August 5, 2014

Honoring the Last 'Old Salt' of Ocracoke

Coastal Review Online

The last of a generation of Ocracoke Island men who were true “old salts” died recently, but Edgar Maurice Ballance will be remembered on this island with love and respect. 

Known locally as Morris, Ballance was born to Elisha and Emma Gaskins Ballance in 1927.  He was one of nine children, born at home in a big white house on Back Road.

His early playmates included Ronald “Conk” O’Neal, Powers Garrish and Nathanial and Carl Jackson. They enjoyed fishing and swimming and, according to his friend Thomas Midgett, who was like a son to him, playing practical jokes. Midgett recalls a story Ballance told him about visiting two old ladies with O’Neal. As they sat on the porch, stomping on a stink bomb, one of the ladies turned to the other and asked, “Did you forget to put the lid on that slop jar?” Another stunt was stealing someone’s chicken, cooking it, serving it to them and accepting their thanks without ever telling them they were eating their own chicken.   

After graduating from Ocracoke High School in 1944, Ballance began seeing an island girl, Maude Ellen Garrish. She was five years younger than Ballance, but they went to the movie theater and to Old Jake’s, a gathering place for young people. Ballance also took her around the island in his sailing skiff, which he named after her. They were married in 1950 at the Methodist Parsonage on Howard Street. Balance was drafted into the Army the following year and sent to Germany. His daughter, Judy, was born while he was there. Later he was stationed in Newport News, Va., where his family joined him. 

After returning to Ocracoke, Ballance built their first house, now known as the Emma Ballance Cottage, on the Back Road. He later built a number of houses on the island, including the one where he and Maude Ellen have lived in recent years, and where he died. According to Martin Garrish, who learned many building skills from him, “Maurice was a master carpenter.” 

Ballance loved music. He learned to play guitar when he was young, and he was part of the original Ocracoke musical group, the Graveyard Band, which played from the 1920s to the ‘50s. Later he played with his cousin, the famed musician Edgar Howard, Charlie Garrish, Jule Garrish, and others, entertaining people at talent shows and home gatherings. Ballance’s nephew, Kenny Ballance, who gave the eulogy for Maurice, said he had to put all his breakable objects away when Ballance was playing at his house because he stomped his foot so hard. 

Ballance shared his knowledge with island musicians such as Martin Garrish and Aaron Caswell, who carry on the tradition today. Martin Garrish says, “Maurice was a true musician. I didn’t realize how great he was until I got older. He had a unique style like no one else I’ve heard.”

Around 1961, the Ballances bought land from Stanley Wahab, and Ballance built a dance hall. It had a juke box, and Ballance and several other musicians played there a couple nights a week. Out front was a snack bar where Maude Ellen sold hot dogs and hamburgers. When he was offered a job with the state Department of Transportation’s Ferry Division, Ballance sold the dance hall, which eventually became what is now the Variety Store. He became the port captain supervisor at the Hatteras ferry terminal on the north end of the island, working there 32 years until his retirement.

The Ballances’ daughter, Judy, married Michael Lawson in 1984, and they had two boys, Brandon and Marcus who were the joys of their grandparents’ lives. “Pop,” as they called Ballance, built tree houses for them and a little camp back in the woods and took them fishing out in his boat. He also entertained their friends, who also called him “Pop.” His grandson Brandon relates that Ballance told them stories about how it was when he was growing up—living off the land, growing all their vegetables, putting seaweed in the gardens. Kenny Ballance said that Ballance taught his grandsons honesty, respect and to lend a helping hand to anyone who might need one.

Having grown up on the water, Ballance loved fishing, oystering, clamming, and mullet fishing. He had a fish camp down at Oyster Creek and a wooden skiff. He often went out with his friends, usually accompanied by a brown paper sack containing Tums, snacks, Red Man tobacco and a few cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Midgett and Ballance would clean the fish and carry them around to all the older people. 

“If there was a speckled trout, he’d always save it for Miss Lishie,” Midgett recalls. “She loved speckled trout.” 

Ronnie O’Neal, Conk’s son, remembers a story Conk and Ballance told about the day they were oystering down at Qwork Hammock and had a couple bags over the limit. They saw David Fletcher, the state Marine Patrol officer, approaching and slipped the bags over the side. 

They called out to Fletcher, “Can we give you a bushel of oysters? 

“No thanks!” Fletcher responded, “but on my way back I may stop and pick up one of those bags you dropped into the water.” 

Ballance never liked to kill anything in vain. Midgett said that if a bullnose skate or a horseshoe crab or a cormorant got caught in his nets, Balance would carefully cut them out and set them free. If the cormorants were “waterlogged,” as Midgett calls it, Ballance would keep them in the boat and carry them to shore to recover.

Another thing Ballance didn’t like was wearing shoes, at least not in the summer. Even as a grandpa, he was always barefoot once the weather turned warm. 

“One thing Maurice was,” asserts Midgett, “was honest.” Another thing, according to Ronnie O’Neal, was loyal. He was always a good friend to his parents and was always there for them. Their nickname for him, in fact, was “Loyal.”

A big reader, Maurice educated himself on every subject he could, according to Kenny Ballance, and he enjoyed sharing all of his knowledge with his family. “Art, science, engineering…he knew a little about any subject,” says Midgett. “He was a smart man.”
Like so many Ocracokers, Ballance loved cats, and the first thing he did in the morning and the last at night was to feed his cats, both at his home and at his camp. “We have a cat now,” says Maude Ellen. “Cottonball. He found it as a kitten and brought it home. He loved Cottonball.” 

He also loved trees, especially live oaks, and he often lectured against cutting them down, citing how long it took one to grow and what amazing plants they were. Kenny Ballance said he never trimmed any limbs when his Uncle Maurice was around. Midgett relates that when out for a walk, “a lot of times he’d pick up acorns, dig a hole with his foot and push one in. ‘Maybe some of them will make it,’ he’d say.”

Ballance died on July 11 after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease, cared for at home by his family and friends.

(This story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other stories about the North Carolina coast at

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