Tracing the History of Outer Banks Boatbuilding
It was just after the Civil War that George Washington Creef, Sr. moved to Roanoke Island. It’s not entirely clear why he moved from his home in East Lake, but the move was the first leg in a remarkable family journey that Lavern Davis Parker details in her just published book “Our Family, Its History, Their Boats.”
Davis, who traces her family roots through six generations of boatbuilders directly to George Washington Creef, is a trained historian—she taught history and geography for years—and her exceptional attention to detail and single-minded quest to confirm every tidbit of information that came her way makes this book an amazing resource on the history of boatbuilding and Dare County.
Today boatbuilding vies with commercial fishing for the second most important industry on the Outer Banks. Tourism has been the dominant industry certainly for the past 60-70 years, and probably longer. But boatbuilding has been a part of the area since at least the 1870s and what Parker has uncovered through her research and family histories is the story of 150 years of boatbuilding on the Outer Banks.
George Washing Creef, Sr. is her great, great great grandfather. Her father and his brother, her uncle Carson (Buddy) Davis, dominated the East Coast boat racing world in the 1950s and 60s. Her cousin, Buddy Davis, Carson’s son, is widely credited with bringing the Carolina Flair boat design to the world’s attention.
And that is just a very quick synopsis of the book. Filled with archival images, often forgotten bits and pieces of history, and personal recollections, the book takes readers on a journey from George Washington Creef to the present day.
The elder Creef is an interesting character. Born in East Lake, at some point during or soon after the Civil War, he moved to Roanoke Island. According to Parker, in the 1870s, he gave a deposition to the United States government, saying, “…during the Civil War he was always loyal to the United States and had been employed by the U.S. Navy freighting coal in his own vessel.”
The senior Creef is important because he is the one who recognized an improved transportation network to East Coast markets meant more fish going to urban markets, which meant local fishermen needed better watercraft. He answered that need with the shad boat, a wide-bodied boat with a tapered bow and stern allowing fishermen to haul more fish and sail into shallow waters.
The shad boat was eventually designated the state boat of North Carolina.
He taught his craft to his sons, George Washington, Jr. and Benjamin Howard.
The brothers expanded the business considerably and, as Parker’s research documented, created a rail system through Manteo to transport materials and supplies for their boats.
Called Creef and Creef Railways, the date the system first went into operation is not noted, although the brother purchased land for their business in 1892.
In 1939 a horrific fire swept through downtown Manteo, consuming everything that was not brick or stone, and Creef and Creef Railway ceased to exist.
Two years later, though, the skills the Creef family had instilled were put to use for the government as the U.S. entered WWII.
The chapter “Manteo Boat Building Company” details the four-year history of what is a largely overlooked piece of local history.
The company was quite successful during the war, drawing on the boatbuilding expertise of the local workforce. Almost 70 boats were sent to the Navy in that four-year span, all of them wooden. Some were quite a good size; there were 13 105’ rescue craft as well as four 83’ patrol rescue boats—those built for the Army Air Corps.
After the war, though, some of the financial decisions the company’s management made, coupled with the loss of government contracts, doomed the Manteo Boat Building Company, and by 1945 the company was out of business.
“Perhaps this small chapter will spur someone’s curiosity to research this endeavor more completely, as it is an interesting part of Manteo’s history. The men who were employed by Manteo Boat Building, like others of the Greatest Generation, are dying at a very rapid rate, and their stories need to be recorded,” Parker wrote at the end of the chapter.
Perhaps one of the most startling revelations in the book, however, is the role her father and Uncle Buddy played in hydroplane racing and building 14-16’ runabouts.
As early as the 1930s, when the brothers were still teenagers, they had their first racing boat on the water.
There was the Pat I, a simple scow-like construction with an air propellor. That was followed by the Pat II, a true racing boat. Taking two years to build—the brothers had to work in the family clothing store and built the boat part-time—its first race was July 17, 1937, at the Virginia Dare Memorial Regatta.
The boat came in second, and that was followed by a string of first and second place finishes up and down the East Coast until WWII interrupted all boat racing.
After the war, though, the brothers picked up where they left off, but now they were far more sophisticated in their approach and creating a series of boats for racing professionals, and Parker has managed to track down quite a number of the boats the brothers produced.
As the same they were building racing boats, they were the owners of Davis Boatworks, turning out beautiful wooden runabouts for the general public. Unfortunately, very few of the boats have survived, and the ones that have needed extensive work to get back on the water.
Parker, though, was able to speak to quite a number of people who recall what it was like running the boats on the water, interviewing especially Manteo friends from her childhood. What emerges is an image of kids—teenagers and maybe sometimes a bit younger—falling in love with the waters of the Outer Banks sounds as they raced each other or went fishing in hidden nooks and crannies of the estuaries.
She ends her book with a chapter on her father, who retired after 60 years at his family store and returned to boat racing with one of Parker’s former students. This time, though, it was hydroplane racing, but her father’s boatbuilding knowledge was invaluable.
As the head of the racing team, Bobby Brown, noted in a magazine article Parker quoted in the book, “Although Mr. Davis had only built runabouts, the construction methods were similar to hydros…After working with Mr. Davis, I have the confidence to tackle any type of hull damage or change…So, my tip to other racers would be ‘listen to the older guys because boat racing hasn’t changed; it has just been refined.’”
The chapter seems to bring the legacy of the Roanoke Island boatbuilders full circle—masters of their craft who have, over the years, learned from others as they refine what the next generation of watercraft.
“Our Family, Its History, Their Boats A Family History” may be ordered directly from LaVern Parker at [email protected]