Riding in a horse-drawn cart across the beach to see a shipwreck, dining on “so good” sea turtle hash, going out in her Daddy’s fishing boat, the “Blanche,” named for her; and eating “the most delicious sweet potato pie,” made by her mother—these are some of the things Blanche Howard Joliff, 94 years old, recalls from her childhood at Ocracoke.
Blanche is the daughter of Elizabeth Ballance Howard and Stacy Howard, both native Ocracokers. Born in 1919, she was delivered at home by Ocracoke’s renowned midwife, Charlotte “Miss Lot” O’Neal. She grew up at Ocracoke, living in her parents’ house on Howard Street until the early ’50s, when she met a young man who was looking into building a highway on the island.
Upon their marriage, she moved to the mainland, coming back about once a month to see her family. After her husband’s death in 1994, Blanche moved back for good, and she lives once more in the home on Howard Street where she grew up.
Blanche’s father, Stacy Howard, was an island fisherman. He came from an old island family, here since the early 1700s. His father, P.C. Howard, had a home on what is now known as Howard Street, across from his father’s home. He raised Stacy and the rest of his family in the Southern Methodist Church, located on Howard Street. In the early 1900s, Stacy had a house built near his father’s and grandfather’s homes.
Blanche’s mother, Elizabeth Ballance Howard, was the daughter of Aaron and Lois Anne Williams Ballance, whose “old home place” was Down Point, nearer to the lighthouse. The Ballances, according to Blanche, were originally from Hatteras. Elizabeth was raised in the Northern Methodist Church, located on the Back Road. She and Stacy married in the early 1900s.
Blanche’s father Stacy often talked about shipwrecks on the islands. He told about a time in 1899, when he was about 5 years old, when the ship, the “Pioneer,” coming into the inlet with cargo, wrecked on the beach here. Clothes, shoes, fruits and vegetables were everywhere, and people would find one shoe, then search for its match.
“Cabbage was strung about everywhere,” according to Blanche’s father’s story. Stacy’s father, P.C., came home with a big cheese. Blanche recalls hearing about another occasion when a ship came ashore near Nags Head, and top hats were all over the beaches. Someone auctioned them off, and island boys bought them and wore them.
Blanche explains that after the Civil War, things got tough at Ocracoke. The railroad came to North Carolina and took away the business from the schooners, which had previously delivered cargo and provided jobs for Ocracoke men. Jobs were scarce. Like many Ocracokers, Blanche’s father often went north to work on dredges in Pennsylvania and Delaware. When the rivers froze, he and the others would come home. Back at Ocracoke for the winter, Stacy took out hunting parties in his boat, especially before the Depression.
Looking back over the years, Blanche describes what life was like back then for her and her three sisters — Leila, Etta, and Lois as they were growing up.
“Papa had a big garden out back, and Momma kept chickens. Everybody did back then. They hatched them out at first, and later ordered them in the mail, and they came in boxes. My mother took care of them, feeding them twice a day. They ran around free, and sometimes they’d get into trouble–scratch up someone’s garden.”
There were all kinds–dominiques and red ones and buff ones, raised for the eggs and meat.
“Sometimes when we were young Etta and I would chase them around and get them squawking. It was the best fun, but then we’d get in trouble.”
Blanche remembers the ponies that wandered around freely in the village.
“Sometimes folks would ride them to the store, tying them outside while they shopped.”
As for cows, she says there were four places where they were raised and where milk was sold. Blanche’s family went out to a place on the Back Road to buy their milk.
When Blanche was very young, her mother made all their bread, but later, after Blanche was 8, Mr. Will Willis had it brought in on the Mail Boat. Her mother continued making rolls—hot and very fluffy—nearly every day. Her family ate fish, clams, turtle, chicken, and vegetables. You couldn’t get fresh meat because there was no refrigeration. Everyone had a vegetable garden, with cabbage, string beans, collards, and sweet potatoes.
“My mother made the best sweet potato pie!”
She also made pineapple cakes, and Blanche’s sister Leila loved to make chocolate cakes.
One of Blanche’s favorite foods was turtle. She recalls that before they were listed as endangered species, fishermen used to catch sea turtles in their nets and would bring them back to the fish house at the Community Store. They would quarter them and give each quarter to a family, which parboiled it.
“You had to cook it a good while, ’til it was tender, and then you cut the meat off the bone. You cooked it with onion, potatoes, and a little bit of salt pork. We called it turtle hash, and you had to have baked cornbread with it. You never tasted anything so good!”
The foods they did not grow came mostly from Mace Fulcher’s Community Store, but there were other stores on the island too. Blanche remembers that Uncle Ike had one at the old post office building, and Mr. Albert Styron had one Down Point. Clarence Scarborough ran a store at what is now the beauty parlor, and Walter O”Neal had a store and dock on the Creek. Travis Williams ran a store near what is now the Harborside, and James and Charlie Williams had one across from Della Gaskill’s house.
Back then there were two or three fish houses. There was no refrigeration in those early days, but big blocks of ice, used for keeping food cold, could be bought at the fish houses. When Ocracoke got electricity in 1938, the Ice Plant opened down on the docks, but it didn’t last long, just a few years at most, as Blanche recalls.
Most people back then heated with fireplaces, and Blanche remembers a visit to her father’s first cousin’s house when, at age 8 or 9, she “froze on one side and burnt up on the other.” Blanche’s family had a coal stove and chromium stove which burned wood in the early years, pellets later on. Her mother ironed clothes with a flat iron, which was heated on the wood stove.
While growing up, Blanche played hopscotch with neighboring children, and they played in make-believe houses and kitchens, using broken dishes and making pretend desserts with red sand. She recalls pretending a piece of cedar was chicken. They also filled the tops of coffee cans with mud, let them dry, and put them together to make pretend layer cakes. They played with dolls which they usually got for Christmas, often bought from Mace Fulcher but sometimes ordered from Montgomery Ward, Sears & Roebuck, Charles Williams, and later J.C. Penney.
In Blanche’s early years almost all transportation was by water. She remembers that “when I was young there were only two or three vehicles on the island. There were two freight boats, which went to Little Washington or Morehead. There were two mail boats, and one went one day, one the next. The first one came out of Beaufort, and after that from Atlantic.”
Blanche’s uncle had a horse and cart, and he’d give the girls rides. “Once, when I was about 5, I went out across the beach with my uncle and aunt to see where the ship, the ‘Victoria S,’ had fetched up on a shoal. The ship was still in the water, loaded with lumber, but it could not get off the shoal.” Blanche thinks that they eventually dynamited it to get rid of it.
Meanwhile, however, Blanche says that that shipwreck led to the first road wreck on Ocracoke. She explained how it happened.
“The owner of the lumber had it unloaded and stacked on the beach. He wanted to get the lumber shipped to the mainland. Two of the island men got the idea that they would each buy a flatbed truck and haul the lumber from the beach to the docks where it could be shipped.
“But there wasn’t a road the whole way, so they got permission to cut through the oak and myrtle in front of Blanche’s house and make one. It wasn’t very wide, and there was deep sand. In order to get through the sand they had to gun their engines and try to plow through it fast. One day the two trucks met head-on at the sandy stretch, and this was the first wreck on the island.”
No one, fortunately, was hurt.
As more cars were brought to the island, people would drive down the lane in front of her house, now Howard Street. There was a big oak there, she recalls, and sometimes the cars would run into the tree. Because it was still sandy, on more than one occasion, she remembers people knocking on the door and wanting to borrow a shovel to dig out their cars.
As a teen-ager, Blanche would sometimes go to Little Washington on the freight boat. She was friends with Captain David William’s daughter, Virginia, and they would go together. Virginia had a friend who lived there, and she would meet them at the dock. Then they would spend the night at her house.
During World War II, there was a naval base at Ocracoke, and “lots of men were stationed here doing work so that the boats could get in and out of the harbor.”
” The men brought their wives, and people rented them rooms. I wasn’t really afraid during the war, but it was sad—they found so many bodies, and the torpedoes sounded awful, so loud…The sky would turn a deep pink—it was that close—and then we heard them afterwards. We had black-out curtains so that the lights wouldn’t be seen on the beach.”
Many of Blanche’s cousins and friends went off to fight in World War II. Thurston Gaskill’s youngest brother, Jim Baum Gaskill, was on a freighter that was torpedoed within sight of Ocracoke. Most of the men died, including Jim Baum, recalls Blanche.
When she was 22 years old, Blanche took a job working at the Post Office. One day an interesting man came in to get his mail. Guthrie Joliff had come to Ocracoke with an engineer and a planner to look into building a new road–Highway 12—down the island. He continued going to the Post Office, and before long he and Blanche were seeing a lot of each other.
They got married and moved to Hertford County, and later to Belvidere. They tried to come back once a month, so that Blanche could see her family. In 1994 Guthrie died suddenly of a heart attack. Blanche made plans to move back to her family home, but she “had to wait two years after a hurricane shook it up and it had to be repaired.”
Looking back, Blanche remembers that “Ocracoke was a good place to live.”
“Parents didn’t have to worry about their children then. There’s been a lot of changes, but it’s nice to recall it. Childhood was a happy time.”