BEAUFORT, N.C. — Melancholy chanteys of sailors lost at sea are romantic tales as distant as "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" from most of us. For the inhabitants of Beaufort, however, they are part of everyday life.
Young and old, natives and transplants alike have pride in the town's heritage matched in few places in the world. Surveyed in 1713 and incorporated in 1722, Beaufort, which overlooks the celebrated Outer Banks, is the third-oldest town in North Carolina and is undergoing a significant revitalization. Its Historic Restoration, now in its 27th year, includes houses dating from 1767 as well as an Apothecary Shop, a Courthouse and an Old Jail.
In the Leffers House, which dates from 1778, the Beaufort Historical Weavers work on Mondays from 9 a.m. until noon. The women were happy to pass the shuttle to me during my visit while they spun a yarn about the cottage's resident infant ghost.
As the tale drew to a close, one of the weavers opened the door to the attic to lead me up, and the distant, haunting cry of a baby brought goose flesh to my spine! I must admit that while my guide continued her exposition in the attic, I was distractedly searching the crannies for the hidden ghost-child.
English Bus Tour
A treat not to be missed during summer is a tour in the Beaufort Historical Assn. double-decker English bus. This pilgrimage is charmingly narrated by the town's resident historian and poet, Grayden Paul, who enlivens his commentary with legends about the sites you pass, such as that of the "Talking and Hanging Tree."
There one of the three men ever hanged in Beaufort met his end, even though most residents were not convinced of his guilt. It was said by townsfolk for many years thereafter that one could tap on the old tree and ask, "What did they hang Drummert for?" and the tree would respond, "Nothing."
Kathryn Cloud, president of the historical association, emphasizes that Old Beaufort is a restoration, not a reconstruction. It is open all year, Monday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information or special group tours, call (919) 728-5225.
Port in Many Storms
Overlooking the Shackelford Banks portion of Cape Lookout National Seashore, Beaufort from the beginning has been linked to the sea. It has been a fishing village and literally a "port in a storm" for seagoing vessels from pirate ships to whalers to modern luxury yachts and sailboats.
Appropriately, then, since 1975 Beaufort has been the home of the North Carolina Maritime Museum (formerly known as the Hampton Mariners' Museum). The museum celebrated its 10th birthday by moving into a handsome new building whose interior resembles the hold of a great wooden ship.
More than 100,000 visitors annually take advantage of the museum's programs, including a summer science school for children, a boat-building skills program, a traditional wooden boat show, coastal habitat field trips and numerous special programs.
One of the most popular offerings is the Strange Seafood Exhibition, held on the grounds of the Beaufort Historical Restoration the third Thursday of each August. One can sample and learn how to prepare such fare as bluefish flakes in dill, sea lettuce soup, octopus salad with mussel dressing, rock shrimp casserole and bluefish mousse accompanied by yaupon tea. (A cookbook is sold in the museum bookstore and on the exhibition grounds.)
The Strange Seafood Exhibition has become so popular in 10 years that a limit of 1,000 has been put on attendance. The 1,000 tickets go on sale in May, and may be reserved by writing to the N.C. Maritime Museum, 315 Front St., Beaufort, N.C. 28516, or telephoning (919) 728-7317.
An extension of the museum is across the street from the new building, where in the Watercraft Center, master boat builder Geoff Scofield builds and gives instructions on building traditional wooden boats.
Originally from England, where he grew up with boat building and boats in Wivenhoe and Leigh-on-Sea, Scofield apprenticed under the rules of the National Ship and Boatbuilders' Federation and has managed and owned boat-building companies.
Scofield came to Beaufort in 1978 and while awaiting a break in the weather passed the time constructing a 12-foot dinghy at the museum. He returned to stay a year later, and began planning the museum's first boat-building skills program, which was soon drawing students from all over the United States.
The first bed-and-breakfast to open among the historic homes of Beaufort was once the city's "shotgun house" (circa 1854), a house with a center hallway running from the front door to the back--one could stand at the front door and aim a shotgun out the back door.
New York writer Muriel Resnik and her husband were smitten with the seaport village and, several thousand dollars and more than a year later, Shotgun House opened its doors to guests. Rates are $65 to $85 a night double in season, $60 to $80 off-season; phone (919) 728-6248.