Written by Cheryl Shelton-Roberts
In the living room of the Cape Hatteras Double keepers’ quarters (DKQ) in 1928, Katherine Dobson Austin, placed a mirror under her Christmas tree that her husband, Julian Austin Sr., had cut for her in nearby Buxton Woods. Upon it she rested various miniature animals and fish, creating a Christmas scene for her family. It was her favorite time of year. She hung angel-faced ornaments and old Kriss Kringle paper ornaments while arranging and rearranging a string of glass beads on her Hatteras Christmas Tree. She took great care with these ornaments that she had brought from her home in Maryland. As she looked out the window, she proudly watched her young husband stride across the spacious light station grounds, wearing the cap of a respected Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Keeper.
Assistant Keeper Julian Haywood Austin, son of John Lotson Austin and Markey “Empie” (Poyner) Austin, had been born February 20, 1898, at their family home in Trent, now know as Frisco, North Carolina. From mid 1916 until Christmas Day 1917, Julian served on three lightships including LV 71 stationed on Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras. He hopped jobs from one “oiler” to another and returned to the U.S. Lighthouse Service June 27, 1921. Julian began work on LV 49, which would begin his uninterrupted Lighthouse Service career. He transferred to Choptank River Light, Maryland. It was here that Julian began courtship of a lovely young lady, his future wife.
Katherine married Julian on September 27, 1923. They spent a month-long honeymoon at the Choptank River Light, and Katherine loved her time as a new bridge on the old Chesapeake Bay Light. Julian transferred to the Cape Charles Light Station on Smith Island, Virginia, in 1925, and Katherine bore Julian a fine son, his namesake, May 18, 1926. Several months later, the young family would find themselves at Cape Hatteras.
At Christmastime, Katherine was happy amongst a network of friends and family, learning to bake Miss Sudie Jennette’s famous biscuits while shaping their half of the DKQ into a warm home. Keeper Unaka Jennette’s son, Rany, often told Katherine that her Christmas tree was the prettiest he’d ever seen. The colorful, hand-blow glass ornaments in the shapes of a pipe with Santa’s head at the end of the stem, and the festive round ornaments became a lifelong memory for this young boy. And Julian Jr’s strongest memory at Hatteras as a wee lad is how he loved to swing on the porch of the DKQ. Contented days continued as Katherine was expecting her second child.
Marilyn Ione Austin, was born in the family home in Frisco, the next village south of the Cape Hatteras Light Station, on April 14, 1929. Just days before her birth, Julian Sr. transferred to Brant Island Lighthouse in the Pamlico Sound, and later to the Roanoke River Lighthouse at the mouth of the Roanoke River, North Carolina.
Though Julian was often absent from his young and growing family, Katherine was safely in the charge of Julian’s widowed mother who lived in the home built by Julian’s grandfather, William Poyner. Just across the street from his mother Empie, Julian Sr. had finished his and Katherine’s own home in 1923.
Katherine was a venturesome young woman who took her two little ones with her to visit Julian at the Roanoke River Light, the family traveling to and from the water bound screw pile lighthouse by boat. When returning to the mainland, they walked to Mr. Askew’s farm near Mary Hill, where Keeper Austin parked his car in a barn. If alone on these trips, he would occasionally drop in and visit the Askews for a little friendly conversation and share news. During one trip, one of the tenant farmer’s children had measles and shared them generously with visitors.
And then the decisive factor that would separate the family for several years happened. Marilyn continued, “momma contracted tuberculosis. She got real sick and she went to the McCain Sanitarium in Pinehurst, North Carolina, where she stayed for two and one-half years.”
Marilyn recalled the trip when her Dad was taking Julian nine, Marilyn six, and Verna barely one-year old away from Frisco and her mother to stay with Grandmother Dobson in Maryland. “We took the Little Creek Ferry and Momma said, “Now, don’t cry–big girls don’t cry.” Momma was down there on the dock waving and waving–I chewed my lip to pieces trying not to cry. And while we were on the way to Gran’ma’s, Verna needed her milk. Gran’dad went into a farmhouse and explained to the family there that he needed to warm the bottle up. And they let him and after that they became friends.”
When the family arrived in Oxford, Katherine’s mother, suffering from scarlet fever, greeted them. Grandmother Dobson struggled to care for her three grandchildren.
Julian Sr. returned to Bodie Island alone to handle his keeper’s duties professionally in spite of his great concern for his wife, three children, and mother-in-law.
Those lonely hours standing solitary vigil at the Bodie Island Lighthouse were filled with the solace of reading. All three Austin children agreed that their father loved history. “He had his own fine collection of books; he could have taught history, he knew so much,” an admiring Verna remembered.
Keeper Austin decided that Grandmother Dobson couldn’t keep all three children. Marilyn and Julian Jr. had to make their own transfer in 1934, to Bodie Island to stay with him. Julian’s first memories at Bodie Island are of the…”MOSQUITOS!” he said with emphasis.
Julian did what he could to help his father such as keeping the firewood boxes filled. Marilyn washed dishes, cleaned for the family, and learned to cook from the time she could reach the wood stove. She also chopped a lot of wood. They attended school in Manteo.
While her family tended the light station, Katherine kept her own watch from her hospital room. Separation was required for tuberculosis patients prior to the advent of antibiotics. One day, she thought she recognized a group of people approaching. Excitedly, she went into the hall by her room and waited. Echoes of her children reached her long before signed confirmed their presence. Katherine waited.
“I was trembling as I walked down the long hall,“ Marilyn said in her soft voice. The woman called to her, “Marilyn!” Marilyn spun about and saw the open arms of her mother. She ran to her and her mother’s embrace held all the warmth she had dreamed of for nearly two years.
“Momma came home to Bodie Island sometime in 1938. We were so glad to see her!” Marilyn said with a smile. “Mr. Vernon Gaskill, furnished a pheasant for our celebration dinner. Verna came down later after Momma came home and got settled in. For nearly five years, we were along–but, we were happy.”
For his family’s health, Keeper Austin had labored to raise a garden. Judging by the tentative hold that any life has on the windblown island, it is hard to imagine anyone could coax a garden to yield fresh produce. But Julian Sr. had worked magic with plants.
Marilyn noted, “We left Bodie Island Lighthouse in June of 1940, and after taking our furniture to Frisco to our family home, we moved to Tilghmans Island, because Dad had been transferred to the Sharps Island Lighthouse. Julian Jr. went to war.”
For the next decade, Keeper Austin received various transfers. “1950 was the year my Dad retired from the U.S. Lighthouse Service, with 32 years of faithful service. The Korean War had broken out and Julian Jr. was sent there right away. He was captured in February of 1951, and became a prisoner of war for two and one-half years.”
Marilyn added, “Momma received some letters from Korea verifying that her son was deceased, but she would not give up hope. She never believed he was dead. Something kept her going. And he came back from Korea, but he was legally blind and 100% disabled.”
“Mom and ad retired at the family home in Frisco, where she was able to love and keep her grandchildren as much as we’d let her,” Verna smiled.
The Austin children cherish memories of their family. From sixty years ago, Marilyn opened her tight grip on two small pieces of paper she had been holding for hours and waiting to share. She took them from an autograph book that her Mother had given her when they were preparing to move from Bodie Island. Katherine and Julian Sr. also signed the book on Marilyn’s eleventh birthday.
“May 11, 1940.
Dear Daughter, I think your freckles are cute although I tease you a lot about them. My time here at our Bodie Island Lighthouse Station is short, our happy days here past. I couldn’t picture what the future will be. But let us hope we will be located at some station together. I will never forget our Bodie Island. Love Dad.”
The second note reads, “Darling, Marilyn, this is April 14, 1940. Sometime when you’re grown and look over this little book you’ll remember the night I wrote this. Bodie Island has been taken over by the Coast Guard and we’re soon to leave here.
It’s farewell to this lighthouse and it makes us all sad. I love my little freckled-face girls so much and I hope you’ll have a long, happy life. Give to the world the best that you have and the best will come back to you. Your ever-loving Mother. Happy Birthday, sweetheart. Katherine Austin.”
Indeed, these are “keepers.”
© Cheryl Shelton-Roberts. Cheryl is a lighthouse historian and author of several books on lighthouses. She and her husband Bruce Roberts, are cofounders of the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society since 1994, which earned it’s 501 c3 status in 1995.
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