The Diary of Sue Austin








COMMUNITY LIFE - Marsh Causeway

COMMUNITY LIFE - 1933 Hurricane


COMMUNITY LIFE - Socialization


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Knotts Island Diary

by Sue Fentress Austin

The Annual Christmas Party at Mackay Island was THE social event of the year for the Islanders who were employed by the Knapps. Bill Fentress got to go since his brother and sister were “hired help.” Adell, however, was not part of that group. She was frequently invited by Bill, but was never allowed to attend by her parents. And no doubt the Brumley girls would have loved to have participated. Perhaps to the Islanders lucky enough to be invited, memories of the awesome Christmas parties for the help ranks pretty high in things not ever to be forgotten.

Edmund and Irma White, both in their 80s, remembered for the author in the late 1990s "The Knapp Christmas Tree at the Schoolhouse." During the week proceeding December 24th the Knapps would bring over a huge tree, reaching to the ceiling. It would be placed on the stage in the auditorium. They would bring beautiful ornaments and colorful garland from their Mackay Island home and decorate the tree themselves. The Christmas Eve affair was remembered simply as the "Christmas Tree." The Knapps would arrive in their large car, driven by Russell Jones. Always they brought along guests, most of the time from New York. The women were dressed in their formal attire, as were the men. Some remembered that beautiful furs would be draped around some of the women. The dresses were, of course, long and rich-looking. There would be singing and perhaps some other Christmas-type poems before the main event - giving out the gifts! The Knapps would call out each individual child’s name and he! she would walk up to the stage for his/her gifts. There would always be an item of clothing and either an educational toy or a book to be read and enjoyed. Mr. Knapp, according to Irma, seemed to enjoy embracing the littlest boys and girls, or often he would just give them an affectionate pat. Grades 1-7 attended school at that time. Even after so many years have passed, those living on the Island who were a part of this event, can recall still the sheer excitement of those long ago Knapp "Christmas Trees."

December 24, 1932, Adell writes I didn’t go off. N & Mama cooked Rufus came. Colin & Jim came tonite. We went to Christmas Tree at schoolhouse. Meridith & Dallas Hope came back w/R&I. Santa for Paul.

And again on December 24, 1935 the diary says Christmas Eve. Tonite Bill came. We went to Knapp’s Christmas Tree. Carried Frances home & Mrs. Fentress. Looked at presents. I got a blue leather coat from Bill.

Mackay Island aside, Christmas was celebrated so differently in the homes on Knotts Island years and years ago. Mildred White Strawhand who was born in 1909, said that Santa was not talked about in her house when she was small. She remembered one special Christmas though - her father had brought home a small broom from somewhere and left it on a piece of furniture. Mildred was so happy to see this broom - it was a wonderfirl present. Her mother often had a tame goose or turkey on Christmas Day. There were no Church Christmas programs at night, only during the daytime.

Adell’s diary in 1933 gives a clear picture of what manner of gifts Santa left for a five year old child. Went to Church AM & PM Tonite Bill F, Lester, Medford, Boob & Albert D came. Bill gave me a present - gloves. Santa came to Paul tonite, he got a mouth harp, magazines, ball & marbles.

The author talked with Colin Doxey and he remembered Christmas at Mackay Island:

The sun porch on the eastern end of the house was used as Knapp’s office area in later years. That area was also where the Christmas parties were held. The Christmas tree was beautiful to behold and actually had REAL candles on it, There were clips that sat on the limbs and the individual candles were set into the clips. The candles were probably 3 to 4 inches long. They would be lit, one by one. Lighting the candles was a task delegated only to the older, hired help. The tree, probably a cedar, was 8 to 10 feet tall, and just aglow in flickering lights! There were fire extinguishers close by and 50 foot containers of foam were ready for emergencies in a nearby garage. In looking back, the nearby garage really wasn’t all that close in case of a tree fire! Such a beautiful sight it was.

Fireworks only appeared during the first year of parties. The 10,000 geese and swan went crazy and moved out in a hurry! Not a good thing to them. The fireworks lasted at least an hour, or so it seemed. Often houseguests down from New York filled the mansion, and the revelry would last for an hour or two. There would be beautifully wrapped, exciting gifts for everyone. One of my favorite gifts from the Knapps was an erector set.

Mackay Island was almost like an industry unto itself in that it employed so many of the more fortunate Knotts Islanders. To have a job that resulted in a check/cash or however the Knapps paid their help was a godsend. But like any industry or company, the employer wanted loyalty from his employees. Over the years this loyalty had its drawbacks as Tunis Corbell remembers:

The old schoolhouse located next to the Methodist Church was quite a social center in itself I went there with my grandfather and mother to vote for Herbert Hoover who was running against Al Smith, a Catholic. Women could not vote then. Almost everyone on Knotts Island was a Democrat, but would not vote for Catholic Smith in 1928. The exception to party affiliation was that all of Mr. Knapp’s employees had to vote Republican - one of the unpopular sides of Mr. Knapp. I remember him forbidding his employees from even trading at Eddie Munden’s store because Eddie was a Democrat. Many including Moody Waterfield and Willie Ansell used to receive their groceries at the back door of Little Eddie’s store. Mr. Ike Doxey switched to trading at Sr. Ed Munden’s store which was later Casey’s store located at the Sign Post Junction.

Issac Doxey was the manager of Joseph Knapp’s lands for 25 years. His son, Colin, also was employed by the Knapps. During 1930-31, the young man was sent to New Jersey for schooling on how to successfully raise and care for the large numbers of wild ducks, pheasant and quail that Mr. Knapp so enjoyed. There were 25,000 for Colin to care for - no small task!

During the mid -‘40s Colin got mad at Margaret Knapp and they parted ways. His father, likewise, was fired when he supported his son. One of Arthur Waterman’s jobs was to bring Margaret back a newspaper from the Knotts Island store. Arthur was late, no newspapers were left! Colin, however, had purchased his own paper that morning and when asked to give it up for Mrs. Knapp, he refused. He did say after he had finished reading it, he would bring it over. And so he did, but she, by the time the newspaper arrived, had become very impatient and talked “down" to Colin. He did not appreciate the manner in which she dressed him down. He remembers telling her she could "take the farm herself`!" In 1998 Colin remembered that Mrs. Knapp had become very bossy and was "in charge" since Mr. Knapp had become bed-ridden and quite ill. The event, Colin thought, would not have happened if Knapp had been in good health. For Colin, being fired was the "best thing that ever happened to me."

The Knapp mansion was three stories. A beautiful home with pillars on the front, overlooking Currituck Sound. The servants lived in the back section. There were five to six bedrooms, with three bedrooms located on the third and another three on the second floor as Colin could best recall. There was a circular (1/2) stairwell, probably red/dark oak.

There were lily ponds and rose gardens to the east of the sun porch The lily ponds were encircled by a brick wall which a guest could sit upon and enjoy the water view. There were English boxwoods and a pecan orchard. It was not uncommon that Margaret would be driven all the way to South Boston to purchase a particular shrub. She loved shrubbery. Colin remembered that once she wanted her driver to stop at a graveyard to get a magnolia tree, but the driver wouldn’t dig it up.

There were often very good tips for the Knapp helpers from Knapp’s New York guests, especially for the kitchen and hunting help.

Helpers used canned milk for coffee, but there was also fresh milk daily from Knapp’s three cows. These cows produced 5 to 15 gallons daily.

The Knapps owned a big Buick and a Buick stationwagon. Curtis Fentress, an employee, (and the author’s Uncle) called Margaret’s car the "yellow bird.”

The Knapps had three underground gasoline tanks - 1500 gallons, 3000 gallons and 1000 gallons.

Mr. Knapp must have been a real character in more ways than one. He did have money and he probably enjoyed doing things “his" way. One amusing story handed down was that whenever guests were due to arrive, he sometimes had to make a trip to Norfolk to replenish his liquor cabinet. His driver, Russell Jones, knew that Knapp like to travel along at a brisk pace. Once, on such a trip his car was pulled over by a policeman. In those days speeding was simply a $10 fine, payable on the spot to the cop. Mr. Knapp peeled off a bill and gave it to his driver and said, "Give him this $20. I came in like hell and I’m going out the same way!" Edmund White said the Islanders laughed about that story for days.

An article about Knapp appeared in the Currituck Sounder, Vol 1, No. l dated 1977 and published by the Currituck County High School. The writer, Mark Gallop, had done his homework on this interesting man. The author wishes to quote entirely this nicely written, in depth article.

Joseph Palmer Knapp was born in 1864, in Brooklyn, New York. He attended public schools and for a year went to Columbia University. From there he ventured into the business world where he showed his genius in business matters. He made a fortune for himself and others. He lived for eighty-seven years and died in 1951.

Mr. Knapp made his fortune by working his way through every printing process and business operation of the American Lithographic Company to become its director. He served as director of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and was chairman of its finance committee.

Mr. Knapp is known throughout the state of North Carolina because of the Joseph Palmer Knapp Building at the University of NC, Chapel Hill. The Knapp Foundation helped build it by offering, in 1952, a half a million dollars toward a million dollar building. The money was given because Mrs. Knapp had wanted her husband’s name on a building symbolizing her husband’s interests in Currituck County and North Carolina.

Mr. Knapp devoted much of his life and wealth to improving the life of the people in Currituck County. He came in search of good hunting and built his hunting lodge on Mackey’s Island where he hunted and fished for thirty years. He did more than this however; he served as a great conservationist, working hard to let the hunting and fishing continue but as the same time making sure the environment was not damaged.

One of the many examples of this is shown in the instance when Mr. Knapp saw salt water from the Elizabeth River and sewage from Norfolk going into the northern end of the Currituck Sound after the locks were removed to widen the inland waterway in World War I. This was polluting the water, killing the fish, destroying the feeding ground of ducks, and cutting into the livelihood of many of the people Mr. Knapp had come to love. He helped the people push a bill through Congress authorizing Army Engineers to put the locks back. In addition to this, when military authorities used the excuse of a lack of funds as an excuse for indefinite delay, Mr. Knapp wrote a personal check for a quarter of a million dollars to stop the stall and get the work started immediately.

He helped the local people in many other ways, too. While hunting and fishing on Mackey’s Island, he saw crop failures bring Currituck farmers to the point of mortgaging their homes to get supplies to plant another crop. He helped them organize the Currituck Mutual Exchange to finance them in growing and marketing crops.

When he saw that local bankers were unable or unwilling to take the credit risks involved in financing this Exchange, he supplied a hundred thousand dollar credit with his New York bankers and added his endorsement to its notes.

Despite his great generosity in these and other instances, it is for his tremendous aid inimproving education in Currituck that he has become locally distinguished.

He financed a study of schooling needs in Currituck, and, in the years that followed,worked with local leaders to meet these needs.

Mr. Knapp, aside from giving outright grants to the county, helped Currituck set up a system of taxation through which the county could provide much of the support itself.

Mr. Knapp, however, carried much of the load himself When local revenues did not go far enough to provide the needed buildings and teachers, he made up the difference. When the county tax was reduced from twenty-two cents to seventeen cents per hundred, thus reducing school revenue, the Knapp Foundation paid the difference.

He improved education in Currituck directly by helping pay for school buildings, teachers, etc. At the same time, however, he also aided the schools indirectly. He did this in his work to improve the roads over which school buses had to travel. That his suggestions and requests for aid were acted upon is shown by the fact that, in 1927, the County Highway Commission contributed slightly over one thousand dollars in grading, road-building, and surfacing.

Mr. Knapp assisted Currituck County education for much of his life and continued to help advance educational opportunities in Currituck atter his death. In 1959, state and local funds for a $270,000 high school complex were short by $100,000. Once again, the Knapp Foundation came to the rescue and contributed the necessary funds. The school, completed, was named, quite appropriately, The Joseph P. Knapp High School.

Joseph Palmer Knapp is known as Currituck County’s great benefactor. He was a very special person. He cared about Currituck and its people and wanted to do something to help improve life in Currituck. He was the rare individual who sincerely cared for people and did something to help others.


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