Deep ancestral roots anchor the Wright family to their farm along the Currituck Sound.
It’s been more than 150 years since Jacob Francis Wright shipwrecked — so legend has it — off of Duck, right across the Currituck Sound from where the Wright family eventually settled in Jarvisburg.
Sometimes Tommy Wright thinks about what his great-great grandfather made of it all back then, when Caffey’s Inlet must have been hopping with daring, motivated people looking for a bit of luck and hard-earned fortune. He and his family have had a good dose of both in the century and a half since their ancestor shipwrecked here, but mostly they’ve made adaptability a fine art.
The Wright family knows about transition; they’re in one right now — one wrought by growth and economic changes. And they intend to roll with it and keep their 250 acres of ancestral land intact, yielding crops, growing grapes and making wine, welcoming visitors, protecting wildlife, offering respite.
His words trail off. Outside the front window of the Wright family’s winery, Sanctuary Vineyards in Jarvisburg, vehicles are heard whizzing past on U.S. 158.
“It’s one of the things you have to adjust to that’s not easy,” he says.
Grace Griggs, Tommy’s aunt, her manicured nails painted red, her earlobes adorned with silver grapes, has the vibrancy and mental nimbleness everyone wants to have when they’re 92.
“Everyone’s always asking me if I need help,” she says, walking at a solid pace toward her brick ranch homestead overlooking the sound. “I don’t.”
Sitting with her nephew and great-nephew, she epitomizes the resilience of the three generations in the room. Her independent nature and agile approach to circumstances are family traits with long roots and multiple shoots.
“Most everyone will tell you they were shipwrecked,” she says. “I don’t believe it. They say it because they don’t know where they came from.”
Even for Currituck County, the state’s oldest, the Wright family — today best known as proprietors of Sanctuary Vineyards and The Cotton Gin retail stores — is thick with history.
With the recent death of her 98-year-old sister, “Aunt Grace” Griggs is the matriarch of the Wright family. By default — and by fortune of her sharp intellect — she’s the walking Wright family encyclopedia.
Jacob Wright, she says, was a teacher and was believed to be a well-educated Englishman when he arrived on the Outer Banks sometime before the 1850 census that recorded him in Duck. He was sent to Elizabeth City during the Civil War to build and repair light draft boats for the Confederates.
His children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren stayed along the sound in Currituck County, mostly hunting and fishing to make a living. One of his three daughters later gave birth to Washington Baum, who was Dare County magistrate from 1928 to 1962 and who was the namesake for a bridge over Roanoke Sound.
In 1914 Grace’s father, John Wright Sr., and his brother started the family legacy of farming when they bought land together and became business partners in a farming operation that grew to one of the largest in the county. On the side, John Sr. hunted ducks and geese to sell at markets in Norfolk.
The love of hunting is deeply ingrained in the Wright family. Hunting in the waterfowl-rich Currituck Sound has been both livelihood and sport for generations. In 1945 John Sr.’s son, John Jr., was hired to manage Congressman Thurmond Chatham’s Dews Island Club in the Currituck Sound. The Wright family later purchased a partnership in the hunting lodge, which is located in the sound behind their farm. They still use it for special occasions.
In 1956 John Jr. and his brother, Mark, established a farming operation called Wright Brothers, Inc. and purchased a working cotton gin. In the late 1960s they transformed the gin into a general store named The Cotton Gin. A produce market was on the north side, and the young boys of the family, Tommy included, worked there when they weren’t in school.
It was a good life growing up, remembers Tommy, 57, who still lives on the family property. He remembers spending weekends at a little camp building and going out in boats with his father to look at birds or to hunt and set trap lines for muskrats that they would sell for pelts. He recalls some of the boys from Dare County fishing families calling the Wrights “tater heads,” for being farmers.
Tommy’s brother, Jerry, remembers spending most of his time as a child outdoors. As soon as he’d get off the school bus, he’d saddle up his Banker pony and “go all over the community.” He helped his father farm and fish in the sound. In the fall he hunted ducks. After he secured his bachelor’s of science from North Carolina State University, Jerry taught vocational education for two years at J. P. Knapp High School.
“I did not like it one hoot,” he says.
His love of the outdoors and working the land drew him back to the farm. In 1978 Jerry and Tommy took over the family farming enterprise. At age 62, Jerry still manages and farms the land. Including rented tracts, the Wrights farm about 1,400 acres of corn, soybeans, sorghum and wheat.
When he began farming, Jerry says, there were 23 farmers from Point Harbor to the Coinjock bridge. Today, it’s down to five.
“The type of farming that Wright Brothers does,” he says, “probably won’t exist here in 20 to 25 years.”
As the population of Currituck County has grown, large farms have been chunked off and sold to developers.
“The tracts got smaller and smaller,” Jerry says.
The Wrights emerged from the stampede of development with the family land intact. Rather than having to sell their land to survive, they have adjusted the use of their property to the realities of tourism.
For the past 35 years, Tommy, along with his wife, Candace, has been managing The Cotton Gin, a now greatly expanded retail store that’s a popular stop for visitors on their way to and from the Outer Banks. The Jarvisburg business was so successful that they opened three more locations, in Nags Head, Duck and Corolla. They’re opening a cafe in the Jarvisburg location this summer.
The Wrights planted grapes on the sandy, well-drained areas of their farmland in 2002. Today they have 15 acres of native, French and Italian grapes in the vineyards and plan to plant 2 more acres of grapes this year.
John Wright, Tommy’s son, is the vineyard manager and winemaker. John, 33, has a degree in economics from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, followed with additional education in California to learn the wine business and four years as an apprentice at a vineyard.
With the thriving regional wine market, growing grapes and making wine seemed like a perfect fit for the farm. But more than adding another source of revenue, John loves making wine.
“John has a passion for it,” Jerry says about his nephew, “and people who have a passion for what they do seem to do pretty good.”
John says when he was young he didn’t think he’d come back to work on the farm after college.
“The way best to describe why I’m here is that growing up on a family farm breeds familiarity,” he says. “When I was in my teenage years, I took for granted what was so good about being here. I was of the modern generation, more interested in TV, playing music in a garage band, surfing. When I got out of college, I realized.”
That’s why John says he chose farm life over finance.
“I made the decision to have fun as a career,” he says. “If I’d gone through with the finance job, I would have had to wait until I got off work to have fun. I was drawn back because I thought it would be fun to start a vineyard. I knew it would be hard work, but I knew at least I wouldn’t regret trying it.
“I don’t believe that great financial gain is the means to happiness. That’s what connects me to my dad and uncle. They don’t see this as financial wealth. They see it as natural wealth. That’s what I’m looking for. The vineyard is not generating a lot of money right now. But I’m happy.”
Still, John says he has inherited the farmer mentality from his family.
“I have some of that farmer gene in me where something has to be done every day or I feel like everything is going to go all Murphy’s Law,” he says. “Farmers are eternal optimists. That’s why we keep doing this. But we’re pragmatic. Everybody’s happy to be alive but they’re always thinking ‘Now what?’ because there’s always a storm around the corner. It’s not just my family. It’s all farm families. My dad and uncle have it too. But I’m still upbeat.”
John credits a lot of his happiness to his wife. “She pushes fun on a daily basis,” he says. “She balances me in a way.”
In the same way, John and the winery bring lightheartedness to the farm. Wine tastings, live music, festivals, grape-stomping parties and pig pickins are his ways of bringing fun to the business.
“Dad and Uncle Jerry have gotten very businesslike in the farm lifestyle,” he says. “At first they didn’t want the live music, but now they come around and hang out. That’s the kind of thing the farmers used to do in the old days at the Jarvisburg gas station. They were working hard back then, but they still had some sort of diversion.”
Wearing a camouflage cap and jeans tucked into knee-high rubber boots, Tommy drives his pickup truck down a dirt road running along marshlands framed in loblolly pines. A shotgun lies between the seats.
“I’m not too much into killing anymore,” he says about hunting. “I think age kind of modifies your desire . . . but still, I’ve enjoyed some great days duck hunting. My parents always encouraged me to hunt, but they said you can’t be out there killing something for no reason.”
He stops, grabs binoculars and trudges up a mound of dirt overlooking some 25 acres of farmland that for about the past 30 years have been intentionally flooded with fresh water in fall and winter to create a wildfowl impoundment. This area is only for looking. But hunting is allowed at other impoundments on the land.
Over the ridge, hundreds of birds are gliding atop the shallow water. Periodically, a flock rises, as if one huge creature, and flies in formation toward the Currituck Sound.
Among the winter visitors are snow geese, blue and white herons, swan, mallards, widgeons, shovelers, wood ducks, pintails, green wing teals, lesser and greater scaup and hooded mergansers. Bald eagles patrol overhead.
The Wrights have always kept their love of open land and being on the water at the forefront. The family is working to get easements put on this back part of the land to preserve it for wildlife.
As a member of the state Wildlife Resources Commission and the state Clean Water Management Trust Fund, Jerry says he has been involved in conservation for a long time.
“One thing I’ve learned,” he says, “if you don’t have clean water, you don’t have wildlife or fish.”
Conservation is part of the brothers’ lineage of caring for the family land.
“I guess I was just lucky enough to be born and live in an area with a lot of natural resources,” Tommy says, lowering his binoculars to admire the pink-tinged clouds.
“The truth is, if you have roots, it seems to draw you back. I think what my parents would be most proud of is that we’re still here. And we still care about it.”
story by CATHERINE KOZAK
photographs by BROOKE MAYO