By Sandy Semans Ross | Outer Banks Voice on May 25, 2020
The ground was too wet to plant Mattamuskeet onions, so devoted fans will go without this year. Covid-19 shut down schools, so parents are attempting to home school their children. Ocracoke Island, Hyde County’s golden goose, is just beginning to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Dorian. Taxes, high already, will probably be raised again to make up for the loss of sales and occupancy taxes.
What else could go wrong in Engelhard in Hyde County? Plenty.
This is the first of a three-part series on the history and struggles of the small rural Hyde County community of Engelhard, NC
An ideal narrator has seen it all and been part of much of what has transpired in Engelhard. But she just quietly sits there on the corner where she has stood guard for almost 125 years. Gibbs Store, a general merchandise retailer in Engelhard, is the village’s oldest continuous business and thus, has witnessed many of the starts and stops of progress in the rural community that was incorporated as a village in 1711.
Fishing, farming and, for a time, market hunting for waterfowl have been the mainstay occupations. At one time, the store stayed open until 11 p.m. because the fishermen and farmers in the surrounding areas shopped after a long day’s work or on the weekend.
Poverty has always been a primary thread of the tapestry of the community which has been thwarted in many attempts to widen its job opportunities to attract more commerce. Many of its young people leave looking for more prosperous living conditions, which keeps Engelhard’s population numbers flat and ranging between estimates of 400-600.
One positive step toward creating more jobs began in 1919 when Closs Gibbs, who owned Gibbs Store, joined four other investors to open the Bank of Engelhard right across the street from the store. The investors laid out their vision of bringing a bank and more jobs to the community while at the local barber shop.
According to the North Carolina Secretary of State Office, the name on the charter was changed the following year and thus, East Carolina Bank was born.
There were no armored trucks to deliver cash to the banks, so several men, under cover of darkness, made the trip to Elizabeth City to pick up the money.
The stock market crash in 1929 was met with a run on banks by depositors who wanted to pull their money out because they didn’t trust that it would be there later. In response, President Franklin Roosevelt, just two days after taking office, ordered all banks across the country to close for three days to allow the public’s mood to calm down. Off the beaten track, East Carolina Bank remained open because the bank officials didn’t receive the order until after banks were reopened.
According to a report from the Rural Electrification News in 1937, the bank – which is referred to in the report as Engelhard Banking & Trust – received an unexpected boost after electricity entered the pictured. Pamlico Ice and Light Co., established in 1935, provided ice and cold storage to the commercial fishing industry.
According to the report, it took a pound of ice to preserve one pound of seafood. The new company providing ice allowed the seafood industry to expand substantially. J.H. Jarvis, then-president of the bank, reported to the publication that the bank’s deposits in June 1935 were $124,965 at the time the ice and power plants started operations, but increased to $307,935 in June 1937.
The bank created local jobs, and as time passed and the corporation grew to include more than two dozen branches in eastern North Carolina, more jobs were offered. The bank, very conscious of its roots, maintained its corporate headquarters in Engelhard and expanded the number of buildings used to house its expanding staff.
Gilbert Gibbs, son of Closs, eventually became president of the bank and served in that role until the 1980’s when he resigned. But he maintained his seat on the board of directors until his death in 2001.
In September 2012, East Carolina became involved in a series of mergers that eventually, in 2017, resulted in it being absorbed by First National Bank of Pittsburg. Through all the business transactions, each newly created entity eliminated a bit more of the corporate presence in Engelhard until there was nothing left of the corporate headquarters and many jobs were lost.
And on April 17, 2020 the doors were locked for a final time when the bank branch in Engelhard closed. Customers were told that they can visit the branch in Swanquarter, which is 22 miles away.
Greg Gibbs, grandson of Closs and now the manager of Gibbs Store, said that the loss of the bank has been “absolutely horrible. It is a mess not having a bank.”
Commercial seafood dealers whose money helped the banking company to flourish also are seeing the fallout.
“Workers can’t get their checks cashed without going to Swanquarter,” said Sherry Etheridge of Williams Seafood. “Many of the women who head shrimp don’t have cars and have to pay someone to take them there. And we get boats in from other areas and the fishermen don’t have any way of getting there.”
Patrice Clark of Engelhard Mattamuskeet Seafood echoed Etheridge’s response. “Many of the workers don’t have bank accounts, so it is hard for them to find a place to cash checks.”
Engelhard residents have lost a convenience as well as the pride of having a bank that remained open when others closed. The bank that commercial fishing help build.
In Part two: A superintendent works to educate with limited resources.