Local Roots: Mother Rivers

Following the passing of Gertrude Brown Grant, Ethel Rivers (locally known at Mother Rivers) is the oldest living person born on Hilton Head. She had 17 children, 43 grandchildren and 57 great-grandchildren.

Story by Luana Graves Sellars + Photography by Lloyd Wainscott

Everyone has a story. Some people have action-packed adventures that are full of excitement while others are just plain simple. Some lives are tragically cut short and others have the blessing of spanning decades.

It’s not often that you have the opportunity to spend time with a centenarian; it’s a chance to pause and to take notes. Time with her is a chance to peek behind the historic curtain and receive firsthand knowledge and unexpected details from someone’s past. Still active and clear in her memories, Mother Ethel Rivers comes across as though she’s decades younger. It’s only when she starts to share her rich past that you realize how much of a rare island treasure she is. She, however, doesn’t think so. When she’s told that her lifelong experiences have made her into an amazing woman, she simply replies, “that’s what they say.” With Mother Rivers, it is that simple. During her lifetime, she’s cut down trees with a saw, made quilts and worked on cars. “No work was too hard for me. I did what I needed to do.”

When she thinks back, she remembers a life well lived in Mitchelville, the area of Hilton Head in which she grew up. “And that’s a very long time,” she says. “I don’t know how I look, but I feel good. Twenty years ago, I didn’t think that I’d still be here. I must have done some good somewhere down the line. I just put all of my trust in the Lord.”

With a crisp mind full of memories that take her back to her teenage years, Mother Rivers recalls most of what happened on the island during her lifetime, including the Category 2 Georgia-South Carolina Hurricane in August 1940. As the storm made landfall in Beaufort, she says that her family was over near Barkers Field in a house that the storm  blew out all of the windows. Frightened for their safety, the family made its way over to the now historic St. James Baptist Church, which also began to shake violently. Uncertain about their safety in the church, they made it over to Flora Washington’s house, where Joe Bailey was gravely ill at the time. She never saw someone that old or sick before. Scared by his appearance, and willing to brave the storm one more time, she asked, “do we have to stay here?”

Life on the island certainly has changed in a century. Rivers has lived in her house since 1942. Within walking distance there used to be a small store where she would buy a large biscuit and meat for 5 cents. They picked up some meat, sugar, lard and a half a loaf of bread for 50 cents. She doesn’t cook anymore, but she’s very specific about how she likes her rice cooked. It shouldn’t be “raw rice” and be sure that you can “count” and “spread the grains,” she says. “I like sweets, but they don’t make pound cake like they used to.”

Back then, children started school when they were about 10 years old. Her formal education was in a classroom set up in the parsonage behind St. James Church, but it ended when she reached the 5th grade. An advanced education was only available to children who knew someone with whom they could stay while in school on Tybee or Beaufort. That didn’t end her thirst for knowledge. “I read everything that I could to multiply my knowledge and learn more. Then I stayed here and got a good husband.” Her marriage to Nathan “Apple” Rivers lasted for 74 years. He died in 1975 and she pledged not to remarry, because “he was to be her only love.”

On the day we spoke, Mother Rivers had just cast her vote during early voting and reminisced about the first vote that she cast in 1934, when she was 16. She was newly married then and recalls that she was one of the first black women from Hilton Head to travel to Beaufort to vote. At the time, they didn’t even have the courthouse ready; they had a special room for the women to vote.

Growing up, church services at St. James were only every other month. Over her lifetime, she “worked in every auxiliary at the church and sometimes I even played the piano.”

Mother Rivers shared six principles on how she has lived her life over the past 100 years. It’s important to “make sure that you give your body a rest. God can’t work on your body if you don’t allow yourself to rest. Remember to give one day to the Lord. Always think about other people and share what you have. Remember to treat people like you want to be treated. And always do the right thing the best way that you know how.”

Mother Rivers celebrated her 100th birthday on Oct. 16, surrounded by the majority of her family, which includes 17 children, 43 grandchildren and 57 great-grandchildren. That’s 117 descendants and counting. As the oldest Gullah on the island and the church Mother at Historic St. James Baptist Church, she says, “it feels good. Everyone is always looking up to you.”