Sharing 92 Years of Ocracoke History

Amy Howard
Blanche, with her cousin, Amy. Photo by Jennifer Kidwell.
Blanche, with her cousin, Amy. Photo by Jennifer Kidwell.

Blanche Howard Jolliff is one of Ocracoke Island’s true treasures.

She was ushered into this world by midwife Charlotte O’Neal on December 8, 1919 to Stacy and Elizabeth (Ballance) Howard. Blanche is quiet and down to earth, cherishing the island traditions she grew up with while still embracing the Ocracoke that has evolved over her 92 years.

Blanche has the memory historians love to find. She can remember the smallest of details about a story she was told or events that happened to her. She also has an incredible ability to remember who is related to whom and how. While talking to her I commented that it made my head spin trying to remember all the many connections between all the local families. Her response was that it was easy for her because, “I’ve grown up all my life learning it.” With the advent of the busier lifestyle on Ocracoke, we’ve had less time to spend sharing stories of our ancestors, so not only are many of the stories getting lost, we lose track of how everyone is related as well. Luckily we have people like Blanche to remind us of those connections.

Always a hard worker, Blanche still tends her yard and keeps the leaves at bay on her porch. A few years ago her family finally laid down the law that she was no longer allowed to climb on the roof to clean her gutters. As a young woman, she was at the hub of Ocracoke’s social world when she worked for her cousin, Postmaster Elizabeth (O’Neal) Howard, at the local Post Office. She worked there for 15 years tending to the islanders’ mail. The Post Office is still THE place to get all the up-to-date information on what is happening on the island. [Editors' note: we beg to differ.] Even though the Post Office has moved to the outer edge of town, Blanche is still likely to walk there to get her mail, just like she did in the old days.

It was during her tenure at the Post Office that Blanche met her husband, Guthrie Jolliff. He was an employee of the NCDOT, brought to Ocracoke in 1957 to work on plans for building the paved road (NC Hwy 12) from the village to the Hatteras ferry terminal. Guthrie took a shine to Blanche, and it was not long before they were married.  Blanche said he “just fit in with the local way of life and whatever went on he would attend.” He earned lots of friends and respect. They eventually moved off the island to Guthrie’s hometown of Belvedere, NC but came back often to visit.

Even though Blanche grew up in a different Ocracoke, her childhood activities were not all that different from those of most children who grow up on Ocracoke today. She befriended the new kids who moved to the island. Some of her fondest memories were of excursions she took with the children of the Methodist minister. Pastor Fitz and his family were her neighbors in the early 1930s. She told of walking across the sand flats to the beach with them after the powerful 1933 storm to go shelling. She and her friends toted empty burlap sacks to the beach and dragged them back full of shells that had been churned up by the passing storm. 

Crabbing was also a favorite activity. They walked to the beach early in the morning before the sun was up, caught a bushel of crabs and were back in the village before it got too hot. She also said that they “had a lot of good times messing around on the beach” doing more bathing than swimming.

Even though the activities were similar to what children do today, the logistics of the activities were different. The walk to the beach was a couple of miles through soft, hot sand and there weren’t vehicles passing by (let alone roads for vehicles to drive on) to pick them up if they got tired. It was a much more physical existence. Many families had horses, but they were mostly for use by the head of the family for work and transportation. Horses were a luxury because they were expensive to feed during the winter. 

Since WWII, the US Government has had a hand in the goings-on of Ocracoke social and economic life. Blanche witnessed that too. But, unlike today, most of the local folks didn’t question government actions that impacted them.

During the war the US Navy opened a facility approximately where the OPS Museum sits now. It was the home base for many Allied ships patrolling the waters for German U-Boats during the war. Local residents rented extra rooms to the wives of men stationed here during this time. During the war, no one on Ocracoke was allowed on the beach for as long as the subs were operating off the coast (about 8-9 months).

“Nobody here that I know of seemed to get upset,” said Blanche. It was just part of the war effort, but “we didn’t know much that went on.”

The officials didn’t say much, though sometimes “things got out,” presumably about where the enemy was located or what operations were in progress. If anyone did sneak out to the beach, they might regret it because their legs and feet could turn sticky black from all the oil washed up from ships torpedoed by German U-Boats. The only “souvenirs” Blanche remembers finding were chunks of wood and little tins of rations from torpedoed boats. Another consequence of the war era was the closing of the Spanish Casino, the local hot spot for dances. It was deemed inappropriate by the government to have an establishment on the island that had the potential to adversely affect the work performance of so many Naval men!

The island itself has changed since Blanche’s younger days. Most of the roads are paved now, the “guts” between the two sides of the island have been filled in, houses are closer together than they were, and the island is covered with cedar trees and small brush. When cattle, sheep and horses roamed the island, they kept the vegetation cropped. Once they were corralled and/or moved off the island, the trees started to thrive.

Thinking of all the ways Ocracoke has changed over the last decades, I asked Blanche what changes she is glad of and what she misses. She is glad for the ferry making transportation easier. Frasier Peele’s 3-car ferry in the 1950’s  “was a big blessing," she said. She also is thankful for electricity, running water, and indoor plumbing. All those changes have made life much more comfortable and convenient.

What she misses most are the small things that were really a big part of the Ocracoke environment. Gone are many of the large, stately oaks and the clean, thick sand that could be found all around the village. She does what she can to preserve artifacts and memories from those distant days. 

Thank you Blanche for keeping so many of our ancestors and so much of our history alive through your stories and remembrances. We are forever grateful.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of The Mullet Wrapper, Ocracoke Preservation Society's newsletter. For more information about OPS, its Museum, and its work in the community, please click here. 

For another story about Blanche's childhood, please click here.

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