barrier islands center
HEART OF THE COMMUNITY,
SOUL OF A CULTURE
It is a gathering place that welcomes newcomers and travelers with the same warm embrace as the locals whose families planted their roots on the Eastern Shore centuries ago; a space where artists and entrepreneurs celebrate the bounty and beauty of this coastal region alongside watermen and farmers.
It is a creative educator, grounding rural and small-town children in history and the arts, while kids visiting from more urban areas can savor a taste of Eastern Shore country life.
It is a museum that preserves yesterday’s culture of the islanders through artful, immersive galleries that encourage you to linger and imagine or relax and be drawn into beautiful films depicting the struggles and triumphs of this rural lifestyle.
The Barrier Islands Center is, most of all, a storyteller, safeguarding the wisdom of our past for the sake of the Eastern Shore’s future.
MISSION & HISTORY
The mission of the Barrier Islands Center (BIC) is to preserve and perpetuate the unique culture and history of Virginia’s Barrier Islands through education and the collection and interpretation of artifacts.
The islands were once home to vibrant fishing and farming communities, with rich wildlife that attracted people from up and down the East Coast to elegant hotels and exclusive gentlemen's hunt clubs. A series of major hurricanes in the 1930s forced those people to relocate to the mainland, but many of the old stories and traditions still echo in life on the Eastern Shore today.
Founded in 1996 and opened to visitors in 2002, the BIC is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to highlighting Virginia's unique coastal history through free admission to exhibits with over 7,500 artifacts artfully displayed to tell the stories of the men and women who lived, worked and played on the barrier islands.
what is a barrier island?
Barrier islands are bodies of sand, longer than they are wide, that face the ocean on one side and a lagoon on the other. They are separated from one another by inlets. There are two principal types of barrier islands: those formed along Coastal plains, such as the islands on the Virginia Coast and those on river Deltas, such as the Mississippi. In all cases, the islands form on flat coasts with an abundance of sand.
Barrier islands serve two main functions. First, they protect the coastlines from severe storm damage. Second, they harbor several habitats that are refuges for wildlife.
Virginia’s barrier islands
Along the seaside of Virginia's Eastern Shore are a chain of uninhabited barrier islands, stretching from Assateague Island at the Maryland border, to Fisherman's Island at the foot of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. These 23 shifting islands of sand, as well as a swath of marshland and lagoons, constitute one of the longest undeveloped stretches of shoreline on the East Coast. In fact, they are a global treasure:
They are the longest chain of undeveloped barrier islands in the global temperate zone
The United Nations designated the islands as an International Biosphere Reserve
Virginia’s Barrier Islands are a crucial natural component of the Atlantic Flyway
Today, most of the islands are protected by the Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve, and almost nothing remains of the beach resorts, hunting and fishing clubs, and even entire communities that thrived on these islands until they were washed away by sea and storm. Only the northern-most islands are accessible by car. If you are interested in visiting the islands today, the best way to see and experience them is to charter a boat with an experienced captain. If you do plan to take your own boat, please check for any visitation policies set by the Nature Conservancy or government agency managing the island.
the almshouse farm
The Barrier Islands Center is housed on the former site of the Almshouse Farm in Machipongo, VA. Many Americans have heard their parents or grandparents joke about ending up "in the poorhouse," but did you know that expression comes from a very real part of U.S. history? An almshouse, also known as a "poorhouse," was used to house poor people and their families in the days before welfare programs. They were typically county-run, and those who were able were expected to work: men would work on the farm while women were often put to work spinning wool or doing other domestic chores. Homeless people, the mentally ill, orphans and those with diseases like tuberculosis and small pox were among the "inmates" directed by the court to live at the almshouse. The Almshouse Farm served as the site for the Northampton County poorhouse for almost 150 years, from 1804 until 1952.
The Barrier Islands Center is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and comprises three historically noteworthy buildings: the 1890s Almshouse, the 1910 African American Almshouse, and a 1725 Quarter Kitchen.
THE ALMSHOUSE BUILDING
Built in the 1890s, this is the third building to serve as the Almshouse for Northampton County between 1804 until 1952. While in use as the Almshouse, the Superintendent for the Poor lived downstairs with his family, and the Almshouse "inmates" stayed in 13 rooms on the second floor. The building now houses the Barrier Islands Museum, the Gift Shop and “Fun in the Attic,” filled with Native American Artifacts, whale bones, a trapping exhibit and an interesting architectural feature: the Twisted Chimney. This last item has delighted adults and children alike and is highlighted in the first BIC children's book, "The Hog Island Sheep in a Twisted Christmas Tale."
THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN ALMSHOUSE
The African-American Almshouse housed any black "inmates" of the Almshouse Farm. Built in 1910, the west end was apparently the main entrance and probably was a day room with a central stove for almshouse inmates. There were 10 rooms for the black poor, and no in-house plumbing.
This building was renovated in 2013 and now serves as the BIC Education Building. It is the site for the My First Field Trip program, other education initiatives, our oral history recording studio, research library, archival storage and exhibit design studios. The Beazley Foundation Community Room provides a versatile space for documentary screenings, community meetings, and more.
1725 QUARTER KITCHEN
The oldest building on the campus, the Quarter Kitchen actually consists of two small one-room buildings: a circa 1725 masonry side and a later wood frame addition. The masonry side was built as a one-room hall-style building, with living quarters and large fireplace on the main floor and a sleeping loft above (the term Quarter Kitchen refers to a kitchen that is also used as sleeping quarters). The wood frame addition was added in the 1840s. The building probably served many purposes during the Almshouse era: Almshouse kitchen, an early African-American Almshouse and a space for hog killing and sausage-making. The building was closed to the public for several years due to structural damage.
The Quarter Kitchen has recently been rehabilitated, thanks to a successful public campaign and private grants. The historic gem is now a coastal food-ways gallery and a demonstration kitchen.