Ebb & Flow: Another Nags Head Facelift

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In a matter of days, these cottages will be demolished. It is a bittersweet finale marking the end of our second busy season here in the big blue building across the street from where they stand.

Bitter, because these sentinels of the sand dunes, historic Nags Head style cottages built in the 1950s, have been standing watch over this little slice of Heaven for decades. They’ve been the backdrop for our summers as we teach surf lessons, swim, paddle, and sunbathe. These cottages preserve a way of life and the spirit of the old Outer Banks, something that is becoming harder to see and feel as the island is developed.

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There is sweetness in it too. New houses—large ones that can accommodate a family reunion or a wedding celebration—are slated to be built in their place. Their doors will be open and waiting for new memories to be made, new traditions that will become part of the history of this place.

We were lucky enough to be granted permission by the construction company heading the development to enter the houses before they are torn down. Stepping through their doors is like stepping back in time. Solid wood panelling—juniper and pine—cover the walls, the floors, the ceilings. Cast iron sinks and tubs, crystal door knobs, and large fireplaces adorn the sturdy, weatherworn fortresses.

We came away with some souvenirs, relics forgotten in cupboards and on shelves: dusty stacks of china, a rusty stapler and faded box of staples. Old board games and bingo cards, their paper browned and peeling. They are the tools and amusements of everyday life in simpler times. We were able to salvage doors and timber to use for some upcoming projects as we expand Farmdogs Coffee, and for our own homes as well.

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In a way, we are carrying on the legacy of Outer Bankers from long ago who knew what it took to make it on these barrier islands—resourcefulness, creativity…and, ok, piracy. In fact, the town of Nags Head got its namesake from such lore. The story goes that native Outer Bankers (originally coming from Europe) that inhabited these shores would tie a lantern around the neck of an old nag (or horse) and lead it up and down the dunes. The light shone out to sea, creating the illusion of a ship drifting in a sheltered harbor. But when captains tried to steer their ships into “harbor,” they would run aground on the dangerous and shallow shoals and the islanders would seize their chance to loot them, taking valuables, furniture and materials for their own.

But it wasn’t always through trickery that Outer Bankers capitalized on shipwrecks. Plenty of ships tragically ran aground on their own, earning the waters off our coast the nickname “the Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Nonetheless, when there are goods to be gathered, natives waste no time in doing so to this day. In 2006, a shipping container washed ashore just south of Nags Head on Hatteras Island, strewing its contents across the beach. The treasure? Hundreds of bags of Doritos. Word spread quickly and locals came out to reap the harvest, stocking their pantries full with the snacks.

Doritos washed ashore on Hatteras Island (Chris Curry/The Virginian-Pilot)

We are well versed in the adage “waste not, want not.” And so we took the opportunity to explore the small commune of cottages, six in all. We came away with a few artifacts, these photos, and a glimpse of Nags Head in its glory days. A barrier island, by its very nature, is a changing and transformative thing–the old gives way to the new and the island keeps moving forward. The crew here at Farmdog Surf School is thinking that more of those glory days are yet to come.

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(Photo: Shea Bunn)

By Hannah Bunn