- Historic Sites
The First Season at Kitty Hawk
What the Wright brothers did in a wild and distant place made its name famous around the world. Their biographer visits the Outer Banks to find what remains of the epochal outpost.
April 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 3
The winter cold of the Outer Banks cut straight through to the bone, as Wilbur wrote his father and sister, three seasons later. “In addition to … 1, 2,3 and 4 blanket nights, we now have 5 blanket nights, & 5 blankets & 2 quilts. Next come 5 blankets, 2 quilts & fire; then 5, 2, fire & hot water jug…. Next come the addition of sleeping without undressing, then shoes & hats, and finally overcoats.”
Nor were the storms and cold the only hardships to be faced at Kitty Hawk. A plague of blackflies and mosquitoes descended on the isolated dune country in the late summer and early fall. “They chewed us clear through our underwear and socks,” Orville reported to Katharine. “Lumps began swelling up all over my body…. Misery! Misery!”
But there was another side to the Outer Banks. “The sunsets here are the prettiest I have ever seen,” Orville told his sister. “The clouds light up in all colors in the background, with deep blue clouds of various shapes fringed with gold before. The moon rises in much the same style, and lights up this pile of sand almost like day. I read my watch at all hours of the night on moonless nights without the aid of any light other than that of the stars shining on the canvas of the tent.”
Ultimately it was the Bankers themselves who most appealed to the Wrights. They tended to be a wild, undisciplined, and self-reliant lot who eked out a marginal existence by moving from one job to another with the changing seasons. There was fishing in the spring and summer, hunting in the fall, and a winter’s work to be had at one of the U.S. Lifesaving Service stations located every seven miles or so down the Banks.
As Wilbur explained to his father, there was “little wealth and no luxurious living” in Kitty Hawk. The houses were small and austere. The Tate house, for example, was unpainted, inside and out. The floors and ceilings were of unvarnished pine. While clean and comfortable, the furnishings were a stark contrast with the overstuffed Victorian splendor of the Wright parlor. “He has no carpets at all, very little furniture, no books or pictures,” Wilbur reported to the folks back in Ohio. “There may be one or two better houses here but his is much above average…. A few men have saved up a thousand dollars but this is the savings of a long life. Their yearly income is small. I suppose few of them see two hundred dollars a year. They are friendly and neighborly and I think there is rarely any real suffering among them. The ground here is a very fine sand with no admixture of loam that the eye can detect, yet they attempt to raise beans, corn, turnips, &c. on it. Their success is not great but it is a wonder they can raise anything at all.”
Food was a perennial problem. There could be no such thing as subsistence farming in the thin, sandy soil, although virtually everyone kept a little vegetable patch. “Our pantry in its most depleted state would be a mammoth affair compared with our Kitty Hawk stores,” Orville noted. “Our camp alone exhausts the output of all the henneries within a mile. What little canned goods, such as corn, etc., [there are] is of such a nature that only a Kitty Hawker could down it. Mr. Calhoun, the groceryman, is striving to raise the tastes of the community to better goods, but all in vain. They never had anything good in their lives, and consequently are satisfied with what they have. In all other things they are the same way, satisfied in keeping soul and body together.”
“Trying to camp down here reminds me constantly of those poor Arctic explorers,” Orville remarked to Katharine. They appointed Mr. Calhoun their agent and authorized him “to buy us anything he can get hold of, in any quantities he can get, in the line of fish, eggs, wild geese, or ducks.”
The brothers, unaccustomed to being thought of as rich men, were startled to discover that their arrangement threatened to destroy the local economy. “The economics of this place were so nicely balanced before our arrival that everybody here could live and yet nothing be wasted. Our presence brought disaster to the whole arrangement. We, having more money than the natives, have been able to buy up the whole egg product of the town and about all the canned goods in the store. I fear some of them will suffer as a result.”
Hunting and fishing were the major commercial enterprises. Each season tons of fish were shipped north to Baltimore and other East Coast cities. The late-nineteenth-century taste for exotic millinery plumage led to the decimation of the local egret and heron colonies.
The Banks were a hunter’s paradise. “The people about Kitty Hawk are all ‘game hogs,’” Wilbur noted. Anything that ventured forth on four legs or two wings offered an acceptable target in a country where game laws were universally ignored. Each fall thousands of migratory wild fowl were blown out of the sky by vacationing sportsmen armed with small artillery pieces known as punt guns.