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Annie Vaughan

remembers Elizabeth City and Nags Head

 

(in 1951, ten years before her death in California, world traveler Annie Vaughan wrote a little memoir for her nieces. She was 76, the last survivor of among the remarkable children of Frank and Annie Vaughan of Elizabeth City. Notes follow.)

 

310 E. Latham, Hemet, Calif.

Oct. 9, 1951

Dear girls (1),

I told you that I was going to write you about what girls did when I was young, nearly three-quarters of a century ago. I am starting today, don't know when I will finish.

 

We were a big family(2), and the last five were near enough of an age to be companionable. I was the middle of the five and your grandfather was the youngest. Then we had three girls and a boy next door(3) and two girls on the block and two boys across the creek(4) and as we all played together all the time we had a lively time. The neighbors had a big lot of land, large enough for a baseball diamond and then some, so we staked off a diamond and called in enough from other parts of the town to keep a two-team game going most of the time. It was fun. The girls were as good as the boys and could holler just as loud. Confined within four walls we were supposed to be little ladies, quiet and well-mannered, but playing outside we were a rough bunch.

 

Back of the baseball field, the lot led down to a swamp and a lovely creek, Laurel Creek(5). Its banks were full of cattails and wild shrubs draped with blue bells and wild roses and now and then a woodbine with its slender red bells. And the water by the shore was covered with dainty water lilies, shifting from here and there on their brown stems. Even as children we appreciated the beauty, but we didn't know that it harbored ague, too. The boys made boats from time to time and we had a wharf where we tied them up and we were not afraid to venture out in them, sometimes out on the river, a mile or two. Every now and then somebody would fall overboard, but that meant not going home till your clothes were dry so we were a little careful.

 

Our own lot ran down to the creek also, but we didn't have any way to get through the swamp. Nowadays your kitchens are compactly fitted in your house, but then our kitchen was out in the yard, a two-story house with four rooms, and when the meals were served they were brought from outside. Imagine the cooling off they got. But the hot biscuit stayed hot and the egg bread still melted the butter and we did not know the difference.

 

Christmas was a great time with us, it lasted till past New Year, and it began in preparation at least three weeks before. We always had a tree covered with tiny wax tapers and finery kept from year to year. We made paper chains, strung pop corn and red Christmas berries or any other red berries we could find. Somebody in the crowd furnished a horse and cart and two or three of us went out in the woods to find the tree, a great big cedar tree. Also we got cedar and holly for the church decoration6. Then night after night we went to the school house with the grown folks to make wreaths of cedar and holly to be draped all over the church. We had a pretty church and after it was decorated with the cedar ropes hanging from the choir rail and the altar rail and everywhere else we could find to put them, it really was pretty.

 

I remember when I was about eight years old, on a cold Christmas morning, we all gathered at the head of the steps in our night clothes and wrapped around with shawls or whatever we could find while Father went down to light the candles on the tree. Then he threw the door open and we all scampered down, tumbling over each other. We rushed to the tree. In some way, we each knew what was for him. I had a doll which my brother from New York(7) had brought me. I didn't care for dolls, but this one was robed in a gossamer, a rubber cape to you, with a hood, I had never seen anything like it and I was pleased as Punch. Then I sat in the corner and began to play with it. It had long hair, real hair, and that was unusual in those days, but I didn't like long hair, I much preferred short hair, so I cut it off to suit my taste. When my sister saw what I had done she immediately went to my mother and told her and then I got a spanking, even if it was Christmas day. I didn't understand why, if the doll was given to me, why couldn't I do what I wanted to with it, I didn't know there were any strings tied to the gift. I puzzled over it, and I am still puzzling to this day. Why shouldn't I fix my own doll like I wanted it?

 

We were boisterous children. But we amused ourselves, we had to devise our own amusements. We slid down on the roofs of barns, we jumped out of two-story windows and caught the branch of a tree feet away, we sprinted over the railings of bridges about four feet high and twenty feet wide and nobody ever fell off. We waited for the right tide to bring the water high in the river, then got in a boat when the water was only three inches from the bridge and had to be pushed down to get under the bridge and nobody drowned though nobody could swim.

 

These things we did until we were sixteen years old, then were we ladies and were made to give up such roughness. An uncle taught us to play cards, whist, the forerunner of bridge, and we had card party meetings every week. You must remember we had no movies in those days, not even a theater, and when we did go to a play we had to go to Norfolk, and though the trains began to run when I was a child, the trip was quite an event, just forty miles away! I saw Joe Jefferson, Ada Rehan, heard Paderewski and lots of good things, all you had to do was have a beau to take you down, then I would spend the night with my sister in Portsmouth(8).

 

The only other form of amusement we had was dancing. My, did we love to dance! But we had no music of our own, we had to wait until the itinerant Italian bands came along, which was every month or so. Three-piece bands, two violins and a harp. The underground somehow passed the word that the Italians were here! and we all sat by the window in our own homes waiting. We didn't have just one boy friend in those days, everybody was everybody's friend. We had specials, of course, but they were always changing. Remember there were no telephones in those days, you had to get your invitation to the ball by note, and the notes were carried by certain little negro boys. The first one that came you accepted, then when two or three or more came, you declined with a certain satisfaction.

 

Then the dance! They came from Edenton, they came from Hertford, they came from all the neighboring towns until there were about fifty couples. You had to walk. There were no automobiles and no one used a horse and buggy to go to a dance, sauntering down the street, slippers in a bag, with dresses of voile or dotted mull, or organdy, for nobody had a silk dress. I remember I had a lavender dotted mull one time, low neck and short sleeves, but after wearing it I had to wash it and it faded, so then I had a white dotted mull. Then another time I had a voile with sprays of iris, with a lavender ribbon belt and a piece of ribbon going from the front around my bust and tying in a small bow between my shoulders with long flowing ends.

 

Well, when we arrived at the Albemarle House, where we held our dances, we had to go down the lines of chaperones, about ten or more. Then we could dance. In those days we danced the German, occasionally a Virginia reel or the lancers, but not often. Do you know what the German(9) is? We all sat around the wall with our partners and there was always a leader. The band began to play, the leader called out six or eight couples and they waltzed for a minute or two, then he blew the whistle, and the dancer broke away and went among the sitting dancers for a new partner. Then the leader put on some kind of fancy marching figure, or grand right and lefts in a circle or something of that kind for a short time, then he blew the whistle and we began dancing with our new partners, the waltz. That kept up all evening until about two or three o'clock. The last break, "Home Sweet Home" was played, and if you were not dancing with your special, he was sure to break in for the final. But the evening wasn't over for always four or five couples went to one girl's house for supper. We sat by the lighted fireplace and ate and talked the evening over and usually two or three of the girls stayed all night. About four the party broke up.

 

But the evening wasn't over yet. We went upstairs to bed and turned the lamp out and waited. Soon there were voices and the music struck up. Out of bed we jumped and lighted the lamp to signal that we were awake and sat on the floor to listen to the Italian band and to peer out and see who was bringing the serenade. Not a care in the world, just having a good time.

 

In the winter I went to visit my sister in Portsmouth. She gave me two silk dresses. My, I was proud of them, and they were made by a seamstress, usually I made my own. They were one white and the other pink and as I remember she paid the seamstress as much as eight dollars. I went to dances there at Kern Hall and over in Norfolk at the Masonic Hall. Always having a good time, always enjoying myself.

Souvenir of a visit to Nags Head in 1897. Mildred Vaughan Emmerson holds her daughter Sue Barron, clustered around her are her children Bertha and Cloyd; Annie Vaughan is the tall woman at left center; Aunt Mary Emmerson is beside her; children Annie Mae, Mildred and Robert Albertson surround their Aunt Marcia Albertson; the older women at right are Susan Barron Emmerson and Aunt Annie Emmerson.

 

In the summer we went to Nags Head, your Nags Head. At that time there was a three-story hotel(10) on the sound side of the less-than-a-mile-wide strip of sand, with verandahs running all around on all floors. I think that is burned now. When I was young we stayed there but when I grew up there was always someone on the beach side to visit. All day we swam or crabbed or went boat riding in the sound or over to Roanoke Island, Virginia Dare's birth place, and the site of the original settlement in the United States. Of course you have heard of the legend of how Nags Head got its name(11), but I'll repeat it. It must have been in the early days for the bankers, that's the nickname we gave them, the people who lived there all year, were as nice and well-intentioned as the people of our own town. Well, here goes the legend. In the old days it was hard to make a living in the isolated place, so the bankers schemed to attract business their way. When the skies began to overcast and the wind slew a gale and it began to grow dark, a lantern was fastened to the neck of an old nag and he was paraded up and down the beach. As he shook his head and moved along the ships out at sea saw the light and thought it was another boat. "It is safe if another boat can ride there," they said, so they steered that way and the next thing they knew they were aground and the ship was lost and the cargo piled up on the shore. It makes a good story, anyway.

 

Then there is another legend about Nags Head(12) which probably you don't know. My father was a lawyer and with Dr. Pool used to go down there to attend to their respective businesses with the bankers. Dr. Pool had a patient once who said to him, "Doctor, I can't pay you any money because I haven't any, but I'll give you these things which I have in an old trunk." Then she gave him a couple of old colonial silk dresses and an oil portrait about ten by twelve inches. The portrait was of a very attractive young woman, dressed in colonial evening dress, with ringlets of reddish hair about her face, I've seen the portrait, in fact, I had it under my supervision at the Jamestown Exposition(13). Well, to continue the story, I'll have to tell you another story. In colonial days, Aaron Burr lived in New York and entertained lavishly with his daughter as hostess. She was a very popular young woman and later married Governor Allston of South Carolina. When her father got into trouble she planned to visit him and to try to cheer him up. She had a young son, and as I was always told, a portrait of herself for her father. She and her young son said farewell and set sail from Charleston to New York. They have never been heard from from that day to this. Her father paced the dock day after day, but no Theodosia, and Theodosia's final end has always remained a mystery. Now, as I was told, the banker woman told the following tale which had been handed down to her. Following a wreck on shore, among other things, there had been the body of a young child and a young woman who was still living, and the two dresses she gave to Dr. Pool, and the portrait. The woman soon died, although she was cared for as well as possible by the banker woman. Now just remember, the banker woman didn't know anything about the story of Theodosia and her father, and draw your own conclusions.

 

I had a dog when I was a young lady, Duke, a Chesapeake Bay water dog. He was a New York prize show dog and was brought down our way by a docking party on a yacht. But he became gun shy so they didn't want him any longer so they gave him to a friend of mine who had a store. But the dog was such a good watch dog he wouldn't let anyone come in the store, so finally I became the owner. He followed me everywhere, and when I went shopping he always came along, even if I had meat he would carry it for me. If he saw another dog he would quietly lay the package down and go investigate the other dog, then after he was satisfied he would come back and pick it up and trot along by my side. When I went away to work of course I couldn't take him, as much as I hated to leave him. He moped around all over the house and yard for days then got so queer he had to be shot. It almost did me up and I have never had another pet since. It is too painful when they die.

 

But I'll go back and tell you a little more about Nags Head. In my day the place consisted of just a few houses and the Hotel with a long pier running out into the sound, and a board walk always partly covered with sand running to the ocean side. On the ocean side there were three frame, story-and-a half houses on the south side of the boardwalk and about eight of the same kind of houses on the north side. Hollowell Hill was near the sound and Engagement Hill and Jockey's Ridge nearer the ocean. Back of these hills there was what was known as the Fresh Ponds, a big lake of purely fresh water between the two salt bodies of water, although the strip of land was less than a mile wide. There was quicksand, too. I remember one day we started for the Fresh Ponds in a wagon, four or five of us. The tide was so high we had to go inland. All of a sudden the horse went down, as far down as his body. My, we were a scared lot. We jumped down, not knowing whether we were going down, too, but we didn't and somebody grabbed the horse's head and we finally got him out. It was a scare though. We were a little distance from Kill Devil's Hill, that was nearer Kitty Hawk, where the airplane sprung to life. I expect where you go now is nearer there. There was no way to get down to Nags Head except by boat from home and we went on a little boat called the "Lizzie Boroughs" (14) which was none too safe. It took a long time, too, about six hours. The fishing was very good. I remember one man from Ohio who happened to be there. He went fishing from the pier and caught fish as fast as he could drop the line. He was disgusted. "That's no way to fish," he said. "To fish right you have to hang on to the line for an hour before you get a bite! But it wasn't always as good as that.

 

Sometimes we went boat riding, in round-bottomed boats with one sail. We called them canoes. Sometimes we went as far as the Inlet, about where Sir Walter Raleigh's men came though. But the inlet is constantly shifting. It is the oldest part of the country, as you know. There are many historical reminders there yet. There was an old colonial house near home that I went to see once. It had a china closet which originally opened at the back, through which the family used to disappear when they heard the Indians. It led into a tunnel and down to a nearby creek where a boat was always kept for emergencies. Then there was Hayes in Edenton, the old home of Governor Johnson, where I used to visit very often. Also in Edenton was the Cupola House of colonial days. That also had a china closet with a back door exit. Governor Eden lived there, and I understand he was friendly with Teach, the pirate, and they made use of the back china door for their communications. Teach is supposed to have planted his loot all over the country, and many's the big hole I've seen where even then people had dug up the earth looking for a prize, but as far as I know, no one found anything.

 

Then of later vintage was Mr Terry's house (15) with the room papered with Confederate money. And when I was a child I was taken down to see the first steam engine steam into town. My, how I was frightened at the engine and I can't say I've gotten over my awe of it to this day. I don't know how many of the old landmarks are still standing, but the countryside was filled with them in those days.

 

I forgot to tell you that when I visited my sister we were great baseball fans. There were no autos, so we had to ride out on the horse cars. Of course it was the time of the greatest heat, but I remember distinctly one costume I wore. It was a black serge skirt, much heavier than they have today, reaching to the ground and held up daintily by one hand on one side, while the other side dragged on the ground and picked up all the dirt so that when I got home, my petticoat, with its foot-wide embroidered ruffle, was black. My waist was of butcher's linen, tan, piped with red with the collar reaching as high as my chin, and going up to points below the ears, fastened in the back, with the cuffs of the sleeves so tight somebody had to fasten them for me with a shoe buttoner, and on my head, not my head inside the hat, I wore a red sailor hat with a crown about an inch high. Of course it had to be anchored down with hatpins, two or three of them. I was something to behold. Oh, I didn't tell you about the shoes. I wore high laced black shoes and I had to be careful not to show any vestige of leg when I held my skirt up. Well, anyhow, I enjoyed the games, and we swung our fans back and forth and cheered as loud as anybody and I wasn't any hotter than I was this summer, wearing as little as the law allows.

 

Well, we had a good time anyhow, even if our pleasures were simple. We were all great readers and most of us could play the piano. So for entertainment we often went to the Martins, my next-door neighbors, and sat around and read, while one girl played the piano, there would be six or eight of us. Then when the piano player would get tired she would get up and somebody else would take her place. My favorite book was "Old Fashioned Girl." I read it so often I could tell what was on the whole page by reading the first line. We didn't have many books. Every family had a secretary or bookcase with a few books but they were few and far between, and of course everybody read everybody else's book! What with buggy riding and an occasional horseback ride, and canoeing with supers on the water and singing as we bounded over the waves by moonlight, and fish fries on the river shore when we first caught the fish then sizzled them over the flames of the drift wood fire, and an occasional dance and a few card parties, that is about all we had, but we went after it without a care in life.

 

Oh yes, I remember I went to New York to visit my brother in about 1896. It was a great event. Two cousins went with me and one of our childhood friends was living there so we made the rounds of the town, Koster and Beals, an old time show house, Keith and Proctors, another; the Metropolitan Opera House, the Manhattan Opera House. We learned what Tammany Hall was and saw the George Washington headquarters down by the Bowery and even went down through the Bowery. We were small town sight-seers and we did the part well and thoroughly.

 

Well, I have rattled away until I 'm afraid I have tired you. It has been a long time and it is plain as yesterday to me and I love to think about it all and that is my excuse for writing.

 

Lots of love,

Annie

 

P.S. I must tell you about matches when I was young. We did not have them in boxes like you do now, they were in blocks. A square wooden block about two inches squares. They were cut cut down straight, about the size of a present-day match, then cut crossways, leaving an uncut base of about a quarter of an inch. Then the tops were covered with a sulfurous concoction and a piece of emery was pasted on the bottom then when you wanted a match you broke it off of the block and put the block back on the mantelpiece in a safe place.

 

We didn't have bath tubs or running water, either. In everybody's room was a china basin and pitcher and a tin foot tub. And you kept the basin filled from the pump. Many the morning I have broke the ice in the pitcher in order to bathe, for we didn't have heated houses, either. Lots of things we have to be thankful for now.

 

 

Notes

1. Dear girls The letter was composed for the daughters of Archie Musgrave Vaughan, her younger brother, then circulated among their cousins.

2. We were a big family Of the twelve children born to Francis William Sharpe Vaughan and Annie May Cluff Scott, three died in infancy and one in childhood -- all before Annie Almira's birth February 10, 1875. She grew up the youngest daughter in a family of eight.

3. we had three girls and a boy next door The family of William F. Martin, also an attorney, and the Vaughans were very close. Elizabeth McMorrine was tenuously related to Frank Vaughan.

4. two boys across the creek I think one of them was Cameron Mellick

5. Laurel Creek The creek gave its name to Laurel Creek Seminary, a school kept by Miss Sophie Martin, an aunt in the Martin family. Annie's older sister Mildred completed the seminary, but education reform had superceded such schools by Annie's time,

6. the church The Vaughan family were members of Christ Episcopal Church. Frank was a sometime vestry member; his brother and brother-in-law had been priests there. Mildred's teen-age diary reveals that she, at least, was very caught up in the life of the church.

7. my brother from New York Frank Ellegood Vaughan, eldest son of the family, born November 25, 1861, left for New York City on February 10, 1885, according to Mildred's diary. He made a distinguished career in journalism, including the position of day city editor of the New York Herald. His untimely death occurred May 30, 1915. Annie's brother Harold followed Frank to New York some years later.

8. my sister in Portsmouth Mildred married John C. Emmerson, a prominent businessman of Portsmouth in 1888. The family lived at 419 High Street, Portsmouth. Their older sister Bertha Albertson lived in Portsmouth in later years.

9. the German. It's hard to find a description of a good time in that era that does not include a reference to this cotillion dance.

10. the three-story hotel Annie's father Frank was a partner in early hotel development at Nags Head. Mildred's diary also mentions many day- and overnight trips to Nags Head.

11. how Nags Head got its name Frank Vaughan had popularized this legend in his novel "Kate Weathers, or Scattered by the Tempest," published by Lippincott in 1878. There is undoubtedly some truth to it. Wrecking was a traditional way of life for people of England's southwest coast, ancestors of the original Outer Bankers.

12. another legend about Nags Head Again, there is truth to this one, though the basic story has been embellished in a number of folklore collections. Presumably, Annie heard this version of the story from her father, so it may be very close to the actual course of events. Dr. Pool was, I believe, Annie's great-uncle.

13. at the Jamestown Exposition The 300th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown was commemorated in 'world's fair' fashion in 1907 with an exposition held in an rural area equidistant from Norfolk, Portsmouth and Hampton Roads. Annie Vaughan was a hostess in the North Carolina Building.

14. the "Lizzie Boroughs" I would guess this is a phonetic rendering of "Lizzie Burrus."

15. Mr. Terry's house. Beats me who Mr. Terry was, but there seems to have been a vogue for finding creative uses for worthless Confederate currency in the decades after the war.

 

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