NEBRASKA, N.C. — Seventy-four-year-old Nancy Wiseman wakes early each morning to watch the sun rise over Nebraska, to watch the clouds take shape and the cornfields unfold. From her living room, cluttered with old cookbooks and family photos, she can see it all.
“People that live where they can't see stuff like that just don't know what they're missing,” Wiseman says, her accent thick with the region's English brogue, vowels drawn out and turned around. “I sit here and talk to God and tell him what I'm seeing, and thank him for the pretty sights.”
In a ghost town like Nebraska, at once both similar and completely alien to the Midwestern state, it's hard not to reflect. In this notch of eastern North Carolina, just a ferry ride from Cape Hatteras and the Outer Banks, the people are few — somewhere between 10 and 40, depending on where you draw the line — and the memories plentiful.
“Never heard of no trouble or nothin' going on,” Wiseman says. “Once in a while cousin Roy would go over to Last Chance (a nearby community) and get his whiskey and get drunk. He'd come back by, and his mules were so used to it — he'd be laying down and they'd take him home.”
She remembers the business, the bustle, the old store's fresh banana ice cream — “a Saturday ritual,” she says — and she remembers when the hurricane flattened the church. She remembers the fishermen, and the sailboats gathered in the canal, and the day she threw up in Pamlico Sound.
“I told Uncle Earl, ‘If you let me get off of this boat and get up on that land, I tell you one thing: I'll never go again.' ”
But today, little remains but memory and a road sign: NEBRASKA in all caps. And every now and then, a car with a matching license plate, a Cornhusker traveler.
A foreign smile, a shutter click, and all is back to normal.
“They come and take pictures of the sign,” Wiseman says.
On a blistering Saturday afternoon in Hyde County, a donkey heehaws in Nebraska — and that's about it. Tomorrow, the last active building in town — Watson's Chapel — will fill with Methodist parishioners from the area, but today the donkey reigns. A storm brews in the distance, a weak rumble hits the lowland, Atlantic waters idle in the canal.
“Sometimes you don't see a car for three or four hours,” Wiseman says.
Though Nebraska wasn't officially incorporated until February 1855, English immigrants first settled there as early as the mid-1700s. Shortly thereafter, settlers began exporting the region's agricultural produce, mostly Midwestern fare — corn, soybeans and wheat — but some of the southern staples, too, such as cotton and tobacco.
Fixed between Pamlico Sound to the east, and North Carolina's largest natural lake — Lake Mattamuskeet — a few miles west, Nebraska's peat-rich soil produces some of the highest yields in the state.
In the late 1800s, looking to streamline the market, a group of farmers dredged a canal from the sound to the middle of Nebraska. Farmers paid to have their crops shipped down the canal, out into the sound, and back up the Pamlico River, where they would be sold to merchants in larger markets such as Little Washington, New Bern or Belhaven, N.C.
“Just imagine no hard-surface roads,” says R.S. Spencer, county historian, self-appointed “resource man,” and owner of the True Value store in nearby Engelhard. “You got stuck a lot. So we did things by water.”
The canal was a two-way venture. While farmers shipped their produce out, local fishermen hauled their catch back in.
Wiseman's cousin, 62-year-old Earl Pugh Jr., spent the first 25 years of his life in Nebraska. His father owned a fish house that flanked the canal.
“I remember Nebraska as a thriving fishing community,” Pugh says. “There was maybe 15 boats working out of there as I was growing up. My dad's little fish house bought seafood, oysters, fish, shrimp, crabs, and he would carry them either to Engelhard to a bigger fish house or to Belhaven or Rose Bay for the oysters.”
Fresh fish and rich crops, drunken cousins and seasick kids: the good life in Nebraska, N.C.
“We lived off the water and the land,” Spencer says.
“I don't know how to explain it,” Wiseman says. “It's just different.”
She's talking about Nebraska, N.C., but the sentiment rings true for all of Hyde County. It's just different here, at 3 feet above sea level, old farmhouses thinly sown, forsaken and mummified in kudzu. Named for Edward Hyde, North Carolina's first colonial governor, Hyde County is one of only two counties in North Carolina to boast zero incorporated communities. Though it's the second-largest county in the state in area, the population falls just short of 6,000.
“Right here, you're 50 miles from a stoplight,” Spencer says, reclining behind his desk at the True Value store. It's also a furniture outlet and a cellphone shop. “We think nothing of leaving after church on Sunday, driving two hours to Greenville, shopping a little bit, eating, visiting, come on back. But you get somebody in Greenville coming to Engelhard, they think they're coming to the end of the world.”
Hyde County is home to Lake Mattamuskeet, once dubbed the “Canada Goose Hunting Capital of the World,” 18 miles long, seven miles wide, knee-deep in the middle. When the sun drops, the stars pop and the sky burns orange behind the lake. That's not a natural phenomenon; it's the county's largest employer, the $18.8 million, 756-bed Hyde County Correctional Center, lights flooding the courtyard.
Those oddities reveal themselves later. At first, you hear the accent. It's known as the “high tider” dialect — pronounced “hoi toider” — and is a remnant of Elizabethan English. Like a linguistic Galapagos, language here evolved (or not) in isolation from the rest of the mainland.
“If I leave from here and go somewhere, they say you're from Hyde County or from the coast or something,” Pugh says. “But you know, to me, they talk funny.”
But some things here are inexplicable.
For example: Nebraska.
Historians speculate, considering the town was incorporated in 1855, that it was named for the Kansas-Nebraska Act of the previous year. But why would residents of a previously established slave state rename their community after a law promoting popular sovereignty?
“I have no earthly idea,” Wiseman says.
“I don't know,” says Pugh.
“You want to know where the Lost Colony went, too?” Spencer says.
The canal — often called simply “the ditch” — is still visible in Nebraska, though it hasn't been dredged in decades. Old fence posts and wooden ties cordon the banks, sinking further every day. And the silt has crept back in, preventing anything but small, flat-bottom vessels from navigating it.
“I miss the activity,” Wiseman says. “It's sad. I reckon just being close to the water and having a pile of people around — it was nice.”
In the 1930s, the state of North Carolina offered to purchase the canal, owned at the time by the Lake Landing-Nebraska Canal & Transportation Co. The state made the same offer at Middleton, fixed on a small inlet several miles over. Both communities declined.
“The Corps of Engineers wanted to dig out a deep channel for the boats, and the people that owned the canal wouldn't because they couldn't charge tariffs on the canal,” Pugh says.
So instead, the Corps went north to Engelhard, dredging a deeper and more accessible canal and harbor. Fishermen who previously sold their catch in Nebraska and Middleton soon opted for Engelhard, leaving no one to take their place.
Today, though still unincorporated, Engelhard is the second- largest fishing port in North Carolina. According to the National Ocean Economics Program, the Engelhard port landed 9 million pounds of seafood in 2010 worth a total of $10.6 million.
“So that's what happened in Middleton (and Nebraska),” Pugh says. “Greed.”
Around the same time, North Carolina built U.S. Highway 264, connecting Hyde County to the rest of the state and ending its reliance on water transportation. Stores closed, communities vanished. Like the canal, business at Pugh's father's fish house dried up. By the 1960s, the writing on the wall was permanent.
“Nebraska was one of the last for the businesses to dry up, other than Engelhard,” Pugh says. “But I don't think the impact was really that great on anybody. It was just accepted and people went on.”
Like most Hyde County residents, Pugh seems content with history's path. Despite fond recollections, and despite the resulting economic dislocation, he does not begrudge Nebraska's fate. Nor, he says, do most others. According to Spencer, it's an attitude bred from generations of self-reliance. No excuses, no romance. You just move on.
“Look,” he says. “We're used to being out on our own. We might not have everything we want, but we have everything we need — we have to.”
In 1971, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a housekeeping bill to repeal the charters of inactive communities. To erase them, in other words. Nebraska was on the list.
“I enjoyed living there,” Pugh says, nodding his head. “It just went away.”
But the name lingers, like Wiseman's craving for that old banana ice cream. Signs for Nebraska Road stand tall and skinny on narrow dirt lanes, out where cicadas sing their blues. And maybe the name, despite its mystery, counts for more than you think.
Farmers like Earl Pugh Jr. still call it Nebraska, less for the village it was than the spit of Hyde County it stands for.
And it's the name, too, that attracts the adventurous Cornhusker, perhaps opting to spend a last vacation day not on the sun-soaked islands of the Outer Banks, but on a whim to find that misplaced particle on the map, that dot with a familiar name that promises nothing but lures them nonetheless.
“They probably came for the same thing you are. They were curious,” Spencer says. “The name intrigued them, so they just wanted to go stand by the sign, have their picture taken, see what it was like.”
The storm, previously just a pock on the horizon, has circled and passed, and Nebraska now drips in the wake. A red vehicle pulls off the road,
Chimney Rock glistening wet on the plates.
A reporter steps out, takes a photo of the sign, and wonders why in the world he's back in Nebraska.
Carson Vaughan is a former Nebraskan and free-lance journalist. A graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he is working on his master's degree and is the nonfiction editor of Ecotone, a semiannual journal at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.