Living History: Bill Harris

Local icon, Bill Harris, reflects on his collection of memories and other research that adds to a multigenerational story about Kitty Hawk Village – an overarching narrative that includes the way the area once was, and how it continues to evolve to this day. 

In his home office, just off of Kitty Hawk’s Elijah Baum Road – which, not incidentally, is named after his grandfather – Bill Harris keeps a large blue binder he’s affectionately entitled “The Book.” It may not be the whole of his life’s work, but it represents several decades of research he’s amassed on a topic he’s been passionate about for more than half his life: the history of Kitty Hawk Village.

“I’m a walking encyclopedia of useless information,” Bill jokes as he scrolls through thousands of old photos he’s digitized and meticulously organized, and easily just as many genealogical entries he’s collected over the years – made even more impressive by the fact that Bill has a story (or several) to tell about virtually every single one of them.

Born in Kitty Hawk Village in 1937, only seven years after the Wright Memorial Bridge was built, Bill spent all but his early school years in Elizabeth City where his father was stationed in the Coast Guard, but he regularly returned to his grandparents’ house in Kitty Hawk over the summers. After graduating high school, he followed in his father’s footsteps with a two-year stint in the Coast Guard before enrolling at Guilford College to study history in 1958.

captain bill tae and elijah baum

Captain Bill Tate and Elijah Baum at the site of the Wright brothers’ first flight. Photo by National Park Service.

When it came time to pick a subject for his senior thesis, Bill decided to focus on the history of Kitty Hawk Village. Though he might not have recognized it as such then, it was one of his turning points.

“Nobody had written much about the history of Kitty Hawk before then, and even now there still isn’t a lot out there,” Bill explains about the initial inspiration behind his college thesis. “But I had a lot of friends and relatives in the village who remembered things, and I enjoy talking with people.”

In order to write his thesis, Bill conducted informal tape-recorded interviews with 17 people in the village, many of whom were born before the turn of the 19th century – including his grandfather, Elijah Baum, who was born in 1885 and was the first person to greet Wilbur Wright when he arrived on the Outer Banks in 1900. Bill filled 13 tapes worth of this invaluable material in record time.

In short, Bill’s senior thesis was an oral history project – well before that term became an officially recognized discipline. “I wasn’t a very good note-taker,” Bill recalls with a laugh. “While you might call it oral history, I called it being lazy.”

Though Bill may downplay his contributions to the local community in his easy-going and light-hearted way, there’s little doubt about how instrumental his achievements have been. After graduating from Guilford, Bill worked for the federal government for nearly 40 years, including more than a decade of employment with the National Park Service’s (NPS) Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Upon retirement, Bill didn’t stop there however; in fact, he went on to serve as mayor of Kitty Hawk from 2001 to 2004.

Aerial - old Kitty Hawk

An undated aerial view of Kitty Hawk. Photo by East Coast Aerials.

In between all these life changes, Bill never lost sight of his passion for history either. In the ‘70s Bill re-interviewed many of his original subjects for “personal pleasure” (gathering almost twice as many tapes during that next go around), and he started collecting old pictures, many of which came from his mother’s personal collection (his mother, Edna Baum Harris, is reportedly one of the first Outer Banks’ residents to own a personal camera during the late ‘20s). At one point after Bill’s retirement from the NPS, he even sat down and read all the Dare County and Elizabeth City newspapers he could get his hands on that dated from 1925 to 1950, and he incidentally noticed that there was an increase in travel to the Outer Banks every year over that time period – even during war years. 

“That was interesting to note, especially since you can only go back so far with other things,” says Bill, who also spent a lot of time digging through deeds and local government documents dating as far back as the 1700s. “Those papers can be spotty during the early days, but you can still pull some things together,” he adds. “For example, deeds can tell you who lived here, and even sometimes what they were doing – like the man who listed his occupation as a cobbler in 1790. It’s not a full picture, but it allows you to glean information of a social nature.” 

Bill also believes strongly in the power of reading photographs with a critical eye. Between deeds, oral reports, and some later-dated aerial photography, Bill created a map of Kitty Hawk that depicts, and names, all the ridges (high-level dunes) and swails (low-lying areas that consist of swamps or marshlands) that made up the village in the 1900s – plus the old locations of the “up road” Baptist community and the neighboring “down road” Methodist community. Though Bill used a number of sources for this project, he still credits photographic technology as an instrumental piece of the puzzles he’s still trying to put together. “What photographs allow, or demand, is that you study all the small details you may have overlooked before,” Bill explains.

KH School 1929

A picture of the first consolidated Kitty Hawk Village School, circa 1929 or 1930.

A longtime close friend of noted local historian, David Stick, the two would often banter about their research, and David even gave Bill unfettered access to his home research library when Bill began working on his college thesis. “David once told me that you can collect 80 percent of what you need in the first six months…but then you can spend a lifetime adding to it,” laughs Bill. “I get that, but I still want things to be letter perfect every time.” 

Bill’s comprehensive research has also made him a go-to person for other historians, such as Pulitzer-Prize winning author David McCullough, who sought Bill’s expertise on the Kitty Hawk area while he was writing his latest New York Times’ bestselling book, The Wright Brothers.  “I’m a bit of a jack-leg historian, and I’ve got too much damn information to use,” Bill says. “That’s why I like to give it freely to others. At the end of the day, I just think people ought to tell the right stories.”

And for Bill, who’s been a defining character in “The Book” of Kitty Hawk in untold ways over the decades, the past and the future often have an uncanny way of overlapping.

“Most people come here and fall in love with the Outer Banks as it was the first day they saw it, and they don’t ever want it to change,” Bill says. “But that’s just what happens. We change things. What I’ve seen in my research – and in my lifetime – is the evolution of Kitty Hawk. In many ways that evolution is still ongoing.” ♦

Amelia Boldaji learned more about her hometown from Bill Harris – including the origins of her alma mater (i.e., Kitty Hawk Elementary School)  than she ever imagined possible.

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