FAUX History of the Outer Banks: FENSTER ST. CLAIRE AND THE BRINE SINKHOLE OF THE BUXTON MEADOWS
FENSTER ST. CLAIRE AND THE BRINE SINKHOLE
OF THE BUXTON MEADOWS
One of the more usual tales of Buxton Meadows occurred just beyond what is now the Whitaker Brothers General Store, about two miles after the highway that comes down the central spine of the Outer Banks and then heads to the west when it arrives at Buxton. [Publisher’s Note: the hamlet of Buxton was originally called Buxton Meadows because it was devoid of trees. Early settlers on the island needed pastureland for the horses and cattle so they cut down the trees in the center of Hatteras Island where Buxton is located today. This allowed their animals to graze. This practice came to an end when titles to lands on the island were conveyed in 1887. Since there was no longer any communal land, there was no more free grazing. Over the next half-century the trees returned to the pastureland. Individuals who refer to Buxton Meadows were those born well into the last century. This column was written in 1952; as a result this publisher does not know where the Whitaker Brothers General Store was located.]
In the 1920s, the largest landholder on Hatteras Island was Fenster St. Claire. Fenster, the name he preferred, and his twin sister Felicity, were the progeny of a blockade runner who had run aground in a fierce storm in 1863. Even though Hatteras Island was firmly in the camp of Union forces, Reginald St. Claire was welcomed and hidden in the home of Mildred and Josiah Farrow for six reason, four of them being unwed daughters who could not find husbands — suitable or otherwise — because the only men on the island were too young to be in either army, too old to provide the wants of the daughters or not rich enough for the likings of Mildred and Josiah. But when Reginald came ashore with three crew members, all male, it was as if God had delivered a blessing to the Farrow family. The blessings were increased because the blockade runner, OSIRIS, had been on its way into Pamlico Sound. This was fifth reason that the Reginald was welcomed. The sixth and last was because the OSIRIS had been beached in sand and thus came into the possession of the Farrows completely loaded with cargo, the bulk of which was saleable. As the ORISIS and its cargo were both sailable and saleable — and Reginald and his crew were now one with the family, the fortunes of the extended family took a significant step upwards.
Josiah Farrow, no one’s fool, had the good sense to sell the cargo to the Union forces. They were local, paid in gold and turned a blind eye to the smuggling that they knew was occurring all over the island. It took most of the Winter of 1863 and the Spring of 1864 to dispose of the ‘debris’ from the OSIRIS — referred to as “debris” in the historical record since “cargo” belongs to someone while “debris” along the Outer Banks is property owned by he — or she — who finds it. Josiah could sell “debris” to the Union side because he found it and therefore he owned it. If he called it cargo, the Union forces could have impounded it. As there was not a dime to be made in impoundment, Josiah was careful to sell “debris” and stretch his sales over a six-month period to avoid Union forces from believing he had found the mother lode of shipwrecks.
Carton by sack by case Josiah emptied the OSIRIS of its treasure and when it, at last, floated free because of a high tide and a low cargo tonnage, Reginald and his crew, now all fathers and in-laws, removed the OSIRIS to one of the saltwater rills on the island and then pulled it up a rough-hewn ramp until its hull was free of the water. Once again, Josiah was thinking ahead of the game. As long as the OSIRIS was out of the water it was not a boat; it was a house. And since that house was on Farrow property, it was Farrow’s property. This was smart thinking on Josiah’s part because the Civil War did not end until April of 1865 and a full year before that, in May of 1864, Union forces did find the OSIRIS. But as she was out of the water and on Farrow’s property, there was little they could legally do. Further, a case of whiskey gave the Union reconnoiter patrol no incentive to investigate the matter further and the OSIRIS was listed as a “shipwreck” which had been “scavenged locally” and that was the end of the paper trail.
With the end of hostilities, Reginald and his crew refloated the OSIRIS and began an import-export business in and around Pamlico Sound. Since Reginald and his crew had been blockade runners in and around Pamlico Sound for two years before the OSIRIS ran aground, they knew all of the right people — or, that is to say, the wrong people — with whom they could do business. As cash makes no enemies, the crew was able to generate a lively trade of hard goods coming into Eastern North Carolina and exporting the one product which had little value in Eastern North Carolina but a great following England: moonshine. Reginald and his crew kept the money coming while Mildred and Josiah managed the books. By the time the patriarch and matriarch died in 1885 — of smallpox, oddly — the Farrows owned huge tracks of land in the Outer Banks. One by one the original crew members of the OSIRIS crew members died leaving their place to sons — and eventually grandsons. Reginald was the last to go. He succumbed to a case of island fever in the Spring of 1912. He passed on his worldly goods to his twin children, Fenster and Felicity.
It has been said, and may possibly be true, that Fenster had the first nickel he ever made. He was legendary for his ability to make money without spending any. Or, at least, any of his own. He negated the adage that ‘you have to spend money to make money.’ Felicity was a bit better because she married well enough that she did not have to spend any money at all. Even better as far as Fenster was concerned, Felicity had married the son of one of the original crew members of the OSIRIS so the family money stayed with the family.
One could have called the fortunes of the St. Claires good. But that was in 1912. Five years later they were phenomenal. Prohibition had become the law of the land and, thus, pursuant to the law of supply of demand, the family with the supply of liquor could demand what they wanted. The OSIRIS, by now an ancient hull, was assigned conventional cargo duties — that is, cargo which was legal — while two high-speed craft were purchased for the shipment of liquor. It was Scotch in and Moonshine out for the next two-and-a-half decades.
It was in the early years of this enterprise that Fenster discovered that his home was built upon a salt dome. Salt is such a common commodity today that few Americans remember the days when salt was the equivalent of gold. Salt was needed for everything. It was consumed on meat and potatoes, used to tan hides, preserve fish, cure ham and a wide variety of other commercial and consumer usages. In the early decades of the last century, salt was sold in hundred weight bags and in bulk. That is, it was so valuable that merchants in the large cities would often buy an entire shipment of salt in hundred-pound bags. What that meant to Fenster was that he could load an entire ship with salt and sell the entire load to one merchant.
Removing the salt was quite labor intensive which would have been a problem if one were not Fenster St. Claire. He had six children of his own and Felicity another four. This did not include the gaggle of kinfolk who had too many children with too little to do. So Fenster gathered the brood, which was called ‘Fenster’s Army,’ and set them to work in the salt business.
An aside here is needed. Salt is a mineral and, as such, must be mined. It is usually mined in one of two ways. The first, and easiest, is to simply place bucket loads of the crystal into burlap sacks and sew them shut. This is preferred method and the way most salt is mined in the early days of the discovery. However, as the year go by, as more and more salt is extracted, huge caverns are left from where the salt once was. As these caverns get larger there is more distance to drag the bags. But this is only for large-scale operations. Fenster’s was a run by boy-power and so there would be no vacuous caverns from which salt had been extracted.
The second method was to pump water into the salt field and then draw it off. The water would go in fresh and come out thick with salt. The brine would be sloshed into huge vats and there — in North Carolina — the sun would evaporate the water leaving the salt.
Fenster used both methods — but not in the same area. Where the salt was easily reachable by youth labor, he arranged for a system of rope, levers and wagons to lower empty bags into the salt mine and then use block-and-tackle to pull the filled bags out. Labor inside the mine was with pick-and-shovel with two shifts of eight-hours each. Boys were paid a dollar a day — when they were paid, if they were paid — and the money went to their parents for safekeeping — when the money was paid, if the money was paid. Fenster paid in a lump sum at the end of the season after the salt bags had been purchased and there was always a row about how much was owned versus how much was paid at the end of the year.
Fenster used the second method with a money-saving twist. Combining the power of the moon and gravity, he allowed sea water to flood salt dome when the tide was up and then opened a floodgate several feet below sea level so the water would exit on its own. His holding pond was made of odd pieces of steel and iron scavenged from shipwrecks and welded together to form a large pond. Twice a day he would scrap the dried salt off the rim of the steel pond and bag it for sale.
By the early 1920s, the salt business was booming. Because Fenster’s salt — called FENSALT on the market — was mined so much closer to the market, his transportation costs were lower. (In reality, there were no transportation costs as he used the hundred-pound bags of salt to cover up the incoming shipments of Scotch.) Lower shipping costs and the fact that he was transporting an American product to an American port meant he paid no tariff. So he was paying virtually nothing to mine salt that he put in bags that cost $.05 each and placed on top of Scotch as cover and transported for free to his market — and then he cheated his workforce at season’s end.
One of the added benefits that Fenster discovered was that as more and more salt was extracted, a small cavern was created. In the early years of the 1920s this was just closet-sized but by 1925 it had the volume of a one-car garage. This was wasted space and in Fenster’s eyes, was a money-making opportunity begging to be fulfilled. So Fenster began buying his Scotch in bulk, thus dropping the price per bottle, and storing the overbuy in cases in the growing cave of the salt dome. As the volume of the salt dome grew, so did the overbuy.
A decade-and-a-half later Fenster was a major operator in Eastern North Carolina. FENSALT was in demand as far away as Washington D. C. to the north and Charleston to the South. Scotch sales were being made as far west as the Pamlico watershed would allow and, of course, as far north as Washington D. C. and Charleston to the South. The lads who had started working with him when they were not yet in their teens were now men. They were being paid regularly now but that was only because of a work shutdown one year when Fenster had refused to a pay anyone. So not one worked. Fenster paid up but then no one would work until he paid everything he owed everyone for the past ten years. Fenster had chocked on that for money to him was more precious that his first-born child who, as a matter of fact, was the union organizer for the FENSALT workers. So, lieu of money, he gave stock shares in FENSALT and then quibbled over who would do the bookkeeping.
Suffice to say that by 1925 FENSALT and the Scotch trade were making the St. Claires and their kin wealthy. They were buying Scotch at a discount and selling it at Prohibition prices. Salt was free for the taking, worked by shareholders, used as cover for Scotch and therefore transported free and sold at a profit. It was a wonderful world.
But in every wonderful world lurks a serpent. In this era it was the United States Department of Revenue. Known as ‘revenuers’ in the Interior of North Carolina they were called ‘outhouse snakes’ on the island. The outhouse snakes were particularly disliked on the island for two reasons. First, they were not with the United States Coast Guard and thus not related to the local folk. Historically there had been waves of men who came to the Outer Banks in the service of their country and stayed because there were more available women on the Island than back where they had come from. From the Union Soldiers to Naval personnel to, finally, the United States Coast Guardsmen, the men came and intermarried. Thus it was not unusual for every family on the islands to have a relative in the military. This was particularly helpful to Fenster since he had a son, two nephews and a half-dozen coat tail cousins in the employ of Uncle Sam and all telling him when and where the United States Coast Guard cutters would be looking for bootleggers. Since Fenster had no connection with the internal machinations of the outhouse snakes, he never knew what they were going to do.
The second reason the outhouse snakes were disliked was because they would not be assuaged from their sense of duty. They were just “too damn honest,” Fenster used to rage. They were more inclined to destroy liquor than seize it and that, in Fenster’s eyes, was a sin against God if there was indeed a God and it was certainly a “sin” because Fenster was sure if there was a God he would most certainly be “a drinking man.”
What Fenster did not know because he was loath to read a newspaper, was that the days of Prohibition were rapidly coming to an end. America was a land of drinking men and women who preferred their liquor legal rather than of questionable composition. States were stumbling over each other to ratify the 21st Amendment. Between April 10, 1933 and December 5th of the same year, 36 states approved the Amendment. That was an average of one state a week — and only two states rejected the Amendment: North and South Carolina. To this day [Editor’s Note: this article was written in 1960.] is rumored that the reason the vote to end Prohibition failed in both North and South Carolina was because the bootlegging forces figured that they would lose a sizeable income if the Amendment were to pass. After all, they were making money hand-over-fist by exporting moonshine to the European market — at a hefty profit — and importing Scotch that passed through North and South Carolina on its way further inland — again, a commodity that earned them a hefty profit. So they were making money coming-and-going.
With so many states jumping onto the anti-Prohibition bandwagon, anyone with a national perspective — which Fenster did not have but Revenue agents Holmes and Naurmar (first names unknown) did — knew that the days of illegal and therefore profitable liquor were coming to an end. Holmes and Naurmar, headquartered out of Raleigh, had made it a personal goal to arrest or at least shut down FENSALT which they knew, for a fact, was importing Scotch and exporting moonshine. In spite of the fact that they knew, for a fact, that illicit liquor was moving in both directions was that they had intercepted several shipments of the substance. Though they knew, for a fact, what FENSALT was doing, they had two very serious legal problems which they had not been able to overcome. The first was in the person of Archibald Cunningham. Cunningham was the United States Attorney for Dare County and it was his office — specifically and only — that had the power to issue Search-and-Seizure orders. Cunningham, seated in Manteo, had consistently turned down Search-and-Seizure orders for all of Dare County. This was particularly frustrating for the Department of the Revenue for a number of reasons. First, Cunningham’s cousin, Moshe Liebowitz, was the United States Attorney for Hyde County. The mothers of both men were sisters, Sarah and Gwendolyn nee Farrow, and both of their fathers had been crew members of the OSIRIS.
Second, in the 1920s both men had been instrumental in the actual creation of the both Dare and Hyde counties. It was said, and quite possibly true, that the two men had generated the border dispute just so they could resolve it. It was also said that there was a very good reason that both Hyde and Dare counties included portions of the Outer Banks as well as substantial numbers of square miles on the mainland North Carolina because, allegedly, of course, these counties included the most prosperous secluded riverine landings and docks where, again, it is alleged, bootleggers could have received imported Scotch from European markets and exported moonshine to ships that might occasion up the waterways which fed into Pamlico Sound.
Thirdly, and most frustrating, Holmes and Naurmar had, on numerous occasions outside of the territorial waters of Pamlico Sound, raided FENSALT ships and found cases of bottles of a golden liquid secreted beneath the salt bags. Any one of these encounters could have been a prima facie case if — and there is a large difference in coastal North Carolina between the words “if” and “when” — the cases of liquid involved in the legal case actually appeared on a court docket. Of the dozen times the cases had been found, in eight of them the United States Attorneys for Dare and Hyde counties — four apiece — claimed jurisdiction and seized the evidence — which subsequently disappeared from the United States Customs House in Fairfield which, as it happens, had a dock that extended into the deeper water of Lake Mattamuskeet which, in turn, had access to Pamlico Sound via a channel. Of the four remaining cases — legal not suspected illegal liquor — two were thrown out of court because the cases — in this case, the liquor cases — were labeled as containing “peach juice.” These cases — in this case, both the evidence and the legal matter — were seized by the United States Revenue Cutter Service whose crew assured Holmes and Naurmar that the elixir in the bottles had indeed been peach juice. Though there was no “peach juice” left and the bottles smelled strongly of Scotch, a case — legal — could not be made for the importation of Scotch vapor. If indeed the peach juice had, in fact, been Scotch.
Only one case — both legal and of liquor — made it to court. That was in Carteret County where the United States Attorney, Reginald St. Claire III, allowed the case to be heard. The case was presented throughout a hot August week in 1929 with a jury made up of local citizens drawn from the voting roles of Carteret County. Holmes and Naurmar made their case — the legal one — and the case — both, in this case — was left with the jury. That was where the trouble began. As the case — of elixir this time — was listed as peach juice each juror had to sample the liquid to ascertain if it was, as the defense stated, peach juice or, as claimed by the United States Department of Revenue prosecutor — a pinch-faced man who always wore a bow tie and trousers that were three inches too short and did not fish — the liquid was a fine Scotch. The jury of twelve men and six alternates spent almost two days in deliberation and then stated that they, collectively, could not come to agreement and as the dozen bottles of the peach juice had “evaporated” during jury deliberations, there was no way to empirically determine if the liquid was anything other than peach juice. Since there was no way to absolutely determine the constituency of liquid, the jury was forced to ask for a mistrial which the judge granted.
Four years later Holmes and Naurmar were still hot to raid FENSALT and stop the illegal enterprise that no one on the Outer Banks seemed to know anything about. But by April of 1933 it was clear that they were not going to be able to shut down the FENSALT enterprise. Time was running out.
But Holmes and Naurmar were not going to give up. Fenster St. Claire had been a burr beneath their saddle for too long for them to just walk away. So they didn’t. They sailed away. Renting a boat in Washington County, as far in maritime miles as they could get from Pamlico Sound and still have access to its waters, they proceeded past Tyrrell and then bounced down the western shoreline of Dare County and waited for nightfall. Then they proceeded across Pamlico Sound guided by the lights of Buxton. At some time after midnight they made landfall or, in this case, islandfall, and proceeded inland.
While the pair knew little about FENSALT’s illicit business, they did know a lot about the salt production facilities. They knew they could not close down FENSALT through legal channels so they chose to use nature’s instead. Armed with a pair of 20-foot long shafts of metal they approached the FENSALT facility using the hydrating baths as cover. Once they located the intake channel where sea water sloshed into the salt dome they proceeded to hunch their way a dozen yards down the tunnel. Two decades of sea water had turned what had started as a salt tube into a spillway three feet wide and four feet high.
Angling one of the 20-foot steel rods in a north-northwest direction, the two men proceeded to poke it through the wall of the tunnel. The first three inches were the most difficult since the salt water had encrusted it. But once into the actual dome, the going was easy. After they had thrust the first 20-foot section of steel shaft into the salt they rotated the shaft to make a tunnel about the diameter of a fist. Then they bolted the second shaft onto the first and continued to make the tunnel 40 feet in length. They them removed both steel shafts and left the island. All of these activities were alleged to have occurred because later, at a United States Department of Revenue Service Disciplinary Hearing, both Holmes and Naurmar denied they had been on Hatteras Island at any time after January of 1933. With regard to the requisition from the rented boat, they stated they had “gone fishing.”
Whomever it was that had indeed made the tunnel through the salt dome had been masterful in their machinations. Unbeknownst to Fenster and the FENSALT workers, every time the tide up and brine was washing through the channel on its way to the hydrating facilities, gallons of waters found their way down the tunnel that person or persons unknown had bored in the side wall of the spillway. Water, seeking its own level, entered the tunnel created by the steel shafts and bored its way down while, at the same, increasing the diameter of the bore hole. How long the bore hole had been there no one at FENSALT knew but the day after the brine from the bore hole found the FENSALT extraction cavern everyone knew. By this time the borehole was two feet wide and draining thousands of gallons of salt water into the cavern. It quickly saturated the walls of the cavern which then came tumbling down. This exposed more dry salt wall which, in turn, was saturated as well and it, too, came tumbling down. Over a period of several days, 30 years of FENSALT activities was reduced to giant subterranean pool of brine. Before the borehole in the spillway could be plugged, the walls of the cavern had become so weakened that the ceiling of the cavern came crashing down. Tons of salt, formerly dry, were now a brine river that flowed into and out of the cavern and across the lower level of the Buxton Pasture on its way to sea. Within a week the crest of the dome collapsed and two acres of topsoil sank a dozen feet. This stopped the flow of salt water but it also buried FENSALT both physically and financially.
FENSALT never recovered. There were a number of attempts to bring the facility back online but none were successful. America went in a Depression and that was followed by the Second World War. By the 1950s, the surface of the land was worth more than any minerals beneath it. Liquor was legal which made bootlegging unprofitable and that drove up the real cost of transportation. Fenster died during the Second World War and none of his children could muster the money or manpower to make the salt business profitable. In 1956 the hydrating ponds were sold to the Buxton Brewery, a short-lived beer enterprise, and thereafter the metal was sold for scrap.
Today, all that is left of the Fenster property is a massive depression in the earth about six feet deep. Over the years the sides of the depression have fallen in and a wide range of thistles berries, trees and brush have taken over the acreage. There were no structures above ground so, unless you know where to actually look, all that is left of the FENSALT empire are the last three empty bags in the Manteo Historical Museum and Archive.
[This is a short story from Steven Levi’s faux history of the Outer Banks, THE VENOM MERCHANTS OF BIRD ISLAND. It is available on Kindle.]