August 19, 2010.
A Brief History of Wash Woods and Beach Area by Melinda J. Lukei
Prior to 1900 there was a little village at Wash Woods. Around the village was good fertile farm land. Shifting sands and salt water from storms covered the fertile ground and replaced it with sand, live oaks and vines. There were two little churches at Wash Woods, A Disciple of Christ Church and Wash Woods Methodist, a one room school house, two grocery stores and a population of around 300 people.
Tutors were hired for the small children that couldn't make it to the one room school. The school teachers were hired and boarded with a family in the settlement. Many times these teachers only had an eighth grade education or high school education themselves. The teacher went to school early in order to start a fire in the old wood stove before the children arrived. Each family would contribute a share of the teacher's salary and expenses. Many times this was paid in services, such as wood for the stove. The books were used over and over and over. You didn't get new books. In later years when transportation was better the children were transported to Court House Elementary School and Oceana High School.
Wash Woods Methodist Episcopal Church was started between 1889 and 1895. I'm not sure about that 1889 date, I only include it because I saw a reference to that date. The Methodist Church was built from the wood of the three masted schooner, John S. Woods, that washed ashore in 1895. The John S. Woods was carrying a cargo of Cypress lumber, when the schooner hit the shore. It took three days to get a life line to the ship because of the stormy weather, however no lives were lost. The ship was battered to pieces and was completely lost. John Waterfield, the father of Charlie Waterfield and grandfather of Curtis Waterfield, the duck-craver of Sandbridge, PACo., Va. built the Wash Woods Methodist Church.
Before this little church was built the people went by boat to Knotts Island for worship and many continued this practice as the worship service for Wash Woods was only held at first on the fifth Sunday. The congregation was served by a circuit rider. He came once a month and stayed with a family in the congregation. He was scheduled for a Wednesday morning service after which he traveled to Currituck Inlet. When Knotts Island had their service the people of the beach visited with them and vice versa. By 1910 the Little Chapel in the Woods (Wash Woods Methodist Church) was too small. The families gave $1,400 to enlarge and improve the church. This time it was built to provide seating for 250 to 300 people.
The circuit rider went to Back Bay or Munden by train. He was then transported by boat to one of the life-saving stations or he was taken by horse and beach cart to the church. (A beach cart was an open cart with wide iron wheels so it wouldn't sink in the sand.
The little church served families from the life-saving station of Little Island, False Cape, Wash Woods and Sandbridge. There were eight families that lived near the station to support it. Some seasons of the year only six and a keeper were hired. The people reached the church by boat, walking either the dunes, by sand carts or by horse. Mrs Pauline Munden told me of playing the organ that was in the church when she went over from Knotts Island to visit the church.
When Wash Woods Methodist Church had a revival, it was an all day Sunday event. Everyone brought a picnic lunch to be shared with everyone. People from the lower Princess Anne County area and Knotts Island would join in for the big social event.
Because of many problems and hardships the population began dwindling at Wash Woods. Quite a few storms covered the little village leaving salt water and destruction in their path. The families would have to start all over again after these storms. Shifting blowing sands covered the once fertile soil, so it was impossible to grow the needed vegetables and fruits. Those people were self sufficient. They raised chickens, ducks, sheep, cattle, horses and hogs. They used salt and smoke to cure their meat for an entire winter. The salt was boiled from ocean water in large salt pots or a shallow area was prepared in the sand with a water-proof cloth to gather the salt when it had evaporated leaving only salt.
By 1922 there were not enough people on the beach to support the church at Wash Woods. Since then the graveyard of 300 or so graves, the little church and the village have been swallowed up by pines, bayberry and honeysuckle vines.
In the early 1900's there were 150 men that voted in the Wash Woods precinct and eight or ten women. They were always the first precinct to report. It was a practice for everyone to go and vote at 6:00 A. M. when the polls opened. After everyone voted they would close the polls, count the votes and call in the results by 9:00 A.M. Everyone could predict the whole state election by the results of Wash Woods. Of course it was always democratic.
In the 1950's restoring Wash Woods Methodist Church was talked about, but today we only see the few remaining timbers on the ground, a graveyard with only ten stones and the top of a steeple that the park personnel moved to preserve it from vandals.
Wash Woods got it's name in the 19th century because it didn't take much of a storm for the ocean to wash over the dunes in that section and flow back into the little community on the Back Bay. The people that populated the area were hardy souls, primarily fishermen, hunters, and farmers. The center of the community was around the church.
If you needed an item that wasn't in the store you could get the mailman from Knotts Island or Coinjock to get it for you. The mailboat came twice a week.
Mrs Arella Bowden Boyce (now deceased) remembers moving from Wash Woods to Knotts Island when she was a small girl. Everything they owned was loaded in one boat and her father and brother took that boat across, and their mother put all the kids in another boat along with some personal items. A storm came up as they were crossing and they almost lost their lives and all their belongings. The folks from Knotts Island were aware they were out there and a few of the men got together and went looking for them. Others carried lanterns along the shore so they could find their way.
There are 187 shipwrecks that have been accounted for since the life-saving stations began. Work is now in process to document others that were not reported. The life-saving service began in 1859. The men walked or rode the beach. Most of the time it was walked, but they did ride some too. Every four hours two men left the station. One went north and the other went south. They met the man from the next station down, exchanged a metal token and a few words and coffee and returned to their own station. Lanterns were carried to warn ships that they were close to shore. At the end of the week the keeper of the light house would collect the tokens to make sure everyone had walked their beat. If a ship was spotted having trouble they got back to their station as fast as possible. The whole crew would try to get a rope to the ill-fated vessel. Sometimes that was accomplished by lyle guns. If this didn't work they would row out to the ship in distress. Sometimes it would take several days to accomplish a rescue. Only two wrecks had loss of life, so the Life-Saving Service was successful most of the time. Some of these shipwrecks can be seen on the beach today. One is off shore below False Cape. It is the Norwegian vessel Clothe, stranded in a storm 22 Jan 1894. It was bound for Baltimore with a cargo of Marble. I understand that the Marble is still on board.
Sometimes you may see the ribs of another ship at the entrance on the beach to False Cape. There is another wreck south of Corella, the Metropolis.
The people at Wash Woods became very good scavengers. I have heard many people tell of blankets, lumber and all kinds of things that their ancestors found on the beach generations before. Many of these people made their living by selling things that washed up on the beach.
The life-saving stations that were in this area in 1908 were Cape Henry, Virginia Beach, Dam Neck Mills, Little Island, False Cape, Wash Woods, Penny's Hill, Currituck Beach, Poyners Hill, Caffey's Inlet, Paul Camiel's Hill, Kitty Hawk. I have also read about one at Sandbridge, one at Whaleshead and one at Currituck Inlet. I need some more information on these. This area was known as the Seventh District. There were six surfmen from August 1, 1907 to May 31, 1908 and one additional surfman from 1 Nov 1907 to Mar 31, 1908. A keeper was in charge of each station. Now the life-saving stations are inactive and most of the buildings gone. I believe Little Island, one of the last to close became inactive in 1954.
I remember my folks telling me about moving sand hills. The sand would blow down the beach forming different dunes. I can remember Jockey Ridge being in different places during my lifetime. The wind actually moves the sand dunes. It won't be long until Jockey Ridge will be in the Roanoke Sound.
Storms during the years broke though the dunes and made new paths. In 1933 the Little Island Coast Guard Station was completely destroyed. It was rebuilt to the structure you see today.
Corolla at one time in the 1800's had about 160 residents. In 1958 there were only twenty-six people living there. Most of them had been connected to the life-saving station. There was a one room school as late as 1952 with one teacher for twelve grades. My cousin's husband went to school there.There are some tree stumps along the surf's edge near False Cape. This was the tree line many years ago. The rise in the Atlantic Ocean has overtaken this former forest.
There was another church located near Dam Neck life-saving station. It was built earlier than Wash Woods Methodist chapel. It was an episcopal church and was a mission church for Eastern Shore Chapel at Oceana. The same minister served both congregations. It was built with the same dimensions as Eastern Shore Chapel, but was constructed of wood instead of brick. It was built from lumber of the ship-wreck Agnes Barton, also a three masted schooner. It was wrecked in 1889 while sailing from Rio-De-Janeira to Baltimore. Four lives were lost and six were saved in this wreck. The church was built by a man named Boyenton. The supervisor was Capt Bailey T. Barco who was in charge of the Dam Neck Life-Saving Station. Members of the congregation also helped with the church. It was abandoned in 1924. It was bought and remodeled into a girls camp.
Back in the days before World War I, a host of duck hunting clubs flourished in the area. One of the Presidents, Grover Cleveland, visited each year. There were clubs at Cedar Island (owned by my grandparents), Barbours Hill, Sandbridge Club, Princess Anne Club, Ragged Island Club, Currituck Gunning Club, Currituck Inlet Club, Deals Island Club, Swan Island Club, Monkey Island, Narrows Island, Mackay Island, Brodie Island and many more.
So many giants from big industry up north came down to these clubs that Norfolk and Western Railroad had a millionaire special. A little steam engine and two cars traveled from Norfolk to Munden Point, bringing important men to these clubs. The engineer, conductor, fireman, porter and brakeman could expect to each get a twenty dollar gold piece from each of these important and wealthy men. Twenty dollars went a long way in those times. Sometimes these men brought their own private railroad car to Munden Point. These cars were decorated in plush velvet and trimmed in gold and brass.
The log books from these clubs tell us that these men would shoot 1,000 ducks, and 100 geese, during one season. One record says two members on November 12, 1912 shot ninety-six ducks and eight geese. Some of this game was sold on the New York markets. It was packed in ice barrels and shipped to market by boat or train. Some of the clubs raised their own ducks and geese for their guest to shoot. Joseph Knapp took great pride in his brooding methods. One log at the Mackay Island Club, tells of men hunting from 5:00 A.M. to 1:00 P.M. They brought home 100 canvasbacks in eight hours. Another place in that log book tells of one thousand canvasbacks sold to the market.
When the Canadians drained their marshes, the wildfowl's breeding grounds, in an unsuccessful attempt to grow wheat, the wildfowl dwindled from several hundred million to 30 million. It continued to dwindle until steps were taken by Ducks Unlimited to prevent them from disappearing all together. Laws were soon passed to prevent anyone from selling wildfowl on the open market. Wildlife sanctuaries were operated by the government also to preserve the few ducks and geese left.
The first limit of seventy-five ducks per person was decreased to fifty, then to thirty-five and then to twenty-five and finally to four ducks, two geese and ten coots by the 1960's. Today it is much less than that. The season is much shorter and you can only kill enough ducks to make up one hundred points. Most ducks are twenty-five points. You can kill one goose a day during hunting season. Some hunters have decided it isn't worth all the expense to go hunting so many of the clubs have closed. Some folks still enjoy the fellowship and good food. They still visit every year during hunting season to kill their limit.
Information for this paper was gathered from newspaper articles, information from the Maritime Museum on 24th and Atlantic Avenue, Virginia Beach, Va. and stories told to me by my parents, relatives and friends.