Ocracoke's history & its people

Eleanor Garrish reaches 100-year milestone

Eleanor Garrish and her son, Jim. Photo by C. Leinbach

Eleanor Garrish and her son, Jim. Photo by C. Leinbach

Editor’s note: Pat Garber spent many hours in 2014 interviewing Eleanor and wrote a three-part series published in the Observer in 2014 on her extraordinary life that you can read here: Part  One,  Part Two and Part Three 

By Connie Leinbach

Ocracoke’s oldest citizen, Eleanor Garrish, celebrated her 100th birthday Jan. 26.

While this milestone few attain was not celebrated with a huge extravaganza, her island friends scheduled visits before and after Eleanor’s big day.

“It was a way of bringing the world to her,” said Cindy Hitchens, who organized her fellow quilting comrades in visiting Eleanor at her home along British Cemetery Road where she resides with her only child, Jim Garrish, who is retired from the Navy.

Hitchens and several members of the Ocracoke Quilters cooked meals and brought them to Eleanor.

“The visits were at least as important as the food,” Hitchens said.

Islander Debbie Leonard brought Eleanor a chocolate cake with 100 frosting stars.

“She has a legendary sweet tooth,” Hitchens said about Eleanor.  “She was hovering her hands over the cake before we left. We thought she was going to dig right in with both hands before we got to the end of her driveway.”

A chocolate cake with 100 frosting stars made by Debbie Leonard. Photo by Debbie Leonard.

A chocolate cake with 100 frosting stars made by Debbie Leonard. Photo by Debbie Leonard.

Along with the food and fellowship, the members of the quilters group bring their current projects to Eleanor to look at, even counsel on, as Eleanor is a longtime member of the sewing group.

“She is the repository of a lot of skills,” Hitchens said about Eleanor’s knowledge bank. “She did very classic type of quilts with the log cabin design.”

Hitchens said that after she retired in 2007, she began learning how to quilt from Eleanor.

“Eleanor taught me a lot,” Hitchens said. “She was very motivating.”

Eleanor has a small, featherweight Singer sewing machine that she uses to sew quilt pieces together.

“In quilting, you put pieces together in three sections, then put all of the sections together,” Hitchens explained. “I watched her put this queen-sized quilt through this tiny machine. It was amazing.”

The last quilt she completed was about one and a half years ago, Jim said.

Eleanor’s days now are quieter, said Jim during an interview with Eleanor Friday.

Eleanor Garrish sewing with the Ocracoke Quilters. Photo by Cindy Hitchens

Eleanor Garrish sewing with the Ocracoke Quilters. Photo by Cindy Hitchens

Her memory is starting to slip.

“I forget so easily one day to the next,” she said, as her son filled in the memories for her.

“I get a little bit irked because I can’t walk well,” Eleanor said.

Having sustained a few falls over the last several years, she receives physical therapy from Calvin Hanrahan a three times a week, but she also has chores to do around the house, Jim said, such as washing dishes, preparing her own breakfast and folding the laundry.

The eldest of five children, Eleanor was born in 1916 on a Minnesota farm.

“One hundred and sixty acres,” she said. “I used to ride a horse on the farm.”

And drive a team of horses on this working farm, Jim added.

He noted that his mother was born before there was indoor plumbing and electric.

While there were limited opportunities for women in rural America, Eleanor taught at a one-room school house, then left for Minneapolis-St.Paul to teach in larger schools.

After visiting San Francisco, she decided to stay.

During World War II, she lived in Panama for three years, traveled solo in South America.

Throughout this time, she worked in secretarial and government administration jobs.

A desire for more excitement led her to visit Hawaii, where she met and later married Chief Petty Officer Willard “Jake” Garrish of Ocracoke.

While Jake was still in the Navy, the family lived in Atlantic Beach, and moved Ocracoke after Jake retired in 1976.