A Christmas gift that keeps on giving

Published 7:55 pm Monday, December 6, 2021

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One of my favorite Christmas stories is about a young man who wanted a horse for Christmas. He never got the horse, but he got something that was even better.

My grandmother, who lived in Belhaven, had a good friend named Mr. Azzie.  He would often visit her, and they’d share stories about growing up in the early 1900’s in Belhaven and Pantego.  Mr. Azzie talked frequently about his trips to Washington as a young boy. He came to help his father work on the docks of the old Dominion Steam Ship Company. His favorite part of being on the wharf was the many stories he heard about the all wonderful things Washington had to offer. Things like Vaudeville shows, circuses, the many saloons on the waterfront and the Emancipation Day Parades that African American people hosted here. I’ll share more about the Emancipation Day Parades later in my upcoming January, New Year’s columns.

In 1897 when he was seven years old, his father got a new job helping to build a dirt racetrack for the Washington Fair which was also called the ‘Washington Horse Fair.’

The Washington Horse Fair was an event that brought people from all over eastern North Carolina, and at one time was said to be the best in the state. A local doctor who Mr. Azzie’s mother had worked for by the name of Dr. Samuel Nicholson was responsible for bringing this marvelous event to Washington. It must have been a huge success because Mr. Azzie said people talked about it for many years after.

Mr. Azzie’s dads job involved helping to build a one-half mile racetrack between Bonner and Market Streets east and west, and Seventh and Eighth Streets north and south. The Salvation Army Church and Thrift Store is located on some of that land today.

The Horse Fair not only included the horse show and horse races, but it had something for everyone. There were carnival shows, bicycle races, and tasty local foods and treats. Washington Pie, a type of bread pudding, and pecan pralines were the main food attractions. Mr. Azzie said a six-legged cow was the best attraction there, but the beautiful horses stole the show.  The Fair was where Mr. Azzie fell in love with horses and every year after that, he would ask for a horse for Christmas.

He never got the horse, but his dad got him little jobs taking care of other people’s horses. Mr. Azzie said this was actually better because his family really couldn’t afford the upkeep, feeding and care of a horse, but taking care of someone else’s horse and learning to ride was satisfactory for him. As Mr. Azzie grew into his teen years, he got jobs shoeing horses from prosperous and well-known Washington African American farriers, Mr. Jesse Parham and Mr. Cane Spellman. A farrier is a person who is skilled in making horseshoes, fitting them properly and caring for their hooves.

Mr. Azzie said his best training came from an African American man, Mr. Obadiah Dove, who owned a horse shoeing business that he operated in the back building of Washington’s legendary carriage builder, Mr. Edward Long, who owned a horse and Buggy factory at the southeast corner of Second and Markets in the late 1880’s.   Mr. Azzie said these opportunities were his best gifts, even better than getting a horse.

Mr. Azzie’s gifts of stories and the stories of so many people now long gone, helped me to learn a lot about the history of Washington.  Now that is a gift that keeps on giving.


Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the co-founder and co-executive director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.