The Christmas gift that keeps on giving

Published 4:29 pm Monday, December 4, 2023

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The Christmas season brings back so many memories. The memories of my elders sitting around talking and sharing events and times of their lives has provided me with so much historical information about Washington.

One of my favorite seasonal stories is about a young man that 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 stories he heard about the many 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 in my January 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.’  It 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 named Dr. Samuel Nicholson is 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 dad’s job involved helping to build a one-half mile racetrack between Bonner and Market Street 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 races, 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 Azzie fell in love with horses and after that every year he would ask for a horse for Christmas.  He never got one, but his dad got him jobs taking care of other people’s horses. Azzie said this was actually better because his family really couldn’t afford the feeding and care of a horse, but taking care of someone else’s horse and learning to ride was satisfactory. 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 and fitting them on a horse’s feet 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.   Mr. Long owned a horse and buggy factory at the southeast corner of Second and Market 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 and places now long gone, helped me to learn a lot about Washington’s history.  Now that is a gift that keeps on giving. And it is a blessing to me that I can share some of this history with you.

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