The following autobiography by Helena Parsons (1917-1979) recounts the joys and hardships of living on Ocracoke Island in the early 20th century. It describes a loving, close-knit family, the pain of child mortality, the impact of the Great Depression, a first-hand account of the destructive hurricane of 1933, and the harrowing story of her two-year-old twin brothers (Roy and James) who were carried out into the sound in a leaking galvanized tub. Some of our readers will remember Roy (1921-2007) telling that story at the Ocrafolk Opry.

I was born August 6th 1917 on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, a small island off the Outer Banks. My mother was Mary Eliza [ne. Jackson] Parsons [1892-1963], a native of the island. My father, James Parsons [1891-1939], was from New Bern, NC, on the mainland. My mother’s father was William Andrew Jackson [1859-1916], also an island native. My grandmother, Polly Anna O’Neal, was from Scotland [other sources indicate Polly was an island native].

My [grand]parents had two [other daughters], Rosa and Sally, [and] three [sons], Wilson, George and Oscar. [Another son], Andrew, died as a baby.

My father’s mother was named Mary Helen Dixon, from Bridgeton, NC. My father’s father was James Everette Parsons. My father had a brother named Frederick, a sister Essie who died as a baby, [and] a sister Alice who died at thirteen.

My great-grandfather had a business making boat sails in New Bern, NC. My mother said that when she was a young girl a fortune teller that came [to the island] one time told her that she would marry a man from across the water, and she did.

My parents had three sets of twins. I had six brothers and four sisters, my oldest sister Essie Mae, then me, then William Thomas, James Raymond, Leroy McDonald [James and Leroy were twins], Mary Susan, Everette, Marion Madora, Herbert Bonner [Marion and Herbert were twins], Sally Belle, and George Lewis. [Another] set of boy twins was stillborn. The name McDonald came from our next-door neighbor [on the mainland?]. The last set of twins were born in Norfolk, VA. Marion Madora was the name of the nurse that came to the house to deliver the last set of twins. Herbert Bonner was my uncle’s name on my dad’s side. He lived in Morehead City at the time. I was four years old when the first set of twins were born.

Roy Parsons
Roy Parsons

[The 1950s photo above is of Helena’s brother, Roy, a popular entertainer at the Ocrafolk Opry until his death in 2007.]

At that time my dad was a tugboat engineer working in Norfolk, VA. We had a colored maid that summer that we called Aunt Fanny. I had two things happen to me that summer. I stuck a big splinter in my foot. A Mr.Harrison cut it out with his pocket knife and even to this day I have trouble with my foot. Sometimes it bothers me real bad. I believe there is still a piece of the splinter in my foot. My sister was six and I was four and our job was to do the dishes, so she washed them and I dried them and stood on a box to put them away. One day the box turned over and I fell and stuck a nail in me. Mom sat me in a pail of cold water [because] I was bleeding so bad. When my eldest brother was eighteen months old he fell out of the door and cut his tongue almost in half. The Dr. put four stitches in it.

The house we rented was an apartment house with an empty room upstairs. Essie and I played in there. I was up there one day when the door slammed shut and locked. I couldn’t get out so I climbed out the window but could not get down. I was afraid to jump. The outhouse was under the window but the roof was covered with old tarpaper torn from another roof with the nails sticking up. I began to cry. My mom saw me and was afraid that I would fall on all those nails before she could get to me. She told me to hold on. She got an axe and banged the door open and pulled me in. The beating that I got then I haven’t forgot to this day.

We moved back to Ocracoke. Mother had bought a two-story, six-room house with three acres of land, for three-hundred dollars while dad was away working. She let it be a surprise for him when he got home. He thought that was great. Dad got home for two weeks every six months. He made fifty dollars a week which was good money for them times[1].

After we moved back home the twins were born. We children had about two years difference in our ages. Mary Susan was next, then Everette. She was two and a half or almost three when she was taken sick and died. She was my dad’s favorite at that time. She was very close to him. He had just been home for his two weeks and had just left when she was taken sick. Mama sent for him but she died and was buried before he got home. We didn’t have telephones or transportation back then so it took two or three days to get home from Norfolk. He had to take a train from Norfolk to Morehead City, take a bus to Atlantic, then take the mailboat to Ocracoke. There was no undertaker so people sometimes had to be buried almost right away. She was very loving, bright, sensible, with long blonde hair, blue eyes. It was a sad time. My aunt Lillian and another woman sat up with her the night she died. My aunt said that she saw a real bright light (like a star) fall on the windowsill when she died. Soon after that we moved back to Norfolk as mama wanted to be with daddy all she could, and he wanted to be with her and us.

[My father] was very devoted to his family, a good kind person, that everyone thought well of. He never drank, cursed, or used dirty language. I never saw him angry with my mom or any of us children. Nights when he was home, she would play the accordion, he the harmonica, and we would sing. We enjoyed being together. The last twins were born that April, [when] I would be nine in August. We all had our jobs to do around the house. Everette was still in diapers when the two babies came along, we were washing baby clothes, cooking, and all.

My hands were so small that I couldn’t work up much dough at one time so I would make as many [biscuits] as I could twice each meal. When daddy got off the boat and came home and saw what a time we were having, he went and got a colored maid, but we still helped her out a lot. Me and my sister did all the washing. We started taking mama’s dresses, my dad’s long underwear, and food and things like that, so when dad got back the next time, he let he go. We got along much better without her. She was mean to us. She beat us, and would lock the smaller ones in an old dark closet and wouldn’t give us much to eat.

That coming September one of the twins, Marion Madora, died in her sleep one night. My dad was at home that time. Mom was so upset that she had her clothes on wrong side out. So, in a few days we were on our way back to Ocracoke to bury her in the family cemetery. That was the last time we ever went back to Norfolk to live after that. We soon had another sister, Sally Belle. It looked as if she would be the last one, for seven years went by. It seemed so good not to wash diapers and bottles every day, but here came another one, George Lewis.

The Depression years were creeping up on us. With nine children mom and dad had a rough time. The tugboats were tied up, so dad didn’t have any work. We couldn’t buy milk for the baby so he fared worse than the rest of us. We had to feed him anything we could get, but that didn’t work so well. He got sick and died at the age of six months. Somehow it seemed harder to give him up. We all had more time to love and enjoy him. He was so far between babies, as the rest came so close together. I remember that twice in our home we had three babies at one time in diapers and bottles. Mom took it so hard the day he was buried. My dad was not the only man with a large family that was out of a job. Finally, the W.P.A. came around so men were put to work digging ditches and planting oysters. So many things happened in my childhood that stays with me. I could write a lifetime and never get it all wrote down.

We two older girls caught the hardships and hard work. We had to stay right with the younger ones all the time and look after them. We lived right on the edge of the water, so we had to keep a sharp eye on the ones big enough to get into the water. We were allowed to play in the water. We had an old wash tub that we would put the twins in and ride them around in the water at low tide. The sandy banks and shoals were our attraction. We would dig holes [and] make sand castles. [The] twins [Roy and James] were about two or two and a half years old at that time. One day we had the twins in the wash tub pulled up along the shore and we had forgotten about the tide rising. I looked up and the tub had drifted way out. I tried to get to it but it was too far out. We screamed for mama and she came running. We were all screaming. She ran down to a place where the fishermen kept their boats. She saw one man mending his nets and told him. He got in his boat and went after them. They were way out in the channel by then, in deep water on the sound side where we lived. He got to them in time. The tub had a small leak in it and it was almost filled with water when he got there.

We saw a lot of bad things happen. One day a boat with four men in it was passing by. They had been to their nets when all of a sudden a big wave came up over the boat and sank it. Three of the men were drowned. One made it ashore.

We had lots of bad weather at times. Hurricanes, we called them storms in those days. We had no electricity, no T.V. or radio to give out the weather. The older people went by the stars, the clouds, the roar of the ocean. We had the sound on one side of us and the ocean on the other.

The Depression was a bad thing to go through, being so hungry we couldn’t sleep at the night, the smaller ones crying for something to eat, no energy to do anything. I remember three days went by with nothing to eat. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I wasn’t sorry for myself. I was sorry for the rest, mama mostly. One night as I lay in bed trying to think what to do the Lord showed me or told me what to do, and gave me the strength to do it. I got up early and got dressed, combed my hair and went down the road with a feeling that I had something within me more than just myself. I went to a lady’s house that I had helped her clean, and had did some washing for at one time. When I walked in they were all having breakfast, bacon, eggs, toast jelly and coffee. It looked so good. She was so pleased to see me. She said, “Oh how glad I am to see you this morning. Come on in and have breakfast with us this morning. It was so hard to get the words out, to say, “No thank you.” My heart was so filled with sorrow I couldn’t eat with all my loved ones home starving. I was so close to them. I loved them more than I loved myself. We were all that way when we were growing up. The lady said, “Honey, can you wash some clothes for me today?” I said, “Yes, that’s what I came for. I thought you might want someone to wash for you.” So I began to get out the old washboard [and]get the tubs in place [to] carry the water, bucket after bucket-full. Then [I] got a fire started under the old lard stand to heat the water to boil the clothes in.

Along about three o’clock in the evening I got through. She paid me my twenty-five cents and I headed straight to the store. For five cents I got five pounds of meal and for ten cents I got a pound of lard, and I still had ten cents left. I hurried on home. My dad made a fire in the cook stove while mama stirred up the meal into bread and fried the dough in the lard. We all sat down together and ate the fried cornbread, and it was better to us than cake is now. That night I slept because we all had bread that day and had all shared alike. I was happy in my soul.

The closest neighbors were an old man and an old lady. They were like grandparents to us. They loved us and we loved them. We would go to the store or do anything for them, and they the same for us. They had a lot of big fig trees, and in the summer they got us to pick figs for them. We were ready to do so as they paid us fifteen cents a day. We picked about two days a week. They sold them to the hotel, the Pamlico Inn, the only one on the island. It was on the south end of the island and we lived on the north end. They had a dance hall, but I had never seen anyone dance.

The old man and old lady, Mr  Alex and Miss Epherenia, had two sons, married and living in Philadelphia. They would come home during the summer around the fourth of July. One was Cal, and his wife, Ida. She was so jealous of him. He had strayed away from her and gone to the dance. Ida came and asked mama if I could walk with her and another lady, Mrs. Martha Frances, to the dance and make him come home before he got drunk. I was about fourteen then, and mama said that I could. Martha and I stood on the outside on the road. She then went up to where he was and told him to get home. I saw them dancing at a distance. It seems I could have watched them all night. It was such a pretty sight, but it was for them, not me. I knew that I would never be allowed to go in a place like that. I thought then that some day I would grow up and get married and go to a dance. They were just day dreams.

The most exciting thing here then were the hurricanes we called storms. The first one I remember, I was small but I don’t recall how old I was[2]. One day I saw my aunt Sue and uncle Mark coming up the road. I had never seen them come to our house before, and each one was carrying a bundle. Uncle Mark had a bag of sweet potatoes he had dug that day. They knew the storm was coming so they, knowing daddy was away, had come to be with us. Our house had the sound only a jump away from the back door, so that night mama put all us children in what we called the eastern bedroom. We lay all crossways in one bed. We had two double beds in that room. Mama had the other bed for aunt Sue and uncle Mark if they wanted to lie down. Mama never went to bed in bad weather. Many a time she would wake us young’uns up and go to a nearby house in a thunderstorm. She was frightened of a thunderstorm. Some time that night the storm struck. Mama, aunt Sue and uncle Mark had their rocking-chairs in the big hall next to our room. They had one kerosene lamp in there and one in the bedroom. When the hard flaws of wind shook the house the kerosene in the lamps would shake, the window panes would blow out, and mama would stuff a pillow in it. When the tide came up, we could hear the slabs of wood under the house bumping. We would get our wood from Washington on the freight boat. We would get a cord or a cord and half of slab pine for cook wood, and stack it under the house to keep it dry, but when the storms came the tide would wash it away.

We had bags of coal down on the shore side that we hadn’t gotten up to the house yet. They were gone too the next day. Sometime that night after the tide came up we heard somebody at the window banging away and calling, “Mama.” Uncle Mark went to the window and it was Mr. Charlie Garrish and his brother, Preston. They were in a boat and had come to see if we needed any help. To this day I cannot understand how they got there in a boat in a time like that, as dark as it was, facing the wind and rain, with no light to see the way, and the island covered with water. I don’t remember what year that storm was.

But I do remember the bad one in 1933[3]. I was sixteen years old then. That was the worst one that I have ever seen, before or since. I hope that we never have another one that bad. My dad was home at that time. My grandma and my uncle lived on Portsmouth Island, and in August I was staying with them for a few weeks. While there, we had a bad storm. We worked hard getting things done, the rugs up off the floor, and things the tide might ruin. That night it really got bad. The house shook. I was scared the house was going to turn over. Portsmouth Island is smaller than Ocracoke. My mind was on home. I wanted to be home so bad. So in about a week they took me home.

[Grandma and my uncle] would come over pretty often to get groceries. Mama did sewing for them sometimes. When things got tough they would come stay a few days with us. Mama would see the need they had, and would go out of her way many a time to help them. We had credit with the store and mama would get them a box of groceries to take back with them. They would go back happy.

In September it started getting clouds built up over the ocean, what the old folks called “double headers” that they kept an eye on during storm season. The ocean would roar day and night when a storm was making up. My uncle was afraid of those clouds and would never leave in his boat. Sometimes water spouts would form out of those clouds. He would never leave grandma alone. He always took her along.

When he came, he would leave Portsmouth early in the morning, so one evening almost or about sundown, the young ones came running in saying, “Mama, here comes grandma and uncle Fred.” She said, “I don’t believe it. It can’t be.” They said, “Yes, it is too.” Mama said to me, “Go and see.” So off I went to the shore and sure enough it was. I ran so fast to tell her it was them, so everyone went down to the shore to greet them. We were all wondering what was wrong, being they came so late, as bad as the weather looked, although it wasn’t raining or blowing, but the thickest black clouds all around the sky. We all got settled down. Mama, my sister, and I started fixing supper for them, and my uncle said, “Something is going to happen.” I know mama was so anxious to know what it was all about. Even before he got it told, he said that the night before he had a dream that something had told him to leave. It was a warning. All that day he tried to think it was only a bad dream, but something kept on telling him to leave the island. He was afraid also. The sky looked so bad he didn’t trust his old boat, but he cherished his mother so much, and wanting to protect her, he finally left, and a good thing, too, for that night the big storm hit. We had it bad. The windows blew out and we had to take the slats off the bed to nail across the door so it wouldn’t blow in.

The wind blew so many shingles off the roof that everything and us too were all wet. We had to hang a blanket over a chair and put a kerosene lantern under the blanket, leaving a little opening to see by. If the rain broke the lantern shade it would be a bad time to be without light. We were all in one room. The house had an “el” with two rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom that we couldn’t sleep in because the rainwater was about two inches deep in the bed. I was in a corner on top of a trunk, with bed quilts, trying to sleep. There were twelve of us all together, not knowing the best place to get. Daylight finally came and what a sight to see, and it was getting worse. The tide was coming in fast. My dad swam out to his boat and finally got it up to the house. He said we all better leave, as we were so close to the sound that we might get washed away. I thought that it would be a relief to see daylight after waiting through the long night, frightened that the next gust would blow the house down. The kitchen was already going. The blocks had washed out from under it. The chimney had blown down, [and] the floor was bowed like a rainbow. It was a bad time to even think about going out in. Grandma said she was going to stay. Everyone wasted no time getting into the boat when dad came with it. The tide was getting higher now. Grandma said, “No! I’m afraid to get wet. I’ll get sick,” so my dad got a bed quilt and put it around her and sat her in the boat. It was blowing and raining so hard we couldn’t hear each other talk.

Just a short distance from our house a big cedar tree blew down just as we got past it. It almost got us. We went over the marsh like nothing until we came to the trees. The boat got caught between two trees and was jammed. We couldn’t go either way for a while. When the trees would blow in the wind we could hear the boat crack. With the older ones helping, we finally got the boat out. We were going to Mrs. Sarah’s house further back in the woods. We went right over her fence and up on the porch, and the bow of the boat went right in her doorway. She was glad to see us. When we passed the Alligood’s house the windows were blown out and they were hanging halfway out of the windows waving for us to come and get them, so dad put us out and went and got them. Altogether there were twenty-two people there at Mrs. Sarah’s house to wait out the storm. All that day it was bad. The next day the storm was gone….but not forgotten for a long time afterwards.

 

*Annotated and slightly edited for clarity

 

[1] I did a little calculation. If a worker today makes 15 times $50/ week, or $750/week (about $39,000/year), the current equivalent cost of the house and acreage on Ocracoke would be $4,500 (15 x $300).  Not a bad investment!

[2] Likely, the storm of August 25, 1924. The highest reported winds were at Hatteras, where a maximum velocity of 74 mi/h was recorded. Ocracoke was partially inundated by the high water.

[3] The Hurricane of September 15-16, 1933. It struck the coast a little west of Hatteras about 8 a.m. on the 16th. Wind gauges on Hatteras were blown away. Winds in New Bern were estimated at 125 mi/h. High winds and waves piled up water in the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds, causing several deaths on the coast, and left hundreds without food or shelter.

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The family cemeteries on Howard Street, across from the Village Craftsmen gallery, bear silent witness to some of Ocracoke Island’s most colorful former residents and their history & heritage. One tombstone in particular stands out. Edgar Howard, the great-great-great-great-grandson of Ocracoke’s colonial owner, William Howard Sr, was born on the island in 1904. He died in 1990. His tombstone with the epitaph, “YOU AIN’T HEARD NOTHING YET,” and the image of a banjo elicits much interest and speculation.

In the 1920s Edgar and his older brother Walter (b. 1897), both accomplished self-taught musicians, left home bound for New York City. In short order they made names for themselves on vaudeville stages in the Big Apple and other northern cities.

Edgar played banjo, performing in well-known theaters that hosted national celebrities such as Al Jolson, Gene Autry, Cary Grant, Roy Rogers, and Milton Berle.

Edgar Howard and the Kentucky Mountaineers
Edgar Howard and the Kentucky Mountaineers

Edgar Howard (above, holding banjo), with the Kentucky Mountaineers, poses beside Milton Berle (“Mr. Television”). (Photo courtesy Ocracoke Preservation Society)

Edgar Howard and Milton Berle Show
Edgar Howard and the Milton Berle Show

Edgar Howard (above, left with banjo) poses with Boyd Heath and “Chubby” Chuck Roe, performers on NBC TV’s Saturday Night Jamboree, hosted by Milton Berle. Edgar performed on the show 16 weeks straight. (Photo courtesy Walter Howard, Jr.)

Walter landed a gig playing the Hawaiian slide guitar on the New York radio station WEAF.

Walter Howard
Walter Howard
Walter Howard and Dettborn
Walter Howard and Dettborn

The first photo above shows Walter Howard in July 1924, wearing a Hawaiian outfit. The caption reads, “Walter Howard, the wandering minstrel who moved the South Sea Islands 10,000 miles nearer to Manhattan when he sang ‘Aloha Oe’ to his tinkling guitar.”  The other photo shows Walter Howard, standing, and Charles Dettborn in a publicity photo for their radio show featuring Hawaiian music. (Photos courtesy Walter Howard, Jr.)

In early 1925 Walter Howard made the acquaintance of a harmonica duo. Syd Newman, a brilliant musician, and David Robertson, a vaudeville veteran, were mid-twenty-year-old performers from Brooklyn. Walter Howard, Syd Newman, and David Robertson formed a new group called The College Trio, playing jazzy pop songs. Their attire was sweaters and neckties.The College Trio specialized in novelty instrumentals and featured bluesy sharps and flats on harmonica.

College Trio
The College Trio

Walter, in the center, played guitar and banjo. Syd Newman is on the right; David Robertson is on the left. (Photo courtesy Walter Howard, Jr.)

In 1925 promoter Ned Nestor added the trio to his list of clients. Nestor brought on Roy King (a creative plectrum banjoist) and Lou Pope (guitar, banjo, and musical saw), and named the newly created novelty and cowboy band the Five Harmaniacs. Wide-brimmed cowboy hats, boots, and chaps comprised their new attire. A cattle ranch backdrop added to the theme.

Five Harmaniacs
Five Harmaniacs

Walter (above, standing) played guitar, harmonica, jug, ukulele, and washboard in a vaudeville program of “Round-Up Tunes.”  The successful and popular band played cowboy and western songs and ballads, as well as blues and vaudeville blues, also known as medicine show music. They soon added cowbells, musical spoons, tin funnels, whistles, teapots, and other unconventional instruments to their act. (Photo courtesy Walter Howard, Jr.)

Other members of the band at various times included Jerry Adams (born, Harold Whitacre), Clyde Shugart, Wade Durand, Ned Nestor, Lou Pope, Percy Stoner, and Edgar Howard. Every member of the Five Harmaniacs played harmonica, ukulele, and novelty instruments, often switching from one instrument to the other.

In the fall of 1925 the Five Harmaniacs got their first big break, playing the Roseland Music Hall[1] in New York City. Soon after, they were the featured act at Poli’s 2,476-seat Elm Street Theatre in Worchester, Massachusetts. By October they were headliners for the Keith-Bellevue/Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit, playing over four hundred vaudeville houses throughout the Northeast, the South (Asheville, Atlanta, Miami), and as far as the Midwest. In addition to novelty instruments, the band began adding vocals, comedy, and even tap dancing and softshoe. The Hohner harmonica company provided harmonicas to the band in exchange for on-stage plugs.

Five Harmaniacs Advertisement
Five Harmaniacs Advertisement

The advertisement above features the Five Harmaniacs, who, with “two funsters from the Batcheler-Jamieson Revue,” were among the “special artists who will take part in the ‘Loew Midnight Frolic,’” a radio show broadcast from Lockport, NY, in 1926. Walter Howard is on the right.

Five Harmaniaces 1926-1927
Five Harmaniaces 1926-1927

The album cover above shows The Five Harmaniacs in a New York City studio in the summer of 1925. Left to right are Lou Pope, Syd Newman, Dave Robertson, Walter Howard, and Roy King.

Among other venues, the Five Harmaniacs played at the 1800-seat auditorium, Shea’s Theatre[2] (Vaudeville & Photoplays), on East Second Street, Jamestown, New York. One playbill in the 1920s enthuses about the band, writing that it is, “positively the best vaudeville show in Jamestown’s history,” “the greatest instrumental act in vaudeville,” and “an unmatchable assembly of five vaudeville entertainers, instrumentalists, and rollicking comedians.”

In the mid-1920s the band cut several records in New York and Chicago for major recording companies. In September 1926 the Five Harmaniacs cut “Sadie Green (the Vamp of New Orleans),” and made the first ever recording of the now classic “Coney Island Washboard” (composed by band members Wade Durand and Jerry Adams) for the Victor Recording Company.

After their recording session, Jerry Adams and Roy King left the band. Roy King had insisted on traveling with a suitcase full of prohibition-era gin. He was often so drunk that the other band members had to carry him on stage. When the curtain opened he played brilliantly, but had to be carried off stage again after the curtain call. King was eventually forced out of the band. Walter’s brother, Edgar, and Arthur “Satchel” Sullivan replaced them. The Five Harmaniacs continued to play on the vaudeville circuit in the Northeast and Midwest. Back in New York in 1927, they re-cut “Sadie Green” and “Coney Island Washboard.” They also recorded “What Makes My Baby Cry” with Walter Howard on vocals, which Jack Norton, in his 2022 e-book, Cornstars: Rube Music in Swing Time,[3] describes as “a showcase for their zany, experimental instrumentation and novel approach to jazz.” Norton considers the music of the Five Harmaniacs as, “simply brilliant, exciting and full of early jazz influence.”

By the spring of 1927, the Five Harmaniacs were back on the vaudeville circuit, touring with the Loew’s chain of movie houses as openers for their feature films. But their touring days were soon over. Moving picture shows had replaced vaudeville. The band’s final performance was in late 1928.

According to Jack Norton, in 1929 Syd Newman recruited Walter & Edgar Howard and Dave Robertson to form a new band, the short-lived “Cowboy Revels.” Three young ladies, Ethel and Marion Mann and Virginia Barrett, joined them to dance, yodel and perform rope tricks.

Walter and Edgar also made a number of radio appearances, including performing on the popular Texaco Star Theater, a comedy-variety radio show that ran from 1938 to 1949.

1978 liner notes for a compilation of the Five Harmaniac’s tunes remarks that “the music [of the band] transcended their era. While many of the best swing and early rock-and-roll bands sound hopelessly locked into their respective decades, the Harmaniacs remain as fresh and vital as ever.”

Sheas Theatre Jamestown NY ca1950
Sheas Theatre Jamestown NY ca1950

(Shea’s Theatre, circa 1950)

Writing in 2015, blogger Herb Shultz noted that “the Five Harmaniacs are cast in a somewhat different mold. [than other jug bands]. Not as strong rhythmically as the jug bands (although they do occasionally use the jug themselves), the Harmaniacs identify more closely with guitar and banjo playing groups such as the New Christy Minstrels…. Their stock in trade was the novelty number.” Shultz’s particular favorites are “Sadie Green Vamp of New Orleans, an old Johnny Dunn tune which extolled the beauties of its heroine in the whimsical hyperbole of the 1920s (viz: ‘She’d make bald men tear their hair!’), and Coney Island Washboard, an original composition of the Harmaniacs which has become one of the standard classics in the repertoire of barbershop quartets.”[4]

Edgar and Walter Howard came home periodically to entertain their fellow islanders. At times, nationally popular entertainers followed the Howard brothers to Ocracoke, often playing at Stanley Wahab’s “Spanish Casino,” a small venue near the present-day Back Porch Restaurant that included a stage, dance floor, and canteen.

Spanish Casino
Spanish Casino

(The Spanish Casino)

Walter Howard, a talented writer as well as a musician, also penned various essays, one of which recalled the story of the 1837 wreck of the steamboat “Home” on the Ocracoke beach. You can read the gripping and dramatic story here (Part I) and here (Part II). Walter also wrote the fast-paced popular Ocracoke Island song, “Paddy’s Holler,” that Edgar often played on the island after moving back home in retirement. These are the lyrics, along with a few comments in footnotes, to clarify the local history.

Paddy’s Holler
Written by Walter Howard

Many, many years ago I can truly tell you so,
There was a spot that wasn’t worth a dollar,
Where the folks were gay, so the people say,
Everybody called it Paddy’s Holler[5] .

‘Twould put us all to shame how the holler got its name.
Legends have been told by the millions,
But the one that I like best was no doubt told in jest,
Told by ol’ fiddlin’ Wid Williams[6]

Wid was on a spree; he had fiddled all night for free,
And they had to hold him up by the collar,
But like a knight of old he grew mighty bold,
And hollered out “Hooray for Paddy’s Holler!”[7]

Now in the olden days nobody offered praise
For anybody livin’ up the holler.
As the years rolled by, they moved in on the sly,
Now it’s “Mrs. Jones”[8] of Paddy’s Holler.

Paddy’s Holler, Paddy’s Holler,
Why, they come from near and far to Paddy’s Holler.
And the town is in a lurch, ’cause when they go to church,
They all have to pass through Paddy’s Holler.[9]

The Howards, the O’Neals, the Burruses, the Peales,
Why they’ve all found their way to Paddy’s Holler.
Choicest spot in town, nobody seems to frown
When someone hollers, “Let’s go up the holler!”

They built a naval base just to give the subs a chase[10]
So everybody there could earn a dollar.
When Uncle Sammy came, he put ’em all to shame,
Paved the only road through Paddy’s Holler.[11]

Paddy’s Holler! Paddy’s Holler,
They come from near and far to Paddy’s Holler.
It’s the choicest spot in town, nobody seems to frown
When someone hollers, “Let’s go up the holler!”

Now folks down there were kind to the sick and blind.
So everybody ponied up a dollar
To build a little home for Maggie all alone,[12]
Livin’ on a hill in Paddy’s Holler.

But one was mighty bold, his heart set on gold,
His mind was on the almighty dollar.
Some said “listen here, don’t put that line post there!
‘Cause that’s the choicest spot in Paddy’s Holler!”

In 1988 National Park Service Ranger, Amy Glass, interviewed Edgar Howard along with fellow islander and musician, Maurice Ballance. Maurice had this comment about Edgar:

“You know, Edgar says he’s the one that got Roy Rogers his job. Yep. They had the same agent. Gene Autry and Edgar’s band had the same agent. So when Gene Autry went in the Army in World War II, his agent was traveling around drinkin’ a few beers one night and asked [Edgar] if he knew anyone who had a good voice. So Edgar said, ‘Well I know a guy from Cincinnati.’ Said, ‘He’s got a pretty good voice, you know.’ So, he said, ‘Well send him down.’ And a couple of days later when he auditioned, he did, and he hired him. That’s what he says. He couldn’t play guitar, couldn’t ride a horse, but he made a big star out of him. [laughter].”[13]

Edgar Howard and Jack Starkey
Edgar Howard and Jack Starkey

Above, Edgar Howard poses with former world heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey (1902-1994). (Photo courtesy Walter Howard, Jr.)

In a personal interview, island natives, Fowler and Chloe O’Neal, commented on the Howard brothers’ talent and intelligence. They mentioned several long-forgotten songs that Walter and Edgar often played. Some of their songs were bawdy barroom tunes, but one, The Irish Jubilee, was a peppy and spirited ditty that reflected the island’s Irish heritage.

In 1977 musicologist and folklorist, Karen Helms, collected sixteen examples of Outer Banks traditional music that were included on a vinyl record, Between the Sound and the Sea. This album was sold on the Smithsonian’s “Folkways” label. Edgar plays his banjo on four numbers.
Between the Sound and the Sea is now available on CD and may be purchased at http://www.folkways.si.edu/between-the-sound-and-the-sea-music-of-the-north-carolina-outer-banks/american-folk/music/album/smithsonian. You can also listen to selections of the songs on the Folkways web site.

By the 1950s Walter stopped playing music professionally, and retired to Norfolk, Virginia. He returned home to visit Ocracoke periodically where he was admired for his intelligence and prodigious vocabulary.  He was especially remembered for his ability to recite Robert Green Ingersoll’s poem, “After visiting the Tomb of Napoleon.”[14] Walter Howard died in 1960, shortly after moving to Miami. His ashes were scattered at sea.

Edgar also retired to Miami, but returned home to Ocracoke in the late 1970s. He entertained islanders at variety shows, church events, and fundraisers. In April 1979 Edgar’s son, Ronnie Howard, opened Howard’s Pub. It had been 50 years since alcohol had last been sold legally on Ocracoke Island. The grand opening was the talk of the village. Edgar noted that “we’ll have hard-core hippies, hard-core Yankees, and hard-core Southerners. We’re going to mix them all and I hope they all get along.” The venture was an instant success, and Edgar was often present to entertain customers.

Edgar died in 1990, and was buried on Howard Street. His epitaph, “You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet!” are the words that Al Jolson, self-billed as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” and one of the United States’ most famous and highest-paid vaudeville stars of the 1920s, told his audience before performing additional songs.

We can only imagine what Edgar’s and Walter’s encores will be.

Edgar Howard Tombstone
Edgar Howard Tombstone

(Photo: Philip Howard)

Edgar Howard photo by Charles Martin
Edgar Howard photo by Charles Martin
Walter Howard 1926
Walter Howard 1926

(Edgar Howard with banjo: photo by Charles Martin, courtesy of Valerie Howard Willis; Walter Howard in 1926, photo courtesy Walter Howard, Jr..)

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roseland_Ballroom

[2] After being closed for some years, Shea’s Theatre was fully refurbished and reopened in 1969. In 1989 the theatre was renamed the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown in honor of the comedienne’s hometown connection.

[3] See Chapter 9 for more information and additional photos.

[4] http://scratchyattic.blogspot.com/2015/10/jugs-washboards-kazoos.html

[5] The Ocracoke village area, roughly parallel to, and between, the Back Road & Howard Street, from about the intersection of Fig Tree Lane and Back Road, past the back yards of houses now facing Back Road, then turning on a foot path behind the Methodist Church & Howard cemeteries and joining Howard Street and Lawton Lane, and/or continuing past the back of the Health Center to the schoolhouse.

[6]Ocracoke’s most celebrated old-time fiddle player.

[7] Some local sources suggest that Paddy’s Holler was named after a Philadelphia tap room popular with Ocracokers who had moved up north to work in the early 20th century.

[8] Mrs. Jones was Mary Ruth Kelly Jones, the first wife of early island developer and eccentric millionaire, Sam Jones. She was the granddaughter of George Gregory Howard, island sea captain who built the large house with widow’s walk that backs up to Howard Street.

[9] One early Methodist Church was located on Howard Street, and the present Methodist Church, completed in 1943, is also located in the Paddy’s Holler area.

[10]The WWII Navy Base was built where the NPS Visitors Center is today.

[11] Ocracoke’s first paved road was a one-lane concrete strip starting at the Navy Base, turning where the Anchorage Inn is today, turning again down the Back Road, through Paddy’s Holler, then turning across from the library, and “T-ing” at the end of the road. From the “T” the Navy added short aprons, and there they stored ammunition, hence the local name “Ammunition Dump Road,” though it is officially called “Sunset Blvd.”

[12] Maggie is “Mad Mag Howard,” widow of John Simon Howard, sea captain, who took Margaret Eaton from Rockland Maine when she was only fifteen years old, married her, and brought her to Ocracoke. She became legendary for her quirky, odd, and very peculiar habits; hence her local name, Mad Mag.

[13] The interview was part of an endeavor called “Lifeways of the Outer Banks” sponsored by the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, National Park Service and The Southern Oral History Program, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The original transcript is on deposit at the southern Historical Collection, Louis Round Wilson Library.

 

[14] After Visiting the Tomb of Napoleon
by Robert G. Ingersoll, 1882


A little while ago I stood by the grave of Napoleon, a magnificent tomb of gilt and gold, fit almost for a dead deity, and gazed upon the sarcophagus of black Egyptian marble where rests at last the ashes of the restless man. I leaned over the balustrade and thought about the career of the greatest soldier of the modern world.

I saw him walking upon the banks of the Seine contemplating suicide; I saw him at Toulon; I saw him putting down the mob in the streets of Paris; I saw him at the head of the army of Italy; I saw him crossing the bridge at Lodi with the tricolor in his hand; I saw him in Egypt in the shadows of the pyramids; I saw him conquer the Alps and mingle the eagles of France with the eagles of the crags. I saw him at Marengo, at Ulm and Austerlitz. I saw him in Russia, where the infantry of the snow and the cavalry of the wild blast scattered his legions like winter’s withered leaves. I saw him at Leipsic in defeat and disaster, driven by a million bayonets back upon Paris, clutched like a wild beast, banished to Elba. I saw him escape and retake an Empire by the force of his genius. I saw him upon the frightful field of Waterloo, when chance and fate combined to wreck the fortunes of their former king. And I saw him at St. Helena, with his hands crossed behind him, gazing out upon the sad and solemn sea.

I thought of the orphans and widows he had made; of the tears that had been shed for his glory and of the only woman who had ever loved him pushed from his heart by the cold hand of ambition.

And I said I would rather have been a French peasant and worn wooden shoes. I would rather have lived in a hut with a vine growing over the door and the grapes growing purple in the kisses of the autumn sun. I would rather have been that poor peasant with my loving wife by my side, knitting as the day died out of the sky, with my children upon my knee and their arms about me. I would rather have been that man and gone down to the tongueless silence of the dreamless dust than to have been that imperial impersonation of force and murder known as Napoleon the Great.

And so I would ten thousand times.

 

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Two major hurricanes struck the North Carolina coast in 1806. On August 22 the “Great Coastal Hurricane” made landfall at the mouth of the Cape Fear River and did considerable damage in Bald Head Island and other locations in Brunswick County.

In late September of 1806 another hurricane struck “with excessive force,” this time at Ocracoke Inlet. At least three sailors died, and nine vessels were sunk, dismasted, or driven ashore. Among the ships sunk was the Governor Williams, which along with the Diligence, was participating in the nation’s first congressionally mandated survey of the U.S. coastline. The project was the brain child of President Thomas Jefferson, and the commission’s base of operations for the three-month survey of the North Carolina Coast was Shell Castle Island in Pamlico Sound between Ocracoke and Portsmouth.

Governor Williams Model by Jim Goodwin
Governor Williams Model by Jim Goodwin

The Governor Williams, under command of Capt. Alexander Henderson, and with eight crew members, left Shell Castle Island June 24 to begin the survey. Also on board were two of the survey’s three commissioners, Maj. Thomas Coles and Jonathan Price, a gifted cartographer. The third member of the commission, the brilliant Col. William Tatham, an acquaintance of President Jefferson, was left on shore because he was considered abrasive, and arrogant.

Col. William Tatham
Col. William Tatham

The Governor Williams was back at Shell Castle Island on September 28, presumably at anchor in anticipation of hurricane force winds.

The following article recounts the damage at Shell Castle Island caused by the September 28 hurricane, with mention of Col.  Tatham’s valuable “philosophical and mathematical” instruments and apparatus.

 

From “The Wilmington Gazette” (Wilmington, North Carolina), Tuesday, October 14, 1806 (slightly edited for ease of reading):

We have been favored with the following account of the last Storm.

SHELL CASTLE, Sept. 29.

About 12 o’clock last evening a gale at E.N.E. commenced and increased in its violence until about 4 A.M when it shifted to E.S.E. and blew the most tremendous storm, ever I believe, witnessed by a human being, until six o’clock, when it got further to the southward, and finally to W.S.W. where it still continues to blow with excessive force. The Cutter belonging to this station under the command of Capt. Henderson, upset and sunk at her anchors. – He, thank God, with five of the crew are saved, three poor fellows, belonging to her, are lost, their names are Frederick Cherry, Jacob (a Russian), and J. G. Romain.

Nearly all the lighters of the navigation sunk, ashore, or dismasted. In Wallace’s channel, the ship ______ Capt. McKeel of Washington, main and mizen mast gone, ashore. – the ship Connelia, Common, of Washington, ashore; the schooner ________Bracket, master, belonging to Messsrs.  Marshes of Washington, ashore & sunk, a sch’r belonging to Mr. Eborn of Washington, dismasted, ashore and sunk, schooner Mount Vernon, Fisher, of Newbern, lost entirely, but it is believed no lives lost. – A small sloop which arrived last evening from Jamaica, with rum, name unknown yet, upset on the east point of Beacon Island, the people are now seen on her bottom, there is some prospect of them and cargo being saved. —–Schooner Horizon, Jerkins, still at anchor above the Swath, main mast cut away. Sloop Union, Keals, ashore dismasted. In short but one vessel in the whole navigation afloat and all standing, and that a singular instance of preservation; it is a lighter belonging to Mr. James Jones of Newbern, who struck adrift with two anchors a head, at the Castle, and drifted two and a half miles to the Royal shoal, where she brought up, and rode out the storm —- only one small black boy on board.

I have now to add, to the tale of destruction, the total loss of the immensely valuable, philosophical and mathematical instruments of Col. Tatham, he yesterday put them on board the Governor Williams, for the purpose of having them conveyed to Newbern, and they are now buried with her, in two fathoms water: Altho’ there is no doubt, but Capt. Henderson will be able to get her up, we fear all the apparatus will be totally ruined, a loss which while it may be ruinous to the colonel, is to be sincerely, deplored by the lovers of science.

Description cannot paint, nor imagination conceive, the force of the sea. It was impetuous, and irresistible, it struck, and on striking, deluged, or dismasted, the unopposing victims of its mighty power.

During the gale, the oil in the lamp of the Beacon took fire, and blew out 36 panes of glass—the light of course will not be in operation for some days to come.

——We are happy to learn from Col. Tatham who arrived in town yesterday, that his loss stated in the above communication does not include his Philosophical apparatus, which was chiefly left in Virginia and sent up to Newbern before the storms commenced: His work for public account, a valuable assortment of Instruments, Books, Papers and clothing are, however, sunk in the Cutter, and cannot be replaced.

 

For more about the 1806 hurricane and Col. William Tatham, see this United States Coast Guard article.

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