David Lauderdale

Hilton Head Island turns to wisdom of the ages

Ethel Rivers, 94, the second oldest Hilton Head Island native talks about growing up on the island Wednesday afternoon at her home near Dillon Road. Go to local news video to see more.
Ethel Rivers, 94, the second oldest Hilton Head Island native talks about growing up on the island Wednesday afternoon at her home near Dillon Road. Go to local news video to see more. Sarah Welliver

Ethel Rivers says her late husband could play the piano, organ, mouth organ and accordion, and he never had a music lesson.

"He was a gifted man from God," she said. "God knows everything, and he can teach you everything if you just take time to learn."

Her comment is appropriate for this moment in time on Hilton Head Island.

Last week, a historical marker was unveiled at an old one-room schoolhouse next to Rivers' home on Dillon Road. She was the eldest of about 20 former students of the Cherry Hill School who attended the three-hour dedication ceremony.

Several speakers said that if we took the time, we could learn more from the former students of the school than from a building where Gullah children were taught grades one through five from 1937 to 1954.

Now this week, organizers of a celebration of the island's history want to single out for special honors at Saturday's community beach party the longest-living Hilton Head residents.

Ethel Rivers, two weeks shy of her 95th birthday, is among the oldest who were born here. She is a few months younger than Laura Campbell of Spanish Wells Road and slightly older than Rachel Ferguson Brown.

Their lives tell a story, just like the old school now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It's like Perry White said as he closed his history of the school during the marker dedication ceremony:

"In the words of an old Negro hymn, 'It was a tejus (tedious) journey.' "


Ethel Green Rivers was born Oct. 16, 1918, to native islanders Viola and Jacob Benjamin Green. They lived in an area called Drayton, near today's Barker Field. "They had 11 head of children and raised four," said Rivers.

They could both read and write, and Viola taught neighborhood children to read. Jacob Green was a carpenter with a big garden. He rode a horse to the Jenkins Island dock to get the mail and distribute it to residents of the area of the island known as Baygall.

Ethel Rivers attended the Cherry Hill School before it had a building. It met in a church parsonage until people of the community put together money for the land and helped build the building. She went through fifth grade, then learned from her mother "everything a girl's supposed to learn: sew, wash, iron, cook, clean, everything. Old as I am, I still keep my house clean. I don't know where the dust comes from."

Her mother cooked for students of the Cherry Hill School, then turned the duty over to Ethel. She fixed "peas and rice, cornbread, chicken, deer meat and everything else."

Ethel Green married Nathan "Apple" Rivers one month before her 17th birthday. They lived with her parents from 1935 until they bought the acre where she still lives in 1942.

They had 17 children. Two died in infancy. All were born at home with a midwife, the last baby arriving when Ethel was 46.

"When the pain hit you, you'd tell your husband or whoever you've got to run get the midwife," she said.

Ethel Rivers has had to bury six of her children, and in 2005, her husband.

Apple Rivers drove trucks for the Toomers, Charlie Simmons Sr. and O.J. Malphrus as the island crept into the modern world with electricity in 1950 and a bridge in 1956. He worked in landscaping for the Hilton Head Co. from 1965 to 1986, as neighborhoods of newcomers from far away sprang up like mushrooms.

Ethel Rivers said she and her children worked for many years keeping up yards in Port Royal Plantation. She also worked alongside her husband in his spare job repairing cars. "I was a grease monkey," she says.


Ethel Rivers is the "mother of the church" at St. James Baptist Church, across the street from the home she and Apple built in 1971. Apple Rivers was a deacon for more than 50 years at the church, which bought and restored the Cherry Hill School building.

Ethel Rivers still keeps a garden like her daddy did, and has lime, orange and peach trees. And she visits her children in Brooklyn. Most of her children left the island. All got the high school diploma that was unavailable to their parents, and some got college degrees.

She goes to the Bluffton Senior Center four days a week on a Palmetto Breeze bus. The walls of her neat home are full of family pictures, one showing her husband making a sweetgrass basket. A signed print by Gullah artist Joe Pinckney depicts a young woman beside an iron hand pump in the yard, holding a sweetgrass basket filled with clothes.

Ethel Rivers says that represents her.

She's proud to come from an era when islanders "would go in the creek and catch fish and crabs and dig for clams and pick oysters and knock 'em and beat 'em and sell 'em. Everything that would make a dollar, they do."

Now "all you have to do is mash a button or turn a knob," she said. People throw too much away, and don't take care of things.

"Children now have so much and everything comes so easy to them, they don't appreciate it," she said. "They don't appreciate."

Her advice to anyone who will take time to listen: "Trust our good Lord. Do what is right. Try to treat people like you want to be treated, whether they're white, black, green or blue. Stay busy."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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