Steven C. Levi
8 min readFeb 29, 2020



One of the most pernicious effects of the Second World War on the Outer Banks, at least for husbands, was the invasion of lawns. These expanses of greenery, long an affliction of the suburban husband, were not indigenous to the barrier islands. While some homes were set in meadows, most residents were content to live with the acreage around and about the house with what God had allowed to blow in. Most frequently this was sand, sand with some dirt, sand with dirt and seeds or just sand with sand. Nature, abhorring open spaces, carpeted the strand with lush vegetation which the residents lived amongst rather than clear cutting for lawns.

That all changed with the end of the Second World War. It only took one returning GI to tell his wife about the great expanses of lawn he had seen while stationed in some faraway locale like South Carolina or Tennessee and pretty soon there was a general hankering for the same affliction on the Banks. Husbands were not in favor of this bit of civilizing because they knew, as do husbands of all races and nations, that lawns come with yard work which wives direct and men construct. Nothing chills a man to the bone faster than a wife looking at the front lawn and beginning the next sentence with the word “we.”

Civilization being what it is, lawns were inevitable.

But lawns on the Outer Banks posed a unique problem. In most parts of the world, a lawn is created by peeling back underbrush and throwing a mixture of grass seed, fertilizer, lime and bone meal in a variety of percentages and then watering the soil until it turned green with tendrils. This, however, was not possible on the Outer Banks. First, there was not that much soil. Second, the clearing of the underbrush allowed more sand to blow in onto the sand that was already there. Third, grass seed that was not buried six feet deep was usually dug up by the wind and blown westward where it ended up in the bellies of the wahoo and red drum fry in the shallows of Pamlico Sound. Fourth, and most telling, though the Outer Banks is surrounded by water, that water is un-usable for agricultural purposes.

Such has never stopped a wife from having a lawn.

The water was the easiest problem to solve and soon wells were sprouting all along the barrier islands. Soil was another matter altogether. As you could not drill for it, it had to be imported. Initially soil was trucked in from Virginia but quickly proved to be too costly. Next, some entrepreneurs tried grinding the local vegetation to pulp and mix the subsequent mulch with sand. This failed as well. What was needed was actual soil of which the Outer Banks had precious little.

The most logical place to get soil was the North Carolina mainland. There was plenty, so to speak, just across Pamlico Sound and it was free for the taking as long as you didn’t get caught. Chances of that were slim for there were miles of mainland coastline and even if captured inflagrante there was no fine, simply the embarrassment of having your photograph appearing in the mainland papers alongside those of sneak thieves, wife abusers and habitual inebriates.

Since most residents of the Banks had access to boats it was not long before there was a fleet of soil thieves ravaging the mainland coastline. No one on the mainland cared a whit if someone was stealing their soil for, after all, they had so much of it. Further, when the ‘free soilers,’ as they were called, came to purloin the earth they usually purchased gasoline, flowers, groceries and liquid refreshment in the local stores. The mainlanders looked at this as equitable exchange. They received cash and the free soilers stole earth.

It was no particular secret that the free soilers were operating in and about Pamlico Sound. It was also no particular secret that tons of earth were being roiled into the sandy loam of the islands. No one denied what they were doing. All was going well until the ravaging of the mainland came to the attention of the second most fiendish department of the United States government, the first being Congress. One day, at the height of the free soil movement, the residents of the Outer Banks were suddenly inundated with bureaucrats from the United States Department of Agriculture.

In those days, and to this day as well, the Department of Agriculture is anathema to the American farmer. Their employees are usually referred to as “regulators” stated with the same acrimony as moonshiners use when discussing “revenuers.” USDA officials, as the saying goes, are people who can ‘grow nothing but red tape’ and that in copious amounts.

Thus it came to pass that one day the USDA put an end to the free soilers. Claiming that the soil taken from the mainland was dangerous to the flora, fauna and ecosystems of the Outer Banks, every spade of imported soil was going to have to be tested for invasive characteristics. To this end agents of the USDA were sent to every residence suspected of having imported soil which may or may not have been tainted but was treated as tainted until proved otherwise. Samples were taken and sent to Washington D. C. for analysis.

It took the Bankers about 17 minutes to figure out that the USDA was ‘pulling a fast one.’ First, the Outer Banks soil and mainland soil were basically of the same geomorphic origin. Second, every mite, worm, bug, beetle and grub that could be found the mainland was on the Outer Banks as well. Third, the amount of earth the free soilers had been taking was hardly enough to cause erosion anywhere along a coastline that saw scores of tons of earth eradicated each hurricane season. Finally, and most importantly, whenever the USDA stated it was ‘testing’ something, it meant that the bureaucracy was dragging its feet long enough to come up with a better reason to declare something off limits.

The last assessment turned out to be most valid when the USDA returned with its test samples — a growing season after it had taken same samples — to declare that the soil showed a propensity to harbor invasive viral and bacterial spores which could, under the correct circumstances kill lawns and invade the adjacent vegetation. While the soil from the mainland could be used, it would have to be sanitized, a process which the USDA had a monopoly. There were only two such sanitizing establishments, one in Washington D. C. called the USDA lab and the other was to be built in Denver or Sacramento depending on funding.

When it was pointed out that this logic was bogus for, as could be clearly seen, the vegetation along the coastline of the mainland was hardly suffering from any viral or bacterial epidemic. Further, if the so-called “correct circumstances” had not yet been encountered — once again, the proof being the lush vegetation along the mainland coastline — when, exactly, would these “correct circumstances” occur. Then there was the question of sending tons of soil to Washington D. C. to be sanitized. Worse, it would mean waiting until Congress funded the new sanitizing facility and send those same tons half-way or all the way across the United States.

Once again, it took Bankers all of about 17 minutes to figure out that the USDA was ‘pulling a fast one.’ So they did what Bankers always do when confronted with government incompetence. They smiled and nodded their head politely. Then they left the meeting and went out and did exactly what they wanted to do.

Except they did it at night.

Within days of the USDA gathering, rather, within a few nights, a flotilla of empty boats headed for the mainland. But this was an organized enterprise. The days of one man/one boat were gone. The bulk of the vessels went in convoy with some of the faster boats plying the water fore and aft of the stream of boats. These were to handle any unpleasant encounters with the United States Coast Guard. No unpleasant encounters were anticipated because most of the mariners knew or were related to all of the Coast Guard personnel and rumor being what it was on the Outer Banks, the only people who did not know what was going on were the USDA agents. But one never knew so the outlaying ships were armed to the teeth with cases of Scotch, Bourbon and rum just in case they should encounter a cutter. Or not, as the case may be.

Now that the purloining of the soil was a clandestine operation, the boats could not operate in populated areas. So they headed across Pamlico Sound and headed up the Alligator River. When they found a likely locale for good earth, the flotilla stopped and a bucket brigade of sorts began transporting the soil into boat after boat. When all were thus loaded, they headed back to the Outer Banks only breaking formation when each boat headed for its respective residence.

Over the next week the USDA was surprised to see a flurry of activity from one end of the island to the other with residence turning over what appeared to be new soil. This concerned the regulators and they suspected, correctly, the soil had been purloined from the mainland. This was a direct violation of the edict the USDA had so recently issued and cease-and-desist orders were issued to all households which appeared to have new soil.

This did not go over well with the population. So, once again, the Bankers generally ignored the orders. But when the USDA threatened to bring in Fish and Wildlife agents along with the minions of the IRS to deal with the situation, the Bankers changed their tactics. Instead of ignoring the USDA, they did exactly the opposite. They all turned themselves in. Even as the USDA was contemplating its next move, there appeared a long line of individuals — men, women and children — at their proverbial front door willing to sign confessions of possession stolen property. Some families were admitting to as many as 20 separate violations — lawn, gardens, flowerpots, wetlands fill, flower beds, truck farms, bean patches, tomato banks and the like — each of which required a paper form. By the time the confessing came to an end, the USDA had more than 1,200 confessions which it presented to the District court in Pasquotank. The confessions and charges never made through the front door.

Neither did the USDA.

Just as suddenly as it had started, the soil war, as it was caused, ceased. Never again did the USDA attempt to stall the transfer of soil from the mainland to the Outer Banks. Lawns sprouted along the Outer Banks, much to chagrin of most husbands, and to this day the old timers still talk of the glorious day when in convoy they, the much-heralded Soil Smugglers, moved a significant portion of the Alligator River bank to Buxton, Frisco, Manteo and Hatteras Village.

And they probably still are.

[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.]