home. The eventual effects of this development are still to be determined, as the number of such visitors and settlers continues to increase.

In 1964, the post office moved from its 1950s location to its present site. By the end of the 1960s plans to replace the wooden bridge with concrete sections and dredged causeways were underway. After several years of construction the new bridge was completed and the original wooden bridge was torn down.
Before 1970 plans for a water system were already under way. Here again the REA, now known as the EMC, played a major role.

“Harkers Island EMC’s interest in promoting the water system and providing more jobs for the community are but tow indications of its concern for the development of the island.” (Carolina Country, Oct. 1969)
Also, many of the same men who had led the way in securing lights for the island now focused their energies on the establishment of a water system for this community. Earl C. Davis spearheaded the effort, accompanied by David Yeomans, Norman, Hancock, Jack Poole, James Moore, Jack Guthrie and Ikey Guthrie. The addition of this facility has been a most welcomed improvement.

In 1972 a new fire and rescue building was completed. Prior to that date the rescue squad had been organized and had already purchased one ambulance that was stored at the water tower. The year also brought a branch of Wachovia Bank to the island, first housed in a mobile unit and in 1978 it moved to its present location. In 1978 Sea Level Hospital and Duke University established a family medical center, pharmacy and dentist’s office.

Cape Lookout National Seashore, which had been authorized by the federal government in 1966, was officially established on Harkers Island in 1876. The park service eventually acquired most of the east end of Harkers Island to serve as a gateway to the main portion of the park at Core Banks. In 1986 Shackleford Banks became a part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Being a part of the park brought added attention and interest in Harkers Island. During all these changes, the REA/EMC has continued to support and encourage each endeavor. It has sought to support the health, safety and growth of this community and to improve the quality of life for its members. Now, as it approaches the last decade of the 20th century, it continues to work, for the good of its membership. It always looks to the future with hopes of playing a major role in helping to assure that progress continues for the people of Harkers Island.

Down East Community Tour
Core Sound Waterfowl Museum