Planning for your vacation sets the stage for getting the most out of your vacation, even if your plan is to be as lazy as you can be.
When my family vacations we tend to plan in two stages. The first stage is all about thinking ahead to: what will we need for the trip and what will we need when we get there. The second stage is all about what are we going to do when we get there (activities).
There Was Nothing Like the Nags Head Casino
There are Outer Banks places that have become legendary over the years. Perhaps no longer a part of local life, yet the tales linger.
If there is one place that would seem to fit that description it is the Nags Head Casino.
There is nothing left of it now. Kitty Hawk Kites and Jockey’s Ridge Crossing occupy the space where it once stood. Perhaps it’s fitting that a business promoting family fun and the Outer Banks now occupies the site where Ras Wescott once had his business.
In it’s heyday, the 1940s through the 1960s, there was nothing else quite like the Nags Head Casino. Downstairs it was all about families. There was a bowling alley, an arcade, candy, soda and snacks.
But upstairs, that’s where the legend of Nags Head Casino was created. The floor was buffed to a high sheen, often by Ras himself, and no one…no one… wore shoes when dancing. Or on the second floor. And the music, that’s why people kept coming back.
The biggest names in jazz, swing, pop and rock ’n’ roll came to the Outer Banks; their names reading like a who’s who of the their time.
Artie Shaw, one of the finest clarinetists of the swing era played the Casino. Fats Domino was there, Count Basie and his Barons of Rhythm made the trip. In the 1960s Bill Deal and the Rhondels came a number of times.
On the cusp of fame, Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps played to the Casino in June of 1956. Largely forgotten now, Vincent was a pioneer in rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll.
Perhaps the biggest name to grace the Casino’s stage was Satchmo—Louis Armstrong, on July 12, 1958.
The Casino began life as a dormitory housing workers for the Wright Brother Memorial
It took a full year to build the Monument. Construction began in the fall of 1931 and was completed in November of the following year. The 60’ constructed from North Carolina granite required skilled stonemasons and the workers needed a place to stay.
When the workers left, the building became a dormitory for Depression era WPA (Works Progress Administration) workers who were creating a dune line along the Outer Banks.
By 1937 the building stood vacant, and local businessman Ras Wescott saw an opportunity and bought the property.
It was at first a soda shop and snack bar, but then Ras added duckpin bowling and an arcade and the following year, 1938, the upstairs became a dance hall.
Booking mostly regional acts at first, the popularity of the Casino expanded, but what seems to have really sparked its growth was WWII.
What is now Dare County Airport was used for flight training by the Navy and submarine patrols. Coupled with the explosive growth of servicemen at Hampton Roads and a slightly improved transportation system, the Casino became a popular night spot.
That popularity came with a price. Local residents who were around at the time recall tensions between servicemen and locals. There is evidence of that.
The July 21, 1944 edition of the Dare County Times, the predecessor to the Coastland Times, reported, “The entire court of Judge Baum…was taken up Tuesday of this week with cases arising out of drunkenness, nearly all of them at the Nags Head Casino where drunks are wont to congregate.”
Included in that report is a “young Colington man jumped up and without provocation, hit Chief Officer Blackman of the Naval Shore Patrol…”
Wescott, though, took pride in creating what he considered a wholesome place of recreation. The downstairs was very family oriented, and children were not permitted upstairs.
There were bouncers, and when needed, Ras would blow a whistle he had around his neck. Legend has it that when things got tense, patrons would leap out of the second floor windows to the sandy ground below rather than face the bouncers. There are no reports of anyone getting injured jumping to safety.
When there was real trouble, though, Donnie Twyne would have been called. Twyne, the first Chief of Police for Nags Head, began his career in law enforcement as a Dare County Deputy. Before he was a policeman, Donnie was a boxer, and as a number of the Casino’s more rowdy customers discovered, he backed down to no one.
Ras experimented with different ways to bring people to his business. For a while, in the 1950s he sponsored weekly boxing matches.
For the most part though, anyone going to the Casino had a good time—that is the overwhelming memory of everyone who recalls being there. That and the floor.
It’s unclear why Ras began waxing and buffing the dance floor, but he did and shoes were absolutely prohibited. There was even a place to check shoes, much like a coat check.
By all accounts, Ras loved swing music and dance music, but as musical tastes changed so did the groups he needed to book. He brought some good groups to the Outer Banks in the 60s, but not the big names he had managed to book a decade earlier.
The 1962 Ash Wednesday Storm damaged the building and it took weeks to repair—lost time for Wescott who always opened in March.
By the end of the decade, attendance was declining. Wescott, his health declining, sold the building as the decade of the 70s began. Soon after he sold the building, a storm damaged the roof and the building was demolished to make way for the new Kitty Hawk Kites Store and Jockey’s Ridge Crossing.
Malaria was rampant in the coastal plain of North Carolina, and at that time, it was believed malaria was caused by the warm, damp bad air of the swamps and wetlands that surrounded farms and cities.
It seems that Nixon, breathing the fresh, salt air of the Outer Banks, was convinced that Nags Head was a safe summer haven for his family. Other plantation owners and wealthier members of North Carolina society followed Nixon to the shore.
It is an interesting, and sometimes overlooked fact about the Outer Banks—that Nags Head was one of the first tourist destinations in the United States.
The reason for Nixon and others for choosing Nags Head as a summer getaway was different than in the Northeast where a burgeoning middle class population was seeking a way to get away from the city and spend time with family. The results, however, were the same.
So many visitors were to coming to Nags Head that in 1838 the first Outer Banks hotel was constructed. Like the village and the summer homes, the hotel was located on the Roanoke Sound.
The hotel was, evidently a very good investment. By 1851 it boasted over 200 rooms with detached cottages. A wharf extended far out into the sound, and there was scheduled steamboat passenger service to the resort. To get to the ocean, the hotel offered a boardwalk and a tramway with horse drawn carts to take visitors to the beach. The hotel also featured a dance hall and dining room.
Nags Head as a town was thriving, There was a general store, and the population, traditionally subsistence farmers, hunters and fishermen, had a ready market for their goods.
Then the Civil War came.
Although not widely known, the first Union victory of the conflict occurred on the Outer Banks. In August of 1861, northern forces seized Ocracoke and Hatteras Village, gaining control of access to the waters of the Outer Banks sounds. Oregon Inlet was not considered navigable at that time, so control of the southern Outer Banks inlets was a strategic necessity.
Confederate General Henry Wise established his headquarters at the Nags Head hotel, but as Union forces approached and it became apparent they could not be stopped, he moved his command and burned the hotel to the ground to prevent its use by his enemy. Union forces seized the rest of the Outer Banks and Roanoke Island by February of 1862.
After the Civil War, tourism in Nags Head quickly rebounded. The hotel was rebuilt and visitors were once again flocking to the beach town.
But a change was occurring and that change is very much a part of the Outer Banks of today.
Soon after the Civil War ended, Dr. W.G. Poole, an Elizabeth City physician, purchased some beachfront property and built a house. Wanting some company for his family, he sold adjoining lots to his friends. The story is told that he sold the lots for $1.00 to entice his neighbors to build on the beach. Whether that is true is difficult to say, but there is no doubt that the first owners of beachfront homes built on the Outer Banks were from Elizabeth City.
Some of those homes have survived and are what has come to be known as the Unpainted Aristocracy of Nags Head. The homes are considered historically significant and comprise the Nags Head Historic District.
The shift to the beach front had profound implications. The new Nags Head Hotel burned to the ground in 1903, and no attempt was made to rebuild it.
As important as the shift was from the sound to the ocean, connecting the Outer Banks to the rest of the world was even more important.
In the 1920s North Carolina began building a road along the ocean from Kitty Hawk to Nags Head. At that time, though, there were no bridges connecting the road to anything else. Later in that decade that changed. It is unclear if the bridge that is now the Washington Baum Bridge connecting Outer Banks to Manteo or the precursor to the Wright Memorial Bridge was first. Both seem to have been built about the same time.
The predecessor to the Wright Memorial Bridge was…unique. A wooden bridge built by private investors, it was a toll road. The bridge rested low in the water, so low that it was frequently impassable because waves would wash over the deck. Because it was wet so often, the surface was slippery and treacherous. Yet it was a direct connection to the rest of northeast North Carolina and Hampton Roads, and even during the Depression, the Outer Banks experienced some growth, although it was very slow.
One type of business that did thrive were nightclubs and dance halls. The Nags Head Casino was by far the best known.
The building began its life as a dormitory for workers building the Wright Brothers Monument. After the workers left in 1932, local entrepreneur Ras Wescott purchased the building. The downstairs was turned into a soda fountain and bowling alley. Upstairs was a dancehall with a perfectly polished floor where no one was allowed to wear shoes. Some of the biggest names in big band and jazz came to the Casino, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Artie Shaw. When the music shifted, Fats Domino and Bill Deal the Rhondels among others made the trip to the Outer Banks.
The Casino survived until the early 1970s when storm damage and an ailing Ras Wescott sealed its fate. The Nags Head Kitty Hawk Kites Store now occupies the site of the Casino.
Other changes were occurring, and the post WWII boom and growing baby boomer families were at the heart of the change.
In 1947 Frank Stick, the father of Outer Banks author David Stick, with some partners purchased 2600 acres of swamp, maritime forest, and barren beach just north of Kitty Hawk. He believed that returning servicemen, as their families grew, would want a home to come to for a vacation on the Outer Banks. The design for the homes would be based on a simple concrete structure he had seen n Florida. Local materials would be used to keep costs down. Beams and woodwork would be juniper—a plentiful local wood at that time—and sand from Outer Banks beaches would be used for concrete.
Those simple concrete homes are the classic Southern Shores flattops. And as evidence that local sand was used for the concrete, many of the homes have various local shells embedded in their walls.
The flattops sparked a building boom, and although other areas of the Outer Banks were also enjoying a surge in vacation home construction, the concept behind the Southern Shores flattops holds an important place in the history of tourism. It was one of the first planned resort towns.
Isolated, stubborn and independent, when word finally reached the people living in Rodanthe that Great Britain had adopted the Gregorian Calendar—it’s what we use today—in 1752, they chose to ignore it. As a consequence a wonderful tradition has survived for more than 260 years—the Rodanthe Old Christmas.
Originally the date of the Old Christmas observation was 11 days after Christmas, but as families grew and spread across the nation, the date of the celebration was changed to the first Saturday after the Epiphany—Saturday, January 6 in 2018, which happens to be the Epiphany in this case.
The reason for the discrepancy between the traditional December 25 Christmas and the Rodanthe Old Christmas offers a fascinating glimpse into the politics and religion of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
Beginning 46 BC, Europe had been using the Julian Calendar that Julius Caesar had created. The calendar, based on solar cycles instead of lunar cycles was far superior to any other method for measuring the length of a year in use at that time. Unfortunately the calculations were off by slightly more than 11 minutes per year, or one day every 128 years. After two or three centuries—not much of a difference; after 15 or 16 centuries the discrepancy was ten days and seasons are no longer falling where they are supposed to and scheduling religious holidays had become confusing.
Pope Gregory XIII cast a wide net to resolve the problem and an Italian scientist by the name of Aloysus Lilius came up with an ingenious solution that we are still using today. Gregory ordered all Catholic nations to implement the new calendar in 1582, deleting 10 days between October 4 and 15 to account for the missing time.
Although the Gregorian calendar was clearly superior to the Julian Calendar, England, which had just fought a horrific civil war between Catholics and Protestants and was fighting to gain a foothold in the New World against Catholic nations, was not about to adapt any innovation sponsored by the Pope.
The last major European nation to do so, it took 170 years for the British to finally adapt the Gregorian calendar, and even then it was decried by many as a papist conspiracy. To make up for the now 11 days of discrepancy between the true solar year and the Julian calendar, Parliament decreed that the dates of September 3 through September 13, 1752 simply didn’t exist.
In 1752, when the law took effect, Rodanthe was an isolated village whose residents were almost exclusively descendents of British settlers. It is unclear when they were told of the change in dates. What seems to be clear, though, is that they simply ignored it and went on with their lives.
As a consequence, the Rodanthe villagers celebrated Christmas 11 days after the “new” Christmas—as it was called at the time.
Although there are no records of how the day was celebrated in the 18th century in the village, records of what happened on the Rodanthe Christmas Day dating to the early 1800s tell of a celebration including food, silliness and Old Buck. Those traditions continue to the present day with lots of food, including steamed oysters, games, music and Old Buck. the mythical bull.
Old Buck is an interesting figure. The story goes that he swam ashore from a shipwreck, found the local cows to his liking and took up residence on Hatteras Island. He was either shot and became part of a feast or disappeared in to the forests of the island, but either way, on Old Christmas his spirit reappears every year in the form of a bulls head with a cloth covered body.
If there was any doubt that the Rodanthe Old Christmas is directly linked to England, the appearance of Old Buck puts that to rest. A common tradition in Great Britain, dating to the earliest days of Christianity includes eyewitness accounts of celebrations featuring the likeness of animals.
An 1883 article published in the British journal Antiquarian Chronicle reports, “There is another custom very common in Cheshire called Old Hob; it consists of a man carrying a dead horse’s head, covered with a sheet, to frighten people.” From Wales, comes the midwinter tradition of Mari Lwyd, meaning gray mare in English.
The use of skulls and animal heads has evolved and Old Buck is more of a representation of a once mighty bull than the real thing, but the date of the celebration and the origin of the traditions recall a time and place unlike the 21st century Outer Banks.
The celebrations have gone through some changes over the years. At one time Old Christmas was when grudges and resentments built up over the past year were resolved…often, according to reports with a black eye. There were also rituals allowing a young lady to see her possible husband for the first time; and sometimes men would dress as women and women as men.
It is a bit more tame now, but still a remarkable journey into tradition and community spirit.
The Rodanthe Old Christmas is held every year at the Rodanthe Community Center.
When planning your autumn getaway, keep these 10 tips in mind to make sure your vacation turns out just the way you hope!
#1 Pack layers — Mornings in the Outer Banks are a chilly 50 or 60 degrees, but temperatures usually reach the mid-60s to low 70s by midday. Pack a fleece jacket and long pants for morning excursions, and shorts and long-sleeve shirts for later in the day. Even though ocean temperatures are usually too cold for swimming, bring your bathing suit. Many rental properties have hot tubs. Also, you can rent a wetsuit and still enjoy watersports year-round. If you’re bringing a furry friend, note that small or shorthaired dogs might like a sweater in the evenings — especially if they’ve been playing in the water.
#2 Catch some air — Winds pick up this time of year, and a kite-boarding or windsurfing lesson is the perfect way to burn off a hearty Southern breakfast. The Outer Banks have shallow waters and soft waves, so if you’ve ever wanted to try kite-boarding or windsurfing, this is the perfect opportunity. Consistent winds along the coast mean that fall is also a fantastic time for sailing. Whether you’re an experienced sailor or would rather sit back while someone else does all the work, there are plenty of sailboat charters that operate year ’round.
#3 Ride a century— If you’re a cycling enthusiast who’s always wanted to ride a century (a hundred-mile excursion), the Outer Banks is the perfect place to check it off your list. With more than 100 miles of flat roads and paths, constant sea breezes and beautiful scenery, going for a bike ride of any length is sure to be a memorable and relaxing experience.
#4 Play bird bingo —The Outer Banks is an important migration stop for hundreds of species of birds, and fall is an especially enjoyable time for birding. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the north end of Hatteras Island is a perfect place to observe migrating geese, swans, ducks, and shorebirds. Grab a pocket field guide and a pair of binoculars, and then see if you can spot rare species such as peregrine falcons and piping plovers. Or make your own bird bingo cards and see how many different species you can spot.
#5 Read up on Outer Banks’ history — For those leisurely afternoons, enjoy books about local history. Popular works include Hatteras Journal by Jan DeBlieu, North Carolina Lighthouses and Life Saving Stations by John Hairr, or Ribbon of Sand by John H. Alexander. There are also plenty of fiction books set on the Outer Banks. Try True Believer by Nicholas Sparks or Outer Banks by Anne Rivers Siddons.
#6 Take a class — Whether you enroll in a cooking, art, kite-boarding or tennis lesson, the Outer Banks is full of opportunities to learn a new skill.
#7 Visit an oyster roast — This is a truly local experience! In fall, oyster roasts pop up all over the islands at backyard fundraisers and community get-togethers. Pick up your own oyster-shucking knife at any grocery store, then experiment with the many ways there are to top steamed oysters. Oyster roasts are convivial communal experiences where everyone is welcome — if you’re invited to one, accept and enjoy.
#8 Pack indulgences and plan for downtime
Oh yeah…THE BEACH! Check out the perfect day to be on the beach in June! High of 92 and breezy with lots of feet in the sand and paws in the water! There are so many things to do at the beach, that it could take several vacations to cover them all, but make sure you do the most important one…sit back and relax and enjoy the scenery!
Families have been traveling for vacations on the Outer Banks for over 100 years!
For many years, the Outer Banks has been a hot spot for historic travel because of the battles fought on the sand, the challenges won in the air, and the memories made beyond the dunes. When you are counting down and awaiting your next steps on the sand, make sure to take photos and share your memories with the rest of the world! It is amazing to think of how much progress was made in such a small area in the past 100 years as far as technology and vacation luxuries go, imagine what might change in the next 100 years?Create memories and share the fads of today with tomorrow! When you look back in future years, you will not believe how much it has changed, and how much you have changed….Come make your history and leave your mark on the Outer Banks, which is priceless! Call Outer Banks Blue today @ 888 727 3102 to begin planning your next step into your own history, and take a moment to reflect on what you look forward to telling your Grandchildren about the Outer Banks vacation experience. Beds made prior to arrival, keyless entry, and check-in by email…check-out and sail on home until the next time! We have
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