Monday, December 8, 2014

Martha Royal

a voice from the past

By John B. Green III

Martha Royal and her vegetable perambulator, 1939.

All agreed - Martha Royal was loud.  In sheer volume and carrying power, her early morning street cries were overwhelming and inescapable.  Martha was a street vendor of fresh fruits and vegetables and her sing-song chants advertized her wares and her presence.  In a time and place when such street peddlers were common, Martha Royal out-sang and outlasted her competition, and in the process, became a beloved figure in New Bern.

Street vendors had existed in New Bern and elsewhere since the earliest days.  By the time the local and state press began to take note of Martha in the 1920s and 1930s, however, such vendors were a dying breed, edged out by grocery store chains and noise ordinances.

"Aunt Letty" street vendor, New Bern, from a postcard c.1910.
Street vendors often called attention to themselves by chants which named the items being sold and their most attractive qualities: fresh, ripe, sweet, cheap.  Carl Goerch, writing about Martha Royal in a 1939 issue of The State magazine, attempted to capture one of Martha's chants in print:

Heah yo' niiice, fraish caab-bages.
Gyarden peas, spring inyans, corrn!
Sweet pota-toses, ahish pota-toses.
Green peppers, stringbeans, carrots
Collards an' riiipe toma-toses.

Oyster vendor in front of the Harris House, 718 Pollock St, c. 1920.
Martha Franks Royal (or Royall) was born October 18, 1867, the daughter of Thomas and Rosalyn Franks.  She married D.C. Royal in 1904.  D.C. Royal's occupation was variously listed in city directories and census records as cook, mill hand, lumber grader, and driver.  He was listed as a grocer in 1914.  His brief death notice in May 1915 described Royal as a peddler.  It may have been her experience assisting her husband as a grocer and later as a peddler that led Martha to become a street vendor in her widowhood.  The 1920 federal census, when Martha Royal would have been fifty-three years old, lists her occupation as peddler on the public streets.  A daughter and granddaughter were living with her.  She is listed in the 1930 census as a huckster - another name for a peddler. 

How or why Martha became so well known and well liked is not known.  Her reputation appears to have been established by 1929 when she first received notice in the local newspaper.  In that year New Bern staged an historical celebration and pageant which included a night-time, costumed play detailing the history of the town.  Someone thought to include Martha in a village scene and she promptly stole the show.

New Bernian, Wednesday, 12 June 1929, 1:2.
This episode would be recounted in later articles.  The 1939 State magazine article related that when the crowd realized that Martha was the vegetable vender in the play (they had recognized her voice long before the spotlight fell upon her) they roared their appreciation.  Martha wove in and out among the actors with her pony and cart and regaled the crowd with her usual high-volume cries.

Unidentified street vendor with pony and cart, possibly Martha Royall, photo c. 1929 from a scrapbook of the 1929 New Bern historical pageant compiled by a member of the Smallwood family.

The 1939 article indicated that age was beginning to slow Martha down and that it might not be too long before she would have to retire.  At some point her pony died and she replaced his cart with a second-hand baby buggy.  By the time a similar article appeared in the local newspaper in July 1940, Martha's vegetable vending was referred to in the past tense.  The 1940 census lists no occupation for Martha but shows her household as including two lodgers.

Martha Franks Royal died at the home of her daughter in Brooklyn, New York on April 24, 1957, in her 89th year.  Her body was returned to New Bern and, after services at West Street Christian Church, was interred beside her late husband in Greenwood Cemetery.

Martha Royal's resting place, Greenwood Cemetery, New Bern, NC.

In 1973, a local newspaperman, recalling his childhood memories of Martha, wrote the following:

It isn't easy to remember how some folks looked in life, even a few short years after their death.  Not so with Martha.  Many moons have passed since the Sweet Chariot swung low for to carry her home, but her image remains.

Most of us knew little, if anything, about her background.  To this day the Mirror's editor doesn't know where she lived, or even if she had children.  Certainly she loved those of us who were young.

Strangely, she never seemed to grow old, not in the eyes of us kids.  Perhaps adults detected a slower pace, as Father Time shadowed her cart, but we didn't take notice, until one morning she didn't come by.

New Bern wasn't quite the same after that.  No one took her special place among the street peddlers, or even tried to.  Some people in the world of ours are one of a kind.