July 15, 2014

Looking Back: Ocracoke’s
Historic Community Square


Located on the harbor in Ocracoke village, the Community Square has long been the hub of this island community.  Made up of the Community Store, docks, and several other businesses, this significant portion of Ocracoke’s Historic District has recently been the focus of a project to rejuvenate the square and preserve the island’s history and culture.

The Community Store: 1918

On the day that Amasa “Mace” Fulcher opened the Community Store, Ocracoke was a small subsistence-based fishing village.  It was 1918. The United States had entered World War I the previous year, and German submarines were targeting U.S. merchant ships along the Outer Banks. 

Ponies roamed freely through the village at this time, and the island boys captured them in roundups and rode them. Nearly every house had a vegetable garden and a yard full of chickens for eggs and meat. Kerosene lanterns provided light, wood and coal stoves were used for heating and cooking, and ice blocks brought in by freight boat were the sole means of refrigeration. Automobiles were scarce, boats the norm, and mail and cargo arrived by water. In the evenings, men would get together to play guitar, fiddle, and banjo, and women joined in at the regularly held square dances.

In 1918 there were no paved roads on Ocracoke. The road where the Community Store was located, now Highway 12, was just a sandy lane. There were no ferries. People went to the mainland on the mail boat or freight boat. Cockle Creek had not yet been dredged to form the harbor we recognize as Silver Lake.  

Mace Fulcher, a former member of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, had been working with John McWilliams in his general store on the south side of Cockle Creek. He decided that he wanted to work closer to his home on the north side of the Creek, so he built the Community Store. Mace was an active member of the Northern Methodist Church and, according to Phillip Howard, a Republican in a mostly Democratic town. He was highly respected and, in his later years, was elected director of the Knights of Hyde, a fraternal organization.

Mace built his store facing Cockle Creek, as the harbor was then known, so that merchandise could be delivered by freight boat. He added a dock with a fish house on the end, where commercial fishermen could sell their catch. Alongside the dock, near the porch, a small barbershop was built.  Along the dock were boat slips and at the end, fuel pumps where boats could fill up with Standard Oil gasoline and diesel.
The store itself was a square building with a shed addition attached to the northwest side and a porch with benches, which attached to the dock. The porch became a gathering place where islanders would sit to chat and whittle. Inside was a pot-bellied stove near which sat a rocker and several other chairs for winter visiting. A round cheese box filled with sand served as a spittoon.

On the counter sat a big brass cash register and a large wheel of cheddar cheese. Also on the counter, according to Blanche Howard Joliff, who was born a year after the store opened, were three large glass containers filled with hard candy and two scales, one for weighing the candy and one for weighing bulk items. 

Mace carried all kinds of items in his store. On the shelves were groceries, including flour, bread, salt, canned milk, and spices. Wooden bins contained potatoes, and there were wooden barrels filled with rice, beans, dried peas, and molasses from the West Indies. A glass showcase displayed all kinds of clothes, and perfumes and cosmetics were displayed in a separate glass case.  There were bib overalls, rubber boots, building supplies, dishes, kerosene lamps, boating needs, and chicken and horse feed.

At Christmas time, the shelves were full of toys and gifts, and sometime in the ‘40s, the store began selling caskets for burials.  According to Elizabeth Parsons, the Community Store would let people charge their purchases and “they were not over-priced.” 

The barbershop was erected and run by Mace’s son-in-law, Gillis Riddick. Elizabeth Parsons, who lives “Down Point,” says that her father usually went to George Guthrie’s barber shop, which was nearer home, but recalls that “Daddy went there (Gillis Riddick’s) once to get his hair cut while we went in the store.” Later, George Jackson had a barbershop in the same building. Al Scarborough recalls going to the barbershop there when he was 5 or 6 years old.

Gaynelle Tillett, born in 1937, speaks about when the Ocracoke ponies wandered freely through the Square.  According to Blanche, sometimes folks would ride their ponies to the store and tie them outside while they shopped.
After Mace died in 1946, his widow, Maude, sold the store to Mace’s sister’s husband, Isaac “Little Ike” Freeman O’Neal, and Little Ike’s son-in-law, Jesse Woolard Garrish, both former freight boat captains. The store became popularly known as Garrish & O’Neal’s.

Gaynelle grew up going to the Community Store, and she remembers “Mr. Ike” and then Jesse Garrish running it. She later worked for Jesse’s son, Danny. She recalls the times when salesmen would come to the store with cookies in square boxes. Back then, she says, they didn’t get cookies or candy much. “We were lucky if we got 12 cents on a Saturday. It would buy a Coca-Cola and a piece of candy.”

In the early 1950s, Jesse erected a new building to house the Community Store, tearing the old structure down and adding an office and warehouse. The new store’s main entrance faced the parking lot instead of the harbor, with a porch where people could sit in rocking chairs and visit or enjoy the view. 

Jesse died in 1962, leaving the store to his wife Lucille, with his son Danny running it. In 1978, Lucille decided to sell the store, and Phillip and Julie Howard, owners of the Village Craftsman,   bought it, retaining Danny as manager.  They moved the office and part of the warehouse to the back, near the harbor. After two years they sold the store to two teachers at the Ocracoke School, David and Sherrill Senseney. 

Danny continued as manager of the Community Store until his death in 1991. When David and Sherrill decided to move with their family to the mountains, former employee Ricky Tillett began managing it and later leased it, running it until it closed in 2006.  In 2008, Susan and James Paul leased the building and operated the store until March, 2011, at which time it closed again. In 2013, David, having owned the store for 34 years (or as he put it, having been steward of the mortgage), signed the papers selling the store and the rest of the Square to the Ocracoke Foundation.

Willis’ Fish House/Jack’s Store: 1930

Sometime around 1930, Captain Will G. Willis had a dock and dockside fish house built next to the Community Store.  Fishermen brought their boats, full of fish, to sell to the local people and docked there, and it became an unofficial center of commercial fishing. According to Blanche Joliff, before 1938 when electricity and refrigeration arrived on the island, they sold big blocks of ice for use in homes and on fishing boats. 

Ten years later, Willis turned the business into a general store as well, selling commonly needed merchandise.

Known as Willis’s Store and Fish House, it became a popular place where folks gathered to meet the mail boats, the Aleta and later the Dolphin, which brought in not only mail but passengers. Gaynelle Tillett recalls that ice cream was sold at the store, and the teen-agers loved to hang out there. 

Betty Helen Howard Chamberlain has fond recollections of going there when she was around four years old. Every Sunday after church, she and her mother, Elizabeth Howard, along with most of the village, would go to meet the mail boat, the Aleta. Betty Helen would get a cup of ice cream, and her mother would pour Coca-Cola over it, making it fizz.

 Upon Willis’ death, the store and fish house were taken over by his wife Malsey. She leased it out until 1958, when their son, Jack Willis, took it over. Lots of the island youth would go there to jump off the dock, swim in the Creek, and hang out at an outdoor snack bar next to the dock. 

 Known as Jack’s Store, it became a hub of charter fishing and continued to be a popular gathering place, where people would come together to learn the news. Jack’s son, Jackie, recalls big shrimp trawlers coming in at the dock with their catch.  David Senseney, who later owned the Community Square, remembers that before moving to Ocracoke, he would visit and rent small boats at Jack’s Store. 

Eventually Jack moved his store and the building was converted to a bait and tackle shop, then a floral and antique shop, and today the Working Waterman’s Exhibit.

The Ice House and Light Plant: 1936

On May 12, 1937, the Ocracoke Power and Light Company received a Rural Electrification Administration (REA) loan, enabling it to open in 1938 as Ocracoke’s first electricity utility. It was begun by Stanley Wahab, and it was housed in a new structure built on the side of the Community Square "L." This three-bay, one-story double-pile building, made of wood frame and concrete block, was connected by the docks to several of the fish houses on the Creek. 

An Ice House was established in the same building. According to Captain Rudy Austin, water was pumped from a shed and cisterns on the other side of the road. The water was carried in a pipe under the sandy lane and into the building, where large blocks of ice were produced in metal sleeves, using the electricity generated there. Fresh water ice was made for use in island homes, saltwater ice, for use on the fishing boats.

Gaynelle Tillett remembers the room where the ice blocks were -- “it took a man to pull one out.”  When the big blocks of ice were pulled out, “pieces would break off and we children would go grab a piece.” 

When the Storm of ’44 devastated Ocracoke, high water destroyed the diesel generating equipment in the building. As a result, Ocracoke Power and Light was forced to default on the REA loan, one of only two companies ever to do so. The island was temporarily powered with generators borrowed from the Navy.

Owner R. S. ‘Stanley’ Wahab promoted the organization of a cooperative to restore service to the island, and on July 6, 1944, the first directors of the Ocracoke Electric Membership Corporation (EMC) met to sign the certificate of incorporation. Ocracoke EMC received its charter on August 17, 1944. When the Bonner Bridge was built across Oregon Inlet, it became possible for Hatteras and then Ocracoke to connect to Virginia Electric Power’s transmission grid, using an underwater cable which was attached to the bridge.

In 1977 the electric company, having recently merged with Tideland, moved to a new facility off the Lighthouse Road.  A number of businesses have occupied the building since then, including Ocracoke Hardware and Marine, a Hyde County liquor store, and the surf shop known as Ride the Wind.

The Water Plant Office: 1950

A small commercial structure was built at the edge of the Willis Dock in 1950, where Ocracoke residents could pay their electric bills, and after a public water system was introduced in the 1970s, their water bills. Frank Wardlow is the man Gaynelle recalls working there.  It later became known as the T-Shirt Shop.

The William Ellis Williams House: 1900

It was David and Sherrill Senseney who were responsible for bringing the last historic building to the Square, the William Ellis Williams house. Built around 1900, probably for Bill Williams (1878-1934), son of Millard Fillmore Williams, it was a traditional story-and-a-jump house with a dining room and kitchen at the back. According to the Historic District records it was originally built on the Back Road but soon moved to a place on the harbor where the Anchorage Inn sits today.
According to the Williams’ granddaughter, Joyce Spencer, Bill worked for the Corps of Engineers, on a dredge up north.  He married Neva and they had two children, one of whom was Joyce’s mother, Mattie, and another who died at an early age. Neva died at the age of 27, when Mattie was 5 years old, and was buried in the backyard. Bill kept the house and Mattie lived there until he remarried—to Julia Gaskins -- and they moved up north to be near Bill’s job. After Bill died, the house was sold to a woman named Mary Byrum, who kept it as a summer home and rental.

Al Scarborough’s grandparents rented the house around the years of 1944 to 1947, and Al remembers spending summers there when he was 6 or 7 years old. His memories include a big fig tree in the yard, fishing from a long dock, clamming in Silver Lake in front of the house, and his grandmother killing ducks, presumably to cook for dinner.

When Scott Cottrell bought the property to build a motel in 1983, he needed to get rid of the house.  Plans were made to have it burned, as practice for Ocracoke’s firemen.  David heard about it and asked Cottrell if he could have it, and was told yes, if he could get it moved within three days.

David contacted a house-mover in Manteo, who came down with two pieces of steel attached to wheels. David took off two days from his teaching job at the school, and together they set the main part of the house, minus the kitchen and dining room attachment, on the pieces of steel and hauled it to the Square. They placed it on pilings above Silver Lake Harbor behind the Community Store, and Sherrill set up an antique and gift shop which they called The Gathering Place. According to Joyce, when the house was moved, they dug up and moved Neva’s grave to another location.

The Square Today
Today the Community Square is owned by the Ocracoke Foundation, a non-profit island organization dedicated to preserving this historic place and reviving its role as a village gathering place.

The Community Store re-opened its doors this year, and the docks are busy as boaters come and go. Rob Temple  conducts trips on the sailing ships, Windfall and Wilma Lee from the dock.  Kitty Hawk Kites and the Fudge and Ice Cream Shop reside in the old Electric and Ice Plant, and at the back is a new, down-sized version of Styron’s Store.

The Black Schooner Nautical Shop and the Visitor’s Center now occupy the old William Ellis home, and a “trendy girlie shop” called Shea Bella the Water Plant office. The Working Waterman’s Exhibit and the office of the Ocracoke Foundation are located in Willis’ Fish House. The docks there are the taking off point for Rudy and Donald Austin’s Portsmouth Island boat tours, and R.T. “Ronnie” O’Neal and Ryan O’Neal’s charter fishing trips. 

Square dances, musical performances and other community activities are held in the Square’s parking lot, so residents and tourists alike can enjoy a sense of the historic Community Square.

comments powered by Disqus