From December 31, 1920 to September 30, 2020 a small piece of land on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia offers a tiny slice of beauty, bugs and the best of life to my grandfather, Starke Jett II, and his family.
He inherits this property from his father, Theodore Augustus Jett. There used to be far more land to the tiny peninsular where the property sits than is there now. There was a good size hotel complete with a ten pin bowling alley and guest cottages adjacent to our family claim.
By the time our cottage is a reality the hotel has washed into the bay. Three very small cottages and the bowling alley all grown over with vines and inching closer and closer to the bay with each passing year are all that is left. We kids are discouraged from playing around them but being kids we occasionally get curious and explore the empty tilting buildings. My cousin Jett falls during one adventure and and breaks her arm. After that the properties are declared off limits and truthfully it doesn’t matter too much to us as the beach is more fun. By the next season everything is gone anyway taking away any possible new temptations.
Having no need for the hotel amenities my grandparents stay in their family property about a mile inland in the wee hamlet of Tibitha situated on State Route 657 between menhaden fishing mecca Reedville and end of the road village Fleeton. Then Tibitha was a legitimate postal address for the few houses, church, and store for many years, now it’s just a name on maps. The house is still there and occupied. That’s how little things have changed over the years.
The house starts life as my great grandfather’s general store. When he makes plans for the disposition of his properties he tells my grandfather that he will leave the bulk of his estate, including the family home Sunnyside, also located on the peninsula but not on the bay proper to son Theo. My great grandfather tells my grandfather he has not concerns for his success. He is a well respected minister in the Methodist conference and has also married well. But my uncle Theo, a lifelong fisherman, has fewer prospects for gain. He wife, Maud Eyre Williams, is a local gal who could upon occasion be somewhat self absorbed.
And that is how my grandfather acquires the tiny store plus three lots on the Chesapeake Bay for his part of the inheritance. It all comes into his actual possession on December 31, 1920 upon the death of my great grandmother Florence.
The store, now a summer cottage for my grandparents, my dad and his two sisters has no running water, no power and a two seater outhouse. They get daily fresh water from Maud’s brother (Octavius) Rosser who lives nearby with his sister, Tyther Ethel. Their father is Tibitha’s postmaster. This is the kids’ chore. Then it’s off down the dusty lane to the beach. They spend their days on the bay. Occasionally my grandmother will come down to the bay for a dip which encompasses her gently settling herself into the lapping surf to cool off.
My grandfather joins the kids more often than my grandmother does. He has one bathing suit his entire life. He purchases it when the long sleeved and long legged body suit is in style. Through the years IG snips and trims at the legs and sleeves so my grandfather will not embarrass her as much.
Maybe my favorite family vacation story of theirs though is when Mother Leigh throws a bucket of water on Keese and my dad and IG while they play a game on the porch. She is so hot and wants to cool them off, sensing that they must be at least as if not hotter than she is.
The cottage that I know comes into existence in the mid fifties. My dad’s youngest sister Clarice to few, Keese to most, marries in 1947 and my grandfather reasons that no one will have any interest in vacationing in such a primitive manner and sells the house. My dad is already married and has planned a career as an Air Force pilot. IG is living an urban life as a librarian at Duke University. When Keese finds out about the sale she is aghast, explaining to her father that everyone wants to spend time at the beach.
To right his unpopular decision, Other Dad decides to build a family vacation cottage on one of the three lots on the bay. He sells the other two lots to finance the cottage construction, one lot to Rev Loving and one lot to Rev David Henry Lewis Jr, an Episcopal priest who later becomes bishop. Three preachers all in a row.
Camping and crabbing on the bay in earlier days before the cottage gets built. Mom tells of Dad once falling asleep and getting the bottom of his feet so sunburnt that it is painful for days. We are a family good at finding fun in any situation.
Years into our cottage vacation days, Mom spies a perfectly weathered and worn tree root system that will be easy to turn into a coffee table. She drafts my uncle Dick to help her haul it up a low rise in the cliff and back to the cottage. She’s at the top pulling the last few feet needed to crest the rise, Dick is below pushing. I have been walking on the beach and come along just at the moment when Mom’s bathing suit top falls down. Both adults gasp and then shamelessly start laughing. I cannot scramble up the cliff to help Mom because their project is monopolizing the only easily scalable spot. If Mom lets go to fix the impropriety all of their progress will be lost. Dick saves the moment. “Oh Midge, I’m not looking, keep going.”
My own memories begin in earnest when we begin taking our annual family summer vacations at the cottage. We as a family have just returned from a tour of duty on Guam and this no frills cottage reminds me enough of our flat roof cinderblock base quarters to immediately feel like home. It too is cinderblock with screens for windows. Our base house screen windows have wooden louvers to regulate air flow, the cottage has heavy wooden shutters that have to be shut from the outside when rain threatens to blow inside.
The cottage roof line is A shaped allowing for an attic. The cottage shape is a rectangle with two bedrooms at the front corners. At the back corner is the kitchen joined by the one bathroom, a very small bedroom and the last corner bedroom. The T shaped balance of the space provides room for eating, reading, card playing, sitting by the fireplace on cool nights, and bay viewing. The attic is floored across the part over the kitchen, bath and two bedrooms and has a pulley style drop down set of stairs. There are narrow walkways along each edge for storing tubes and such. The rest is open loft that provides light from windows in the two end walls. Our tiny cottage is airy and perfect.
And it sails us through summer after summer of cherished memories. We have no radios much less TV which is in its infancy, no fans nor air conditioning which too is in its startup years as a home commodity and sometimes not even a working toilet as the unfamiliar overload causes our one toilet to give up. But that’s all minor. What we do have is the bay, each other, fresh decks of cards, and random books brought by one relative or another. It is here I discover James Bond thanks to my Uncle Martin. I fall in love with Big Little Books and original Nancy Drew mysteries.
We deal with mosquitos, sunburns, chiggers and the awful smell of the local menhaden fish factory churning out fertilizer and cat food. The night that the fleet returns finds Dad excitedly calling out, “The fleet’s coming in!” He can see the lights of the boats rounding Smith Point. He hastily loads any of us who want to see them dock and unload into his car and we’re off. It’s a short drive and the dockyard small. This smell really is ungodly. I breathe through my mouth and hold a tiny bottle of perfume to my nose to keep from gagging and barfing. But the wonder of the night with fishermen knee deep in dead fish vacuuming them up out of the hold under harsh bright lights makes it all so exciting and daring.
We visit relatives and occasionally take an hour long trip to the nearest town of Kilmarnock where we peruse the goods at the town drug store while having a soda or cherry coke at the fountain. I’m always eager to buy a new nail polish or lipstick with my hard earned babysitting money.
But mostly we play on our beach, a term very generous in name because it is full of fallen down pine trees, broken washed up glass but not washed enough for collecting as all the shards still have sharp edges (Keese spends every day picking up buckets of broken glass so that we can play safely), drifting sea nettles and slippery clay. Still it is ours and we love it. We pretend the trees are ships, we each have our own, we use black inner tubes to avoid the stinging sea nettles, and the clay is in small patches mostly and thankfully down the beach from us.
We need access to this unique beach from a fifteen foot or so tall bank that spans most of the bay side of the peninsula. All of that is flattened out now due to erosion. But then we have no money for stairs that will wash away in the winter anyway and so dad carves footholds down to the beach and we’re all set. We are on the beach from morning to dusk. We kids are usually sent to the house to pack simple sandwiches for everyone. Peanut butter & jelly, relish, lettuce & tomato, things like that.
Sometimes we walk the beach, the fallen pine trees making it an adventure because we have to go into the sea nettle infested water so many times. Climbing over or under the trees works sometimes but not always. If we get all the way to Bayview at the end of our peninsula the land spreads out into a flat wide beach. We sigh over what might have been. My grandfather really wants this piece of property and a cousin who owns it agrees to give my grandfather first refusal when he decides to sell but then changes his mind and sells it out of the family.
Walking in the other direction gets us to the public beach for the town of Reedville. It’s a small but wide and sandy beach and is very popular. We always feel a bit smug to have our own private beach even if it does have fallen trees and broken glass.
For many years Mom and my aunts lament not having a dock but monies are tight and it is a pipe dream until they realize that they are literally sitting on most of the building materials. They begin shoving and toting water washed pine trunks until they have enough to create a foundation for a modest platform built with lumber yard cheap plywood. Upgrade!
Time marches on like it always does and sees the family going in many directions. Family vacations continue but begin to dwindle. Donny & I spend our honeymoon at the cottage and some of our first vacations as a family there. Years after that my brother lives in the cottage for awhile as does my cousin Mart later still. There is discussion about selling the property that goes on for decades. Keese has built nearby as have IG & Dick, and Mom as well. She and Dad split the blanket years earlier but she will not be denied the beach life.
And now we are here and I purposefully post this piece exactly one hundred years later on December 31, 2020. The property has finally been sold and is in the capable hands of its new owners. They are lovely people according to Keese. They plan to live in the cottage, updating it. She tells them that it has seen a lot of special moments. They tell her that they know, they can feel the love it emanates.
As our final step everyone’s copy of the sale documents need to be notarized and so it’s off to the bank for me. There I am delighted to find Anna Shipley Mccurdy in her office ready to help me. Anna and I share many Outer Banks moments. Her dad is responsible for helping to set the scene to create truly great family memories of our own. When Donny and I are discussing house plans with various builders Jim Shipley looks them over and suggests to Donny that we rework them to make the wraparound covered porch one foot wider. He tells Donny that by adding just that one foot will make a huge difference. Donny follows the suggestion and everyone who knows us knows how much our porch is used and beloved. Anna and her sisters were swimming students of mine, going on to be instructors and lifeguards themselves. And it is her mother Mary Ann that gets us started on home school testing, our current business and life saver when the family lighting store falls to big box businesses and the early nineties savings and loan crises. Mary Ann needed help getting testing materials and I knew the ropes. The world is a wide and an amazingly small place.
PS If you are an avid reader you may recognize some of the photos and episodes from earlier posts. I chose to repeat them here as final homage to The Cottage, our beloved unceremoniously named family getaway. My cousin Jett tried to name it The Other Dad well into its years of unfaltering service to us but it only somewhat stuck.