About Joseph Merritt Burrus
Captain Joseph Merrit Burrus was appointed lighthouse keeper in 1929, the same year that the beacon was electrified. The light was automated in 1954, eight years after he retired. At that time Clyde Farrow, Ocracoke's last lighthouse keeper, was transferred to Washington, NC.
Captain Joe, as he was frequently called, came to Ocracoke from Hatteras. His wife, Eleanor, affectionately called "Miss El," was born on Hatteras as well. Captain Joe retired in 1946, after serving forty-three years with the US Lighthouse Service, his last sixteen years at Ocracoke.
During his long career in both Virginia and North Carolina Captain Joe served at Tangier, Virginia; Thimble Shoal, Virginia; Diamond Shoal Lightship, NC; Cape Lookout, NC; Croatan, NC; Cape Hatteras, NC; Oliver's Reef, NC; Bluff Shoal, NC; and Ocracoke.
During the severe winter of 1917-1918 much of Pamlico Sound was frozen solid. Joe Burrus was stationed at that time on the old screw-pile lighthouse at Bluff Shoal, about seven and one half miles from Ocracoke. According to old timers the cold lasted so long that for several weeks no supply boats could reach the light station on Bluff Shoal. Eventually Captain Joe ventured out onto the ice and walked quite a distance. Whether he was attempting to walk all the way to dry land, or just trying to relieve the boredom, is uncertain. At any rate he turned back and remained at the lighthouse until the weather broke and food and supplies were finally delivered to him.
When the supply boat eventually made contact with Captain Joe the seaman reported that the lighthouse keeper had run out of food. Of much more concern to Captain Burrus, however, was the fact that he had used up his supply of chewing tobacco. Maybe that's what he was after when he stepped out onto the ice that cold winter day.
By all accounts Captain Joe was a likeable, entertaining, and humorous Outer Banker. Aycock Brown, in his November, 1941 issue of the Ocracoke Island Beacon reports that "Captain Burrus is a Republican (he likes to tell people that he is the only "out and out" GOP man on the island), but among his best friends are Congressman Bonner, Comptroller General Warren and others, all outstanding Democrats."
According to Brown, "Capt. Burrus is a Hatterasman, but on the beach road at Ocracoke he has built a beautiful cottage where he will live with Mrs. Burrus and family after he retires."
Captain Joe retired from the lighthouse service in 1946. He lived in his new cottage until he died eight years later. Captain Joe's son, Oscar, inherited the house, and later Oscar's daughter acquired it. In the 1970s Ann Ehringhaus purchased the house and opened Oscar's House Bed & Breakfast. Ann claims that she still occasionally hears Captain Joe walking from room to room upstairs, especially on dark, cold winter nights when Ann is alone in the downstairs parlor.