Pea Island Cookhouse Museum: The United States Life-Saving Service Station
Probably the two best known U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS) Stations on the North Carolina coast are Chicamacomico and Pea Island; in fact, they may be the two best known in America. Amazingly, they were neighboring, or “brother and sister” stations on Hatteras Island, the centerpiece of the iconic Outer Banks.
I have had the privilege of being deeply involved with both. For the former, I volunteered for 11 years and did programs and was Site Manager for another 10 years; for the latter I am currently on a team for live presentations, and have written articles and proposals.
My appreciation for the Pea Island story, which was already significant, went much deeper when I interviewed my friends and colleagues Darrell Collins, Joan Collins, and Frank Hester. The meeting took place in the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum in Manteo.
Darrell, Joan, and Frank are first cousins and are the staff of the Museum; along with being direct descendants of some of the Pea Island Life-Saving Service station crew. Their great, great uncle, William D. Pugh, and their great grandfather, Joseph Hall Berry, both served with Pea Island Station Keeper Richard Etheridge, an Outer Banks Hero. Their great uncle, Maxie M. Berry, Sr., was the last to command the station. Darrell’s father, Frank Collins, like many of his relatives, joined the U.S. Coast Guard – as did Frank Hester, following in the footsteps of his great grandfather and other family members.
Etheridge rebuilt the original 1878 station with his crew in 1880 after a suspicious fire destroyed it. In 1896 the aging 1880 station was again replaced. The final replacement would then be a U.S. Coast Guard Station built in 1931. It was decommissioned in 1947 after continually having a mostly African American keeper and crew. Joan’s father, Herbert Collins, was the one to officially and sadly close its doors.
The 1931 complex consisted of the station, boathouse, cookhouse, cistern, and a separate watchtower. In 1996, the complex was sold at auction. The station, cistern and watchtower were relocated to Salvo to become Hatteras Watersports. The cookhouse was bought and moved to Rodanthe as a getaway for a writer and researcher on McCarthyism. It fell into disrepair and was boarded up until 2006. The owner wanted to donate it, and have it removed from his property.
There was no village where the original Pea Island Station was located and many of the black lifesavers that worked there lived on Roanoke Island, over 20 miles away, across the Pamlico Sound. It was because of this that the African American community on Roanoke Island was contacted. There was an enthusiastic response. Soon, the Town of Manteo, under the leadership of then Mayor John Wilson, in the true spirit of the Life-Saving Service, came to the rescue.
Earlier, Darrell’s mother, Delerva Collins, had been working on a project for the town to create a park in their African American neighborhood. Moving the cookhouse to Manteo neatly dovetailed with the park idea. “The Mayor and the commissioners wanted the park to be named after my mother,” said Darrell. Today, it is Collins Park.
Frank and Joan were raised in Coast Guard families, so that was the norm for them. “I didn’t really understand the full connection until I gained more information from Admiral Rochon. I didn’t hear about our families’ continuous service until later when I was in the Coast Guard myself,” said Frank.
Joan echoed, “My father didn’t talk about Coast Guard history that much, but he loved the Coast Guard with a passion.”
Darrell’s connection also bloomed later. He became a Park Ranger at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. “I probably didn’t realize it until I started doing research at the Park on programs, and my interest was sparked by the Kill Devil Hills Life-Saving Station’s vital assistance to the Wright brothers. Then I started talking to my mama about the all-black crew (at the Pea Island LSS Station).”
The more the three first cousins talked about this subject – while sitting in the Cookhouse Museum – the more apparent it became how passionate, emotional and personal this all was to them. There were deep family connections, long-shared histories, the emergence of the Collins Park becoming a reality, and now the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum. The latter was a tangible artifact of their history. Of the three first-cousins, Joan pointed out, “We have 400 years of combined service (in the Coast Guard) in our family history.”
And it goes to a new level: now they are operating the museum! They formed a new nonprofit, The Pea Island Preservation Society, Inc. (PIPSI) and became its first directors and staff.
To explain the beginning, Joan said, “Frank and Lynda (Hester) were the ones who really were involved in getting the design and layout done, and the displays that go inside.” Frank’s passion and commitment became even more apparent. “The thing that struck me at first was that this (Cookhouse) was really nice, but when I walked in, the ‘cupboard was really bare,’ and that just broke my heart.”
They all agreed that progress sometimes feels painfully slow, but to an outsider visiting the Museum for the first time it reveals a remarkable complex that quickly arose. Progress continued as funds were secured to erect a statue of Keeper Richard Etheridge. Frank informed me “The same artist (Stephen H. Smith) who did our statue also did the bronze sculpture at the Wright Brothers National Memorial.” Then Darrell added, “The artist has a way of bringing the statue to life. The statue has character.”
Next came a remarkable development. The Pea Island Cookhouse Museum is located on the northeast corner of the intersection of Sir Walter Raleigh and Bideford Streets. The Town of Manteo created a roundabout there. The imposing new statue of Keeper Richard Etheridge was placed high up on the center of the roundabout, and landscaping was completed.
Following that, a boathouse replica was built. “The Herbert M. Collins Boathouse was very personal to me,” Joan said, “because at this time my father was dying. And the boathouse was named after him.” Then a genuine U.S. Coast Guard Monomoy surfboat was restored and placed on-loan to the Museum, now residing in the new boathouse.
As cozy as the Cookhouse Museum building is, it packs a wealth of displays and artifacts. Frank pointed out a special item: “Our grandfather, Joseph Hall Berry, wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt expressing why it was so important for this Station to remain.” A copy of the letter is in the Museum.
Yet, while the building, boathouse, statue, and displays are telling an important story, together it also tells a larger story. “The thing I like about the Pea Island story,” Frank says, “is that it is an American story and it provided a model for success.” Joan was in total agreement, “This Station really opened the doors of opportunity for African Americans here to enter the Service. My father used to talk about how demanding and tough it was to get into the Coast Guard – just think of the number of African American men from this area that followed in Richard Etheridge’s footsteps.”
Joan created a power-point program in 2016 she entitled, “Freedmen, Surfmen, Heroes.” Darrell invited my wife, Linda, and me to be part of the presentation team. The four of us have performed it several dozen times now at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, and at every 4th grade class in Dare County. Why are the programs held at the Aquarium? Because Richard Etheridge’s farm and land were on Roanoke Island, far from town at that time, in a location upon which the N.C. Aquarium was later built. Workers discovered the family graveyard of Richard Etheridge while tearing down a WWII Navy infirmary to make way for the Aquarium. There is now a stately area around the family graves surrounded by an ornamental fence, American and Coast Guard flags, and sideway markers.
The next live presentations of “Freedmen, Surfmen, Heroes” for 2019 will be at the Aquarium on July 11th and August 8th. Both are Thursdays and all dates have two performances. One at 11:00 a.m. and the other at 1:00 p.m. and is included in the regular Aquarium admission fee.
PIPSI received further requests for presentations from Dare County, a Currituck school and the Town of Duck. It had been very well received. This makes Joan a leader of the community, just like Darrell as Town Commissioner and Mayor Pro-Tem of Manteo, and Frank as a Dare County School Board Member.
There is more: There is the Captain Richard Etheridge Bridge and dedication on Pea Island; and there are the James Melvin paintings. PIPSI has a master plan for future development. A visitor needs to discover the rest of this amazing story by touring the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum. ♦
James D. Charlet has 24 years of experience as a classroom teacher of North Carolina history and 25 years permanent residency on Hatteras Island with expertise in its history, geography and culture. He is the author of two textbooks (NC Studies and Wright Brothers) and numerous magazine articles on Outer Banks subjects