By Rob Morris on May 31, 2010
The first story goes back more than 30 years, when a young manager for National Park Service book and souvenir shops dreamed of recapturing a time when windmills were a part of life on the Outer Banks.
In the second, an effort to recapture a piece of 19th-century Roanoke Island history comes to fruition after more than a dozen years of work.
The stories start with Lynanne Wescott, who managed the shops at Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the Wright Brothers National Memorial for a non-profit in the 1970s. She’s not sure when she got hooked on windmills.
“I think I was bored one day when I was working at the park service,” she said, and she began to examine books and historical records.
Although there is little or no trace of them on Roanoke Island now, windmills were in use during the 18th and 19th centuries to grind grain, most of it brought in by boat from the mainland. Their design goes back as far as the 1500s, and they didn’t change much.
Wescott, now a lawyer in Philadelphia, said she believes the last one standing was near the Christmas Shop and Island Gallery. Windmills were also in service on Hatteras Island, many around Avon, she said.
When Wescott was working here, the National Park Service was mulling over the idea of re-creating a windmill from the 1800s that would be funded by Eastern National, the non-profit that ran the shops she managed. But the idea was eventually abandoned.
So Wescott picked up the plans and embarked on a venture of her own. Her idea was to recreate a windmill and to open a store that featured products, such as bread, from grain ground on site, as well as quilts, handcrafts, art and sculptures.
“I think windmills are magical,” she said.
An opportunity came up to buy some land on the sound side of Nags Head, and she took advantage of it.
The windmill that stands at the site of the restaurant, which closed in 2007 and is now owned by the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau and the Town of Nags Head, looks a little forlorn for lack of attention. But when Wescott set out on her project, plenty of attention went into the details.
She recruited an English millwright who had been working in Surry County, Va. The exterior, or shell, was assembled there and brought to Nags Head on a flatbed truck, Wescott said.
“Everything is hand-done,” Wescott said. “There were no electric tools used.”
Detailing on the inside of the mill was intricately hand-carved, she said.
Windmills from that era were placed on vertical posts so that they could be turned to face into the wind. The blades were rigged with canvas that could be trimmed like sails to suit the wind conditions.
All of those components went into building a functioning re-creation at the Nags Head site. The vertical post for her windmill, Wescott said, came from the Black Forest in Germany.
The windmill was finished, and Wescott opened her store in 1979. She was featured in a Raleigh News and Observer story. But she never got to the point of selling products from grain ground there. She had found a miller, she said, but he backed out at the last minute.
Other circumstances converged, and by the early 1980s, she had sold the property to Sarah Forbes, who turned the store into a restaurant featuring artifacts from the S.S. United States. Wescott took an opportunity to work for the U.S. Mint and later went to law school.
“My goal was to do it,” she said, “and I’d done it.”
Now Outer Banks Conservationists, the same group that restored and operates the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, hopes to give the windmill a new life.
For over a dozen years, the non-profit has been working on restoring Island Farm, the Etheridge family homeplace. The purpose is to recapture the farming-fishing life of the mid-1800s for local people and visitors to enjoy and to preserve an important piece of the family’s past.
Although the family’s history can be traced to the 18th century, the restored house dates to the mid-1850s, when Adam Dough Etheridge ran a thriving farm, said John Wilson, a founding member of the board of the Outer Banks Conservationists.
Wilson, an Etheridge descendant, and three cousins donated the house to the group in the 1980s, and over time the site grew to 11 acres with more acquisitions, according to a story in The Virginian-Pilot in 2007.
The windmill will help tell the story of life on Roanoke island during that period. While it might have been cheaper to build a replica from scratch, Wilson said, Wescott’s windmill was the logical fit.
Restoring and moving it will be expensive. The Dare County Tourism Board and Dare County commissioners have approved a grant for $16,000 to help, but the project will cost a lot more, Wilson said.
The plan is to remove the blades and lift it off the post, put it in on a flatbed and truck it to Island Farm. Wilson said the goal is to move it at the end of the summer. Restoration will take up to 24 months.
Wescott knows the conservationists have a big task ahead of them.
“I think my quote in the News and Observer was, ‘It’s easier to have a baby than to have a windmill,’ ” she said. “I think that’s still true.”
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