18 April 2013

Leaving the Promise Land

Two weeks ago I was bound for the Promise Land, and now I'm leaving it. There's a linguistic controversy embedded in that sentence, at least here in Morehead City. Some residents swear that their neighborhood has always been called the Promise Land, without a D. Others say the real name must be the Promised Land, as in the Bible. Still others seek compromise, writing Promise’ Land, the apostrophe noting that a letter has been dropped in the local pronunciation.

Houses on Evans Street in Morehead City's Promise Land

What is the Promise Land? It's the area south of Arendell Street (Morehead City's main thoroughfare) bounded by 10th and 15th streets in Morehead City. There are three east-west streets: Evans, Shepard, and Shackleford. The southern boundary of the Promise Land is the shore of Bogue Sound. I grew up in the Promise Land, or on the edge of it, in the 1950s and 1960s. Why was it called that?

A historical marker at 10th and Shackleford streets in Morehead City

In the 19th century, there was a whaling village near Cape Lookout, which is the southern end of  the North Carolina Outer Banks. The Banks are a chain of sandy barrier islands that separate the Atlantic Ocean from Albemarle, Currituck, Pamilico, Core, and other sounds — étangs in French, or lagoons. A series of destructive hurricanes at the end of the 1800s made life on the sandy islands near Cape Lookout impossible. Many of the residents of the whaling village, called Diamond City, took their little wooden houses apart board by board, floated the boards on sailboats and barges to Morehead City, and rebuilt their houses in the neighborhood known now as the Promise Land.

Tools of the trades that supported the Promise Land economy

Back then, well-to-do people didn't want to live on the shore. It was windy, and it was vulnerable to storm surges and flooding when hurricanes came in from the tropics. People didn't have insurance against such disasters the way they do today. The people of the Promise Land in Morehead were commercial fisherman, living off small-scale fishing, shrimping, clamming, oystering, and crabbing.. For many, it was a subsistence economy. The people were poor, but they were all poor so they didn't notice much.

The Promise Land Society is in the process of designing a logo for the community.

Nowadays, people "from off"  — outsiders — see no better location for a summer or retirement house than a neighborhood like the Promise Land by the shore. They want water views and boating opportunities. They also want mega-houses that are totally out of scale with the old neighborhood. They are willing to pay hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars for a small clapboard house with a little plot of land around it. Often they "scrape"  the house off the land and rebuild in a grander style.

The typical Promise Land house is pretty small. Newer residents like to build much grander homes.

The Promise Landers are trying to preserve the nature of their neighborhood. They are tired of being looked down on and treated like a historical oddity by wealthy outsiders. They've formed an association to protect themselves and make sure the history of the area is not forgotten. They are going to publish a book of old photographs from past decades, reminiscences of a simpler way of life, and historical and linguistic information. They are organizing a festival to celebrate their local culture, to be held in October.

Looking to the west from the Promise Landthere's a whole new world out there.

More power to them. I hope they can succeed and turn the tide. The Promise Land was a great place to grow up. We young'uns were free to roam the streets on foot or on bicycles, to play unsupervised with the neighbor children (who were often our cousins), and to fish and crab off docks and piers along the sound. Everybody knew everybody, so we kids were safe.

The Promise Land diet was based on local shrimp, fish, clams, crabs, and oysters, simply prepared.

There were corner shops sprinkled around the area — Lindsay and Maybelle's grocery, Kib Guthrie's general store, and others. Some of my ancestors operated grocery stores and butcher shops in the neighborhood back in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. Downtown, with its two movie theaters, dime store, two bigger grocery stores (we didn't say "supermarket" back then), and two drug stores with soda fountains, was within walking distance. So was Morehead School (grades 1 through 12).

Our local scavengers, the laughing gulls, helped keep the environment neat and clean.
Just don't stand or sit directly under one!

A lot of that is gone now, but I think some hope it might return if they can preserve what's left of the Promise Land. Hope springs eternal, they say.

The next blog post I write will be written in Saint-Aignan. I'll be glad to return to that home after leaving this home.


  1. Hope you have a safe and uneventful journey 'home'! Thanks for sharing the history of your other hometown with us and showing us those interesting photos. Martine

  2. Very interesting story Ken. And that shrimp dish looks great. Have a safe trip back. And we leave your adopted country this weekend.

  3. Hope you had a pleasant, safe and sound trip back to France. Getting ready myself for the same trip tomorrow.

  4. safe travels! and thank you for sharing your trip with us - i just loved it.

  5. I hope the Society is able to preserve the historical heritage of the city as planned.
    It was heartening to read that the citizens created an uproar when the new owner wanted to tear the house down and rebuild a grander one...history has been preserved...good for them.
    I've enjoyed your trip home, and I'm wishing you safe travels back to your other home.

  6. Those laughing gulls are cute. I don't think I've ever seen such.

    My niece lives in Arlington Va and I think there was an ordinance passed to keep people from building mega houses which distort the symmetry of the neighborhoods.

    Bon voyage!

  7. It was fun and instructive visiting "Promise Land". Have a safe trip back home!

  8. Now that you're back home in France, do the folks in the Banks once again consider you a "woodser"?
    Welcome back!

  9. Have a safe end enjoyable trip Ken and CHM ( especially from Dulles) .
    Hope the new security measures since last Monday won't be too much hassle.

  10. I lived just outside the Promise Land in 1961. When we first moved to Morehead City we lived in a house at 1504 Evans Street, across the street from the playground. I was really sad when we moved out to Gales Creek, but I got to have my own room and the rent was $5 per month cheaper!

    I know you are glad to be home!


  11. Merci Cousine. I didn't know there were new security measures. One of these days, it will be such a hassle you'd better stay home, or just swm across!

  12. It would seem from their own sign that it is "The Promised Land"!

  13. Not necessarily Starman... someone probably "corrected" the spelling as the sign was being made... and it would have cost too much to re-do.
    It is how names change by people mis-hearing or "correcting" what is written... my wife's surname starts with Mc... and then the capital letter of the clan name... it is often "corrected" to Mac... and quite often the clan name is all in lower case, too.

    Welcome home Ken!

  14. Tim, exactly. "Promised" in this case might be an example of hypercorrection. Fact is, some people back there want to add the D and some say it never was there to begin with.

  15. I recognize those houses on Evans Street! What a great childhood we had growing up on that street!! And the corner grocery stores-those frozen Kool-Aids for 5 cents!!


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