Corolla, the place not the car
Let's start off with the name, and how to pronounce it. Locals will tell you, in a skinny minute, that it is pronounced Kuh-RAH-Luh...not like the car. Kuh-RAH-Luh. Corolla is located in Currituck County, on the northern Outer Banks. The name Currituck comes from an American Indian term, Carotank, which means land of the wild geese. The town of Corolla got that name when the post office opened in 1895. Corolla refers to the botanic term for petals of a flower.
Corolla is home to the much loved Corolla Wild Horses. The horses are located on a 12,000 acre animal sanctuary just north of the populated area of Corolla. Corolla is also home to the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education and the Whalehead Club. The Center for Wildlife Education is located in Currituck Heritage Park next to the Lighthouse and the Whalehead Club. There are some amazing exhibits including a huge collection of decoys and an 8,000 gallon exhibit that shows the conditions above and below the Currituck Sound. There is not an admission fee and there are programs offered for kids and adults.
Ok, back to some history. The Chowanog, Poteskeet and other Indian tribes lived on the mainland and fished and hunted in Corolla. The Europeans arrived in the late 1600s. Most people preferred to live on the mainland until about the mid 1800s when there were several communities along the northern Outer Banks. Tiny villages.
Wash Woods was closest to the Virginia state line. A little further down was Seagull, near Penny's Hill and Jones Hills, also called Currituck Beach and Whalehead and Poyners Hill, which was between Duck and Corolla, All were very remote and very isolated.
A writer from Harpers Weekly wrote this about the Currituck Banks, “If there were any spot on earth that one would expect to find untenanted, it surely would be this stretch of sand between ocean and sound. …Yet there is a hardy race who have lived here from father to son for over a century. They exist entirely by hunting, fishing, rearing cattle and acting as guides.”
The locals did in fact fish and hunt to make a living. They also raised livestock and grew their own vegetables and fruits. These hearty and self sufficient people also kept an eye on the beach in order to salvage items that came ashore from shipwrecks, which were numerous. Another way to make money was working as guides for wealthy northerners who wanted to hunt and fish here.
Corolla was the only one of the tiny villages that lasted. There were government jobs that offered a steady paycheck. Construction of the Currituck Lighthouse began in 1873 and the light keepers their families assimilated into the community. The Lighthouse was finished on December 1, 1875 and lit the same day.
The US Life Saving Services established the Jones Hill Life Saving Station in 1874, It is was just east of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse site. The station later became know as Currituck Beach Life Saving Station was one of the original seven stations on the Outer Banks. Local men worked there from December through March, seven of them. The six surf-men received $40 a month for four months and got an additional $3 for each wreck they went to. These men lived at the station but their families stayed in the village. The keeper in charge was paid $200 a year. I can only imagine what life here must have been like back then. I love the winter, when the OBX is quieter, and it is so peaceful. It is not for everyone, I know that.
But I digress... Jones Hill got a post office in 1895. Apparently the postal service was known for changing for the traditional names of the villages and asked that locals submit their suggestions for an official name. Of all the names submitted, the postal service chose Corolla, which I don't get...but that was that.
By 1905 Currituck County recognized that Corolla was ready for a one room local schoolhouse. There was one teacher and all the kids of all grades and ages attended the same school.
By the 1930s it is thought that 100+ people lived in Corolla Village and while the Depression hit the country hard, the locals survived by doing what they always did, hunting and fishing. Self sufficient as usual.
When World War II came along, the impact on Corolla was significant. The Whalehead Club had been leased for use as a training based for hundreds of sailors. The US Coast Guard has support buildings and barracks all around Corolla and out on the beach too. Locals had to darken their windows and make sure headlights were off when they drove because German U-Boats came close to the shoreline. There were a lot of servicemen there and the post office and store stayed busy. Church services were filled too.
When the war ended may residents left the area to look for jobs on the mainland. The lighthouse had been electrified in 1938 and just required a caretaker. Electricity did not come to the the villagers until 1955. By the late 1950s there were only three families living in Corolla. The school closed and the church was empty every day. The Whalehead Club was used as a boys school during the summer but sat empty the rest of the year. At one point the Whalehead Club was even used as the headquarters for a rocket fuel testing facility.
By the 1970s there were very few people living in Corolla year 'round, maybe 15 or so. To get there you had to travel on a clay road along the soundside. Big holes and fine sand made it very difficult to drive through and it most likely felt that you were headed to the end of civilization. Both the lighthouse and the Whalehead Club were abandoned and in bad shape. So to visit there and even more to live there you had to like it just the way it was, overgrown, wild and free.
Some vacationers began discovering Corolla in the 1970s and things began to change. Developers started purchasing big tracts of land in Corolla. the first large scale developments were Ocean Sands and Whalehead. After that things changed quickly and over the next ten years more than 1500 homes were built. Most of the homes that are currently in Corolla are vacation rentals and/or second homes.
While Corolla is a much different place now, quite a few of the historic buildings were adapted to modern use and the village has kept its boundaries. Thousands of people visit this town every year, mostly in the summer months, and local business owners and residents work hard to keep the feel of their village intact and to protect their beloved Corolla Wild Horses.
The Whalehead Club is back to its former glory and a favorite place for weekly concerts and a popular wedding wedding venue. The Currituck Beach Lighthouse is also open and very popular. We have many good stewards of the community and they are owed our thanks for preserving these places.
And just like the people before them, it does take a certain type of person to live here in Corolla year round. Things close in the winter, it is very, very quiet. And beautiful.