Return to Dare County
History of Stumpy Point
by Harold Lee Wise (posted here with his kind permission)
Harold Lee Wise, a Stumpy Point native, is an adjunct history professor and is a frequent contributor to military history encyclopedias. He also is the author of Inside the Danger Zone: The U.S. Military in the Persian Gulf 1987-88, Naval Institute Press, 2007. You may wish to visit his website here. The History of Stumpy Point was originally featured in a 5-part series which appeared in the Outer Banks Sentinel in 2006.
(Figure 1) Mosely Map 1733 From: The Southeast in Early Maps, William P Cummings (University of North Carolina Press, 1958) Plate 53
The ‘Old Timey Days’
Modern-day Dare County has a long and colorful history. The site of the first English attempt to settle the New World was Roanoke Island. The Union and Confederate armies clashed at the same island during the Civil War. The world’s first powered flight took place in Kitty Hawk. Pirates and German U-Boats sailed in the nearby ocean, which earned the nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of the many shipwrecks that occurred in the treacherous waters. The various historical attractions draw thousands of visitors annually. In addition, the Outer Banks is a popular resort area that is experiencing tremendous growth. As more people and businesses come to the area, the less it resembles the isolated sandbanks of days gone by.
Yet, in the county's mainland villages, the populations remain small and the slow pace of daily life is more like it was in years past. There are but a few recognized historical sites on the mainland, yet this sometimes overlooked area has a treasured and interesting history of its own.
Stumpy Point is the southernmost village on Dare County's mainland. The town lies on the northern edge of Stumpy Point Bay, a small body of water that leads into the western Pamlico Sound.
The first inhabitants of North Carolina were Indians, but the exact tribe, if any, which circulated near Stumpy Point is not known for certain. John White’s maps of circa 1585 show no indications of Native American settlements there. Still, there is no doubt that Indians, perhaps in their fishing endeavors, were the first to discover the place now called Stumpy Point. The land was part of the Chiefdom of Secotan when Englishmen came to the area in the late 1500s.
On John Lawson’s 1709 map, there is an area called Machapun shown south of the present day village in what is now Hyde County. Indians called Machapunga or Mattamuskeets lived there and perhaps were the most likely people to have frequented the area. The Croatan tribe is shown on the same map as occupying the area near present-day Manns Harbor. The Croatans also probably visited the vicinity of Stumpy Point.
Some sources state the tribes called Stumpy Point, “Meltail-on-the-Lake.” That name appears in the state census of 1786 as a reference point within Tyrrell County, but probably refers to Miltail Creek on the Alligator River. The true origin of the name “Stumpy Point” is unknown, despite an apocryphal legend that it is a translation of Native American words meaning “point with stumps.” The most likely explanation is that mariners named it as a reference to the land sticking out into the sound, much like Sandy Point, Long Shoal Point and the many other “points.” The earliest known instance of the name appearing on a map in any form was in 1709, although there was no settlement indicated.
At the time, Stumpy Point Bay was not a bay; rather, it was a lake. On a 1733 map drawn by Edward Moseley, an enclosed body of water labeled Stumpy Point Lake appears. The same name is on another map drawn in 1770, however by that time, there is a small inlet connecting the lake with the sound, creating a bay. It may have been simply natural erosion. However, when Europeans eventually arrived to settle the village, a legend arose about the creation of the bay involving the Indians. Lucy Best, a Hyde County native who moved to Stumpy Point in 1903, remembered an old tale passed down to her from previous generations.
“Now all this happened before I ever came to Stumpy Point but they told me that the Indians ... burned out the lake and it took thirteen moons. I don’t guess they knew what dates there was so they counted moons. I don’t know whether it was new moons, full moons or what. But that was the way the lake got burned out. They said it took thirteen moons to burn it out. Then on one side of the lake was a place they called Casey’s Point and on this side was Dream Point. They took a sixteen-foot rail and laid it on one point and laid it on the other and that’s the way they got back and forth from Casey’s Point to Dream Point ... Now a sixteen-foot rail, that wasn’t a very big place of water was it?”
It may never be known if there is any truth to this old story. Most likely, it is a Native American legend dating far back in their folklore. Indians told a similar “burning out” story about Mattamuskeet Lake. There is a chance it could be based on fact. Because the soil around the area contains peat, lingering ground fires are a big problem for firefighters whenever the forest burns. It is not hard to imagine low peat-filled ground smoldering for months and eventually burning completely away enough that water covers the ground enough to create a lake. According to Lucy Best, the rail used as a bridge was a fence rail and sixteen feet was the standard length. Relying on contemporary maps, especially Collet 1770, the fence rail part of the story probably dates back to the early 19th century on or around the time of the founding of Stumpy Point. Many old time residents told the story about the sixteen-foot “plank” or “rail” bridging Stumpy Point Bay. Today, the opening to the bay spans more than two miles. Acres of land, and two cemeteries, have washed away in the intervening time. Sometime between 1778 and 1808, cartographers officially stopped calling the bay a lake, although Stumpy Point locals call it ‘the lake’ to this day.
As time went by, the future Dare County mainland became part of Tyrrell County and various men laid claim to all or part of it, but none yet attempted a settlement. In 1778, James Anderson claimed the land surrounding Stumpy Point Lake. This was probably the same man who served as captain of the Ocracoke independent militia called into being by the North Carolina Provincial Congress during the Revolutionary War. There also is a document dated Sept. 7, 1795 showing the land as being claimed, along with all the rest of what eventually became mainland Dare County, by the well-known land speculator John Gray Blount. Blount had the area surveyed and apparently received a favorable report on the quality of the land, however, he did little with the property, as it was heavily wooded and swampy.
According to a local author, Nell Wise Wechter, beginning in 1794, four men bought roughly 2200 acres of land in Stumpy Point and founded the village sometime before the start of the 19th century. The four men included three brothers --William Midyett, Samuel Midyett, and John Midyett-- along with Edward Mann. The Midyett and Mann families were related by marriage. Lewis Midyett, son of William, is buried in the Stumpy Point Methodist cemetery. The earliest recorded birth in Stumpy Point, another William Midyett, was in 1805.
Questions remain about why the men settled this particular spot. Though it possessed a sheltered, though shallow, harbor, at first glance it seems an unlikely place for a town. There were no roads at the time. The town site, surrounded by thick pine forest and swamp, could only be reached by water through the narrow opening to the bay. The opportunity for agriculture was probably a prime motivator. Perhaps the four had heard of Josiah Collins and Charles Pettigrew who had started major plantations on the Scuppernong River and Lake Phelps using slave labor to dig drainage ditches to make the swampland arable. The 1790 census listed the Midyett family as slaveholders; maybe they sought to start a plantation of their own at Stumpy Point. Stumpy Point Bay was within easy reach by water to Shell Castle at Ocracoke Inlet, then the main gateway out of the Pamlico Sound for shipping to the cities of the eastern seaboard and the Bahamas.
The first Stumpy Pointers established a network of canals and ditches as a drainage system to dry the marsh and make it into fertile fields. In all likelihood, slaves probably dug these ditches and companies often contracted out their labor for that purpose. Tragically, some slaves died digging the canals at Somerset and, if slaves were used at Stumpy Point in the same manner, it is safe to say some lost their lives there too. The name, “Old Slave Ditch” still appears on some maps of the Stumpy Point marshland.
The drainage system, however, worked well. A main canal ran the length of the village behind the houses with ditches about every three hundred yards going to the bay. Smaller ditches ran around the fields themselves. As a result of the drainage efforts, the villagers grew corn as their primary crop, along with wheat and other crops on land that used to be marshy forest. They also created a dirt road that paralleled the bay.
The village residents mostly farmed for a living between 1800 and the Civil War. Nell Wise Wechter wrote that Stumpy Point farms were among the most prosperous in the state until the Civil War ended slavery; however this is probably an exaggeration. Though the farms were productive, there were only a few more farmers than fishermen listed in the early censuses; and there were several boatmen and laborers. These listed occupations can be misleading because it denotes only what they thought of as their primary activity and most men probably did some combination of farming and fishing. There is evidence that there were slaves in Stumpy Point but the number was probably low, most likely thirty at the most. The handed-down stories of men building boats and their wives spinning yarn seem to confirm that there were few slaves in town and probably they worked alongside their owners in the fields and fish boats.
The community, like other isolated villages at the time, was mostly self-sufficient. They made their own clothes, shoes, and homemade wine. They had herds of sheep and cattle and kept hogs and chickens. People from the Outer Banks would come in boats to trade for corn and other agricultural goods. This is how the inhabitants obtained items they could not produce themselves.
The locals called the upper or northern segment of the village Tadmore, and the lower southern end Drain Point or Dream Point. The latter name is still heard today among the fishermen. The division between upper and lower ends also stuck, with families identifying themselves as either ‘down-the-roaders’ or ‘up-the-roaders’. On the west side of the bay, there was a smaller more recent settlement known as Casey’s Point after the Casey family. Some modern maps call it Kazer Point, a misspelling of Casey.
A written history of the Methodist Church mentions Stumpy Point as the location of one of a series of local Methodist meetings in 1839. There was no organized church in the village so religious gatherings were held in private homes. Traveling ministers visited from time to time, coming by boat. One was the Rev. Bannister H. Jarvis, father of Thomas J. Jarvis, governor of North Carolina from 1879 to 1884.
Around this time, an outbreak of disease caused a few families to leave Stumpy Point. Some accounts say the disease was yellow fever but records indicate that before the Civil War, there was an outbreak of cholera that virtually wiped out the mainland settlement of Beechlands, near modern day East Lake. These could be separate descriptions of the same event. In any case, medical care was rare and families came up with a variety of home remedies to treat ailments.
Just like today, the fickle weather of the Outer Banks caused intermittent problems in Stumpy Point. A powerful hurricane in September 1846 left a long-lasting impact on the region as a whole. The storm opened up two passageways to the ocean, Hatteras Inlet and Oregon Inlet, which not only allowed easy access to deep water, but also brought salt water marine life to Pamlico Sound and Stumpy Point Bay, waters that were previously fresh. These two inlets became vital to the fishing industry that would form the economic basis for the coming growth of Stumpy Point in the coming decades.
The Civil War and Changing Times
By 1860, Stumpy Point had grown from the original group of four families. The surnames of Midgett and Mann remained numerous, but newcomers such as the Mason, Payne, Barnett and Wise families now called the village home. With water transportation being the only means of travel, news from the outside world probably came slowly to this isolated group of farmers and fishermen, but soon even the inhabitants of Stumpy Point must have become aware of the growing sectional tension in the country and the issues at stake. The slaveholders in Stumpy Point surely wanted to keep the labor force for their farms, however most people on the lightly populated Outer Banks were not enthusiastic about secession and just wanted to be left alone.
Ironically, the Outer Banks region was the first part of the state to feel the effects of the war. The Union implemented a naval blockade of the entire southern coast to stop the flow of weapons and supplies to the Confederacy. Regarding North Carolina, the Union wanted to control the inlets and sounds, strategic waterways that were “the key to one-third of the state” according to Confederate general D.H. Hill. Though aware of the looming threat, the newly formed Confederate government lacked the resources to properly protect its coastline and the Northern armies easily occupied Hatteras in late August of 1861. Six months later, a large Union force under General Ambrose Burnside executed an amphibious invasion of weakly defended Roanoke Island. Shortly before the attack, on the night of February 5, 1862, the Union fleet anchored off Stumpy Point while en route to its destination. After Roanoke Island fell, the Union Navy soon had free reign of the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. Consequently, the surrounding towns --Elizabeth City, New Bern, and Winton among them -- fell like dominos. Federal troops occupied a large portion of eastern North Carolina, territory that remained in Union hands for the duration of the conflict.
Solomon Mann joined the Confederate Army when Tyrrell County called for volunteers early on, but he died of dysentery before seeing action. Other than the brief naval stopover on the eve of the invasion, no military activity took place in or around the village and all sides basically ignored the tiny community. In this respect, Stumpy Point was lucky. Union soldiers pillaged and burned several eastern North Carolina towns, like Winton and the Tyrrell County seat Columbia.
The Federal occupation changed the economy of the whole region. Stumpy Pointers occasionally sold fish and corn to the Union armies, but with Union ships patrolling the sounds watching for blockade-runners, normal commerce was restricted and villagers resorted to unorthodox means to obtain needed supplies. Lucy Best remembered a family tale passed down from the Civil War.
“They had no way to get salt, tobacco and medicine. Stephen Casey had a little boat with a sail. He called it a blockade. I guess that's a place they went to get what they could. When he'd get chance to go he's take that little boat and if he saw anything that didn't look all right, he took down his mast, and pushed his boat up in little places of water along the bank. It was a steamer, I guess from what he said, that he could see way out in the sound. He stayed up there until everything was cleared away and he didn't see anything and he's go on. He would get a sack of salt, I don't know how much, but I imagine about a hundred pounds, and he would get some tobacco and he would get some medicine.”
Casey probably bought the supplies from a Union steamer, but due to his stealth and the fact that tobacco was one of the items purchased, it is possible that Casey dealt with a fellow southerner. In any case, Casey had to be careful that the Union ships looking for small boats sneaking contraband through the blockade didn't mistake him for a smuggler. He and other men of the village must have made these supply runs throughout the war. Salt, needed to preserve fish and meat, was especially in demand in the South during the war. When supplies ran short, people in Stumpy Point would scrape up soil from the dirt floors of their old smokehouses and attempt to extract the salt.
The war meant the end of slavery and all blacks eventually moved away from Stumpy Point. During this period, many former slaves from all over the Union-occupied area joined the Freedmen’s colony on Roanoke Island. Perhaps most of the blacks from Stumpy Point did the same. Still, over the coming years a good number of blacks fished on Stumpy Point boats or otherwise spent a lot of time in the village. As the decades went by, some blacks would commute to Stumpy Point from neighboring areas, like Engelhard, to work in fish houses or in other jobs alongside whites.
With the end of the war in 1865, the economy of the entire South was in shambles with much of the system for producing and delivering goods destroyed. The Outer Banks and Roanoke Island, having been militarily occupied for so long, became heavily dependent on the U.S. government for essential materials. Stumpy Point did not have that advantage. Several of the farming families moved away and those who stayed behind no longer maintained the elaborate drainage system for the farms. The lack of slave labor was an obvious factor in the decline of organized agriculture. In addition, perhaps nearly 70 years of use made the soil less suitable for farming while the influx of ocean water from the recently created inlets stimulated the fish population in the Pamlico Sound. Whatever the reason, most people in Stumpy Point abandoned farming and turned to fishing as their primary occupation. It was around this time that Andrew Shanklin Hooper came to Stumpy Point from Rodanthe. The actual year his family arrived is unknown, but he said he was still a boy at the time so it was probably the late 1860s. Hooper’s memories of life in late 19th century Stumpy Point appeared in The Dare County Times in 1935.
“…the people's principal diet was fish and corn meal. Flour, sugar and coffee were seldom seen - practically unknown. Of course, people had their own meat and lard, their cattle and chickens but they had no matches, kerosene and very few clothes. One pair of shoes lasted a boy a year and in the summer time, no shoes were worn at all. The women made all the clothing; first weaving the flax that the men would bring back from trips on which they traded off salted fish; they spun the thread themselves, wove it into cloth, cut it and sewed it for every member of the family ... In those days there was no such thing as ice to enable a man to market his fish to great advantage. Every fish he caught had to be sold and those they could not sell they took off in boats and traded for corn and other commodities that could be used at home ... There was very little money evident in those days ... Kerosene was never heard of because people sat by the fire light part of the time and when they needed a light, they used candles made by the women ... Just a few of the houses in those days had glass windows. Wood shutters made the house inside as dark as a dungeon. They either lived in a house smothered up tight or opened the shutters and the mosquitoes ate them up.”
The decline in farming and rise in fishing is apparent from Hooper’s account. Now, it is the Stumpy Pointers who are trading fish for corn when the town previously produced a corn surplus. Oddly enough, corn meal is mentioned as a dietary staple. Also, flour was said to have been scarce when wheat was once a homegrown crop. Sources agree that the village was poorer than before and fish seemed to be the only item of value the town had to bargain.
In the 1870s, commercial fishing as a big business was just getting underway all over the new county of Dare. Locals all over the sounds were quick to become fishermen when the inherent possibilities of the untapped fishing grounds became apparent. Young Stumpy Point men on fishing trips found wives along the Banks and in Hyde County and brought them to live in the village. These were called “shad boat courtships” and not only increased population, but also linked Stumpy Point to its nearest neighbors. The sheltered bay that led to the sound was a prime position as a fishing base and lured families with names such as Hooper, Best, Gray, and Meekins to Stumpy Point. The population grew from 10 or 12 families in 1870 to 30 families in 1888.
As stated by Shanklin Hooper, refrigeration was a serious problem in getting fish to far away markets. To get around the need for ice, the target fish had to be of the type that could be smoked or salted to preserve it. Fortunately, one such fish, shad, was plentiful and it became the biggest money fish of the time.
Spring was shad season and Stumpy Point soon adopted a seasonal rhythm, catching crabs, oysters and other seafood at various times of the year. The farming lifestyle continued on a smaller scale with backyard gardens and for a long time, some families had bridges across the back canal leading to vegetable gardens located near where the old farms once grew. Chicken houses, cattle and hogs were common sights in town. There were some exceptions to the general trend toward fishing. Samuel C. Midgett, for example, was a fisherman in 1850 and a farmer in 1870, but as the 20th century approached, nearly every man in Stumpy Point fished for their living. The few who weren't fishermen listed their occupation as grocers. These men imported goods from Elizabeth City and Roanoke Island by sailboat and resold them in town. There were stores operating in Stumpy Point in the 1880s and perhaps even earlier. In 1887, sugar sold for 6.5 cents per pound, a hundred pounds of salt was 80 cents, and 6.25 pounds of coffee cost $3.50. Often, fishermen bought these items on credit and would pay the bill later after making a good catch.
|The first church in Stumpy Point was built in 1870 and replaced around 1887. Drawing from 'The Story of Methodists in Dare County and the Community of Stumpy Point,' Rev. C.T. Thrift, 1944.|
In matters of religion, Stumpy Point had been predominantly Methodist since the beginning and in 1868, the village made plans to build a church. This first house of worship was built in 1870 on the site of the present-day Methodist church. The building measured about 16 by 25 feet, hosted monthly services, and doubled as a school with a two-month term. The town built a larger church in 1888 to accommodate the increased population.
The celebration of Old Christmas, something that continues in Rodanthe today, was part of life in Stumpy Point in those days. Once a prominent holiday, Old Christmas gradually became just another date on the calendar, but some Stumpy Point children would receive a token gift on the fifth of January as late as the 1970s as an echo of the past.
Another Christmas tradition was the annual turkey shoot when the entire town would gather. Once during this event, probably during the 1870s or 1880s, crews from more than 50 Maryland and Virginia oyster boats, fishing in the nearby Pamlico Sound, came ashore to participate in the festivities. The visitors began drinking, arguments started and one thing led to another until a fierce brawl broke out between the crewmen of the oyster boats. Stumpy Pointers talked about the melee for years.
This incident notwithstanding, many people in North Carolina protested about fishermen from outside the area taking over the fishing grounds with their larger, more advanced boats and fishing gear. Some of the out-of-state boats carried guns to intimidate local fishermen, who would then retaliate by bringing weapons of their own. The North Carolina legislature passed laws to prevent this intrusion and the sounds were returned to the locals. Some sources refer to this as the Oyster War, since oysters were swiftly becoming an important commodity in the winter months.
During the late reconstruction period, the Federal government opened a series of post offices all over Dare County. The Stumpy Point post office opened in 1876 and, for the first time, the villagers had an official regular link to the outside world. A mail carrier, under contract to the government, took the outgoing mail to Rodanthe by boat once a week and returned with any incoming mail. Irving Hooper was the first postmaster, followed by Sam Hazen. According to Nell Wise Wechter, Hazen came from the north and apparently disliked his job. One day, he locked the office key inside the mailbag, sent it to Washington DC, and then left town himself, effectively shutting down the Stumpy Point post office. Shortly afterward, the regular mail carrier, Lewis Mann, died, and mail service totally ceased for a time. Eventually, the post office reopened with Elvira O'Neal Hooper as postmaster. During her tenure, there was not always enough correspondence to justify the trip across the sound and stories arose about how she would write postcards to relatives just so there would be some outgoing mail.
The period after the Civil War to the beginning of the 20th century was a time of adjustment and growth for Stumpy Point. With more contact with the outside world, the town underwent its first major change in switching from farming to fishing as its main occupation. New people with new ideas moved in. Stores sold products in town and the old system of bartering for what you needed had passed. Stumpy Point had come a long way from nothing to a thriving community that proved it could withstand hard times. Other small towns had appeared and vanished from the map in this time span and this resiliency would serve the town well in the future, as more changes were to come.
The Shad Capital of the World
In the decades following the Civil War, commercial fishing became the main livelihood in Stumpy Point. After first catching fish for sustenance and trade, the fishermen began to think more scientifically about improving their catches. In the 1880s, people began to notice that the shad came up the sounds to spawn in the spring and this observation led them to deduce perhaps the fish could be intercepted in the Pamlico Sound. Stumpy Point, with its sheltered harbor and prime location, proved to be ideally located to take advantage of this fact. Eventually, the most popular method involved pound nets, so named because the nets were staked and arranged in a box to trap, or impound, fish. This was an ancient technique used by Indians hundreds of years before and Stumpy Point fishermen began using pound nets around 1890. The nets proved to be perfect for the task.
Shad brought high prices and there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply. As the 20th century dawned, advances in refrigeration enabled fishermen to catch boatloads of shad and market them more efficiently than ever before. The fishing life style took hold on the town, which still depended on the water for all transportation. With no roads, locals brought in groceries and other supplies by boat. Lucy Best recalled the living conditions in Stumpy Point shortly after the turn of the century.
“There were two stores in Stumpy Point when I came here (in 1903). Mr. George Hooper was one of them and Dave Meekins was the other. Before that, they told me this was a great fishing place. That’s how people still make their living here -- out of the water. And they’d just think that was wonderful that they could get groceries. [The grocers] had big boats and they’d go to Elizabeth City and get all kinds of things. I’ve seen sugar twenty-five cent for five pound and you could get nice pork meat, ham butts and that was nine cents a pound. All my children were born right here in this old house. We didn’t have electricity then. We all had kerosene lamps and water from a hand pump.”
Shad fishing became very successful for Stumpy Point, so much that the town was called the “Shad Capital of the World,” wresting the unofficial title from nearby Skyco. Stumpy Point shad made its way to cities all over the East Coast. Besides shad and other fish, Stumpy Pointers harvested crabs, oysters and even terrapin turtles. Shrimp, though sometimes caught in mass quantities, had yet to catch on as popular seafood. In the 1920 census, the vast majority of the town’s workers listed their occupation as fisherman and the day of the Stumpy Point farmer was over. Leslie Harold Wise, born in 1921, described life as a fisherman in his youth.
“There were all the fish in the world. There was no such thing as a dragger like around Wanchese now. Everything was caught in gill nets or pound nets. I’ve boated fish all day long. I’d come in with a load, pack them, and go after another load. We had about half a dozen pound nets. Boy those things were heavy too, that old cotton net. The marine growth would get all over them, the barnacles and moss, and in a weeks time you would have to change them cause in those days there weren’t any preservative to keep that stuff from growing. The nets had two hundred-yard leads and they had hearts, tunnels, and a pocket. The fish go in the pocket and they were trapped. You go in the pocket with your boat, bunt them up and bail them in. Sometimes there were too many fish and you never cleared your nets.
“When I was a kid, the old shad nets that were too ragged to take in the sound and set they would give to us boys. We would pick the knots, clean them out, go back in the woods, and cut gill net stakes. We’d stake them down in Stumpy Point Bay. Shad was worth $1.25 a pound. I used to sell oysters for a dollar a bushel. People would go terrapin fishing and ship them north. Terrapins were worth a dollar back then. In the fall, back in the old days they used to haul net for speckled trout along the marshes and beaches. In the winter, it was oysters and crabs. Spring was shad season and a hundred boats fished pound nets out of Stumpy Point. People would come from everywhere. The nets were so close together and the boats had these old 11-horse Bridgeport engines, single cylinder engines. That was before they started putting automobile engines in boats, and the things wouldn’t make any time at all. Sometimes you had two minutes travel time between the stands of net. They were as thick as gnats, everywhere. People used to fight over them; they’d buy and sell them, their sets.
“First thunder squall in the spring of the year, the crabs would rise up out the bottom. When I was a kid, around the fish houses, you’d take old fish boxes, driftwood or anything you could and start a big fire and roast crabs. They’d be burnt black and that was the best eating in the world. They were the best, burnt crab eggs.”
Stumpy Point virtually tripled its population between 1888 and 1914, growing from about thirty families to ninety families. The fishing boom caused the growth; however, some people tried business opportunities other than fishing. At one point during the early part of the century a sawmill operated in the woods northeast of town. Trying to make use of the abundant timber surrounding Stumpy Point, a lumber company attempted to dredge a channel from the woods to the sound to ship out trees. This operation later failed and the sawmill shut down. Hunters still occasionally spot abandoned equipment lying out somewhere back in the woods. Other lumber companies tried their luck at different times in the town’s history.
With no roads yet linking Stumpy Point to its neighbors, the town was still isolated from the outside world except by water. That started to change when two men from Manns Harbor, Charlie Mann and Lathan Midgett, started a telephone company on the mainland shortly before the First World War. The company erected a line of poles in the woods and strung wire from Stumpy Point to Manns Harbor, and installed about twenty phones in each village. Some people say the phone lines ran along an old railroad track that was used by the Buffalo City lumber company. Phone rent was $1.25 a month and, unlike today, there was no such thing as placing a call to an individual phone number. When one phone rang, all the phones in town rang and each subscriber had their own style of ring so they would know the call was for them. The link was always live between all phones on the system and, as with party lines everywhere, people often eavesdropped on each other’s calls. Young couples would sometimes get around that by arranging to pick up their phones at predetermined times in the middle of the night just to enjoy a private conversation. A fierce storm came along and knocked down the poles, ending this early telephone experiment after less than five years of use.
As the population grew, so did the need for larger school and church buildings. Townspeople built a new Methodist Church in 1914 and volunteers added on to the school in 1921. Both buildings still stand today. The three teachers in the early 1920s were Kansas Hooper, Blanche Hooper and Edith Meekins. The school grew to five teachers and an all-time high of ninety pupils by 1934. The school, larger than before, was still small, but the children received a good education. Stumpy Pointers still note with pride that, at one point, their little school sent more students to college per capita than any other place in the United States. Grace Hooper, who started teaching at the Stumpy Point School in 1935, remembers when she first arrived in the town aboard the mail boat.
“I came here to teach, not knowing where I was coming, and people standing on George Payne’s porch [met me at the dock]. I was sent directly to the classroom before they even told me where I was going to stay. That was some experience. In the whole school, there were about seventy-five children. When I started there were four (teachers). I had classes in grades seven through eleven. Eleven was as high as it went until 1944, then they added the twelfth grade and put the eighth grade in elementary school. Our classes were fifty minutes long, and I had all four English classes, two French classes, and my class of seventh grade geography. We began school at 8:30, had a morning recess at about 10:15 and lunch from 12:00 to 1:00. Most of the children went home for lunch. We had a little break in the afternoon about 2:15 and closed at 3:00. There were only three teachers in 1944, including me. I had the entire high school. Don’t ask me how I did it. I’m surprised the children learned enough to go away to college and do anything, but a lot of them did.” (not to be quoted without permission)
The town had been completely Methodist until 1927 when Luther Payne started a second church in a garage after attending a Holiness revival. Payne served as official pastor of the Stumpy Point Holiness Church for about fifty years and served a small but faithful congregation. Sometimes, the Sunday service consisted of only three people, but eventually, the Stumpy Point Holiness Church counted among its members people from East Lake and Manns Harbor, who would periodically attend revivals or special services.
For much of America, the 1920s were the golden age of radio and silent movies. Both were scarce, but not unknown, in Stumpy Point during that decade. Periodically, the town would gather on a Saturday evening to listen to the “Grand Ole Opry” broadcast or to watch a film. One memorable showing was a documentary on the making of Ford automobiles. When the show was over, parents walked home carrying their sleeping children.
One of the biggest milestones in the history of Stumpy Point was the creation of the roads connecting the town to Engelhard and Manns Harbor. The first was the road to Engelhard in 1926, built for Dare County by the H. C. Lawrence Dredging Company. This dirt road, which became impassable quickly in the rain, nevertheless made the two towns very close. Engelhard, already linked by family ties to Stumpy Point, became an alternative place to shop and socialize. This 1935 excerpt from the Dare County Times newspaper sheds some light on the relationship between Stumpy Point and Engelhard.
“Folks at Stumpy Point sure did visit Engelhard last Saturday. Everywhere one turned, he came face to face with a 'Roat-Pinter' and all because Stumpy Point ladies were giving the play 'Three Pegs' there that night. The Stumpy Point folks sure do back everything for which they are responsible, and it does the Engelhard folks good to see them come down in Hyde. After all, the two, Stumpy Point and Engelhard, are sister communities and both seek to establish more friendly and more business relations.”
Marvin Hooper was said to be first Stumpy Pointer to own a car years before the road opened and most people in town walked or rode horses to get around. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, more and more people in Stumpy Point wanted cars to travel the new road, but the cyclic nature of a fisherman’s finances didn’t lend itself to buying items on credit from out of town merchants. One anecdote goes as follows. “When the road was built to Engelhard, cars started showing up. Then they towed a lot of them back out again because the people couldn’t make the payments after fishing.” Unlike the town grocery stores, the car dealers obviously didn’t want to wait until the next good catch for the next payment.
A few years after the Engelhard road opened, the North Carolina government started a depression-era road-building program to connect all the towns in the state. As part of this effort, construction began in 1936 on the road between Manns Harbor and Stumpy Point. Fish dealers could now use trucks to carry their product in good weather when the dirt roads were passable. A ferry ran from Manns Harbor to Roanoke Island, where boats regularly traveled to larger towns such as Elizabeth City. The state dredged a channel to Lake Worth and created a small harbor. Large freight boats and oil tankers would come from Elizabeth City about twice a month bringing supplies. Stumpy Point was more connected than ever before.
The fishing industry hit a peak in 1939 when Stumpy Point led the state in fish production with three million pounds being shipped per year. With all the people coming in, the stores had a built in thriving customer base. Nearly anything a family needed could be bought in town. Dress clothes were the only exception, and there were many women capable of sewing their own. Stumpy Point hosted a hotel, located where the fire tower at Lake Worth is now, as well as several other business.
Grace Hooper described some of the establishments. “At Lake Worth, there was a service station. You could buy gasoline and knickknacks. There was the Hooper Brothers, and there was the lumber company store, Ethan’s store, George Hooper’s store -- that many stores in operation in 1935. They said there were seven here at one time. In Hooper Brothers store, you could buy anything from salt pork to silk hose, and silk hose was 49 cents a pair. You could buy anything at Hooper Brothers and if he didn’t have it, he would order it for you.” (not to be quoted without permission)
Hooper Brothers was the very definition of a general store. It stocked tools and building supplies like a hardware store, it carried meats and vegetables along with other foods and commodities like a grocery store, and it also sold shirts, pants and shoes. Besides the products they sold, the stores all served as community gathering places where men could talk about fishing and play dominos or checkers around the pot bellied stove.
In the 1930s, Stumpy Pointers lobbied for the state to pave the old dirt road going through town, but the contractor left the last few tenths of a mile of the “down the road” section unpaved. Ralph O’Neal, who moved to Stumpy Point in 1937, finished the job with some leftover material but for decades, that section of the road lacked painted lines. In previous years, some of the more well to do had electric lights powered by Delco generators, but regular electric power from Engelhard came in 1939 as part of another depression-era government project. O’Neal recalled, “My current bill was less than $1.50 a month. You were afraid to burn anything more than a forty or fifty watt bulb or you’d go over the minimum charge.” Townspeople could now have electric lights and radios in their homes. Any frivolous use of electricity was considered an extravagance. Still, it made a big difference in how most people lived. Lucy Best said, “When I got electricity, I thought that was the most wonderful thing in the world.”
Stumpy Point thrived and grew during the first few decades of the 20th century. By most accounts, Stumpy Point, being not used to luxury, did not especially notice the Great Depression and the 1930s were a time of relative prosperity for the town. Fishing was better than ever before and new developments, like roads, electricity and radio, changed the way of life of the village making it more in touch with the outside world. Further changes were just around the corner that would not only dramatically affect Stumpy Point, but the entire globe.
Ghost Town and Rebirth
In early September of 1939, only a few days after Germany invaded Poland to start the Second World War, 18-year old Leslie Harold Wise of Stumpy Point received a letter from a United States Coast Guard recruiter in Norfolk. Wise, like his father and many other sea-loving Dare County youths before and since, had already decided to join this branch of the military and the recruiter informed him that now was a very good time to sign up. “I wouldn’t worry about the war scare,” the recruiter wrote. The United States was neutral, after all, and should anything happen, “you would be safer in the Coast Guard than any other service.” In the last war, only a small percentage of Coast Guardsmen were ever in harms way, the recruiter assured Wise, who soon left Stumpy Point and enlisted.
The recruiter had no idea how wrong he would be. In the spring of 1941, Wise found himself aboard the cutter Modoc off the icy coast of Greenland. The North Atlantic Ocean was a war zone, with German U-boats stalking and torpedoing allied convoys, and Modoc was there as part of an effort by America, still holding on to a fragile neutrality, to aid Great Britain against the forces of Adolph Hitler, whose armies had already conquered much of Europe. The United States, though not yet actively fighting in the war, shipped tons of supplies to England during this time and Modoc was part of a group of lightly armed Coast Guard cutters, designated the Greenland Patrol, there to guard the shipping lanes and to rescue survivors of the many German submarine attacks.
It was a harsh environment. Wise described the North Atlantic as “the coldest time or place I’ve ever seen. Everything was iced down all the time, the decks and the guns. I’ve seen the guns where you couldn’t point or train them they were so heavy with ice.” Shortly after Modoc arrived and began its mission in May 1941, word spread that Germany had just unleashed its most powerful naval weapon, the giant battleship Bismarck. Sinking the Bismarck became the British fleet’s highest priority, especially after Bismarck sank the Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy, after a twenty-five minute battle.
A legendary sea chase ensued. On May 24, the Royal Navy spotted the massive battleship and sent a squadron of ships armed with torpedo planes to confront it. At twilight that evening, spotters on Modoc saw a gray shape looming in the distance and quickly discovered it was the Bismarck. The excited crew scrambled to the deck to see the fearsome warship. Wise recalled, “I was down below playing poker on an ammunition hatch. We broke up the game and ran topside to get a glimpse of her and it was so foggy that was about all we got, just a glimpse of this old big ship.” At that moment, Wise became one of only a handful of Americans to actually see the infamous Bismarck.
Modoc was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the fog and confusion, the British pilots in the torpedo planes saw the American cutter and mistook it for Bismarck. The planes swooped down in attack formation over Modoc before quickly realizing their mistake and veering off, but the Germans saw the planes approach and started shooting. Modoc was directly in the line of fire and German artillery shells splashed all around the cutter. The battle was on and one Modoc crewman called it a “Fourth of July display like never before seen.” The British naval squadron soon arrived and again, misidentified Modoc as the enemy. This time, the British battleship Prince of Wales aimed its heaviest guns at the cutter and only a jammed signal pennant prevented them from firing a salvo at the hapless American ship. Wise was at the wheel of Modoc when the captain ordered the ship to leave the area at the best possible speed. The battle raged through the night as Modoc slipped away in the fog and darkness. Later, when the United States entered the war in December 1941, Modoc became an active combatant, fighting the U-boats with depth charges, while rescuing hundreds of survivors of German attacks. Wise stayed on the ship for two more years before transferring to shore duty in Massachusetts.
It was a time of upheaval for the entire United States as millions of young Americans left hometowns all over the nation to serve their country during the Second World War. Besides Wise, Stumpy Point veterans included William Best Jr., Troy Hooper, and Grady Strickland. These men, and sometimes their families, lived and witnessed things far removed from everyday life in Stumpy Point. For example, Hooper served in Italy and Best traveled to England, Belgium and Germany itself.
The war was hard on those whose loved ones went off to fight. This March 1945 excerpt from the Best family Bible shows a mother’s anguish wondering about her far-away son. “He has been in the army two years and sixteen days. I hope and pray the Lord will take care of him and he will come back to me and look just like he did the last time I ever saw him. That was the night of the first day of last Oct. The last time I ever saw him he was smiling and waving his hand going out of my sight on the [Norfolk] train at ten o’clock on Sunday night the first day of Oct 1944. Hope God will bless both of us and will let me to live to see him come home. Mother Lucy C. Best.” Before her son joined the army, his mother advised him to volunteer to be a cook so he would always have something to eat. Best took this advice, and made it safely through the war.
In 1942, a bad fishing season and the lure of steady war-related work in the Norfolk shipyards combined to make Stumpy Point into a ghost town. With the shad seemingly gone, men took their families and moved away in search of jobs, leaving their homes and boats behind. Ralph O’Neal, one of the few who remained, described those days when the town was almost deserted.
“Every able-bodied man who could work moved away from Stumpy Point during the war. I think Lennon’s store and George Payne’s store were the only two stores that were left open during the war. All the fishermen left. The whole gang left. I stayed here cause I worked on the roads for the state. I’d go down to the store at night, and I’d see a light here and there, weren’t many. I wouldn’t know how many people stayed, some older people stayed. Henry Twiford was one of the first to go. He hitched a ride to Norfolk to work in the shipyard. They paid right good money up there. I think it was $1.25 an hour. It was a dead place here, real dead. After the war, it never did build back up like it was in the 1930s, not enough people came back.”
The village school remained open during the war, but one teacher, Nell Wise Wechter, transferred to Hatteras where she taught for several years. From there, she witnessed U-boat attacks just off the coast that left ships in flames. These events would later inspire Wechter to write Taffy of Torpedo Junction, a classic of North Carolina children’s literature.
Near the end of the war, news made its way to Norfolk that Pamlico Sound fishermen were making some big catches and Stumpy Pointers unable to forsake their traditional way of life started trickling back home. Not everyone returned, however. Some elected to remain in Norfolk and continue working in the city. Some others went on to careers in different locations, like William Best Jr. who became a long time school principal in Greensboro. For the most part, these expatriates kept close ties to their hometown and would frequently visit over the years for special occasions.
Those who moved home found fishing to be as good as ever and several of the stores that closed during the war reopened. Telephones came back to Stumpy Point, permanently this time, in 1948. The state paved both the Engelhard and Manns Harbor roads in the late 1940s, further improving access to the town.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, shad was no longer the money fish. The market changed and now crab and shrimp were bringing a high price. A government report on dredging the Lake Worth channel stated that there were seventy locally owned motorboats in Stumpy Point. There were three wholesale fish houses in town. The time of pound nets was ending and now larger boats dragged the sound and ocean for flounder and other valuable fish. Leslie Harold Wise, who left the Coast Guard after the war to resume his fishing career, recalls when he made the switch.
“Before the war there were just those little shad boats. Floyd Hooper had one and Dick Best had one, they were about twenty-five feet long. Everybody used little shad boats to pound net and when shrimping came in, they used those same boats to shrimp. We fished pound nets at first. Well, it wasn’t two or three years after I came home in ‘45. We had four stands of shad nets overboard and there came a storm and tore up all four stands. That’s when we bought the [larger boat] Miss Royce. Shrimping had just gotten started in Pamlico Sound when I got out of the Coast Guard. Forty foot was considered a big boat back then. We fished out of Oregon Inlet, Ocracoke Inlet, Hatteras Inlet and we were considered a big boat on the Miss Royce.”
With the rebound in fishing, Stumpy Point mostly recovered from the effects of the war. However, the town was about to lose one of its most cherished possessions, its school. All over the state at this time, counties were consolidating small schools into larger ones and Dare County followed the trend. For example, students who once attended school in Manns Harbor, East Lake and Wanchese now went to Manteo. Grace Hooper tells the story of when the Stumpy Point School closed.
“There were times there were only twelve or fifteen students in the high school. They were going to send [grades 5 through 12] to Manteo, and the parents went to the Board of Education and asked that until the bridge [across the Croatan Sound] was finished that the children go to school in Hyde County instead.” For five years, Stumpy Point children went to school in Engelhard and Hooper taught there as well. “Just before the bridge was completed, I asked for a job in Manteo and was put in the 7th grade. So, when I moved to Manteo, the parents asked if their kids could go to Manteo. That was the fall of 1955. They left the first four grades [in the Stumpy Point school], and I don’t remember what year it was when they all went to Manteo. It was the late fifties though. They were unhappy about it but there was nothing they could do. To me that was sad, but that’s the way it happened.” (not to be quoted without permission)
A yearbook from 1954-55 contains pictures of the 21 students who attended that year. Stumpy Point had an active PTA, the students took a field trip to Roanoke Island and Kill Devil Hills, and the school had a drama club. In the back are hand drawn advertisements for local businesses. The yearbook has a melancholy tone. Everyone knew the school would close soon and were already mourning the loss. For years afterward, village children continued to play on the swing set and other equipment left in the playground and often looked in the windows, imagining their parents and grandparents studying French or geography at the little wooden desks.
Local baseball games were a big part of community recreation on the mainland in the 1950s and 1960s. Teams from Stumpy Point played teams from the other towns and a rivalry naturally formed between Stumpy Point and Manns Harbor. The games were social events as well as sporting ones. Church groups sold drinks and homemade ice cream to raise money. The competition sometimes became heated but sportsmanship normally won out.
Lightning caused a major forest fire in the woods near Stumpy Point in August of 1957. The blaze just missed the town, but 75,200 acres burned, making it the worst Dare County fire ever recorded. Hurricanes have been regular visitors to Stumpy Point. Sixty-one hurricanes and tropical storms passed within sixty miles of town between the years 1888 to 1992. From Stumpy Point’s perspective, the worst storms are the ones that pass slightly to the west because then the counter-clockwise wind pushes the water from the bay into the town. Hurricane Barbara packed winds of “only” eighty miles per hour, but its eye passed directly over town at around dawn on Aug. 14, 1953. The highest floodwaters were reported in Hurricane Connie in 1954. Diane and Ione were formidable storms. However, the worst overall hurricane to ever hit Stumpy Point in recent times was Donna in 1960. Lucy Best remembered this powerful hurricane.
“The tide was waist deep on the highway. I couldn’t stay. When it gets bad, I just get out. I lost my kitchen and everything there was in it. I lost everything I had in my living room. It washed the floor out halfway so I just had a little piece of floor. When I came home, the cats and the chickens had gone upstairs and nested on my bed. Well, I started to go up there, and I saw something by the door and what do you think? That was a rabbit that the dogs had brought in here and eaten. Nobody would believe what a mess that was. You could see people wading up the road. A lot of people lived down on the south end, and a lot lived on the north end. You could see them wading up there in water to their waist, and one woman’s house had washed out on the side of the highway. It didn’t move my house from where it was, but I lost everything I had in it except what I had upstairs.”
A story goes that several families had gathered in Bennie Payne’s house far up the road the night Donna hit the town. The floodwaters came in and lifted the house off the blocks, and it began to float. People in the house first thought the trees were moving, but then realized it was actually they who were in motion. The structure ended up back in the woods, a hundred yards from where it started. There were several homes at the north end of town moved by Hurricane Donna in this fashion and the owners basically left them where they landed and continued to live in them. To this day, they are still set back from the main road and the county later built a new road, known as First Street, to give access to these homes. Water pipes jutting from the ground, stone steps and other evidence mark the former locations.
After being nearly empty during World War Two, Stumpy Point recovered after the war because the continuing abundance of seafood in the nearby waters brought enough people back to keep the town going. For the rest of Dare County, tourism was beginning to play a larger role in the economy, but tourism bypassed Stumpy Point. In terms of livelihood, the town clung to the old ways.
The Second World War had a traumatic effect on Stumpy Point. Not only were two native sons, Myron Freeman Hooper and Norman Wiley Payne, killed in action, nearly all able bodied men took jobs in the Norfolk shipyard, taking their families to Virginia with them. Stumpy Point was a ghost town during the war years and could easily have shared the fate of communities like Buffalo City, and faded into history. A post-war rebound in commercial fishing, however, drew most of the former residents back home and attracted some newcomers. In the late 1940s and 1950s, paved roads and new bridges served to link Stumpy Point to its neighboring towns more efficiently than ever before. One side effect was the closure of the Stumpy Point School, but with the village children attending school in Manteo, it further served to integrate Stumpy Point with the rest of Dare County.
In 1961, the middle of the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy commissioned a study to find a location for a practice bombing range for pilots. The military operated a water range in the Pamlico Sound since the 1940s, but now the need was for a land site and the search committee chose a 55,000-acre section of the uninhabited mainland to the west of Stumpy Point. The agreement that established the Stumpy Point Bombing Range was signed in November 1963. The government agreed to provide fire protection and also stated the practice bombs they used were unlikely to start fires. They assured locals that the bombing would not affect hunting, fishing, and, most importantly to county officials, tourism.
According to official records, there were a total of 960 fires on both the Navy and Air Force ranges in the years 1965-1990. Most of these fires were small and short-lived. The most serious fires occurred in 1971 and 1980. Stumpy Point was actually evacuated by bus in the 1971 fire, which threatened the town and burned 30,192 acres. An Air Force practice bomb caused the large 1980 fire, but lightning and careless smoking caused many of the fires over the years. There have been periodic complaints about planes flying low over the village but overall the range has not adversely affected Stumpy Point and has provided jobs to residents.
Television, from broadcast stations in Washington and Greenville, came to Stumpy Point in the early 1960s. Residents picked up signals, sometimes fuzzy but visible, over antennas which quickly sprouted on rooftops all over town. Stumpy Pointers now watched, along with the rest of the nation, major events like the Kennedy assassination and the moon landing from their living rooms. Mail service increased to six days per week. People began to do their weekly shopping in Manteo or Engelhard instead of the local stores. Teenagers went to the movies or snuck away to dance at the Nags Head Casino. The old geographical barriers and associated isolationism slowly slipped away.
In 1969, the Federal Government dug a deep channel connecting Lake Worth with the Pamlico Sound and, in an early instance of “beach nourishment,” placed the dredged sand onto the shore to make sandbanks along the water’s edge all over town. The shells that came up with the sand were estimated to be millions of years old and many residents made decorations out of them, usually attaching a note card telling the age and circumstances of the shells. Shells glued to cigar boxes were popular for a time.
In 1975, Stumpy Point gained a community building with the help of county funds. This building has been used for many purposes, including reunions, elections, town meetings, weddings and seafood feasts to raise money for various causes. Shortly after it opened, some of the younger people decided to revive the old tradition of showing films for the community. The first “feature” was a documentary on an obscure World War II general and nearly the entire audience walked out in boredom. A few weeks later, the second film to be shown at the community building was the 1943 version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” starring Spencer Tracy. During this presentation, most of the viewers stayed glued to their seats until the credits rolled. This was the last of the series because of the difficulty of obtaining movies. Only a few years later, video cassette players became popular in town and watching rented movies on tape became a popular pastime in Stumpy Point. Cable television finally came to town in 1993.
In the late 1970s, volunteers organized the Stumpy Point fire department. Manns Harbor donated some trucks and equipment to get the fledgling fire fighters started, but department needed money for regular operations. For this purpose a new tradition was soon born, seafood ‘feasts’ at the community building. An October crab feast and a February oyster feast became regular staples of the community and continue to this day. The feasts feature all-you-can-eat seafood dinners and homemade pies and cakes prepared by local cooks. The money enabled the fire department to continually improve its equipment and a dedicated corps of volunteers has worked to make the department officially certified in recent years.
A Pentecostal movement came to Stumpy Point in the late 1970s and led to the creation of a new church called the Rock Church. Its members came from the Methodist Church and the controversial split caused hard feelings in some that lingered for years. In time, these divisions have healed and today the two churches work together on community projects. With the Methodist Church, the Rock Church (now named Bayview Chapel) and the Holiness Church, Stumpy Point has three churches today.
Commercial fishing, in various forms, continued to be the lifeblood of Stumpy Point. The trend towards bigger boats that began after the Second World War kept going in the decades that followed. In the 1960s and 1970s, large trawlers were a common sight in Stumpy Point. Two of these boats were the Janon Carol owned by Michael Payne and the Windy Gale owned by H. O. Golden. The trawlers would dock at Lake Worth, were usually over sixty feet long with draughts of nine to twelve feet and fished in the ocean for shrimp, flounder, scallops and other seafood. At the time, there were two fish houses in town, one at the deep harbor at Lake Worth owned by Horace Hooper, a county commissioner in the 1960s and early 1970s, and one at the south end of town owned by Alton Best. Both fish houses employed local people and many of the town’s young men worked as occasional fish packers. When a large catch arrived, the fish dealers would call around recruiting workers to help get the fish boxed and on ice for shipment. When boats radioed the news of a big day, it was a boost to the entire town and not just in terms of dollars and cents. It was a source of civic pride.
Economically, most people in Stumpy Point were doing fairly well at this time. But it was a shock to everyone when the 1980 census reported that Stumpy Point had a per-capita income of $84,413. This figure rivaled Beverly Hills California for the highest amount in the country. The census bureau soon discovered a data entry error but for a short while, the town had something to brag about. Stumpy Point also gained a small measure of fame in 1985, when science-fiction author Orson Scott Card mentioned the town as the site of a future interplanetary spaceport in his novel, Ender’s Game. Stumpy Point native Nell Wise Wechter became a well-known author and local historian with books such as Betsy Dowdy’s Ride, Swamp Girl, and Some Whisper Our Name.
Despite the mini-boom in fishing, the easy access to Manteo and Engelhard made it hard for Stumpy Point stores to compete on pricing. The local grocers could not buy in bulk to save money as could the larger stores and economic reality forced residents to do most of their shopping out of town. In the early 1970s, two grocery stores still operated. One belonged to George Hooper and he would deliver grocery orders in his white station wagon. The other was Hooper and Son, the former Hooper Brothers store. There was another store, called Myrtle’s that sold snacks at Lake Worth. Of these, only Hooper and Son remained open at the end of the decade.
The North Carolina State Wildlife Commission built a boat ramp and docks for recreational use at the south end of town and for a number of years in the 1970s, Stumpy Point attracted crowds of sport fishermen. The roadsides near the launch ramp were often filled with empty boat trailers parked in any available space. Hundreds of boats used the ramp in the summers and fished in the nearby Pamlico Sound. Ray Paschal and his family from Burlington opened a garage and small store near the ramp. Paschal’s store, called the Tackle Shop, sold fishing gear, bait and snacks as well as gasoline. The sport fishing faded later in the 1980s and today few boats are launched from that dock, though it remains open and has recently been renovated.
Also, in the 1980s, Stumpy Point fishermen went back to smaller boats. Several factors led to the decline and eventual disappearance of the large trawlers from Stumpy Point. Once Oregon Inlet became unstable, it was increasingly risky to traverse this passage to get to the ocean. The price of shrimp, a main target of the trawlers, declined and the owners of the boats sometimes found it to be more profitable to move their operations to other locations such as Chincoteague, Virginia, or Cape May, New Jersey. By the middle of the 1980s, the era of the large trawler in Stumpy Point was over. Smaller boats were more versatile and cheaper to maintain. Some of the fishing boats still active at this time, such as the one owned and operated by Harvey “Dick” Best, were up to a hundred years old and dated back to the times when commercial fishing first caught on in Stumpy Point.
Haul netting, where two boats pull a very long net through the sound, was around in the 1920s but in the early 1980s, it became the favored method of fishing in the summers. There was a run of several very good seasons as the boats brought in large loads of croakers and trout. In the winters, the fishermen would oyster or dredge for crabs. In the mid 1980s, thirty or forty bushels of oysters made a good day’s work. The old-timers said they once would catch sixty bushels before lunchtime. The older retired men often visited the docks to chat with active fishermen about their catches and to reminisce about the old days. Everyone could recognize that earning a living from fishing was becoming more difficult with each passing year. The local businesses struggled in the 1980s. Hooper and Son remained open until late in the decade before finally closing. Paschal built a larger store near the old tackle shop and sold groceries and other goods. This store survived into the 1990s when it too closed due to outside competition.
The afternoon of March 13, 1993, was warm and sunny with no warning that anything was going to be wrong, but later that evening, the worst storm since 1960 struck Stumpy Point. Called the Storm of the Century, this hurricane-like storm caused damage all along the east coast and by midnight in Stumpy Point, the swiftly rising tide was flooding many houses. The wind roared and gusted to over 80 miles an hour, electric power was out, and the temperature was several degrees below freezing. When daylight finally came, the townspeople surveyed the extent of the damage. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but several homes and many cars were totally destroyed, fallen trees blocked the roads leading out of town and floodwaters had not abated. Governor James Hunt visited by helicopter and declared Stumpy Point a disaster area, but outside help was slow in coming.
On this occasion, as in other times of trouble, Stumpy Pointers banded together and helped each other through the crisis. Neighbors went from house to house checking on the elderly, pulling out wet carpets and making what repairs they could. For a while, with phones and power out and the roads flooded, it was like the calendar had been turned back to another century. Extended families again shared the same home, using woodstoves and kerosene lamps for heat and light. After a week of cleanup, the old Methodist Church opened its doors for Sunday worship and even people who did not regularly attend came to the service that day to give thanks for surviving yet another challenge from nature.
Stumpy Point now faces a different sort of challenge. Commercial fishing continues to be important to Stumpy Point, although the catches have seriously declined in recent years and the fish houses have all closed. Many Stumpy Pointers have turned away from fishing and commute to jobs in Manteo and elsewhere. Living conditions in Stumpy Point are more comfortable than ever with a new county water system in place and a planned wastewater plant, but to the distress of many, the town is becoming a bedroom community rather than a fishing village. For those that remain in the traditional occupation, it is a hard uncertain life. The official records listed seventy-one licensed motorboats in Stumpy Point in 1996, virtually the same number as in 1946, but with no local seafood dealers and fewer fish in the sounds, the livelihood of the Stumpy Point commercial fisherman is in jeopardy.
In spite of all the changes, Stumpy Point still bears a resemblance to the hardy isolated village it once was. It offers a far different lifestyle than the crowded bustling Outer Banks. Less than a half-hour drive from Manteo, Stumpy Point has little to offer visitors in terms of modern conveniences, but many of those visitors have made their homes in the village over the years. Stumpy Point is quiet and peaceful, seemingly more in tune with the calendar than the clock. It stands as an example of how Dare County used to be.
So when historians count the true treasures left in Dare County, the little fishing village nestled on the edge of the Pamlico Sound must surely be on the list. While other county residents debate taxes and complain about traffic, the villagers visit along the road to discuss how to keep the black bears out of the trash, the best place to set a crab pot and perhaps, to say a little prayer that Stumpy Point will continue to maintain its way of life.
© 2011 Kay Midgett Sheppard & Marla Beasley