Just about anyone who has taken a boat ride through the picturesque waters surrounding Down East Carteret County has spotted what is oft-referred to as the Big House on Davis Island. Since 1885 the Davis Island Hunt Club has had a looming presence, like a sentinel guarding the entrance to Jarrett Bay. It has long been the source of queries. What is this beautiful building? Who owns it? Is it a club? A private home?
The answer is simple … it can be whatever you’d like it to be.
Listed for $1.5 million through Beaufort Realty, the 49-acre island is ready to provide one lucky owner optimum privacy, complete with a four-bedroom keeper’s quarters and outbuildings. The Big House boasts seven bedrooms and three baths in its more than 5,500 square feet could sleep a small army. There are several private bedrooms as well as a large room with multiple beds, perfect for the children in an extended family.
Updates have been made through the years, but it maintains a rustic feel despite its grand exterior. Large rooms for family groups, fireplaces to gather around on chilly evenings and porches that would surely draw everyone out for views of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse and the surrounding waters. It is in need of updates – appliances are dated and the furnishings have long been in place – but with the house itself has stood the test of time, tide and weather.
With nooks of sandy beaches, foot paths that weave through groves of maritime forest, wetlands, ponds and an expanse of green grass, Davis Island could be just about anything – from hideaway resort to private hunting club. Of course the island is only accessible by boat. A dock is already in place and the property comes with close to 3 acres in Smyrna on the mainland with parking and boat access.
According to the North Carolina Gazetteer – the land was named after Williams Davis who initially settled on the island in 1715. It stayed in the Davis family until 1870 when David Davis sold the island to help settle debts incurred during the Civil War. It sold, according to Ed Pond’s “The Secret Diaries of Civil War Beaufort and the Villages of Davis Shore” for “a paltry sum in a court house auction.” Henry Parsons of Connecticut was the buyer, but it wasn’t until a few years later when the land was sold to Barnard Leckler and wife Millie that the island’s permanent structures were built.
Leckler, who hailed from either New York or New Jersey depending on which report is read, employed Raymond Paul, a master carpenter, to build hunting lodge and home. The newcomer had visited the area for a duck and goose hunting trip with Isiah Davis and fell in love with the area. Davis told him the island was for sale along with mainland property still referred to as Davis Ridge. In all, the Lecklers purchased some 350 acres, including the island, for $500.
While Paul was constructing the lodge, the couple lived on Isaiah Davis’s schooner, the same vessel that was used to ferry construction materials back and forth to the island, notes Dr. Jack Dudley’s book “Carteret Waterfowl Heritage.”
In 1904, the property changed hands again, this time selling to George Demings of Ohio who hired well-known hunting guide, Francis Murphy, as caretaker. The club under Demings was just about self-sufficient thanks to a working farm and a host of livestock, including goats, sheep, cattle and hogs as well as two ice houses. According to Dudley, a collection of decoys were found from this era, leading researchers to believe that duck hunting was a primary activity for the lodge owner and his guests.
In 1927 the island was sold to Edward Cornell of New York and in 1937 Robert L. Humber of Greenville, the son of Lena Davis, bought the property for a reported $100. He wasn’t a hunter. Instead, Humber, who had fled France just before the arrival of the Nazis, was more interested in preserving the property, upgrading the Big House and creating a space where family and friends could come together and enjoy the coastal lifestyle. It has been in the family ever since.
“I was the oldest of seven cousins and we would all come down for the summer vacation – it was like heaven for us kids,” said his grandson, Robert Humber of Marshallberg. “I absolutely loved it. We would spend our days crabbing and we had a little skiff we’d pull around. There were picnics and fish fries and we’d spend our days exploring. A kid couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Caretakers were often seen as extended family. There was George Hancock and Floyd Chadwick, who were like older uncles, Humber said. Then Albert and Nan Burrows came along with five children who made great playmates for the group of cousins.
Initially, the house was smaller. It was his grandfather who added the west wing and decorative touches to help make the Big House look similar to the chateaus he remembered from his time in France. He had grand plans for a library on the top floor, said Humber, which was constructed as one large open area with a balcony area off the back. The unfinished space could easily be modified into whatever the new owners would like to create.
When his grandfather and namesake died in 1973, the island passed to his father Marcel and the family continued to visit, but with less regularity and in fewer numbers. Slowly, the cousins married, formed families of their own and spread out to different parts of the country.
“My grandfather really was the magnet,” said Humber. “He was the draw that brought us back every summer. We still love the place – we just don’t use it as much as we used to.
“It has a huge amount of potential – the entire island does,” said Humber. “The house definitely needs some attention, but it’s built like a rock and will be there for years to come. It has weathered many a storm. It’s truly a testament to the construction methods used.”
And Humber should know. He lived on the island from 2003-2009 after retiring from the U.S. Navy.
“I had always loved the island – like my dad. And it was a lifelong dream of mine to live there full time,” Humber said. “I enjoyed it immensely. After leaving the service, it was the perfect retreat.”
It was a woman who eventually brought him to the mainland. The island and the Big House have always garnered attention by passersby and had drawn a number of trespassers through the years. When people approached while Humber was living in the house he was quick to step outside and let them know that someone was there. On one warm summer day, he stepped out to steer away a vessel that came in to take a closer look and a conversation was started with Donna, who was loosely related to the Davis family. A friendship evolved into a romance and the couple married few years later – drawn together by the island and its history. While they made a permanent home in Marshallberg, caretakers continue to live on-site in the nearby cottage.
Humber would love to see the property entice another family to take over the torch, making memories of their own. While they wait for that family to come along, Humber is eager to make a few final memories of his own. His mother, about to celebrate her 89th birthday at presstime, will be coming back to Carteret County for a visit with plans of spending a few nights at the Big House.
Additional information about the island can be found of popular real estate websites or through Donnie McCall at Beaufort Realty, 252-241-1917.