As soon as Wilson Davis pulls up in his boat to the shoreline near his wooden cottage on Core Banks, he steps back to a “different way of life.”

If the wind is blowing right, he leaves the door open to catch the sea breezes.

Before sunset, he rocks on the front porch and watches the clouds back up over the marsh and the aquamarine waters of Core Sound on Cape Lookout National Seashore.

At night, he often lights the long open hallway with kerosene lanterns instead of turning on the generator.

“This place means everything to me,” says Davis. “It is my family’s history.”

The open hallway that runs throughout the house has a long table covered with a red checkered tablecloth where the Davis family gathers for seafood dinners. The white walls are decorated with several murals painted by family members. Scenes include fish and the beach buggy “Hot Fire.”

“We used to have a red buggy,” says Davis. “My cousin Laura went in the beach buggy, and it broke down. Then she painted it ‘Hot Fire.’ ”

Since the early 1950s, the beach cottage — which is known as the Coca-Cola house because the original owners held a soft drink franchise — has been a gathering spot for various Davis kinfolk.

Harry T. Davis, curator at the former North Carolina State Museum of Natural History, was the first owner from the Davis family.

“My Uncle Harry used to band falcons out here,” he says. “When he gave the house to me and my cousin Warren Davis, he told us he was getting rid of a pink elephant because the house needs so much maintenance.”

During the 1960s, Wilson Davis commuted back and forth by boat between Straits and the Cape while his wife and children lived at the cottage all summer.

“It was nothing to come here from work and have four young’uns waiting for their daddy on the porch,” says Davis. “Whenever my children come here now, they feel close to the Cape.”

Over the years, the house has withstood numerous hurricanes and nor’easters. The only destruction has been shredded roofs and other minor damage, says Davis.

“I remember a nor’easter that threw a boat on the sand dunes,” he says.

The Coca-Cola house is one of the few houses still occupied by seasonal residents in the Cape Lookout Historic District on the southern end of Core Banks. There are no permanent residents on the island, which is accessible only by private ferry or boat.

“Each of the remaining cottages has a different story,” says North Carolina Sea Grant marine education specialist Lundie Spence. “I love the architecture and how they were designed for that location, including the Coca-Cola house with its porches and interior openness. It is a great example of a ‘design with nature.’ ”

Special Leases

Fourteen houses in the historic district are under lease from the National Park Service, which owns the 28,243-acre seashore that stretches more than 56 miles — from Beaufort Inlet to Ocracoke Inlet, including Shackleford Banks and North and South Core Banks.

Core Banks — a single island from the late 1800s until a 1933 hurricane cut an inlet through it — is divided at New and Old Drum inlets into South Core Banks, Middle Core Banks and North Core Banks. Barden’s Inlet came as a result of the 1935 hurricane.

In August 2001, some property owners on South Core Banks initiated a legal battle over expiring leases. When Core Banks was transferred from the state of North Carolina to the National Park Service in 1976, some cabin owners who did not want to sell were given 25-year leases that allowed them to use the houses after the official transfer.

Recently, the Park Service settled the lawsuit, which allows 11 leasees to occupy their cabins under special-lease permits until Sept. 4, 2003, while officials assess the historic and nonhistoric structures.

“We will have a public planning process in 2003,” says Bob Vogel, park superintendent. “The Park Service is looking at a variety of options for the use of the cabins, including establishing a historic leasing program that allows private citizens to lease structures in exchange for maintaining them according to historic standards. Six buildings in the historic Portsmouth Village on the northern end of the seashore are in that program.”

New Bern attorney Hugh Overholt, who represented several leaseholders in the federal lawsuit, says that the settlement was “reasonable given the facts and circumstances.”

In addition to historic leasing, Vogel says, other options will be considered, including opening one or more of the structures to the public as a museum or an educational center. The Park Service also is considering using the structures for administrative needs, such as housing for volunteers and park staff stationed on the Banks, he adds.

Now, the brick Keeper’s Quarters, which was built in 1873 and sits next to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, is the only structure in the historic district open to the public.

The district — which is anchored by the diamond lighthouse at the north end and the former U.S. Coast Guard Station to the south — contains 21 principal structures.

Village’s Rich History

From the 1870s to about 1920, the area flourished as a fishing village. Fishing families or U.S. Coast Guard employees built several of the historic private dwellings as residences.

After that, the Cape became a haven for hardy vacationers.

During World War II, the Cape was buzzing with military activity. After Germany U-boats attacked and sank many ships near Cape Lookout in 1942, the Cape was developed as a temporary defensive base. Along the beach on the Atlantic side, you can still find ruins of machine guns and searchlight towers.

For the rest of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Core Banks was a retreat for seasonal residents, many of whom were connected to the Cape by deep family roots.

June Long, who has been coming to her cottage since the 1950s, says it was a “closeknit group.”

“My father came to the Cape from the 1920s until his death in 1972,” says Long. “There were still horses and cattle on the island in the 1950s.”

Long-time seasonal residents were over here like David Yeomans, who still has a home at the Cape, she says. “The Coast Guard was active. Everybody was friendly. If your car got stuck in the sand, the Coast Guard would come and help you get out.”

From the 1950s to 1970s, the Cape also was abuzz with real estate activity, including the state of North Carolina’s purchases for a proposed state park.

When the Park Service took over the island from the state in the 1970s, many changes began occurring, including the legal status of the cottages.

“We couldn’t land our plane on the island anymore,” says Long.

In the 1980s, the Coast Guard station was decommissioned. The building is now being used as a field school for the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort. Different shaped seashells adorn the railings. Clusters of rattlebrush speckle the yard with their fiery red petals.

Island Tour

To get to North Core Banks, you have to take the Alger Willis ferry from Davis. After arriving, you need a four-wheel drive vehicle or truck.

While bumping along the sandy back road from North Core to South Core Banks, you pass miles of barren beaches with sand dunes. The first landmark is the diamond lighthouse that overlooks the Atlantic. Soon, you cross a small wooden-planked bridge and see the first cottages in the historic district.

One of the oldest landmarks is the Life Saving Station, which was built in 1888. The two-story building — now a retreat for Samuel and Sara Daniels of Morehead City — has a weathered look with a few bare spots on the roof and some gables.

Not far from the Daniels’ cottage is the one-story Life Saving Station Boat House that once was used by the U.S. Coast Guard and is now leased by David Yeomans.

On a recent day, a tour group stopped in front of the house. While standing near a weeping willow tree, Yeomans belted out the local popular song “The Booze Yacht” about a whiskey boat that ran aground during Prohibition.

After the group left, he walked around barefoot near some trees decorated nautical-style with orange, white and green buoys and an old boat.

“Everybody that comes from miles puts a buoy on the tree,” says Yeomans, who will turn 82 in February.

As Yeomans walks inside the “Ye Olde Boat House,” he says that he put a lot of sweat into this retreat.

In 1958, he moved the 1887 structure building from its original site 500 feet north and remodeled it as a cottage.

He still has the saw that he and a friend used to cut 50 concrete blocks underneath the house.

“I moved the house on rollers,” says Yeomans. “It took two of us. I was worn out from moving. I changed the road a little to put the house where it is.”

For Yeomans, the cottage is more “home” than his house on Harkers Island.

“My father was here before me and had a garden where the porch is now,” says Yeomans. “Horace Nelson with the Coast Guard had a house where the garage is.”

A short, compact man with a well-weathered face from his years outside fishing, Yeomans delights in telling stories about the Cape, including being conceived over here.

“There were no midwives here at the time,” he says. “My parents carried me home to Harkers Island to be born. At one month, I was christened at the Harkers Island Methodist Church and came right back to Cape Lookout and spent my childhood here.”

Over the years, Yeomans has collected a lot of memorabilia from the Cape. The enclosed front porch is decorated with seashells, buoys, including a Russian one that washed ashore from a trawler, and old kerosene lamps used by the Coast Guard to signal ships.

The kitchen still has an old hand pump used before he had a generator. One of the bedrooms has a light bulb that has burned since 1958.

Yeomans and his wife spend all of April, May and October here and always celebrate her birthday on Oct. 27 with a party at the Cape.

Last October, 150 people showed up for the birthday celebration. Since it was rainy, Yeomans says a lot of people had left the Cape. “When the weather is pretty, we set up the tables outside. We have a real good time.”

Across the street, the Dawseys from Gastonia and Setzers from Denbigh, Va., lease the “Sea Dollar,” a wood-framed structure built around 1940.

The one-story cottage has board and batten siding. Ben Dawsey thinks the original house was built by a Coast Guard employee for his family during World War II.

The living room has a huge stone fireplace, pot-bellied stove and weather vane on the ceiling that tells the way the wind is blowing.

“This is a family place where we have fellowship,” says Dawsey, a retired Gastonia veterinarian. “We come by ourselves and sometimes the kids come. We thank the Lord we have had the opportunity to come over here and see nature — birds, fish and turtles crawling on the banks.”

Island Vegetation

There are no high-rise buildings in the village except for the lighthouse. The landscape also has remained unaltered except for some scrubby pine trees planted in the 1960s to protect structures from wind and lend stability to the shifting sands. Cedars and myrtles shade many of the village homes.

Along the Core Sound waterfront, the cottages have huge yards that are covered with seagrass. The homes overlook a wide maze of marshy expanse that rings the natural cove known as Cape Lookout “bight.” One of the larger homes is the two-story “Casablanca,” where natives used to gather for square dances.

A smaller cottage near the bight is the “Long Cottage,” which was nicknamed “Never Done” by June Long’s children because of the continuous maintenance.

“It is difficult to get things done on the island,” says Long who lives in Roanoke Rapids. “We have to bring over everything by boat — from building materials and gas cylinders to the kitchen stove.”

The Longs also have to haul everything off the island, including garbage and laundry, and provide their own electricity and water, she adds.

Despite the inconveniences and hardships on the isolated island, Long gets “choked up thinking about it being gone” and so do her friends. “I can hardly put into words what the cottage means to me,” she says. “Sometimes we come here for six weeks at a time.”

During these retreats, the Longs soak up nature and get to know each other better.

“We sit on the porch and have the best visiting and enjoy each other,” says Long. “We go on the beach and swim and swim. Children can go in the marsh. It is so different from anything else.”

Not far from the Long cottage is the two-story Barden home that was originally a lighthouse keeper’s quarters. Like many of the other homes on the island, it was moved from its original location near the lighthouse to the bight.

Graham Barden Jr., son of the longtime congressman for whom Barden Inlet was named, was given the lot as a gift from his father’s law partner in 1957. Then he and two friends bought the house for $666, according to Graham Barden III, a New Bern physician.

He vacationed at the Cape as a child and has vivid memories of carrying gallon jugs of water from the Coast Guard station to his house.

“We found out later that our well was as deep as the one at the station,” he says.

Recently, the Bardens added solar power.

“I had to learn to do everything here — from plumbing to electrical work,” he adds.

Barden and his family now spend about 60 nights a year on the island and hope to leave their footprints for many more years.

“To me, it is home,” says Barden. “It is quiet and peaceful. I feel bounded by the house. I would move from my New Bern home but don’t want to live in this place. I am grateful we are going to have more time here.”

This article was published in the Winter 2003 issue of Coastwatch. 

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