Connecting People to Places

Irvin Garrish: renowned island son

Irvin Garrish.

Irvin Garrish

By Connie Leinbach

Irvin Garrish would have been amazed to see his name pop up on GPS for the major thoroughfare through Ocracoke named after him, said his daughter during a recent celebration.

The gathering April 16, at the home of Bob and Cathy Phillips, 43 Howard Street, was in Garrish’s family home and in honor of what would have been Irvin’s 100th birthday on April 20.

Ironically, April 16 was Garrish’s mother’s birthday, and hostess Cathy’s birthday was April 17.

Built in 1888, the Simon and Sarah Garrish home is on the National Register of Historic Places. Irvin Garrish Highway, the name for NC 12 in the village, was so designated in honor of Garrish’s many accomplishments before he died at age 81 in 1997. One distinction was that he was the first commissioner for Ocracoke Township, Phillips said.

“We all thought he was crazy to do that, but he liked it,” said his daughter Martha O’Neal. “He didn’t mind going over to Swan Quarter for the meetings.”

Nowadays, owing to a special sanction from the N.C. Legislature, Ocracoke residents can attend Hyde County commissioner meetings via teleconferencing equipment in the Ocracoke School Commons room. After the meetings, Garrish would drive around and return home via the Hatteras Ferry, Martha said.  

Her father’s career in local politics began after he retired from working in the 1960s as a ferry captain.

Martha Garrish, a daughter of the late Irvin Garrish, talks about her father during the April 16 event at her former family home on Howard Street.

Martha Garrish, a daughter of the late Irvin Garrish, talks about her father during the April 16 event at her former family home on Howard Street.

Garrish was the ferry captain for Hyde County’s first long-haul route, which was between Ocracoke and Atlantic in Carteret County. (The NC Ferry Division created the Cedar Island and Swan Quarter routes in the 1970s.)

As such, he was able to indulge his penchant for sharing  the story of Ocracoke. “He’d tell stories and point out different things about the Sound over the loudspeaker for the passengers,” Martha said.

He loved being a ferry captain, said his other daughter, Agnes Garrish. “We called him Captain Courageous because the wind didn’t bother him a bit,” Agnes said. “He just enjoyed it. He liked talking to people on the ferry and would sometimes let kids see the wheelhouse.”

After he retired from the Ferry Division, Garrish continued telling the story of Ocracoke as the driver for the now-defunct Ocracoke Trolley.  And when that was discontinued, he got a van and drove it around as a tour shuttle for visitors, Martha said.

“He also did a cassette for people to do their own tours,” she said. “His mind was always going.”

An avid reader, Garrish was versed in many subjects, she said. “He would have loved computers,” she said. He especially loved astronomy. “He could navigate by the stars,” Martha said. “(Ferry captains) had to learn that back then.” The hall inside the Masonic Lodge on Back Road also was named for her father, Martha said.

A 33rd-degree Mason,Garrish tutored men on the island and was a certified masonic lecturer.

As for the family home on Howard Street, as Agnes looked around during the open house, she noted that it looked much the same when she lived there.

Irvin Garrish Highway is what N.C. Route 12 is called in Ocracoke village.

Irvin Garrish Highway is what N.C. Route 12 is called in Ocracoke village.

“My great-grandmother (and father) built it,” she said. “Irvin’s mother died when he was 3. So he lived in the house.”

Tom Pahl’s company Landmark Building and Design finished renovations on the house in 2012 after the Phillips’ bought it in 2011. “We’re the caretakers of their family history,” said Cathy Phillips about the house. “They let us know all the threads of how it got handed down.”

A fundraiser for the Ocracoke Preservation Society, the event raised about $650.

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