Ocracoke Island’s 19th postmaster, Thomas Wallace (“Mr. Tommy”) Howard (1878-1972), was appointed October 21, 1902. Soon after his appointment Mr. Tommy built a small building close to his home (near where the Silver Lake Motel is located today), one of Ocracoke’s four dedicated post offices. Mr. Tommy held the position for nearly 40 years, until he retired in 1941.

Mr. Tommy counted among his ancestors O’Neals, Williamses, and Jacksons, all early settlers on Ocracoke Island. His great-great-great-great-grandfather was William Howard, Sr., colonial owner of the island. As a child, his grandmother regaled him with stories of pirates and seafarers. His father, Robert Howard, served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. After the war Robert was captain of a schooner carrying rice between South Carolina and North Carolina. During one of these journeys he contracted tropical fever, perhaps dengue or malaria, and never fully recovered. He died in 1878 when Thomas Wallace was just nine months old.

Thomas Wallace and his four older sisters were raised by their mother, Minerva O’Neal Howard, with help from their grandmother. Minerva operated a tourist home and did sewing for neighbors. Like most island families, they raised their own vegetables and kept chickens, sheep and at least one beef cow.

In many ways Ocracoke was a dynamic small community during Tom Wallace’s youth. Thirty-eight years before Thomas was born, a post office was established on the island. In that same year, 1840, more than 1400 sailing ships were recorded as having passed through Ocracoke Inlet. By the late nineteenth century, steam-powered excursion boats, as well as sailing vessels and freight boats, could be seen anchored in Pamlico Sound. Well-heeled tourists were coming from New Bern, Greenville, and other cities to the new Victorian hotel located on the shore of Silver Lake.

According to Ursula Loy and Pauline Worthy in their 1976 book, Washington and the Pamlico, “Ocracoke Island in those days was very much more interesting, exciting and pleasurable than today…. People would inhale the fresh salt air and feel a sense of freedom soon after arrival. They would fish and swim in the daytime and square dance every night…. The island was crude and undeveloped, the natives were friendly and would go out of their way for everyone to have a good time. They had a brogue peculiar to the coast and the sea, which the visitors loved, but could rarely imitate or impersonate.”

Young Thomas had an inquisitive mind and a remarkable memory, and he took every opportunity to engage sailors and visitors in conversation. In spite of an extremely limited formal education, he read anything he could get his hands on.

In October 1889 the Pioneer, one of the last wooden steamships, wrecked on Ocracoke beach. Unlike most commercial vessels of the time which hauled a single commodity, the Pioneer was carrying general cargo. One contemporary news article claimed, “it was like manna from heaven” when the vessel Pioneer was wrecked off Ocracoke in a violent storm. Everything from Bibles to cabbages floated ashore. Hams, bananas, barrels of flour, casks of alcohol, bladders filled with snuff and a great deal of canned food came into the island, which was flooded by the tide. “Everywhere folks were knee-deep in water sweeping up valuable debris as things washed by them.” One gentleman threw away his old shoes when he spied a new pair drifting toward him, only to find the new ones were both for the same foot. One woman gathered up enough bladders of snuff to fill a barrel which she proudly kept upstairs in her house for all to marvel at.

The ship struck during the daytime and was plainly visible from the shore as she broke into pieces and disappeared into a raging sea. Tom Wallace’s entire family joined their neighbors and the ship’s crew, all of whom were saved, salvaging whatever goods had washed ashore. When they returned home, Minerva and the girls emptied their bags to reveal bolts of cloth, cured hams, canned vegetables, hoop cheeses, and an assortment of other comestibles. Eleven-year-old Tom Wallace brought home a box of books. Although his mother was disappointed with his acquisition, Tom Wallace was nurturing his passion for reading, an obsession that eventually led to his employment as Ocracoke’s longest-serving postmaster.

As a lad, Tom worked in the local general store, and used his spare time to improve his reading.

For a time, Tom Wallace also joined other young island men fishing and oystering, even serving on a fishing vessel off the Philadelphia and New Jersey coast. He returned home when he was twenty-four years old to accept the job as island postmaster (click here for a history of the Ocracoke post office).

Mr. Tommy's Post Office
Mr. Tommy’s Post Office

Throughout his career, mail arrived at Ocracoke by boat. At times “Mr. Tommy,” as he was now known, carried mail from Ocracoke to the Hatteras Island village of Avon in a 22’ sail skiff, sometimes rowing the entire way if the wind did not cooperate.

When he was thirty-three years old Mr. Tommy married Nancy Elizabeth Williams, a native of the mainland town of Creswell. “Miss Bessie,” as she was known, accompanied her husband to Ocracoke, assisted at the Post Office, and immersed herself in the community and the Methodist Church.

In 1937 Mr. Tommy had the honor of sending the United States’ first airmail letter. On October 12 he dispatched a letter by airplane to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the scene of the Wright brothers’ historic first flight in a heavier-than-air machine.

Both Mr. Tommy and Miss Bessie were staunch members of the Ocracoke United Methodist Church. Mr. Tommy served as Sunday School teacher and superintendent, choir leader, and member of the Church Council. He was also a loyal member of the Ocracoke Civic Club. Although Mr. Tommy developed significant hearing loss in his old age, his mind remained sharp and his wealth of local knowledge was prodigious. Friends, visitors, and journalists sought him out for fascinating stories about island history and people.

Mr. Tommy and Miss Bessie had two sons, Lafayette and Robert Wahab, and one daughter, Eleanor Nell. When Mr. Tommy died in 1972 at the age of ninety-four, he was the oldest island resident.

Mr. Tommy’s granddaughter, Betty Helen Howard Chamberlin, and her husband, George, own and operate Captain’s Landing Motel and Captain’s Cargo gift shop on the site of the old Ocracoke Store (across the street from the site of Mr. Tommy’s post office).

 

Mr. Tommy at his Post Office
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Summer greetings from Ocracoke!

As usual, the island community came together for a creative, whacky, fun-filled July 4th celebration last month.  The highlight of the day for me is always the traditional Independence Day parade.  Begun in the 1950’s (after the Navy and the state of North Carolina had paved enough of the roads to make a parade possible), the modern day version is every bit as funky as the original parades.

Every entry is conceived and executed by local residents or visitors using whatever material is at hand — boats, tree limbs, canvas, paint, what-have-you.  This year the parade had more entrants than ever, and the streets were lined with people all the way from Captain Ben’s Restaurant, past the Island Inn, where the judges sat, to the Preservation Society Museum, where awards were handed out.

This July Kathy Scarborough and friends topped the awards with their version of Amtrak’s rail service to Ocracoke Island.  Their silver “Viewliner” train, dining car, and towed boat sported an authentic whistle, clouds of white smoke, and a cadre of excited passengers waving and dancing to lively island music.  Numerous Amtrak brochures were on hand for distribution along the way.  You can read more about Amtrak’s brochure in our April 1, 2002 newsletter.

Best of Parade, Amtrak’s Viewliner Train:
Parade Float
For this year’s parade, Village Craftsmen joined forces with Natural Selections Hemp Shop to celebrate one of our local island legends.  You can read about “Old Quawk” in an earlier newsletter.  In the photo below, you can see me dressed as Old Quawk, in a sinking skiff, raising my fist to heaven as a lightening bolt strikes my boat from a menacing storm cloud.  We won second prize in our category, outflanked only by 7-year-old Emmett Temple riding his bicycle and being chased by a fierce Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Old Quawk inveighs against the gods:
Old Quawk Float

Other entries were colorful and creative.

Fat Boys Fish Company tows their skiff in the parade:
Parade Float

Day Care children portray the newly discovered Civil War Fort on Beacon Island:
Parade Float

This season saw the introduction of two new books about Ocracoke. The Ocracoke Walking Tour & Ocracoke Island Guide is a delightful addition to any collection of Ocracoke books. With vintage and contemporary photographs to complement the superb writing, it will guide you on an entertaining and informative tour through the village historic district.  From this one publication you can capture much of the flavor of island life from years past.

Ocracoke Walking Tour:
Walking Tour
I would be less than forthcoming if I neglected to mention that one of the reasons I am so taken with this book is the photograph on page 22.

Photo from Ocracoke Walking Tour:
Pip with Uncle Stanley

On the left is my great uncle, Stanley O’Neal.  On the right is my father.  Of course that is “your’s truly” sitting between them, on the porch of uncle Stanley’s home on Howard Street, in the early 1950’s.

Another interesting book published this year is Paul Mosher’s Pieces of Eight and Ocracoke.  Written in a conversational style, almost as if the author is sitting on the porch sharing his many years of experience with you, this book includes a general  history of coins as they relate to Ocracoke island, and specifically the story of the 1783 Spanish dollar that Paul found on the island when he was a child.

Pieces of Eight & Ocracoke Island:
Pieces of 8

A Spanish Coin from 1776:
Spanish Coin

Of course, rare coins are not common on Ocracoke.  However, it is not unheard of for someone to find a valuable coin in the village or on the beach.  Reports surface periodically of old coins washing up on the ocean side, and as recently as 1996 a neighbor spotted a 150-year-old coin in Howard Street after routine road grading.

1850 One Cent Piece found on Howard Street:
1850 One Cent Piece

And, of course, Paul Mosher found his piece of eight on the sound side of the village in the shallow water.

On your next visit to the island keep your eyes open.  You might be the next lucky person who stumbles across a long-lost part of some forgotten treasure that belonged to Blackbeard himself!

All the best to you,

Philip and the entire staff at Village Craftsmen

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