Barbara Snowden points out design details found in one of the windows inside Currituck’s Historic Jail.
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Thomas J. Turney/The Daily Advance

Barbara Snowden points out design details found in one of the windows inside Currituck’s Historic Jail.

Snowden Keeps History Alive

By Cindy Beamon

The Daily Advance

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CURRITUCK — Barbara Snowden’s father-in-law once told her she could live in a brand new house on the waterfront for what it cost to maintain the old house she lived in.

That’s been decades ago, and Barbara and Wilson Snowden still live in the 100-year-old house across from Currituck’s Historic Courthouse.

She admits that brick would be easier upkeep than the worn white siding on her historic home. Preserving the past can be hard work, she admits. And costly. Even so, Snowden believes the sacrifice is worth it.

Of course, this comes from a woman who cut short her honeymoon to get home in time for Currituck’s tricentennial celebration. She remembers professor William Powell told his audience in 1970 that he had been invited two years late. His research indicated Currituck was actually formed in 1668, not 1670.

Snowden, a history teacher for 30-plus years at Currituck High School, has a passion for history that has won her local and state recognition.

She’s been president of the Currituck Historical Society for 20 years at her best guess. She’s also a member of the N.C. Historical Commission, and recipient of the state’s prestigious Order of the Long Leaf Pine award, Currituck Teacher of the Year and North Carolina Social Studies Teacher of the Year.

As a member of the state Historical Commission, Snowden serves with many university professors in recommending homes for the national historic register. Among the members emeritus is well-known North Carolina historian William Powell, whom she has admired for years.

She’s also gained respect among local brick masons.

From her home across the street, Snowden once spotted workmen filling cracks between bricks at the courthouse. Snowden became concerned for the 19th Century brick and marched across the street. Calling up to the men on scaffolding, Snowden asked what type of concrete they were using. Down came the wrong answer: Portland concrete. The men politely halted their work and discussed the problem. The concrete, Snowden explained, was too hard for the bricks and would push them farther apart rather than fix the problem. She suggested a softer, lime-based mixture, and the problem was soon solved.

Snowden’s not a native of Currituck like her husband, but she’s made learning about the county’s history one of her lifetime pursuits.

Snowden’s been instrumental in trying to save a number of historical landmarks, including the Whalehead Club, the Historic Jail and more recently, a Rosenwald school on Caratoke Highway. A couple years ago, a Rosenwald school, built at the turn of the 20th Century to educate the county’s black students, came close to being razed by the county. The Currituck Historical Society asked for more time to find someone willing to save and restore the building, one of 5,000 similar schools across the state built with the help of Sears and Roebuck president Julius Rosenwald. So far, the privately owned, deteriorating building remains a reminder of work still left to be done.

Preserving pieces of Currituck’s past takes a commitment from the entire community, says Snowden. Without local support, many of the reminders of Currituck’s rich history will be gone, she said. Already much has been lost. Out of historic homes and buildings surveyed in the 1960s, only 90 percent still remain, she noted.

She said most people recognize the need to preserve what’s left.

“People want to save history. I think they want to learn the history,” said Snowden.

TDA: What’s the best kept historical secret in Currituck?

SNOWDEN: How much history there is here. When I came down here to teach in the 1960s at the high school, Ms. Yountz, invited me to the historical society meeting, and I went mostly because she asked me... (From that point) I kept finding out new things. Everybody can find something new about what happened in this county.

TDA: What is one of the Currituck Historical Society’s top accomplishments?

SNOWDEN: Trying to save Whalehead is one. (The Whalehead Club, a 19th Century hunting retreat in Corolla, is now a museum). While the county was paying for

Whalehead, we were able to keep the building open with nothing but volunteers. That was a special group of people who were willing to drive over there and do those tours day in and day out throughout the summer.

(She also lists the organization’s Bicentennial publication of communities in Currituck and some other smaller books as major accomplishments.)

TDA: Who has influenced your work?

SNOWDEN: Two ladies, Elizabeth Sanderlin, a former extension agent. She was the type of person that would take on a project and get people involved. The other was Mabel Wright from the lower end of the county ...she would say ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea?’ and we did it.

I feel like what I am doing now with the historical society I am following in the footsteps of ladies who made a difference in Currituck County, and I hope I have made a difference here too.

TDA: What is the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about the area’s history?

SNOWDEN: Whatever project I am working on at the time. Right now, I am working on Long Point and their production of gas for the beacon.

(Long Point became an island in the 1950s after Iron Titans, big steam-powered shovels, created the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, a part of the Intracoastal Waterway in Coinjock. Snowden has been researching documents at the National Archives in Washington D.C., that indicate the lighthouse beacon at Long Point was fueled by gas made on the island. Among those historic records, she’s seen a print of machinery at Long Point that was used in making the napalm-type gas.)

Another surprise was the prehistoric Native Indians. We all knew they were here, but we keep finding out new things about them all the time.

(An archeological dig at an old farmstead on the Currituck Sound called the “Baum Site” unearthed three ossuaries (mass burials) of Carolina Algonkian. Artifacts associated with the ossuaries include a cut panther muzzle, bone pins, bone awls, a marginella shell necklace and cooper beads, among other artifacts. Snowden, as faculty leader of Currituck High School’s Junior Historians, has participated in archeological digs)

TDA: You taught high school history for more than 30 years. What did you do to stir students’ interest in history?

SNOWDEN: I found that as long as you could talk about something that happened in Currituck during the Civil War, they would take interest and say they didn’t know that happened here. If you can make those local connections, you can make it interesting to students.

(Not many people know that Currituck raised a flag to celebrate the Declaration of Independence, she said. The pole is now on display at the Museum of the Albemarle.)

TDA: Who is the most interesting character you’ve run across in Currituck’s history?

SNOWDEN: John Jasper White. He was a slave during the American Revolution, captured by the British... he was able to free his owners... and was recognized by the Continental Congress for his bravery.

The other person would be Mr. (Joseph P.) Knapp. He was involved in publishing, involved in education, involved in conservation. You find out all kinds of interesting things about him. He used to own his own boat company, just lots of tidbits about his life.