Everything was just as ordered.
No-vacancy signs flanked the roadside with the regularity of street lamps. Beach umbrellas dotted the shoreline like confetti. Before sunrise, the Oregon Inlet docks emptied as boats glided into the Atlantic Ocean filled with tourists turned fishermen. In the evenings, wait staffs braced for squalls of hungry customers. And all day, every day, real estate agents sped from customer to prospect while wealthy developers etched their own hatch marks on the islands.
Behind it all was the thwack of hammers, the pounding heartbeat of the growing tourist industry, as stores, restaurants and look-alike saltbox houses on stilts sprouted from sandy lots.
In the midst of the buzz, on a steamy summer afternoon circa 1970, two men leaned along the railing of the Wright Memorial Bridge. The men sweated, scanned the Albemarle Sound, and sweated some more.
They were waiting, waiting for hours for the porpoises to roll.
Around 4 p.m., one of the photographers, the late Jim Mays, working at the time for a Norfolk television station, got to thinking.
“Can you tell me why we are standing here baking our brains out waiting for a porpoise?”
“Sure,” replied Life magazine photographer David Douglas Duncan. “Aycock said to.”
Throngs of people have traveled North Carolina’s Outer Banks because Charles Brantley Aycock Brown, known universally by his second middle name, Aycock, said to. Newspaper editors published slicks of bathing beauties draped over shipwrecks and driftwood because Aycock said to. And magazines such as National Geographic and Life featured glorious, multipage spreads extolling the barrier islands … because Aycock said to.
Aycock Brown spent most of his 79 years promoting the Outer Banks, and once even coaxed 30 newsmen to the crest of Jockeys Ridge, the tallest sand dune on the East Coast, where they, too, waited, this time for a hurricane to blast the islands. It didn’t, and the storm-that-wasn’t was dubbed Brown’s Hurricane. Later, the reporters who stood sentry atop that sand hill passed the story from scribe to scribe, keeping the legend of Aycock Brown alive.
For the better part of a half century, Aycock cruised the Outer Banks wide-eyed as a lemur, a boater hat on his head, a Hawaiian shirt on his back and as many as five cameras slung around his bony neck. He talked fast, and if he wasn’t talking, he was whistling, badly — short, breathy, random notes as inelegant as his scrawling script. And if he wasn’t whistling or talking, he might be sipping whiskey, but most likely he was snapping pictures or pounding out news releases. He knew everyone and seemed to be everywhere all the time.
For the most part, Aycock lacked an artist’s eye, but he had common sense, energy and a clear-cut mission from the tough Dare County businessmen who hired him in 1951 as the director of the newly formed Dare County Tourist Bureau.
From his tiny, cluttered office in Manteo, he launched tidal waves of news dispatches detailing citation catches of marlin, an upcoming Pirate’s Jamboree and stacks of black-and-white photos of beached whales, bathing beauties and cottages crushed by stormy seas.
Aycock himself became newsworthy, an unexpected bonus for a man in search of free ink. The Outer Banks Oyster, the con man of the Outer Banks, the Pied Piper of the Outer Banks, Mr. Tourism and Mr. Carolina Banks — these were the lasting impressions that the spindly man made on the nation’s newsmen.
Although Aycock’s methods were simple, Wynne C. Dough, former curator of the Outer Banks History Center, believes that Aycock Brown did more to promote tourism on the Outer Banks than anyone since the late Wash Baum, who in the 1920s and 1930s pushed for the building of the roads and bridges that led to the earliest development of the Dare County beaches.
“Most of the photos that Aycock took have the aesthetic value of a shoe,” Dough said. “But the tourism boom of the (1970s and 1980s) wouldn’t have unfolded without an indefatigable promoter like Aycock.”
A bad speller with scant aptitude for writing, Aycock decided early on that journalism was his calling. He got his first newspaper job while still in high school as a printer’s devil, setting type for a newspaper near his hometown of Happy Valley, North Carolina. By his own account, he never quite understood the trade. He freelanced for a while, and then went to New York to take journalism classes at Columbia University.
His first real job out of college was as a copy editor at The Durham Morning Herald. “That lasted two days,” he told Dare County’s pre-eminent historian, the late David Stick, in a taped 1974 interview. “That’s how long it took them to find out I couldn’t correct a sentence myself.”
Following stints promoting beaches farther south and with Al Smith’s presidential run against Herbert Hoover, a sport fishing guide and motel owner on Ocracoke Island offered Aycock a free vacation if he came down to promote the island.
Broke, Aycock went to Ocracoke.
There he found Esther Styron standing near the water. “I was bootlegging booze from Morehead City, and when we pulled into Ocracoke Harbor in a skiff, she was standing on the dock … ,” he once told Lawrence Maddry, longtime columnist and reporter at The Virginian-Pilot. “I’ll tell you how pretty she was. For several minutes I completely forgot about all those gallons of liquor in the boat. And it was good stuff.”
They married in 1929, and Aycock was quickly accepted into the closed community. “They used to think I was a great guy because I had a typewriter,” he told Stick. “Back in those days, if anyone had any legal work they needed (typed) for them, I did it.”
For the next few years, Aycock dreamed up odd Ocracoke promotions. He sold stories about Blackbeard and the beaches to papers in Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Norfolk. He painted the lighthouse on conch shells in India ink and sold them to tourists. And he eventually sold an essay about the island titled “Cape Stormy” to The Saturday Evening Post, a project that intimidated Aycock to the point of paralysis, but in the end was a coup for Aycock and the island.
The Great Depression made it harder to make a living pushing tourism. So Aycock expanded his repertoire to include a statewide fishing column. Newspapers as far away as Asheville subscribed.
“The column just exploded,” Aycock told Stick. “I made so many errors in the column, and so many people wrote into me, see. I got more or less a list of correspondents who were sending me news every week. … I never knew a damn thing about it. I never fished.”
Aycock learned a thing or two during those lean years on the island. “I discovered that a tourist will buy anything,” he told Stick. And his daughter, the late Gale Ballance, believed that he developed the fine art of conversation on the porches of the tiny village. That skill, honed during endless hours of leisurely jawing, would perhaps more than anything else make Aycock Brown a success.
World War II was a dark, lonely time on the Outer Banks. The infant tourism industry was snuffed out by travel restrictions, the draft and gas rationing.
With shipping lanes running 20 miles from the coast in some places, blackouts along the shoreline were mandatory. Nazi subs torpedoed tankers and passenger ships along the coast so often that locals recalled streaming out of the Casino dance hall and up Jockey’s Ridge to watch the flaming sea.
The Dare County Times carried the usual front page headlines: “Miss Draper breaks small bone in foot” and “School to open tomorrow.” But society news got squeezed by stories about local boys leaving for the European front and notices on rationing coupons. One 1942 edition included dim-out instructions on how to cover car headlights with black cloth, leaving only one-by-one-half-inch slits near the bottom.
No facet of life remained untouched. In 1942, the U.S. secretary of the interior urged Outer Banks hunters to save feathers from waterfowl, as they could be used to stuff jackets for aviators flying at high altitudes. Fishermen couldn’t buy new rubber boots unless the old ones were turned in for recycling. And for the only time in its history, “The Lost Colony” outdoor drama was suspended because of lighting and travel restrictions.
Aycock joined the cause as a civilian intelligence officer. Bumping along the desolate seashore between Beaufort and Hatteras, Aycock had his orders: to fingerprint the bodies that washed ashore and match the identity with passengers aboard the sunken vessels. Was this young man a member of the British navy or the American military? Was this woman a civilian steamer passenger? Could this one be an enemy agent? The answers were vital to national security because Germans could, and did, strip the identification from bodies from torpedoed ships to provide enemy spies with Allied identities.
The experience haunted him. A decade after the war ended, Aycock sold a story to Male magazine. In it, he revealed how he once secured a set of fingerprints from a sailor from a torpedoed British tanker.
“ … the black, bony fingers were gnarled and twisted into a claw more forbidding, more frightening, than anything I’ve ever seen. My job was going to be a tough one.”
Aycock removed the skin from the fingers and plunged them into a “bourbon preservative” he happened to have handy. Later, to make the prints, he rolled the skin onto his own fingers.
Titled “I Wore a Dead Man’s Hand,” the story got top billing in the October 1955 table of contents, but was nudged off the cover by a story titled “I Fought the Bloodsuckers of Ceylon.”
When the war ended, Aycock returned to sparking Dare County tourism. His clients included the Dare County Chamber of Commerce, “The Lost Colony,” the Carolinian Hotel and the Virginia Beach-Nags Head Toll Road. He was well positioned when the savvy Dare County businessmen formed the Dare County Tourist Bureau. They tapped Aycock as news director.
“Aycock Brown was the key if we were to have any hope of getting the kind of widespread free publicity our growing tourist industry needed,” Stick said in an interview before his death in 2009.
During his first year on the job, he sent an average of 60 stories each month to about 70 daily newspapers and radio stations. In the summer months, he sent longer features to about 170 papers each week, bundled with nearly 2,000 photographs.
His tidal wave worked, and newsmen started doing exactly as Aycock said.
In the first year, not a month passed that one or more magazines didn’t feature a spread on Dare County. An additional 3,000 newspaper articles were published.
Aycock’s stationary said, “Covering the Waterfront.” That was no catchy tagline. It was fact.
When someone reeled in a big blue marlin, Aycock was on the dock to greet the angler. When the Ash Wednesday storm crushed the coast in 1962, Aycock provided newspapers across the country the first glimpse of the devastation.
A key, he told Stick, was that people called him.
Aycock was nice to almost everyone — he gave holiday gifts to widows and bank tellers and kept a trunk full of trinkets for journalists, children, tourists and politicians. The man who ran Manteo’s Western Union office was a friend. When prominent visitors sent a telegram, the man notified Aycock that they were in town. Aycock would hunt them down in his Chevrolet with the license plates that said, simply, AYCOCK. If the traveler was a journalist, he or she would be treated to a fat promotion package and perhaps front row seats to “The Lost Colony.” If the visitor was a French journalist, Aycock might be wearing a beret.
There was always the possibility that the packets would contain a cheesecake shot of a gal sunbathing or with starfish held to her lobes like earrings or holding a fish that she might or might not have reeled in. The history center has dozens of these black-and-white photographs in the collection.
“He combined the appeal of Norman Rockwell with the salaciousness of the old Esquire magazine and managed to get away with some fairly randy stuff,” Dough, the former history curator, said.
For all his straightforwardness, Aycock was a man of paradoxes. Despite his fondness for the female form, he was a solid family man, a father of three who made his children breakfast and never missed dinner. He was a lay reader at St. Andrews by-the-Sea Episcopal Church.
While he spent half his life extolling life near the ocean, he neither fished nor swam in the sea.
“To tell the truth, it has always looked filthy to me,” he sometimes told newsmen.
In spite of his down-home demeanor, Aycock read several daily newspapers and had one of the area’s largest personal libraries. His photography occasionally won national awards.
Eventually the fellow from Happy Valley would become so well known that a letter addressed to “Aycock, N.C.” mailed anywhere in the Southeast would find its way to the tourist bureau. He had dined with Hollywood actors, strolled the Elizabethan Gardens with Lady Bird Johnson and taken tea with the queen of England.
It was a life he never expected to lead, and by 1980 when he retired from working full time, his success had made him almost a mythical figure. “Aycock’s Outer Banks,” published by the tourist bureau in 1976, contains a score of tributes from journalists, including the porpoise story by Jim Mays and Lawrence Maddrey’s remembrances. They all express awe at how the man did what he did.
But shortly before his death in 1984, Aycock confided to historian David Stick that he was “worried about what he had done.”
When Aycock came to town as a freelance promoter in the 1920s, tourism was measured in the thousands. In the 1950s, it was measured in the tens of thousands. When he fully retired in 1982, millions of people each year did as Aycock said.
Along the way, owners of small grocery stores, restaurants, motels and tackle shops had been squeezed out by newcomers who built bigger places with lower prices. Neighborhoods were springing up with little attention to the environment. Schools were packed. Roads were crowded.
“It had gone so much further than he ever anticipated,” Stick said.
Seven months after Aycock’s death, the Aycock Brown Welcome Center was dedicated in his honor. Aycock’s portrait greets guests at the entrance. He looks like he always did, a boater on his head, Hawaiian shirt on his back and cameras slung round his bony neck, now bearing silent witness to the streams of visitors who are his living legacy. S
Lorraine Eaton is a staff writer with The Virginian-Pilot. A version of this story was part of Lorraine Eaton’s 1999 thesis for a master of fine arts degree in creative nonfiction at Old Dominion University.