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.”