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.