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Largest Gathering of Keepers’ Families Ever
Hatteras Keepers’ Descendants Rejoice at Homecoming
By Cheryl Shelton-Roberts

Keepers’ Stones Unveiled,
Lighthouse Rededicated as Children and Grandchildren Recall Life at Cape Hatteras

The largest gathering ever of keepers’ descendants took place on the grounds of the Cape Hatteras Light Station May 4, 5, 6, 2001. Over 1,100 Hatteras Lighthouse keepers’ direct descendants gathered for the Hatteras Keepers Descendants Homecoming. A gleaming white tent at the base of the lighthouse held all the families for a weekend of special programs about the lighthouse, U.S. Lighthouse Service history, and family life on Hatteras Island.

Highlights of the weekend included: the unveiling of the engraved stones from the original lighthouse foundation with names of the 83 identified keepers of Cape Hatteras Lighthouses, including the 1803 and 1870 towers and the Cape Hatteras Beacon Light at Cape Point (1855- c. 1904); heritage programs for descendants; the National Park Service rededication ceremony; a panel discussion with local residents and others who grew up near the lighthouse on Hatteras Island; and a lifesaving drill demonstration by volunteer surfmen of the Chicamacomico Historical Association.

"For the first time since I’ve been visiting Cape Hatteras, it was a true park and a place for people.” Joe Jakubik, project manager for the relocation of the Cape Hatteras Light Station commented on his attendance at the Hatteras Keepers Descendants Homecoming.

And it’s true. It was a place for people, family. The atmosphere at the park and around the lighthouse was the friendliest I’d ever felt. Each time I looked into the eyes of the descendants, I could see the eyes of the keepers. They were there with us in spirit and it was an overwhelming feeling that we all felt.

There were countless smiles on people’s faces when they met after having not seen one another for ten, twenty, thirty, forty years! The glint in their eyes, the warm hugs, the slaps on the back, the huddles to exchange funny stories- all said “family.” At times, the gatherings at the Angler’s Club, Hatteras Civic Center, and the tent looked like scenes at an old general store: men sat with their chairs turned backyards, gesturing strongly to embellish the stories; sisters drew closer for private chats and photographs; grandparents with grandchildren beamed with pride as keepers’ descendants. Recognition at last, home at last.

Before the event and behind the scenes…
Hatteras Homecoming Planning Committee Cochairman Lynn Jennette shuffled tens of thousands of pieces of paper involved with registering descendants and keeping the database. Cochairman Bruce Roberts pounded the pavement with Lynn to solicit food and donations and had a phone stuck to his ear for endless days to arrange speakers and sponsors. And I, also cochairman, conducted hours of interviews and stayed glued to one computer or another for months to complete the commemorative book HATTERAS KEEPERS ORAL AND FAMILY HISTORIES. Sandra MacLean Clunies spent weeknights, weekends, vacation time, and much of her newly found retirement time to study family histories and amass a database with over 10,000 names and assist with the commemorative book. The rest of the Hatteras Keepers Descendants Homecoming Planning Committee included Charlie and Shirley Votaw, who ran the silent auction with expertise, and committee members Judy Basnett, Lynn Jacques, and Charlene Wiles-Perry, along with local volunteers Nancy D'Andrade, Cay Carcich, Jinx Caylor, Peg Fox, Babs Rogers, Louise Guthry, and many others worked on endless details to assist Lynn Jennette in pulling together the world’s largest gathering of lighthouse keepers’ descendants in history.

Getting ready…
A week before the event, Lynn Jennette’s house looked like a mini warehouse. There were boxes of tee shirts, sweatshirts, and various boxes of goodies that had arrived from our generous donors. Many of these items would get stuffed into a bag for each registered descendant. Ah! the bruises from lugging heavy boxes all over Buxton and back! And what a vote of confidence when several descendants pitched in and helped the other volunteers! We were facing over 1,100 bags to stuff with goodies like 2,200 LERC Coastal Cubs. The camaraderie and team effort were incredible.

We finally see the tent…
When we walked up to the city-block sized tent, provided by Eastern National, the not-for-profit cooperating association assisting America’s National Parks and other Public Trusts, we were already tired! And then came the moment of shock. WE had to set up 110 tables and 1,300 chairs, did we quit? NO- thanks to the U.S. Coast Guard and volunteers including Tim Harrison. Lots-of-pulled-muscles-later, we moved on to the next issue…the unveiling of the stones.

The Unveiling of the Keepers Circle of Stones Friday, May 4, 2001
It was an humble ceremony with the U.S. Coast Guard Color Guard, music by the Hatteras Island Chorus, under the direction of David Grieder, welcome remarks by Bruce Roberts and Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent Francis Peltier, reading of the keepers’ names by me, blessing of the stones by Rev. Roger Barnett, Pastor Frisco Assembly of God Church and descendant of Hezekiah Barnett, and then the great moment: the unveiling of the stones by the family of Unaka Jennette. What a fine moment in American history!

No one could have predicted the impact of the engraved original granite plinth stones with the keepers’ names. Already there have been funerals and weddings in the circle. It’s a special place. As one views the engraved names and the eye slowly looks up, up along the move track and there she is–the striped beauty stands back, giving way to the upcoming blasts of Atlantic storms. One descendant told us that she was not ready for the emotional experience awaiting her at the stones. “I cried,” she said. “And I don’t cry! My children ran around and around and we counted the names and found how many had the same last names. I want to go back again and again.”

A barbecue at the Hatteras Civic Center Friday night and later at the Angler’s Club…
Thanks to generous local businesses, a great family cookout was held Friday night for the arriving families at the Hatteras Civic Center. It was much like being at the county fair where old neighbors and friends mingled and talked. Volunteers helped cook the chicken and hamburgers and it was a great buffet thanks to Lynn Jennette’s son, John (who also handled the food on Sunday). That evening, speakers Thomas Tag, Timothy Harrison, and Drew Pullen gave outstanding presentations on illuminants, the U.S. Lighthouse Service, and Civil War on Hatteras Island, respectively.

Saturday at the tent…
On the morning of Saturday May 5, over 1,100 Cape Hatteras Keepers Descendants arrived at the lighthouse and arranged themselves by families to listen to a panel of speakers. Roy Ackland of WGHP Fox8 TV was the emcee while his coworker, David Weatherly, filmed the day’s activities.

It was a banner group assembled from the lighthouse community from all over the country. Speakers included: Tim Harrison of the American Lighthouse Foundation who spoke on what a great event was taking place; Henry Gonzalez of the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society expressed his respect for lighthouses, keepers, and families who worked hard, long days to serve their country. Henry is a descendant of two European lighthouse keepers; Rick Lohr of International Chimney, Inc. defined what a great event it was to have the families present, a part of the lighthouse’s history as valuable as the relocation project; Dr. Margaret Harker delivered fascinating facts on the medical resources of keepers’ families based on a year of research; Cullen Chambers, who has overseen the restoration of the Key West, St. Augustine, and Tybee Island Lighthouses, spoke on the importance of lighthouse preservation; Sandra MacLean Clunies wowed the crowd with her family history information, and there were others! These speakers also met informally with families after lunch, which was served expertly by Kelly’s Restaurant of Nags Head.

It was a fine heritage program day for the keepers’ families. And this is the amazing thing- the Homecoming Committee, volunteers, nor speakers received compensation, royalties, or fees. This Homecoming is what the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society is all about.

The National Park Service (NPS) rededication ceremony was held Saturday evening May 5…
Keepers’ descendants filled half the compound between the lighthouse and the keepers quarters. Their presence enhanced the meaning of the ceremony, meant to bring closure to a safe move and the continuing history at Cape Hatteras. Mojo Collins, Bett Padgett, and the Hatteras Island Chorus all provided wonderful melodies with the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse as their backdrop. Master of Ceremonies, John Gillikin, introduced these speakers: VP Capitol Broadcasting Company Ben Waters; Former Senator Lauch Faircloth; Marc Basnight, N.C Senate Pro Tempore; NPS Supt. Francis Peltier; U.S. Coast Guard Cape Hatteras Group Commander Chris Olin; Dare County Commissioner Chairman Moncie Daniels; J.D. Solomon of the American Society of Civil Engineers; Pat Hooks, Southeast Deputy Regional Director of the NPS; Rick Lohr of International Chimney, Inc.; and I, the editor and cofounder of the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society spoke to the crowd of all the history this lighthouse has witnessed and now joins its place in history. Mike Booher recorded the event with his camera for the NPS, and in closing, Piper Rob Lockwood played “Amazing Grace” as the crowd sang along.

What a day. What a memory.

And on that quiet Sunday morning…
The gorgeous weather was still being controlled by the keepers, and we gathered once more under beautiful Hatteras skies.

On stage in the big tent were some of the “old people” as the islanders call them, who shared memories of growing up on Hatteras Island in the early twentieth century. What wonderful stories! Descendant Truly Clark videotaped the entire session. Included in the group were: Beatie McArthur, cofounder of the Hatteras Island Genealogical and Historical Society and relative of seven keepers; Jack Goodwin, library curator of the Carteret County Historical Society and grandson of Keeper James Casey; Reese Folb, son of “Doc” Folb who was Chief Pharmacist Mate for the U.S. Navy; Sybil Austin Skakle, writer and former island resident; Drew Pullen, panel coordinator and expert on Hatteras Island during the Civil War; Stockton Midgett; and Eaf O’Neal.

Dr. Margaret Harker, one of the Saturday speakers on early island medicine, took advantage of the opportunity to ask the panel about medical treatments when they were growing up. You’d be amazed at some of the great “cures” that were used. One of the common sense remedies for a bad cut, or other wounds, was to tie a biscuit or other bread to the injured area for days or longer. “What an odor!” panelist Jack Goodwin frowned! But it was the forerunner to use of antibiotics made of mold such as penicillin. As Dr. Harker stated in her chapter in HATTERAS KEEPERS ORAL AND FAMILY HISTORIES, we would do well today to be a resourceful and to use common sense as did the keepers and their families during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who had scarce access to a medical doctor and lived in a time when antibiotics were nonexistent.

The wind began to blow…
Around 1:00 PM Sunday, when Richard Darcy of the Chicamacomico Historical Association began his explanation of the lifesaving drill to be held near the Keepers Circle of Stones, the Outer Banks wind moved in and we were sandblasted by the time we reached the stones area. The lifesaving drill crewmembers proceeded just as in a real-life rescue mission. Leaning into the wind, they set up a Lyle gun and prepared to shoot a lifeline and deliver a breeches buoy by a line and pulleys. Even in winds above 35 mph, the shot hit the crosstree, representing the mast of a foundered ship, dead-center. One of the descendant’s young daughters stood atop the crosstree, received the line, climbed into the breeches buoy, and glided safely down to awaiting lifesavers. The brave men of the U.S. Lifesaving Service (now the U.S. Coast Guard) played this scenario out hundreds of time all over the Outer Banks, saving countless lives traveling the tricky waters of Cape Hatteras.

As we packed our car…
There was the most satisfying feeling I’d ever experienced at Hatteras. Like Joe Jakubik, I look differently at the lighthouse and the park now. When I see the brick, I also see keepers’ faces. When I hear the wind atop the lighthouse, I also hear the stories of their families. Having heard some of the oral and family histories, I want to know more.

© 2006 Cheryl Shelton-Roberts for the Lighthouse News
Outer Banks Lighthouse Society

This page last updated on Friday, February 10, 2006 7:44 PM