Jenny Scarborough

Crystal Bell Anderson was not fully forewarned about Cobb House life.

During her interview with Vickie Cobb, who welcomed summertime boarders in her Ocracoke home from 1977 until a few years ago, Crystal agreed to abide by an 11 p.m. curfew, and restrictions on alcohol, dating and noise. 

She thought Vickie was "dead serious," said Crystal.  Still needing a place to stay, Crystal moved into one of the cots in the communal upstairs room at Vickie's, and soon found that she fit in just fine at the Cobb House. 

Like many Cobb girls, Crystal began renting during summer breaks from college, and found herself drifting back to Ocracoke year after year.

"The curfew was actually that we had to be out by a certain time," explained Allison Moote, one of many former Cobb girls who is now a full-time Ocracoke resident.  When Vickie was ready for peace and quiet, she'd say, "'Don't you think there are some boys at the bar?'" said Allison.  The boarders would head out on the town for the night. 

Most made it home to their own beds.  Not everyone did, every night, and often there were guests.  Vickie said she got used to stepping across bodies in her living room in the mornings.  

One girl hosted a sleepover with a young man she had recently met.  When she brought him downstairs in the morning to introduce him to Vickie, his name didn't leap to mind.  Vickie just laughed and said, "'That's okay,'" the woman recalled.

A few of the Cobb Women shared a re-union breakfast in late July.  (Back row, l-r) Tara Gray, Mandi Cochran, Vickie Cobb, Susan Sumner, Leslie Cole and Claudia Lewis.  (Front, l-r) Emily Moote and Allison Moote.
A few of the Cobb Women shared a re-union breakfast in late July. (Back row, l-r) Tara Gray, Mandi Cochran, Vickie Cobb, Susan Sumner, Leslie Cole and Claudia Lewis. (Front, l-r) Emily Moote and Allison Moote.

A rotating crew of Cobb girls enlivened the Ocracoke scene for over 30 years.  The house had two bedrooms downstairs and an open attic space upstairs with six cots.  Vickie lived in the master bedroom, girls who made it up the Cobb house hierarchy claimed the other private room, and everyone else lived like a platoon, without hospital corners or bed checks.

There were manifold benefits.  "It was like having the biggest closet in the world," said Leslie Miller Cole.  Vickie served as fashion consultant, a sobering presence, and on their frequent beach days, could always be counted on to know the time just by looking at the sun.

Rent was $25 a week for way too long, said Mandi Cochran.  Utilities were equally divided.  "We finally told Vickie, 'You have to charge us more.'"  Vickie raised her prices an amount her tenants scoffed at and couldn't remember, maybe to $40 a week.

There was one toilet, a shower with ground water and a view of the ground, no air conditioning, no TV, and one old vanity mirror covered in brown splotches for the young women to share.  The sole phone, a rotary, was sometimes inadequate for so many social lives, and the only source of conflict, said the women.  Laundry was hauled to Elizabeth Parsons, who provided washing service at 60 cents per pound.  Most former tenants recall their summers in the Cobb house as a crazy, great time in their lives.

Girls who showed up earliest in the season claimed the beds near the windows.  Box fans helped keep the air moving, but it was still hot, and tenants suffered the occasional spider bite.

"Thank god we drank a lot," laughed Susan Johnson Sumner, who married a Coast Guard man from Station Ocracoke.  Susan and Thurston now have a gurgling, gorgeous seven month old son.

"I couldn't get rid of them.  They kept coming back," Vickie claimed.

In March 1977, Vickie's husband Donald died unexpectedly.  Donald had recently left his position as Vice President of Lance Crackers, ready to make a career of his art.  (Prints of Donald's work are available at the Ocracoke Preservation Society gift shop.)

Bereft, Vickie questioned whether she would return to their Ocracoke home for the summer.  Their daughter, Candice, a UNC graduate, brought some college roommates to stay, so the house would be filled with people and activity.  The Cobb House tradition was born, and Candice inadvertently lost her bedroom to boarders.

Cobb House girls did have to be the right kind of young lady.  They had to fit in with the other Cobb girls, and respect Vickie's authority.  Also, they couldn't give up the secret of the best rent on the island.  A sense of humor was a must.

When Vickie announced that a potential new tenant was coming over to interview, and to be on their best behavior, it of course prompted everyone to see all the crazy things they could do, said Mandi. 

Vickie, who has taught piano for 60 years, grounded girls if they didn't complete their chores.  It had been agreed upon in the interview, after all.  Being called to speak to Vickie in her office, "scared the daylights out of us.  It felt like going to to the principal," said Mandi.

Chores included collecting fresh water from the pumps that were near the old naval base on Silver Lake.  Fresh water was for brushing teeth, drinking and washing faces.  Susan said that the positive side of showering in Oyster Creek ground water was that everyone had a permanent faux tan.

While the tenants were usually women, one year Vickie hosted all men.  The difference?  "The boys were quieter," said Vickie.

The girls taught Vickie their drinking games.  Thumper remains the all-time favorite.  "I always said they kept me young," said Vickie.

There were other rules.   Letting the cat, Okie, out was a no-no.  The house was an affordably built beach shack, and the girls were encouraged to "Date for need.  It was suprisingly effective," laughed Vickie.

"If you brought over a boy he had to fix something," explained Tara Grey.  If your current crush lacked handy-man skills, Vickie said, "'Go get a different boy who could fix it,'" said Tara.  Ben Elicker and Jeremy Umstead hung around for a while, and competently repaired all the holes in the screens.

Tara found out about the Cobb House in the early 1990s, while vacationing on Ocracoke.  The power went out while Tara was in Eleanora Hamilton's shop.  Not realizing power outages were unremarkable, Tara thought it best to sit with the older woman for a while, and they struck up a conversation.  Tara shared her desire to move to Ocracoke, as well as her uncertainty that she was ready to make such a big move.  Eleanora encouraged her to talk to Vickie.

The Cobb House gave Tara a safe, affordable place to test her independence.  She's never looked back, and now travels the country working contractually on film sets.  Tara can usually be counted on to turn up on Ocracoke when she's between gigs.

A place to stay on Ocracoke for the summer was super hard to find in the 1990s, said both Leslie Cole and Claudia Moote Lewis, both of whom shacked up with and married guys they met on the island. (Whether the marriage or shacking up came first, I honestly don't know.  I just want to write about it.)  Leslie, Claudia and Alice Burruss, another former Cobb girl who has a family and home with a man she met on the island, are all educators at Ocracoke School. 

Claudia moved in in 1992, and claims the longest tenancy at the Cobb House.  Before getting her position on Ocracoke, Claudia still came back to stay in the Cobb House, supplementing her teacher's salary with seasonal work.

Jennifer Gray Daniels lived in the Cobb House for six or seven summers.  She now serves as Director of the non-profit Ocracoke Child Care and is married, with two boys, to Sergeant Jason Daniels.

Surprise news:  Sarah Tolson was a Cobb girl, as was Lynn Gaskins. 

"I'm so proud of them all," said Vickie, during a recent re-union breakfast at the Pony Island Restaurant.   The women at the table were wives, mothers, teachers, a graphic designer, an accountant, and medical professionals. 

The Cobb women who live off island plan their vacations for when Vickie is in town.  When they gather, laughter cascades around the table, as stories are re-told, pieced together and celebrated. 

Every year Vickie took a group photo and kept a scrapbook of all the good times.  Each season ended with a Cobb House banquet, with a grand meal at a local restaurant, plenty of toasts, and a little bit of sloshed wine, which bothered exactly no one. 

The connections between all the women are amazing, said Leslie.  Then someone told yet another story that ended with gasps of laughter, a glance at my notepad and pen, and the admonishment, "You can't put that in there."