Centenarian Recalls 100 Years of Life and Prosperity in Onancock

Agnes West Hancock, of Onancock, celebrated her 100th birthday Sunday, June 13. Onancock Mayor Fletcher Fosque presented Hancock with a proclamation from the town in recognition of her birthday. Photo by Carol Vaughn.

By Carol Vaughn —

Onancock resident Agnes West Hancock has a longer perspective than most on the town’s history — 100 years, to be exact.
Hancock celebrated her 100th birthday in June.
She recalled memories from the past century in an interview at her home.
Born at home and raised in the same house, at 3 Lee St., Hancock, an only child, said she “had a wonderful childhood,” including playing with the children of her neighbors, the Boggs family, who lived at 1 Lee St., and her cousin Peggy West, who lived nearby.
Her grandfather, William Custis West, lived where Williams Funeral Home stands now.
Her father, who worked as a produce dealer, also was born in Onancock, in the house at the corner of Riley and North streets. He died in his sixties.
Her mother, who lived to age 101, came from Modest Town.
“I feel that I inherited her genes,” Hancock said.
Her father started his business at around age 30. The office was next to the First National Bank on Market Street. Produce from the Eastern Shore was sent north by ship, headed to Atlantic and Safeway grocery stores.
Hancock’s mother attended Bloxom High School, traveling from Modest Town by horse and buggy.
Judge Wescott Northam’s father, who also lived in Modest Town, sometimes took her mother to school, Hancock said.
Her mother aspired to be a teacher and came to Onancock to take a two-year training course offered at a building on Kerr Street. She lived with her aunt, who lived on a farm outside town.
That was around 1916.
At lunchtime, the students would walk down to Wise’s Drug Store for lunch. That’s when she noticed the “older” gentleman at his produce office.
That was in autumn. “By March they were married,” Hancock said.
Hancock and her neighbor, Billy Boggs, attended kindergarten at Ker Place, currently the headquarters of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society, where the doctor who had delivered her, Dr. Oscar Powell, lived at the time. The two friends walked to school.
One of Powell’s daughters taught the class.
She later attended Onancock School on College Avenue, where she had the other Powell daughter as a teacher in third grade.
Her health became poor starting in fifth grade. Still, she later went away to school for three years — the first year, like twelfth grade now, was at Stuart Hall, an Episcopal high school in Staunton, followed by two years of elementary education teacher training in Danville.
Hancock came back to the Shore to teach first grade on Chincoteague, but, still in fragile health, she caught many illnesses from the children, eventually contracting scarlet fever after having taught three or four years.
She decided to instead pursue secretarial work.
“I went to Steyer’s Business College one winter in Richmond,” then went to work for Carroll Bull at the produce exchange in Onley. She worked there eight years, and spent several more years working for Bull in Florida during the winter and on the Shore in the summer.
Hancock met her husband, Wilson, a widower with one daughter from Pocomoke City, Md., who was living in a house on Market Street; they married in 1957.
Sadly, the daughter, Ginny Lee, who was born with a heart condition, passed away at age 11 after an operation.
Hancock and her husband were married 49 “happy” years, she said.
Hancock is an active member of Holy Trinity Church in Onancock, which she started attending at age seven.
Hancock’s memories include dating Navy pilots stationed at Chincoteague during World War II.
She and other women teachers on Chincoteague boarded at the Channel Bass Inn during the week.
The pilots from the Naval air station would come by the inn for visits.
Local newspapers from the 1940s document a number of airplane crashes at the station — one such crash killed a Salem, Va., man she was dating.
Among the greatest changes Hancock has seen in a long life is the faster pace of life now on the Eastern Shore, including more traffic and more people moving to the Shore.
“I still love to live here, except there is a much faster pace. I accept what comes,” Hancock said.
Many of the Onancock area stores and attractions Hancock knew as a child and younger adult no longer exist.
Hancock recalls attending the Tasley Fair, held in August or September on what is now called Fairgrounds Road, including riding on a big Ferris wheel as a young child. There were two separate fairs on opposite sides of the street, one for White people and one for Black people, in those segregated times.
More recently, Fork’s Grill, a popular eatery, sat at the fork in the road heading out of Onancock towards Onley, where Fairgrounds Road veers to the left.
Where Four Corner Plaza and Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital now stand, there was a large farm field.
Onancock in Hancock’s youth had several independent grocery stores, as well as other shops.
On North Street, there was Bundick’s grocery store; J.S. Mills, a men’s clothing store; Mathias’ ten-cent store; and Lofland’s grocery store.
On the other side of the street, there was another grocery store, Boggs’, where The Blarney Stone Pub is now.
Will Bell had a harness shop on the same street, where the men would gather around the potbellied stove to talk.
“That was the meeting place for all the men to find out the gossip,” Hancock said.
“He had out near the front a big wooden horse — tall, big, you know, the whole horse — and the men would bring their children in and sit them on the horse,” she said.
She heard the horse later was sent to the Smithsonian Institute.
There also was a restaurant in the vicinity.
Later, the American Store, a chain grocery, was located on the corner where the Red Queen Gallery is now.
R.L. Shield had a dry goods store farther up Market Street, where Dawn’s is now.
Still later, a Pender’s grocery store was located across Market Street.
In the building which now houses the Corner Bakery, Hancock recalls license plates being sold. The building is “very old,” she said, adding, “It’s had everything in it. I remember we used to go in it and dance.”
Where North Street Playhouse now stands, there was a movie hall operated by a Mr. Scott, before the days of the Roseland Theatre.
Hancock attributes her long life, despite having had poor health in her earlier years, to inheriting her mother’s genes, along with watching her diet, exercising daily, and her lifelong love of gardening, or as she calls it, “digging in the dirt.”
Additionally, she reads “a lot of health books.”
Asked what advice she has for the Post’s readers, Hancock said, “Try to stay healthy by exercising, watching what we eat, reading about what to eat. Thank God for everything he has given us on this beautiful earth. Be happy and make other people happy.”



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