Big Plans for Wanchese

House - Land in Wanchese

Lisa M. Krieger

a coast under clouds

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 10 No. 3, "Coastal Affair." Find more from that issue here.

CHEESE COUNTY, North Carolina: People call the village of Wanchese a lot of names, most of them unprintable, but that one stands out. “Cheese” is obviously drawn from current pronunciation of the Indian name, Wanchese. But why “County”?

Located at the southern end of Roanoke Island, Wanchese shares the island with Manteo to the north — a bustling town that draws crowds to its “Lost Colony” outdoor dramatization of the first English settlement and thousands of tourists enroute to the Outer Banks resorts of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head. Manteo, the beach towns and the inland forests and large farms are all in Dare County along with Wanchese.

The fishing people of Wanchese explain, Cheese County is just a nickname given them for their independent ways. Goddamn hardheadedness. Pure stubbornness. Like refusing to zone property, incorporate village limits, welcome strangers or otherwise give in to the demands of twentieth-century living and the rest of the county’s 90 percent population increase over a decade.

Independence. Like the right to own your own boat and drop your own nets. The right to take your own financial risks and write your own paycheck. The right to be provincial, to cling to the best, and worst, aspects of a culture little changed in 200 years.

Villager George Scarborough characterizes his home: “A very strong social fabric has been woven over the centuries. Everyone is related, they all trace their ancestry back to one man — Willie Daniels. We all trace right on back and, as a result, it’s a very exclusive group of people.”

The last black man to live in Wanchese moved on rather than trying to dig in and raise a family there. The last black woman, although she bore and raised a white man’s family, was never really accepted as part of the community. As in other geographically isolated fishing villages along the South Atlantic and Gulf coasts, resistance to new ways translates in part to racism. But that is not the whole story.

Scarborough: “Family connections were all that we had, so that’s all that mattered. There was no wealth here till the ’50s, so society stratified itself other ways. Land and lineage. Money’s a novel thing.”

Before the 1950s, the Wanchese economy was based on small boats harvesting shad and herring from the rivers and mullet from the sounds protected by the Outer Banks. After World War II, Wanchesers progressed to shrimping in the sounds in small trawlers with up to four crewmembers. As villager Leland Tillett recalls, “Not too many fishing boats ventured out past the inlets, only those used for transporting. The fish were always caught close to home.”

But in the late 1940s and early ’50s, the state of North Carolina determined that fisheries like that of Wanchese were primitive and outdated; along with a few local boosters, it fashioned an economic development plan for the area: a dredged, maintained channel through nearby Oregon Inlet as a passageway to the Atlantic Ocean’s marine resources. Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to cut a channel through the inlet, and the more prosperous local fishers began investing in larger, more seaworthy boats.

By the early 1970s, state officials told Wanchesers that immediate improvement of their small harbor was essential to the continuation of the area fishing industry. The plan: a 38-acre Seafood Industrial Park, costing $7.3 million in public funds, with docks, bulkheads, roads and other essentials to lure fish processing establishments, cold storage facilities, boat equipment and maintenance firms to the village. This Seafood Park — “the only real answer to a viable fishing industry,” officials claimed — promises to bring changes that even Wanchese hardheadedness cannot stop.

Wanchesers never really thought they had a fishing problem. But the Seafood Park seemed a flattering offer at first. Overlooked in the hustle of surrounding tourism development in the 1960s and ’70s, the 1,200-member community suddenly found itself the focus of national television news shows and slick public relations campaigns. After long being ignored by local government, Wanchese became a pet project of the North Carolina Commerce Department, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the state’s congressional delegation. The project was even designated one of “national urgency,” and there was talk of a $6 million jump in the locals’ total annual income and an overall $7.5 million increase in annual regional income. like other fishing communities, Wanchese did have problems marketing glut catches in good seasons, so having processing facilities in town sounded good, and there was mention of jobs, the kind that would keep kids from having to leave home.

Most importantly, officials promised to stabilize Oregon Inlet. The inlet channel weaves back and forth like an angry snake, first shifting one way, then shifting somewhere else by the time a trawler captain has a hull full of fish, a sleepless crew and a craving to be home. According to a 1977 Army Corps memorandum, 13 lives had already been lost in the inlet, and groundings occurred at a rate of up to 20 a month during the winter peak of offshore fishing.

For fishers caught in a storm off Oregon Inlet, the choice is clear: dodge along the shallow shoals of the Atlantic for another 75 miles until reaching either Morehead City to the south or Norfolk to the north. Or attempt to head straight through Oregon Inlet, in seas churning like bathwater down a drain. “Anytime you go out, you have a funny feeling in your stomach till you get back in,” says Erb Gallop. “You’re not sure you’re ever going to get off that boat again.”

Once the Seafood Park was built, Wanchesers were told, there would be enough political pressure to push authorization for stabilizing the inlet through Congress. Inlet stabilization would be essential to protect the government’s multi-million-dollar investment in the Seafood Park; companies would not come to the Park unless assured that ocean-going fleets could safely navigate the treacherous inlet.

But even with the promise of a safe inlet, local support of the Seafood Industrial Park shifted as quickly as the tides when Wanchesers watched the project get underway. Marshland was selected for the park, evaluated and quickly condemned.

“The [state] land appraiser came down and took us out to lunch at Daniels Restaurant. We no sooner sit down than he says, ‘You boys have got something we want. . . and there ain’t nothing you can do about it,’” claims property owner and crabber Willie Daniels. “As it turns out, he was telling the truth, I guess. He just wasn’t beating around the bush.

“Well, my brother just got up and walked out. I stayed there. I said, ‘This is America, not Germany. You just can’t take our land.’ But when I got back home, I walked out in the field and found stakes — they’d already been out surveying my land.”

He continues bitterly, “When they were dredging, they went 30 to 40 feet into the rest of my land, that which wasn’t condemned. Because they destroyed it, I said they should put it back. Well, they didn’t put it back.”

Similar complaints abound. One Wancheser, awarded $15,000 for land he thinks is worth 10 times that much, refused to pick up the money at the local courthouse. And George Scarborough recalls, “The state said they’d bulkhead land, improve it some, in exchange for donation of property. I guess they found that wasn’t cost effective because nobody’s property ever got improved. Other property, they gave them just token amounts of money.”

Hughes Tillett, whose mother lost eight-and-a-half acres of waterfront to the government, is resigned. “There wasn’t much we could do about it, so we just gave it to them. Nothing you think, say or do will ever change the way the government operates.”

As the Seafood Industrial Park construction progressed, Wanchesers began to realize that few of them would benefit from this public investment. The state was courting larger, outside businesses, consistent with their goal — not discussed locally — of drawing at least $30 million in private sector funds just to get the park started. By late 1981, at least 16 outside firms had expressed interest in locating there; there were only two from Wanchese.

Says Willie Daniels: “Outsiders see the potential and have the money. We just don’t have the ways and means to do it.”

Even Malcolm Daniels, a trawler captain for three decades, king of the local fishing empire and one of the few Wanchesers in a financial position to use the Seafood Park, says his docks and fish-packing plant are already settled outside the park facility; he has no plans to move. Small fishing interests cannot afford to lease park space, and park planners have allotted no space for their small outboard motor boats.

“I can tell you why I don’t like this project,” confided one young fisher. “I had to start out from scratch, and my dock is falling to pieces. Meanwhile, they’re getting everything built for them, everything for free. You can’t compete against that.”

The Seafood Industrial Park means social change as well, and Wanchesers fear the consequences. The promised 500 new seasonal jobs will bring in strangers who, Willie Daniels claims, will “hurt the individual life of the community, no ifs, ands or huts.”

Scarborough agrees: “It’s poorly planned. They were in such a hurry they didn’t bother thinking ahead. The roads won’t support the traffic, the community can’t house the people, and it’ll put a burden on the public school system, and the police and fire protection.

“There’s no zoning, there’s nothing that would stop a bar from coming up. Local pressure might keep one of us from opening one up, but a non-local may not give a damn. Drinking has a real stigma here. ‘Drink not to excess,’ says the Bible. Well, they drink not, period. Grape juice at communion, and they smell it first to see if it’s sour.”

Adds Erb Gallop, “They’ll want to make it just like it was back home. They’ll say, ‘I don’t like this ditch, I didn’t have ditches in Charlotte,’ and fill it up. Or, ‘I need sidewalks, I had sidewalks back home in Washington,’ then build them. They can’t just leave it the way it is.”

“They say that what’s good for business is good for the community,” George Scarborough sums up. “But those are people who measure everything in monetary terms. As the Bible says, ‘Lord forgive them, they know not what they do.’”

In retrospect, Wanchese opinion about the Seafood Park matters little. At the time the park plans were drawn up, no polls were taken, no petitions circulated. Criticisms at a 1976 public hearing were received politely, and then ignored. There is no local representative on the nine-member Seafood Park Authority that manages the project. Several Wanchese citizens served on an early project planning board, but “that was just a rubber stamp,” one local says.

Feeling betrayed and victimized, Wanchese eventually tried to organize to protect itself. But the people’s stubbornness and traditional values immobilized their energies. Civic Association meetings, normally quiet gatherings, broke out in squabbling and spats. Talk of incorporation and zoning — the only two means of controlling unchecked growth — raised howls of opposition. Incorporation means draining hard-earned money into the bottomless coffers of city government, Wanchesers complained. Zoning was attacked as a conspiracy against a brother’s trailer, a neighbor’s frontyard oyster business or a daughter’s pony tied up beside the house. “Every man has a God-given right to do with his property as he pleases,” was the constant refrain.

In March, 1981, Governor Jim Hunt dedicated the completed Seafood Industrial Park, declaring it open for development. He called it a project of “national and international importance. The commercial seafood industry is a major component of the nation’s total agricultural-industrial complex. . . . The government should assist fishermen like it has assisted farmers.”

The governor was referring to the fact that the Seafood Industrial Park and Oregon Inlet stabilization project, requiring massive amounts of taxpayer support, must carry substantial national benefits. To justify such investments, the plan promises to make the state’s commercial fishing industry more efficient, more competitive with other countries and more valuable in balancing the nation’s trade deficit — a rationale reminiscent of government subsidies which helped turn small farmers off their land and created agribusiness as we know it today.

Ironically, the Oregon Inlet stabilization project — the proverbial carrot in front of Wanchese’s nose — may never happen because of its ballooning costs and the growing concern about the new hazards and ecologic damage it would cause. Instead, Wanchese will have a harbor it did not want, employing people who are not welcome and introducing changes that represent the end of an old way of life.

Perhaps, as state officials have often predicted in inter-office memos, villages like Wanchese will indeed become a thing of the past, and the local fishers will be brought into the modern economy. But they will be kicking all the way.