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Our Coast’s People: Della Gaskill of Ocracoke

Della Gaskill is shown in her Woccocon Nursery and Gifts shop on Lighthouse Road in about 2014. Photo courtesy Ocracoke Preservation Society

I was only five years old when war came to Ocracoke. During the war… the base was here, and it was good that the Navy was here … The mines was placed out in the ocean and the freighters would come by and be blowed up …

We would go upstairs and make sure the door was closed and no light would come through and we would open the shade and set on the floor and watch the fire. It would look like it was licking all the way up to the sky … And my sister and I would watch it because it was something that we had never seen before…

This is just one of many memories Della Gaskill, 80, likes to share about her life at Ocracoke. She has fascinating stories about the activities that took place on the island during World War II, including torpedoed merchant ships and visits to the Navy base, which she describes as “a little city within Ocracoke.”

Della Louise Williams, left, poses with her sister, Elizabeth Agnes, and cousin, Maxine Lee, at the family homeplace on Ocracoke Island. Photo courtesy Ocracoke Preservation Society

In November during the Ocracoke Preservation Society’s membership meeting, Della was awarded the society’s Cultural Heritage Award in recognition of the many contributions she has made to the preservation of island history, including a book she completed in 2013.

Born in 1937, Della was delivered by a midwife in the old family homeplace near the lighthouse, an area of the island known as Down Point. There were no paved roads, and she and her sister had to walk to school.

“The mud puddles would sometimes be up to your knees,” she laughed. “We had to make up our own things to do and play with when we were children.”

One of her favorite things to do was sing. Her grandmother, mother, sister and Della would walk along the shore of what is now called Silver Lake and sing hymns for the people who lived there. Another favorite was going to Springer’s Point, a lovely area now protected by the Coastal Land Trust, which she did after church on Sundays with her grandfather.

Della’s father, James Monroe Williams, was a fisherman, as was his father before him, and she grew up around boats and the water. Later, her father and uncle opened a general store that they called Williams Bros. Her parents, her sister Elizabeth and Della all worked there, and Della recalls helping make sandwiches to sell to customers. During the fall and winter, her father took fishing and hunting parties out in his boat. Della helped her mother prepare and serve meals for the men, including clam chowder, oyster stew, baked drum with potatoes and onions, and corn bread.

Della’s father, James Monroe Williams, was a fisherman like his father. Photo courtesy Ocracoke Preservation Society

She was 7 years old when the “Storm of ’44” hit the island. Della and her family had gone over to her grandparents’ house, because it had an upstairs. She recalls that “the water started coming in and the house started lifting up and down.

“If my daddy and my granddaddy and my uncle hadn’t gotten axes and hatchets to beat holes in the floor to keep that house from coming off the blocks, it would have been something,” she said.

Also among her early recollections are watching the Ocracoke ponies that ran wild and often wandered through the village; riding the freight boat to “Little” Washington to go to the doctor’s; and waiting for the mailboat Aleta.

Meeting the Aleta where it docked at the old post office on the harbor was a popular activity for everyone. Della and her sister liked to see what new people had arrived on the boat, collect their family’s mail and visit with folks. She also remembers the “womanless weddings” the island men put on each year for fun, with half the men dressing up like women.

Della attended Ocracoke School until the 10th grade, at which time she stopped to tend to her mother, who was ill. She went back years later to get her GED diploma, of which she is extremely proud.

At 16, she met Owen Gaskill when he came into her parents’ store, where she was working. They were married in 1954 and had a long and happy marriage. They built a house on Lighthouse Road and they raised their son Monroe there.

Della weaves fabric on her loom. Photo courtesy Ocracoke Preservation Society

Della worked various jobs through the years, including at the Island Inn, the Pony Island Motel, and the Trolley Stop Restaurant.

She worked for Sam Jones, well known on the island for building the Castle, now a bed and breakfast inn, and the Berkeley Center, now a wedding and event venue, and for his eccentric and entertaining ways.

“He was good-hearted,” Della recalled. “And he was a card too.”

For 24 years, Della worked for the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Ferry Division, where she enjoyed meeting all the people. She also had a shop in her backyard, where she sold, among other things, plants from her greenhouse, souvenirs and fig preserves.

Owen died in 2000. Della still lives in the house she and her husband Owen built. Her son Monroe and her grandson Owen Parker spend lots of time with her. She still attends the Assembly of God Church where she taught Sunday school for years, and she still makes the fig cakes for which she is famous — she won first place in the Ocracoke Fig Festival competition more than once — and ships them to customers around the country.

Della’s book, “A Blessed Life; Growing up on Ocracoke Island,” tells her story in what North Carolina State University linguist Walt Wolfram describes as “words that resonate with the authentic island voice.”

She reflects in her book that “the Ocracoke that I see today is not the Ocracoke where I was born and raised … But Ocracoke is still Ocracoke with all of its changes. It is my home and I love it dearly.”

The lines from one of Della’s poems captures the intense love she has for her home by the sea:

Looking out across the Sea

What magnificent beauty there is for everyone to see.

The beach is so peaceful in the wintertime,

The tourists all gone, only footprints in the sand left behind …

As I sit on the beach looking out across the Sea,

I am viewing God’s beautiful creation,

not everyone as fortunate as me.

Not everyone can sit on the beach

looking out across the Sea…

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About the Author

Pat Garber

Naturalist Pat Garber washed up on Ocracoke Island in 1984. She immersed herself in the island’s natural environment and later wrote a series of award-winning columns based on her experiences for the "Island Breeze." She later published the columns as a collection of essays, called "Ocracoke Wild." Garber’s stories are gleaned from her experiences as an environmental anthropologist, wildlife rehabilitator, teacher, kayak guide and volunteer at the Hatteras National Seashore.