History in a House
By Donna Baum, Photos by K. Wilkins
The Nellie Midgette House is home to a Rare Collection of Beach Treasures
A 100-year-old legacy began with a stroll on the beach.
Ever noticed how beach sand is not dirt and things found on the beach are not trash? Broken glass become jewel-worthy gems and jagged wood transforms to valuable materials that house a memory, a time apart.
If you have ever picked up something from shore and brought it home, then you, like many, feel the draw of a penetrating peace that seems to live at the beach. For Nellie Myrtle Midgette, a childhood was reclaimed with each piece of flotsam, for within the lost items, lay the story of her youth.
As a youngster, Nellie worked with her family in what was then the budding tourist industry. The Midgette family saw an opportunity to make a living. Their way of life near the water, though commonplace to them, brimmed with fascination to outsiders.
At 12, Nellie waded in a makeshift pond in the surf where she would catch fish with her bare hands for some of this area’s first tourists. Around age 17, the young Ms. Midgette turned her home into a boarding house. As time passed her cooking became legendary, and nearly all the musicians who came to play at the Nags Head Casino and other venues hung their hat at Nellie’s place.
All the while, every day, Nellie would make her trek to the beach, picking up shells and beach glass and unearthing larger washed up wreckage. Nothing too big or small escaped her.
If it happened locally, to her it was of interest and could be catalogued. Many times she would call local papers and correct them, citing her proof of clippings and her own archive of sorts. She kept logs of the local weather and samples of each shell with their scientific name along with jars sorted by color, brimming with beach glass.
Traveling the beach road south in Nags Head just beyond Jockey’s Ridge, her house and parents’ store, still stand with the large wooden letters proclaiming their family name, MIDGETTE, aged to the befitting look of driftwood.
In 2004, the Nellie Midgette Store and House were entered in the National Register of Historic Places. An unofficial museum, the Midgette collection can only be viewed occasionally by way of an “Open House” says Dorothy Hope, the long time family friend and now caretaker, a calling she shares with her partner, Chaz Winkler.
Dorothy cherished a friendship and a fruitful partnership with Carmen Gray, Nellie’s daughter, writing the Love That Tuna Cookbook, among other endeavors. “Education is what she was about,” shares Dorothy of Carmen, a teacher in Dare County who passed away in 2007. It was with her blessing Chaz and Dorothy became proprietors.
Chaz and Dorothy’s passion for maintaining Nellie’s life’s work is evident in the attention to detail. Many of the treasures, stacked and labeled are “just as Nellie left them,” asserts Chaz, as he guides a short tour among the thousands of antiques.
To support themselves Dorothy and Chaz take vivid photos of the beach glass and sell the prints. The prints can be viewed at the Sea Green Gallery and soon available at all Eastern National Lighthouses. At the Sea Glass Festival in Santa Cruz last November, Richard Lamotte—author of Pure Sea Glass, considered the definitive reference book on the subject—deemed Ms. Midgette’s Sea Glass as “The Immaculate Collection”.
Open Houses began just before The Centennial Celebration of the Wright Brothers and the latest will be this Memorial Day weekend. Chaz and Dorothy continue daily, just as Nellie did, to balance their love of the Outer Banks with their need to make a living.
When visiting, enter with an open heart, enjoy the welcome like an old friend, and be rewarded with an unmatched trip though our area’s history, a testament to our nation’s front porch welcoming you to pull up a chair.