Past Times

August 21, 2014

Past Times: Betsy Holmes and her bull Joe were a Raleigh institution

A frequent sight in the streets of downtown Raleigh about 1900 was "Aunt" Betsy Holmes, who drove her cart to market each day. Drawn by a bull named Joe, it came to be known as her "automobull." When she died in 1906, the newspaper noted the end of an era.

A frequent sight in the streets of downtown Raleigh about 1900 was “Aunt” Betsy Holmes, who drove her cart to market each day. Drawn by a bull named Joe, it came to be known as her “automobull.” When she died in 1906, the newspaper noted the end of an era.

Aunt Betsy was an old negress miraculously fat, most wonderfully arrayed in habiliments of two generations ago; she drove a small bull named Joe hitched to a quaint top buggy the wheels of which threatened at every moment to overflow into her lap with weariness. The foregoing may sound extravagant as an obituary expression. That is, it may so sound to those who have not known Aunt Betsy. To those who have known her, who have seen her wide and brimming smile, who have looked into her twinkling black eyes set in wells of fat, who have received her gracious salutation as she drove along the streets, it is all too inadequate. Aunt Betsy was an institution so good and wholesome, she made so much sunshine and inspired so much cockle-warming laughter with so good a grace, that it was self-cruelty to think of her as coming to an end. Consequently the news of her death was a shock for which Raleigh was fatuously not prepared. It is pleasant to think that there was no remorse in the surprise; the people of Raleigh were good to Aunt Betsy as she was good to them. She goes away well loved.

Aunt Betsy’s age was uncertain, but she must have been above eighty. She was for years before the war a faithful servant in the Boylan family. As the type which she capped grew fewer and fewer, she attained fame. Her picture sitting in her bull-drawn buggy was published in many great Northern papers, even in foreign reviews. Of the Raleigh “Post-cards,” her likeness was the most attractive.

Mostly, if one would take a look at Aunt Betsy, he went during the morning to Exchange street on the north side of the market. There, near the north door, Aunt Betsy stood by her buggy piled high with vegetables and with roots and herbs. Sometimes Joe, the bull, was in the shafts, more generally, he had been partially unharnessed. Through the long morning he stood patiently flicking flies with his tail and chewing on his cud reflectively. And Aunt Betsy stood apart for trade and sold her produce and put her money in a bag, and answered up to badinage or preached a sermon or glorified the Lord as the mood or the necessities of conversation suited her. But it was the evenings more than the busy mornings perhaps that Aunt Betsy loved. Then, her store depleted by her sales, her purchases made, she harnessed Joe, drove with deliberate pace into the avenue of Fayetteville street and started home in dignity and joy. As her buggy went upon its stately way, greetings were shouted at her from both sidewalks, hands were waved, cheery voices hailed her.

And so on she went, at a bull’s pace out the principal streets, out into the country to her home. In the summer evenings when folks sit upon their verandas they watched for Aunt Betsy, to call to her, to hear her “Evening” and to watch her bow before she went into the country for the night. “Poor old Aunt Betsy,” one thought, “who doesn’t know how poor she is.” And then one knew she wasn’t poor at all and wondered vaguely how she managed to be so rich.

If one could disassociate the personage from the conveyance, Aunt Betsy’s death would be a calamity if for nothing else than that it removes her vehicle from active commerce. There is not extant such another buggy. It deserves its place in the museum.. How Aunt Betsy ever managed to hoist her three hundred pounds into the seat is a matter of applied science which perishes with her. It was a miraculous buggy which miraculously contained Aunt Betsy, who flowed over its sides, and also every morning her store of produce from her farm. But the feature of the turn-out was “Joe.” Joe was not much of a bull as weight goes, but he was a stayer. How many years he has pulled the buggy no one knows. But he seemed to acquire something of his driver’s dignity. He was always ready to stop for conversation and listen to Aunt Betsy praise the Lord.

Aunt Betsy is survived by a husband, but she was the man of the house. The husband stayed on the farm. Aunt Betsy was general manager of the farm. She handled the money bags, made the bargains, marketed the produce. Occasionally, she brought her husband to town with her. Fortunately he was of a build that permitted him to be stowed away in the buggy with the other vegetables. The N&O Feb. 13, 1906

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History fascinates us. We love to linger over old photographs or accounts of years long gone. Discovering our own personal histories can become an enjoyable pastime. This blog will provide some looks into that past. We'll look at NC history in general, and Triangle history in particular. We'll also try to give you the tips and tools (and connections) for looking at your own history.

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