Itinerant Photographers and Goats at the Currituck Beach Lighthouse

By: Meghan Agresto, Currituck Beach Lighthouse Site Manager and Historian

In 2018, the State Archives of North Carolina posted a blog about the many photos they had of North Carolina children in goat carts. Our State Magazine saw the blog and wrote a short article about it, which we read – and then smiled!

Photograph from the N.C. State Archives that sparked our interest in the connection to our site’s history.

Here’s what caught our attention: the Outer Banks Conservationists Collection holds the same type of picture referenced in both of the articles above! Our photo includes a picture of Alvin Johnson in one of these “goat carts” in 1938. Alvin was the grandson of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse Keeper George Garner Johnson and Keeper William Riley Austin.

Our very own “child-in-a-goat-cart” photograph was initially found during extensive research and oral history collection for the Currituck Beach Lighthouse in 1999. This exciting group of stories and research is cataloged in the title To Illuminate the Dark Space which is available on our website. Inez Johnson, Alvin Johnson’s wife, shared the picture after Alvin’s death; she told our oral historian that the photograph was taken here in Corolla.

This photograph of a young Alvin in a goat cart bears a striking resemblance to the carts that seemed to permeate N.C. photography collections in 1937, aside from different numbers that can be seen on the side of each cart. But, we couldn’t seem to stop there, since Alvin’s goat looked awfully similar to the one from the State Archives dated 1939 (even though the State Archives blog warns folks that we’d try to make these associations!).

Alvin Johnson in a goat cart at age 3 or 4, date unknown.

Stick with us, as we go into a bit of genealogy to prove a point: Alvin and his two brothers are the children of Keeper Jesse Johnson (son of George Johnson, mentioned above, who was a keeper here from 1913 – 1929) and Lovie Peele Austin, the daughter of Keeper William Riley Austin, who was our longest serving keeper, stationed here from 1891-1928.

As far as we know, Fannie and Jesse’s is the only union of lighthouse keepers’ children living on site. When Keeper Johnson arrived as 2nd assistant keeper, he would have shared the same north side of the duplex dwelling with the Austin family, where they would have lived together for nine years! 

In 1920, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse compound’s Little Keeper’s House was barged over from Long Point Light station. It’s likely that, after the house settled on-site, Keeper Johnson moved into that. Both men were promoted in 1921: Johnson to first assistant keeper and Austin to principal keeper. This would then mean they would have both been in the main lighthouse keepers’ dwelling again, though this time on other sides of the duplex wall. We don’t know when Alvin’s parents’ love began but we would love to know more!

Stevo, a surprise rescue-goat for our modern-day lighthouse keepers
Stevo and lighthouse fowl

While Keeper Austin stayed in Corolla after he departed the station, Keeper Johnson moved to Virginia. By 1938, the year Alvin is pictured with the goat, there were no more lighthouse keepers stationed at the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, for in 1933 the light had been electrified (with a bulb instead of kerosene-burning lamp) and by 1937 the light was automated (a photo sensor was installed so the bulb would turn on as the sky became dark). In our assessment, this doesn’t mean the photo wasn’t taken on site, but the background looks pretty grown over for a site that’s only been vacant for a year. We could always surmise, though, that the photograph was taken elsewhere in Corolla.

As the time drew on in Corolla, goats pervaded. William Riley Austin had many children and his children had many children.  Keeper Austin’s son John was Post Master in Corolla as was his son Norris Austin.  Norris was a beloved fixture in Corolla until his death in 2017. As always with history, it takes a while to tell your story… but Norris Austin is our goat connection – he lived above the post office and kept goats behind the building.

Sara welcoming a Lighthouse volunteer after Hurricane Dorian

Still, the story continues. In 1980, our organization (Outer Banks Conservationists, OBC) formed to save the Currituck Beach Light Station Keepers’ duplex. It had been officially uninhabited since 1937, though the graffiti scrawled on the walls tells us it was not totally vacant during that time.

By 1990, OBC hired a site manager and opened the lighthouse to the public – the first of the four North Carolina brick and mortar lighthouses to be open to the public. Here’s where the history begins to cycle, and the goats find us once more.

In 2005, our lighthouse keepers were the first of our keepers to live in the Keepers House with a family. Lo, history has a tendency to repeat itself – a goat showed up in 2009. It’s a long story of a local’s prank gone on too long, but the goat needed a home that wasn’t a house, and the open space at the lighthouse seemed to be the answer.

The keepers asked board president and OBC founder about keeping that goat and he was enthusiastic. As a child he had retained a goat as a pet, and was sure Stevo would be a great addition to the site.

But while adorable, Stevo was poorly behaved. All involved said that young wild billy-goats with a tendency to run down Highway 12 need companionship, so Stevo was soon joined by a goat-lady-friend, Sara. Stevo’s personality never quite improved but his friend Sara was as dear and sweet as everyone hoped a goat would be.

Stevo died suddenly one night but today, Sara lives on – roaming the lighthouse grounds, unwilling to allow the Lighthouse compound to be devoid of a member of the family Bovidae.

And from the on-site modern lighthouse keepers’ children and their friends to our many lighthouse visitors interested in climbing the tower or hearing stories like these, many many people have taken pictures of Sara the goat (and Stevo before her) with children. Who knows, maybe one day these photos too will confound N.C. Archivists!