July 15, 2014
Looking Back: Ocracoke’s
Historic Community Square
By PAT GARBER
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Ten years later, Willis turned the business into a general store as well, selling commonly needed merchandise.
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
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.
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.
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
The Ice House and Light Plant: 1936
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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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