The first large influx of tourists to the Outer Banks did not come for the sandy beaches and the ocean blue water.
Instead, they descended to Currituck Sound and other locations along North Carolina’s barrier islands in search of ducks.
From the 1870s to the 1920s more than 100 hunt clubs and lodges were established in a 100-mile long area of the Back Bay, Currituck Sound and points south.
Those lodges and the mainly wealthy hunters they attracted created a cottage industry in Currituck, Sharon Meade, exhibits curator for the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education said during her presentation for Museum of the Albemarle’s virtual History for Lunch program Wednesday.
In her program called “Hunt Clubs of Currituck County,” Meade chronicled the rise of the hunt clubs and their all but disappearance today.
“This is a broad subject,” Meade said. “There were so many families involved that we tied into Currituck County that we still don’t know probably half about hunt clubs during this time.”
One thing that is for sure is that the hunt clubs created jobs for Currituck residents as sportsmen from the northern U.S. started buying up land in the county to build their clubs.
Corporate clubs were the “big boys” Meade said. Some of the larger clubs like Swan Island Club, Pine Club and Currituck Club could accommodate up to 60 to 70 hunters.
“They stayed weeks for a time and sometimes months at a time,” Meade said. “Big clubs, they would sometimes have 2,000, 3,000 acres. They bought it (land) up.”
There were also smaller hunt clubs where one or two people would buy in, Meade said.
“We had tons of these little ones,” she said.
Carpenters were needed to the build the hunting clubs and associated buildings and operate them. Decoys were manufactured in the county and local guides were needed to navigate the region’s notoriously shallow and dangerous waters to find birds. County residents were hired as guards to keep the hunting grounds free from would-be poachers and general stores were built to supply the hunters.
“One thing that we do know is that it changed things in the county,” Meade said, referring to Currituck. “People were making all these things. It helped people have an income.”
One of the most famous hunt clubs in Currituck is the Whalehead Club in Corolla. Duck hunting enthusiast Edward Knight bought the Lighthouse Hunt Club in the 1920s and built one of his residences on the property.
The 21,000-square foot home is now owned by the county and is open to visitors.
Meade said some of the lodges burned more than once and most of the surviving club structures are now private homes.
Meade said one hunt club owner also changed the education system in Currituck.
After J.P. Knapp bought the hunting lodge on Mackay Island in 1919, he was surprised to find local children were not attending school.
“Knapp did amazing things for Currituck County,” Meade said. “He brought in teachers and started the complete education process here in Currituck County. He made quite the change and his list of accomplishments is quite large.”
Currituck later named one of its schools for Knapp.
Today, because of various reasons, people from outside the area coming to Currituck to duck hunt are mainly hunters who hire local guides to take them to the best spots.
Meade said there are over 200 duck blinds currently in Currituck Sound although not all are owned by guides catering to tourists.
“Guides have their blinds and they take people hunting,” Meade said. “If you are coming in from out of town you are going to need to have someone show you where to go. That (business) is still quite active.”
More information about Currituck’s duck hunting past is available at the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education. Located at 1160 Village Lane, Corolla, the center is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. but closed on state holidays. Due to current COVID restrictions, the center is limited to 30 visitors in the building at a time. The center’s phone number is 252-453-0221.