On Monday morning, our last day of this trip, we headed west from Manteo toward Creswell. I’d eaten at the Creswell Café in 2015 and had been thinking about their biscuits. But the parking lot of the popular eatery was empty, the one-story pink building abandoned. The café had closed.We turned down St. David’s Road and stopped at the historic Saint David’s Episcopal Church and cemetery, once known as Pettigrew’s Chapel. Constructed in 1803 by the Rev. Charles Pettigrew, across the road from his Belgrade Plantation, the chapel is the oldest remaining Episcopal church in the area.
More than two centuries of heat and humidity have been kept at bay, making it possible to maintain the structure and small cemetery, where the surnames of the departed are woven into my family tree: Ainsley, Alexander, Armstrong, Barnes, Bateman, Cahoon, Davenport, Dillon, Furlough, Patrick, Phelps, Sawyer, Spruill, Swain, Tarkenton, Woodley.We headed east under gloomy skies, hoping to stop at the Spruill Farm Home Place in Washington County before the rain would arrive. Jack Spruill has an enviable relationship to the land. My parents both grew up on farms but left, relinquishing family land to their siblings.
Jack has managed to protect and share this special land on the south shore of the Albemarle Sound. As a conservation project, the 110-acre farm honors our dependence on land and water. It is a place where people gather, but we found the farm to be a quiet place on a cloudy Monday morning. We parked, walked past the 100-year-old Scuppernong grape vine and the fig trees and waived to Joey Eason, who was kind enough to take some time out of farming to talk with us. Before leaving, we walked on the beach and admired the public access Jack has provided to the Sound.It was noon when we reached Columbia, and we were hungry. The trendy restaurant where I’d eaten in 2014 had also closed. We found another lunch spot and moved on to the Tyrrell County Courthouse, where I would finally see a graphic depiction of land my ancestors once owned.
In the 1921 map of the Richmond Cedar Works holdings in Tyrrell and Hyde counties, which hangs in the Deeds Office of the courthouse, the land that was once a homeplace is depicted as “Exception 2: “The Old W.G. Armstrong Plantation”. It is a green shape, landlocked by corporate holdings. It is the place that Roy T. Saywer, in “The extinct community of Up Road, Gum Neck,” describes as having once been a pivotal stopping place for anyone traveling between Columbia and Gum Neck.Maybe it was the gray skies, but too much of what I’d longed to see on this third trip down home was extinct or closed or now unrecognizable. The branding of the Inner Banks – a marketing effort meant to attract tourists and retirees to the rural areas to the west of the Outer Banks - seems without efficacy. The Inner Banks do not seem to be a pivotal stopping place.
The population of Tyrrell County remains at slightly more than 4,000, with a population density of 11 people per square mile. Adjacent Dare County has about 35,000 permanent residents, a population density of 78 people per square mile and absorbs another 225,000 additional residents during peak summer months. Inner land and outer land are radically different and support dissimilar economies, dissimilar lifestyles. The natural environment has elected the built: the imbalance is disorienting.