Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Big Ike

In 1939 W. O. Saunders from Elizabeth City, N. C., interviewed Ocracoke native Isaac (Big Ike) O"Neal (1865-1954). Big Ike was 74 years old at the time of the interview, which was conducted in his home on the island. Saunders describes Big Ike as "A mighty man he has been in his day, measuring six feet two in his stocking feet and tipping the scales at 240 pounds. At the age of 74 he is still a robust enough man, to all outward appearances, and his speech is punctuated with an infectious laugh and a flashing of good white teeth."

Big Ike begins his interview with these comments:

"Life was hard when I was a boy. There wasn't but one other family on this island that had a harder life than ours. My father fell through the hatch of a ship when I was a little boy and was crippled for life. He couldn't do any hard work after that.

"But we always had somethin' to eat; fish and clams and oysters and crabs. Never had much flour bread; if we had flour bread once a week we did mighty well. Corn bread was our bread.

"We had two wind mills on the island that ground corn. When there was no wind the mills didn't turn. I remember we once had a calm for twenty one days. But most families had their hand stones to fall back on at such times. It took a half hour to grind enough corn for breakfast with those old hand stones.

"No, we didn't grow corn on the island; we got our corn from the mainland; took salt fish, oysters and clams to the mainland and traded for corn and molasses.

"We didn't know what white sugar was; and never saw much of the brown sugar that was used in those days. Coffee? The only coffee we had was parched chestnuts which we boiled and made what we called coffee. Sweetened it with molasses. Most often we drank yaupon tea; just step out your back door and gather your tea leaves. Yaupon still grows wild on the island, but most folks now-a-days hold themselves above drinkin' tea made out of it."

Look for more excerpts from this interview in future posts.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter highlights several noteworthy staircases in historic island homes. To read the newsletter, and see photos, click here:


  1. Anonymous8:39 AM

    Yaupon tea... have any studies of the health benefits been made regarding this elixir. We know Big Ike's pappy was injured but what did Big Ike do to grow so tall and Robust? I'm sorry to hear of the injury but it sounds like he had a caring family though this reader does not know how long Big Ike's father lived as a disabled person. For a short story writer out there this description is indeed a mighty writing prompt.

  2. Anonymous8:44 AM

    What an interesting read. I can almost hear/imagine what he must have sounded like during the interview. Thanks for this great little gem.


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