What can a plant teach us about Virginia history? On the Eastern Shore, residents rescued a lost fig tree that helps tell the story about a barrier island community forced to flee their home. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.
Learn More: Find info about the Hog Island Fig, Slow Food's Ark of Taste, and Slow Food RVA. Learn about the Eastern Shore Barrier Islands Center, see more historic photos of Hog Island, VA, and browse "The Countryside Transformed: The Railroad and the Eastern Shore of Virginia, 1870-1935," a digital archive of Eastern Shore historical resources. Find historic Eastern Shore fig recipes in The Housekeepers Companion, an 1889 cookbook by Bessie E. Gunter.
This story was reported and produced by Catherine Komp with production assistance from Angela Massino, recording assistance from Tim Nuthall and photography by Louise Ricks.
Thanks to the Barrier Islands Center for sharing archival photos from Seretia May Phillips and Faye Quillin Nunez Collection.
In the 19th Century, visitors to Hog Island described its mile long white sandy beaches and forests of pine, oak and red cedar. There were abundant oysters and clams as well as ferocious mosquitoes. “The men fish and follow the sea,” wrote a Civil War Soldier in 1864. “The women are very industrious.” Although unhappy with his experience on the island, the soldier noted the beach plums, wild cherries and “very good blackberries.” Norris Bowen remembers the blackberries too.
Norris Bowen: The best blackberries in the world, very big, huge, very sweet.
Bowen: When my father came home with a mess of marsh hens, that was a happy family. And watch your hand when you reach for a piece, ‘cause you might get stabbed.
Norris Bowen was the last baby born on Hog Island, on the 9th of May 1939. His ancestors endured strong storms and a rugged way of life. But in the early 20th Century, erosion was taking a toll. Families had to make a choice.
Bowen: So in the '20s people began to move off.
They dismantled homes and put them on barges, resettling in mainland towns like Willis Wharf and Quinby.
Bowen: By 1930, the island was less than half the size it was.
A devastating hurricane in 1933 came next and others began packing up. Bowen’s family was one of the last to leave in 1941. Before his father left for World War II, they went back.
Bowen: And I was, what, five, six something. But I could see, you know, and I was really sad because I remembered in the back of my mind, maybe it was because people had told me about it, what a beautiful place Hog Island was and what it was in. And so I started crying.
Bowen was young, but it’s an emotional experience to see your home washed away. Today, many Hog Island natives have passed. Bowen and others have worked to preserve the island’s stories - through oral histories, documentaries, and books. And part of this history is embedded in something living.
Bernie Herman: So you want to go through the figs first, right?
Bernie Herman walks through his Fig Library, dozens of trees he’s collected from cuttings around the Eastern Shore. He names them after the places they come from or the people they’re associated with.
Herman: So this is a Westerhouse Green, the house is Westerhouse.
Another is from an area called Pear Cottage.
Herman: So this fig is huge, it’s the size of an apple when it’s ripe and it’s a dark, dark, purple. The flavors are sort of all right up front. It doesn't have that honey quality. It's really sort of a blast of the floral sweetness and that's it. But it's a good fig.
Herman is the George B. Tindall Professor of Southern Studies and Folklore at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He already had one Hog Island fig, but the Eastern Shore resident knew of another still on the island. He got on the boat of Oysterman Tom Gallivan a few summers ago to find it.
Tom Gallivan: When you go to Hog Island, 99% of the time, maybe more than that, you’re the only person on Hog Island.
Wearing waders and fending off those ferocious mosquitoes, Gallivan and Herman spotted an old grape arbor, then saw the spindly Hog Island fig just feet from the edge of the marsh.
They took some cuttings, but it was a few days before they were delivered to friend and Hermitage Nursery partner Bill Neil.
Gallivan: They were in pretty bad shape by the time I got them to him.
Bill Neil: They were hard, hard wood. Out of all of them, it wasn’t a handful, it might have been 18, one made it.
And that one survivor turned into about one hundred trees, scattered around the Eastern Shore. In one of Neil’s greenhouses, he takes a look at this year’s cuttings.
Neil: This is about a four inch pot. This is about a foot tall, next year it will be about three feet tall.
Laura Vaughan stops by, she’s the Executive Director of the Barrier Islands Center which works to preserve the coastal history of the Eastern Shore.
Vaughan: Hope springs eternal, here come the figs for Spring, I love it!
The trees are sold informally, with proceeds going to the Center. Vaughan says they plan to put in a Hog Island fig orchard. She says the trees are tough and enduring, and help tell a story of migration.
Vaughan: The fig is universal and the story of having to leave your homeland is universal.
The tree, says Vaughan is hale and hearty, like the people of Hog Island.
Vaughan: It's very worthwhile to not memorialize the islands and the people that used to be out there that aren't living anymore. It's important to keep it alive and to pass on the values, the common sense wisdom of how to adapt and so the fig is symbolic of that. Here it is coming up for spring this year and yet it's been out on that island since who knows when.
Vaughan envisions residents coming together to make Hog Island Fig preserves in a repaired 18th Century kitchen building located on the grounds of the Barrier Islands Center. And others, like Tom Gallivan and Bernie Herman see the fig trees and other Eastern Shore foodways as a economic vehicle for residents.
Gallivan: If this did take off, and one person who was here, whether it's with clams and oysters or whether it's with figs or whether it's with Heyman sweet potatoes whatever it may be. It could be a family that could hold on to their farm or hold on to some property or youngster that wanted to propagate these and create an heirloom fig, a nursery of sorts, or a or sell them for the figs themselves. It would be one job for one family so that they wouldn't have to leave.
Herman: They are a history you can eat, they are a history that is sweet…
Bernie Herman worked with historian and author David Shields to submit the Hog Island Fig, as Hog Island Sheep and Hayman Sweet Potato, ino the Ark of Taste catalog. Created by the Slow Food initiative, the directory documents foodways that are threatened with extinction.
Herman: What I want to preserve is not just the thing. I mean objects are what they are, but what I'm interested in preserving is the voice and spirit of a place that is embodied in foods.
Bowen: Well the house is a Hog Island house. It was owned by Arthur Marsh who was a lighthouse keeper on Hog Island.
In Willis Wharf, Norris Bowen points to one of the Hog Island homes that was transported here, the homes his relatives used to live in.
Bowen: The one over here with the big old camper there, that was my Uncle Victor’s. I remember that coming down the road...
Bowen: For me to let people know what’s it like to live on Hog Island and then the aftermath coming to the mainland, that's just something I feel like people should know and understand.
When Bowen’s children and grandchildren visit, he tells them more stories of growing up here, the hard work as well as mischief, the oysters they ate and the taste of his grandmother’s fig preserves. He hopes this is the year he can bring them to Hog Island, to walk the white sandy beaches, pick the wild blackberries, and to experience the place he once called home. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.