By SUSAN WEST
(Editor’s note: Hatteras Island writer and historian, Susan West remembers Ephraim “Eph” O’Neal who died on February 17, 2017.)
Ephraim “Eph” O’Neal was a true Hatterasman –a scholar of the sea, humble about his accomplishments, and fiercely proud of his family and his hometown.
“I’ve never been one to place much stock in medals or awards or citations,” Eph said in 2005 after he received a package in the mail that contained his Bronze Star, earned in recognition of his heroic deeds as an infantryman at Anzio Beach in Italy during World War II.
“I knew that it said on my discharge papers that I was to receive the medal, but I never thought too much about it. I guess I was in too much of a hurry to get back to Hatteras and go fishing again,” he explained.
His young wife, Daisy Stowe O’Neal, was also anxious to return to the village where she had been born. The couple had married in 1944, and Daisy had joined Eph in Biloxi, Mississippi when he returned to the states.
Born in Hatteras village in 1920, Eph was just nine years old when he started gill-netting in the mornings before school. He also worked at one of the fish houses in the village, unloading fish from fishing boats and packing the catch for transport to Elizabeth City, North Carolina on one of the freight boats running out of the village.
Before long, he captained his own boat, a 17 feet long sailboat, fishing for mullet, trout and drum. His formal education came to an end when he was in the ninth grade at the village school and decided he could learn most of what he needed to know plying the waters of Pamlico Sound.
“There’s never been a better place to live and we fared pretty well. We had fish, clams, oysters, and sea turtles that we ate. We had three meals a day and clothes to keep us warm, but we didn’t have money,” Eph said, reflecting on life on the island during the Great Depression.
In addition to gill-netting, Eph pound-netted, haul-seined, oystered, crab-potted and ran charter-fishing trips during his career as a fisherman.
In the early 1970s, sensing that Hatteras Island’s growing popularity with tourists offered a way to bolster his reliance on fishing with other ventures, he opened two marinas, a campground and a motel, either alone or in partnerships. It was around that time that he also became a Dare County magistrate, a position he held for thirty years.
“I had had two years of bad fishing and that’s when I decided to build Village Marina,” Eph said. “But I still fished a little then and I packed fish there in the winter after the tourist season ended each year.”
O’Neal then placed more chips on his faith in the future of the island’s commercial fishing industry and built a fish house on the harbor in the village. Cape Hatteras Seafood flourished with more than twenty boats unloading there. Most were drop-netting boats fishing for croakers, trout and bluefish in the winter but some Core Sound trawlers also used the facility.
When new state and federal fishing regulations began to rapidly multiply, swamping the business with a flood of paperwork, aggravation and reduced profits, Eph closed the fish house.
But he continued to fish and crab and oyster, and continued to advocate for the village’s commercial fishing industry. For many years, he showed visitors how to build a fishing net at the Day at the Docks celebration and participated in the annual Blessing of the Fleet.
“My grandfather taught us the importance of seeing what you can make of life, of not stopping when you’ve accomplished a goal but of using that experience as a stepping stone in finding your purpose,” said Natasha Farrow, Eph’s granddaughter.