Barrier Islands Center Celebrates Its Past, Present, and Future

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Story and Photo by Bill Sterling

A celebration of 23 years since the formation of the Barrier Islands Center (BIC) was held Wednesday, Oct. 9, with past and current board members sharing stories of the BIC’s past, present, and future.

Held at the BIC in Machipongo, once the county’s almshouse where the destitute, disabled, elderly, and orphaned could go when there was no other place for them, the event included remarks from founder Thelma Peterson, current board President P.G. Ross, Ed Tankard, and Katty Mears.

Ross recalled the formation of the first board when there was nothing but a dream of having a location to store barrier island artifacts that were quickly leaving the Eastern Shore.

“Thelma’s vision and willingness to roll up her sleeves is how this all got started,” Ross told the gathering. “She remained dedicated to her dream and with the resources and talents of the current and former board members in this room and many who couldn’t be here today, we have this place we all can be proud of.”

Peterson said her “pie in the sky dream” took root after talking with people like John Maddox, who had a Waterfowl Museum on Chincoteague and gave her valuable advice. But the real impetus was provided by Amine Kellam and particularly Dot Gibb, whose family had owned the “poorhouse” as most people called it. She had purchased the farm and three buildings on it from the county in 1952 and held onto it for over 50 years, turning down numerous offers to buy and use it for a variety of purposes, including a bed-and-breakfast and a restaurant. She believed Peterson’s dream of a place to preserve the barrier island artifacts was right for the property and sold it to the BIC, with the museum opening in June 2002.

“Having this facility gave our dream reality and allowed us to pursue grants and other funding to bring us to what we have today,” said Peterson, “and I never walk through the front door today without thanking those two great ladies.”

Peterson was the first president of the board, with Rick Kellam, who provided numerous artifacts for the start of the museum, serving as the first vice president.

Tankard spoke of the cultural enrichment provided by the BIC and the values taught to those who visit the museum, citing the “wonderment of possibilities” provided by the BIC.
Mears, one of the early board members, said her focus was for the BIC to be not just a museum, but “a place for education, art, and fun.” She called the BIC’s annual oyster roast, which provides substantial funds for the facility, “a howling success.”

Ross said it is important to note the BIC is debt-free and continues to provide top-shelf education programs to all ages and sectors of the community. Ross gave credit to the staff led by longtime director Laura Vaughn for setting a tone of friendliness and helpfulness that makes the BIC a warm and receptive place.

Recently, the BIC completed a restoration of the kitchen building, which dates back to around 1725.

Activities such as CPR class, dog training, community diversity, and other programs are held at the BIC on a regular basis.

The BIC tells the story of the 18 barrier islands along Virginia’s Eastern Shore, the communities that once existed there, and a way of life not found today. The residents of the fragile islands were a hardy group but eventually were forced to flee the islands after hurricanes devastated their communities.

But the BIC became much more than a museum, and as one former director said at the gathering, “This place has become the cultural center of Northampton County and maybe the Eastern Shore of Virginia.”

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