They'll leave the light on for ya | News Feature | Indy Week
Pin It

They'll leave the light on for ya 

When former Chapel Hillians Jenn Barr and John Birkholz heard about an opening for a lighthouse keepers' job in Corolla a year ago, they thought it would be an experience.

Be careful what you wish for.

As it turned out, the couple took the job at the height of a hard-fought competition for ownership of the Currituck Beach light, a handsome brick tower that sits on the most rapidly growing stretch of the Outer Banks.

The Outer Banks Conservationists--a nonprofit that had restored the light and was advertising for the keepers' job--was vying with Currituck County for the deed to the tower. "They'd promised us a year because they didn't know what was going to happen with the lighthouse," says Barr, who heard about the opening from OBC board member Debbie Hill, a Chapel Hill psychotherapist who knew Barr from her work at the local Women's Center. "We thought, oh it's just a year. It'll be an adventure."

Barr and Birkholz tried to focus on their daily tasks and keep clear of the controversy that erupted over the light. There was certainly plenty to do. Since it opened to the public in 1990, the lighthouse has drawn more than 100,000 visitors a year.

"In the summertime, the lines go all the way back to the road with people waiting to climb," says Barr, whose official title is director of OBC. "Right now we're seeing maybe 300 a day. In the summer, we see maybe 1,000."

As lighthouse keepers, they supervise the staff, keep the artifacts room in order, make sure the grass is mowed and the buildings are in good repair, take care of finances, and schedule tour groups and weddings. Late this summer, there was hurricane damage to cope with--one of two weeping willows on the grounds came down during Hurricane Isabel--and the keepers' house needs constant care and attention.

The Victorian stick-style house was built in 1876, back when the lighthouse site was bare of any tree cover, and the windows had a clear view from the Currituck Sound to the Atlantic Ocean. As he takes a visitor on a quick tour, Birkholz points out the peace sign carved over a doorway in the attic from the days when the building was abandoned except as "an encampment for hippies." There's also a "ghost room" haunted by the spirit of a mother whose daughter drowned at the oceanfront.

Outside, the grounds are perfumed by Russian olive bushes planted near the tower, where this morning a high school tour group is lining up for a climb. Half of the $6 admissions fee goes to lighthouse restoration, while half goes to other OBC-sponsored preservation projects in Currituck and parts of the Outer Banks.

Barr's former job as program director for the Family Violence Prevention Center in Orange County had grounded her in the fine points of nonprofit management. Her husband had recently left his post as assistant principal at Chapel Hill High School to launch his own building restoration business. But nothing really prepared them for taking on the keeper's job during such furious local debate over ownership of the beacon.

"It was very emotional, "Birkholz says. "When we first got here and read flyers that said, 'Save Our Light,' they made it sound like OCB was out to destroy it."

They're both hoping that now that the nonprofit has been given the deed to the tower, things will settle down and the focus can return to preserving the historic landmark.

"We have a lot of projects we've planned for this winter," Barr says. "As of now, our position is semi-permanent."

More by Barbara Solow

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in News Feature



Twitter Activity

Comments

Swamp Fox says STAY TUNED ....... With the right tools This Can Be Fixed

Trust Me

Son of …

by Isacc Witham on Who's responsible for the Falls Lake mess? (News Feature)

Whatever happened to "Love thy neighbor?" As mother of the bride, we have spent a lot of time and money …

by motherofthebride on The Party Barn: Are Rustic Weddings Destroying a Way of Life in Rural Orange County? (News Feature)

Most Recent Comments

Swamp Fox says STAY TUNED ....... With the right tools This Can Be Fixed

Trust Me

Son of …

by Isacc Witham on Who's responsible for the Falls Lake mess? (News Feature)

Whatever happened to "Love thy neighbor?" As mother of the bride, we have spent a lot of time and money …

by motherofthebride on The Party Barn: Are Rustic Weddings Destroying a Way of Life in Rural Orange County? (News Feature)

SJW, don't you know we "need" density? We "need" to be forced out of our cars and into a CAT …

by Blainej on Born in the Shadow of N.C. State, Steeped in Parties and Punk Rock, Raleigh’s Historic Maiden Lane Will Soon Perish in the Name of Progress (News Feature)

Proud former resident of #8, 1978-80. We had a few memorable parties there back in the day. Loved the location …

by DWC on Born in the Shadow of N.C. State, Steeped in Parties and Punk Rock, Raleigh’s Historic Maiden Lane Will Soon Perish in the Name of Progress (News Feature)

SJW, don't you know we "need" density? We need to be forced out of our cars and into a CAT …

by Blainej on Born in the Shadow of N.C. State, Steeped in Parties and Punk Rock, Raleigh’s Historic Maiden Lane Will Soon Perish in the Name of Progress (News Feature)

© 2017 Indy Week • 201 W. Main St., Suite 101, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation