Thomas Wallace Howard

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