Summering on Cottage Row
Nancy Rascoe’s life has been shaped by an old family cottage and 83 summers by the sea.
Story by Molly Harrison
Photographs by Ray Matthews
It’s the first springlike day of March, and the Rascoe family and a few helpers are opening up their beach cottage at Nags Head, lifting the slats on the old wooden blinds to let the sun in on the heart pine walls and family heirlooms for the first time in months.
The upstairs of the venerable J.P. Rascoe Cottage rumbles and creaks with the sounds of the helpers stripping bedspreads and coverlets, shoving iron beds and sweeping sandy floors.
“This house is old,” explains Hilda Sitterson to Herlinda Garcia, her voice carrying the excitement of a favorite springtime ritual. “Even though it’s been closed up, sand blows between the cracks.”
Family matriarch Nancy Rascoe says she can’t tell if the heat’s working. The plumber’s been called to fix the seal around the downstairs toilet, and there’s just come news that the kitchen sink is dripping.
But just outside the salt-crusted windowpanes: the roar of breakers hitting the shore, the whiteness of sand leading only to the sea, the reason they’re all here.
Soon the windows and doors will be open, the wet ocean air whistling through the rusting screens. The repairs will have been made thanks to sons Peter, Dawson and Fen. The porch rockers will be filled with family, the bedroom floors stacked with suitcases, the refrigerator stocked with seafood. Soon there will be neighbors having supper on the back deck and children running to the beach. But, first, there is work to do, and the grandchildren are here to help.
“Oh, Hunter, God bless him, is washin’ the windows,” Nancy ever-so-delicately drawls in the direction of her oldest grandson.
“Rags, darlin’, could you start on the kitchen floor…”
“Lucy Mae and Katie, how are you all coming along on the little cottage?”
“Nixon, when you clean the outdoor shower and storage room, please remember not to throw away anything that is salvageable.”
“And, Joyner, you are so good at cleaning out those drawers and cabinets…”
An Elizabeth City native, now a resident of Hertford, Nancy Rascoe (nee Dawson) has spent all of her 83 summers in a beach cottage on the Outer Banks oceanfront. For her, vacations at Nags Head were inherited traits, as ingrained and expected as the family’s distinct eastern North Carolina drawl and polished manners.
Her great-great-grandfather, Perquimans County planter Francis Nixon, after all, was Nags Head’s first long-term vacationer. Twenty-nine years before the Civil War, he sailed his family from the Perquimans River to the Nags Head soundside, starting the trend of northeastern North Carolina plantation families summering at the beach. Her grandfather, Thomas Nixon, in 1908 acquired one of the 13 original Nags Head oceanfront cottages, the 1866 Grandy cottage, and it was ever after known as the Nixon Cottage. Her mother and father met at Nags Head, when her father, who carried luggage in a pony cart from the soundside boats to the oceanfront houses, loaded her mother on top of the trunks. “Your mother was the prettiest girl that I have ever seen,” Nancy remembers him saying.
The first Nags Head cottage where Nancy Dawson spent the summer was in “Dawsonville,” a row of three cottages in what is now Kill Devil Hills that her father, Brack Dawson, and his siblings, Margaret Owens and Frank Dawson, owned. But starting at age 5, Nancy spent every summer of her youth with her grandmother and aunts at the Nixon cottage, the men coming only on the weekends. She remembers fish breakfasts, swimming, afternoon naps (“that myth about not swimming after you eat was probably because the grown-ups wanted to nap,” she says) and games of Rise Sheep and Fly with her cousins and the children in the neighboring cottages.
Nancy knows every cottage along Nags Head’s historic “Cottage Row” and can name the lineage of the families within them. These historic houses are intentionally unpolished and rustic yet somehow aristocratic and speak more of inherited privilege than the multimillion-dollar modern houses on the fringes of Cottage Row.
The northeastern Carolina families in those wooden beach cottages are linked by marriages, familial blood and the cement of playing on the beach together as children.
“There’s a bond along the cottage line,” she says.
Nancy met her future husband, Peter Rascoe Jr., at the J.P. Rascoe Cottage when she was 11 and visiting her cousin, Audrey Dawson, two cottages to the north. “He was sitting in the Chimney Room. He just sat there reading funny books,” she remembers. She married him in 1956.
Marriage into the Rascoe family of Windsor meant leaving her beloved Nixon Cottage and moving north, past the Buchanan Cottage and the Wood Cottage and the Foreman Cottage, to summer at the J.P. Rascoe Cottage, just across from Jockey’s Ridge and just north of The Casino.
A two-story, weathered, cedar-shake cottage with evergreen-colored shutters propped out from the north-facing windows, the epitome of what one thinks of as classic Nags Head style, the 1931 J.P. Rascoe Cottage sits on bald beach, jacked up a few feet to let the ocean wash underneath.
As with all old Nags Head–style cottages, porches and decks define the house and the occupants’ proclivity to being outdoors. There’s a deck or porch for every necessity: watching sunrises and dolphins in the ocean, viewing the sun set behind Jockey’s Ridge, seeking protection from a chilly nor’easter or solace from a relentless sou’wester, napping in the hammock, entertaining guests in the shade. The porches are the foyers, the living rooms, the parlors, of the beach cottage.
“Our family lives on the porches,” Nancy says. “We just sleep and eat inside. We love nature, ocean air, breeze and sand.”
The day’s wind determines the family’s activities. Nancy remembers her husband, Big Peter everyone called him, getting up first thing in the morning and calling out, “Boys! Wind’s out of the southwest!” to alert them that fishing was on the day’s agenda.
The J.P. Rascoe Cottage is a rugged, functional setting for supporting such a lifestyle.
Originally a standard L-shape with three bedrooms and a double-seater outhouse, the cottage, like all the old Nags Head cottages, has been raised up, supported and moved back as the beach has narrowed, and added onto as the family has grown. Now it has five bedrooms to fit the entire Rascoe family, plus indoor plumbing and air conditioning (though the family prefers the windows open) in addition to the former servants’ quarters out back. Though it lacks modern conveniences like a hot tub and a home theater, the family doesn’t mind a bit and it’s a popular summer rental for vacationers who want the experience of old Nags Head.
Nancy lives year round at the 1812 Fletcher-Skinner-Nixon House in Hertford, a formal setting where she operates a bed and breakfast and hosts Summer House Parties for Etiquette for Young Ladies and Gentlemen, but the beach is where she feels most at home.
Heirlooms and memories tie together the generations in the cottage — a walnut dining table from the old Rascoe homeplace, a late 1700s breakfast table from the house in Windsor, a grandmother’s Depression glass, the painting of a pre-hurricane ocean by Rev. Frank Dinwiddie, framed thank-you notes and letters from camp, jars of shells found by grandchildren, the picture of FDR visiting the Buchanan Cottage (5-year-old Nancy watched him from the porch of the Nixon Cottage), casual family photos, children’s artwork and original paintings by the family artist, Fen.
“I love that old Nags Head feel, tied back into parents, grandparents and great-grandparents,” Nancy says. “This house is an anchor to our family.”
Five summers ago when Big Peter was ill, before he passed away, it was the first summer in her life that Nancy hadn’t spent a long time at Nags Head. She and Peter came each Saturday that summer, but they couldn’t spend the night. Finally, on Labor Day weekend, they were able to sleep in the ocean breeze.
“I love being so near the ocean,” Nancy says. “ ‘Old ocean,’ my daddy and all them called it. My daddy loved it. My Aunt Margaret would say, ‘Brack, just as soon as we start over the sound I feel a whole different feeling.’ He would say ‘Yep, it’s the next thing to heaven.’ ”
Nancy spent 29 years documenting the history and stories of her family’s cottages and all of the old cottages on Cottage Row and along the Banks, and in 2013 she published a book, The Sandy Banks Live On. It is filled with memories, anecdotes, memorabilia, pictures and history.
“I think because of all the happy family memories here and all the wonderful summers at grandmother’s, but also knowing that our Lord provided all this, we don’t really need much else,” she says of the cottage. “I hunger for this place. It’s mighty special. …
“It gives a peace. It is mighty close to heaven… what a blessing to have our glorious mountains in the west and beautiful old ocean in the east. Whether it is clear waves of the east wind, the powerful nor’easters or the thunderous waves of the hurricanes, the sea is an indescribable blessing. The sea does it for me.”