The flower ladies of Chapel Hill

Robert House with Chapel Hill flower ladies
On our Facebook page and Twitter feed Wednesday, we shared this quote from former UNC Chancellor Robert B. House.

As I saw Franklin Street in 1912, it was a dusty red avenue cut through a forest of magnificent trees….My first impression of Chapel Hill was trees; my last impression is trees….It is no wonder that Chapel Hillians are ardent tree worshippers and the symbol of the place is Davie Poplar.

The mention of House and his comments about symbols of Chapel Hill sparked me to recall the postcard above. It’s from our North Carolina Postcards online collection. That’s Chancellor House buying some flowers from the “flower ladies” on Franklin Street. They, too, were a symbol of Chapel Hill, selling their fresh-picked flowers near the Intimate Bookshop on the north side of Franklin Street almost daily.

No one is sure when the flower ladies began their sidewalk sales. But they had been going strong for a decade or two when, in the late 60s, town leaders passed an ordinance banning sidewalk sales. The law was designed to curb another type of sales that had sprouted on Franklin Street. Some vendors had taken to selling leather goods, jewelry and pot pipes on the street. But if the “hippie” merchants had to go, so, too, did the flower ladies. They were no longer allowed to sell from their Franklin Street location.

After an outcry from towns folks, the Chapel Hill Town Council backtracked and allowed the flower ladies to continue their sales. But they couldn’t do so from Franklin Street. The flower ladies moved to an alley just off Franklin, a space that eventually become the entryway to NCNB Plaza (now known as Bank of America Center).

Sadly the flower ladies are no longer a common sight downtown. In 1983 Lillie Pratt, who does still show up occasionally to sell her flowers, told a reporter for the Greensboro News & Record that her flower sales were less a money-making venture and more a hobby. “I reckon the best you’re gonna do is swap your money,” she said. “The seeds cost a lot more than they used to, and Lordy, you ought to try to fight the bugs….I stand out in the garden and just wonder why I’m doing it, why I’m fighting all these bugs.”

The newspaper writer added:

It’s funny and a little silly to Lillie Pratt that she and the other ladies should be so highly regarded because they tend gardens and sell flowers for a hobby.

She crinkled her nose at anyone who would call her a landmark, and goes ‘Oh, pshaw,’ to anybody who would take her picture and talk to her as if she were the governor.

But, still she comes back, two or three times a week, every week. And she will keep coming back, Lillie Pratt said, as long as her hobby holds her interest and she can keep the bugs at bay.

And as long as there are daffodils in the spring.

Here’s hoping the flower ladies will sprout again.

12 thoughts on “The flower ladies of Chapel Hill”

  1. Hello, Mr John Blyth and to anyone else that published this page and photo.

    Nothing, but tears right now… For the recognition of the flower ladies. My grandmother passed in 1989. Thank GOD I was so lucky to be raised by while mom and dad were at work. Up until the age of 12. She was my great-grandmother, but, we just called her grandma. Salina McCauley (maiden name) Farrington. She is the one on the right end. With the yellow, white blue and a couple of other color flowers in her dress. The gentlemen was covering her face with his wrist while trying to purchase a flower. My grandmother was so many things. Seeing this brought back childhood memories of helping her pick the flowers to sell on that bank of america breezeway. Thank You so much. Have a wonderful memorial day.

  2. Ms. McCauley,
    Thanks for your kind words. As I suggest in my blog post, the flower ladies bring back warm memories for me, too. I suspect that I or someone in my family probably bought some flowers from Mrs. Farrington at some point.

  3. Great article my grandmother is second flower lady on the left Rosa Belle Stone(maiden name Reaves). With glasses and updo hairdo I remember flower ladies on Franklin Street!

  4. Robert House was my grandfather, who helped raise me in Chapel Hill, He has a great love for the flower ladies which I shared. What a wonderful memory, Thanks!

  5. Where could I possibly buy a copy of the Franklin Street Flower ladies that were done by Nancy Caldwell. Is there a site to order prints? Thank you!

  6. i recently found a print of the flower ladies of Chapel Hill in an old house a friend of mine purchased, I was wondering if someone that is related to one of the flower ladies would be interested in it? This print is done by Fowler

  7. I am not related but I would love to purchase this print. If you still have this would you please contact me. Thanks

  8. Hi Teresa,
    I’m pleased that you’d like a copy of the postcard of the flower ladies. There are two ways that you can obtain it.

    1)You can download the image file yourself and then print it (or have it printed). Go to https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/nc_post/id/1073. Look for the Download tap on the upper right just above the image. Click on it. You’ll see several download option.

    2) You can email my colleagues in our Research and Instructional Services department (wilsonlibrary@unc.edu). They can tell you about our image reproduction offerings. There will be a cost to this service.

    Best,
    John Blythe
    Assistant Curator
    North Carolina Collection

  9. I recently came across a most beautiful yard bursting with colorful flowers while canvassing. When I asked who the gifted gardener was, I was told that it was planted by one of the Franklin Street Flower Ladies, Mrs. Allison, and is tended now by her daughter who keeps the beauty, and the history, alive. What a wonderful story.

  10. Hi Mr. John Blythe,

    My name is Amelia Keesler. I am a student journalist at UNC Chapel Hill. My fascination with the flower ladies began when I started working for our Alumni center. We have shelves upon shelves of archives. I found a picture similar to this post card – grainy and black and white. A classic.

    I want to write a feature story on this, possibly a profile on a flower lady for one of my classes. Do you have any contacts? I left my email in the reply.

    I can picture the fresh-picked flowers near the intimate bookshop, though this was well before my time. What a wonderful story. Thank you.

    1. Hi Amelia,
      The flower ladies were a great part of Franklin Street. Their offerings always proved a great mix of colors. I’ll follow up by email.

      John Blythe
      Assistant Curator

  11. I worked at Ledbetter Pickard in the early 70s and we sold prints of the flower ladies. I bought flowers from them for my bouquet and hair for my wedding at the Chapel of the Cross in 1972. As our 50th anniversary approaches, we would looooove to purchase one of those Flower Lady prints

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