We pride ourselves on quick responses in the North Carolina Collection. But in one instance (and I’d like to believe it’s just one), we failed.
In April 2010, we featured this postcard of Aunt Betsy Holmes, Uncle Bill and Joe the Ox on North Carolina Miscellany. We have several different postcards of Aunt Betsy, her bull and the carriage. And four years ago, my colleague Bridget Madden asked if anyone could supply more information about Aunt Betsy (sometimes spelled Betsey). Three months later Pearl Bell Follett suggested that we check the papers of Alfred Mordecai in the Southern Historical Collection here at Wilson Library. Follett said that we could find mention of Aunt Betsy in a paper on medicinal plants written by Mordecai.
We failed to follow up on Follett’s lead. And we may have never done so if we hadn’t gotten a gentle nudge from Adrienne Berney, a colleague in the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources. She posted a comment on the original blog post asking,”Has anyone in the library followed up with Ms. Follett’s reference to learn more about Aunt Betsy?” Then she added, “If so, please continue blogging on the topic! We need local color (and memories of it) in Raleigh.”
Mordecai was a major in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and based at Fort Benning, Ga., when he wrote “Common Plants of Medicinal Interest, Fort Benning Reservation” in 1934. The paper was prepared for the garden section of a women’s club at Fort Benning. And Mordecai, a Raleigh native and a descendant of Moses Mordecai, dedicated his work to Aunt Betsy and Uncle Billy Holmes. He describes them as “a gentle and lovable old couple of the colored-race; ex-slaves and relics of plantation life before the days of 1865.”
Aunt Betsy, according to Mordecai, was a familiar site at the Raleigh city market, where she ran a small stand selling garden herbs and medicinal plants. Market goers might find such items as thyme, sage, hoar-hound, rosemary, lavender leaves, red peppers, sassafras roots and hearth brooms made of field straw or sedge.
In winter she had holly with pretty red berries; sometimes mistletoe and teaberries. In the spring there were little posies of trailing arbutus. In the summer big bunches of daisies; and, in autumn, goldenrod and bunches of brightly colored autumn leaves along with a few pumpkins.
Mordecai adds that Aunt Betsy kept her carriage, with Joe the ox still attached, nearby. And from there, he writes, “she ran the more serious business of crude drugs, such as Snake-root, Pink-root, Lions-tongue, Indian-physic, Cramp-bark, Cat-nip, Golden-seal and the like.” Aunt Betsy’s customers for these items were mostly African-Americans. “But curiosity led the whites there, too,” according to Mordecai. “And no doubt many an intelligent citizen laughed in ignorance at the funny assortment which they regarded as so much conjure.”
Aunt Betsy and Uncle Billy lived near Marsh Creek about three miles north of Raleigh. The rafters of their house contained bunches of drying herbs and gourds “filled with interesting things belonging to her trade.”
As a boy, Mordecai recalls, he visited Aunt Betsy and Uncle Billy. “What are those funny roots, Aunt Betsy,” he asked. “They smell sort of sweet, but aren’t they dried up and ruined?”
Mordecai, who later served as health officer in Davie, Yadkin and Stokes counties, writes that on his visits to the couple’s house, he often found Uncle Billy sunning by the back door.
Mordecai recalls that Uncle Billy, who had served as carriage driver for Henry Mordecai during the ante- and post-bellum periods, was “well in his nineties” when he visited. But the old man still would led the young boy on hunts for rabbit.
Mordecai provides no other details about the couple. But he credits them with inspiring his interest in “crude drugs” and botany.
Perhaps there are other stories about Aunt Betsy and Uncle Billy. Please let us know if you come across them.