NAGS HEAD, N.C. (AP) - A wooden carriage from a Civil War cannon lies at the front of the old store, not far from century-old bottles, a World War I helmet, a toothy shark’s jaw and door knobs washed up from a shipwreck.
The cluttered assortment of the rare, the old and the roughed up was gathered from local beaches over six decades by Nellie Myrtle Pridgen. It is known as the “immaculate collection,” and has a worldwide reputation.
Writers have lauded the trove in such publications as National Geographic and in books about sea glass and beachcombing.
“She didn’t throw anything away,” said Dorothy Hope, who with Chaz Winkler cares for the cache as part of the Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum. It’s housed in a century-old building sided with brown cedar shingles. “You can look at a shelf 10 times and come back and find something different.”
It takes Winkler, Hope and volunteers four days to dust everything and clean the shelves.
But this is a museum without a sign out front and with no regular hours. For years, Winkler said, the town has said it needs more parking and other improvements before it can be a real museum.
Plans are under way to raise the money and eventually turn it into the Old Nags Head Cultural Preservation Center. But making the required improvements will be costly, and some will be difficult, Winkler said.
For now, the museum opens on weekends before some holidays, for two days a week from June to August and occasionally for special guests. Last year, four women, three from Washington state and one from Hawaii, visited Pridgen’s stockpile as part of their lifelong bucket list.
Nellie Myrtle, as she was called, was born in 1918 to Mattie and Jethro Midgett, descendants of the first families on the Outer Banks. The couple built a store on the sound side four years earlier, catering to locals and the growing number of tourists. She and her brother helped run the business as it became a popular gathering spot. At one time, it was the only place on the Outer Banks, besides the Coast Guard, with a phone.
As a young teen, Nellie Myrtle walked the beach gathering whatever the waves spit onto the sand. She picked up the mundane and the unusual - a rum keg from Prohibition days, a piece of German stoneware from the 1600s and a shell from a rare argonaut mollusk.
Eventually, new roads and bridges opened the Outer Banks to hordes of tourists. In 1932, the Midgetts moved the store from the sound to the ocean, rolling the whole building across the sand on logs, to take better advantage of the boom.
Nellie Myrtle had two short marriages and two children. She worked at Norfolk Naval Air Station during the war as a hydraulic mechanic, and later rented out rooms in her home for extra money. Meanwhile, she continued collecting. She came to worship the ocean and despise development, said Hope, a longtime friend of Nellie’s late daughter, Carmen.
Pridgen’s parents died in the 1970s, and she put her treasures in their old store, all of them arrayed just about where they are now. She became more reclusive as she aged and did battle with anyone who crossed her.
One night, patrons of the nearby Nags Head night spot called the Casino parked in her yard. She called a friend to help push their car into the road. She spray-painted the windshield and cursed at them when they returned to the car, Hope said.
She died in 1992, resistant to the end, not wanting anybody to see her repository. Carmen, instead, desired that more people enjoy this legacy of her mother and Nags Head.
The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places 10 years ago. Winkler and Hope have continued to try to open the museum more regularly.
“We made a commitment to Carmen,” Winkler said.
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