Pete Sellars — Burlington’s magnificent maverick
Every city has at least one remarkable citizen — someone who made such a mark on local history that their memory has lasted far beyond their earthly years. As far as Burlington is concerned, a good candidate for the status of “local legend” would be Peter Leonidas “Pete” Sellars.
Pete has been gone for 125 years now, but people still talk about him and his famous bar. Sadly, however, they really don’t know much else about him because he was shunned by most “respectable” people. Even some members of his own family considered him a “black sheep” and didn’t acknowledge him. Thus, he never received proper credit for his many accomplishments.
Pete was born in what is now Burlington in 1843, the son of Willis Rainey Sellars and the former Mary Ellen Ray. His grandfather, Thomas Sellars Jr., one of the wealthiest men in the area, provided a sizeable portion of land for the North Carolina Railroad’s repair and maintenance facilities, which opened in 1856, and now comprises a good chunk of what is now downtown Burlington. His uncle, Dr. Benjamin Abel Sellars, founded the famous store that bore his name for over a century.
Pete was raised on his father’s farm and labored most of his early years as a farm hand. He grew to be tall, strong, hot-headed, quick-tempered and was absolutely fearless. But he also apparently received a good education at one of the local private schools, as his surviving correspondence attests.
When the Civil War broke out, many young men Pete’s age enlisted in the Confederate Army. Pete was different. When the Union invaded North Carolina at New Bern in 1862, he left Company Shops (as Burlington was then known) and headed east to join the U.S. Army. On Sept. 15, 1862, in Beaufort, he enlisted in Company F of the 1st Infantry Regiment of North Carolina Volunteers. He must have been a good soldier since he was eventually promoted to the rank of first sergeant, but he was discharged as a private on June 27, 1865, so apparently he did something that resulted in the loss of his stripes.
Shortly after returning home, Pete began courting his first cousin, Sarah Avaline Sellars, the daughter of his Uncle Griffin Sellars. Neither Griffin nor his wife approved of the courtship, so they decided to elope as soon as Sarah turned 18, on Sept. 16, 1867. On that day, Sarah told her father that the cattle were in his wheat field eating his crop. When Griffin ran out to check, Sarah bundled all of her clothes under her hoop skirt and drove off with Pete. They had five children together.
Pete purchased a lot of property south of Morehead Street, between Main Street and Church Street. Much of it was acquired from Richard Duck and John Lane, two former slaves who later worked for the North Carolina Railroad and bought a lot of property when the railroad made land available. At the corner of West Morehead and Main streets, Pete erected a one-story brick bar building that faced north, toward the railroad. Its former site is now part of the Times-News parking lot. His liquor still was located on the site of the former Daisy Hosiery Mill on Church Street. Above the still, on what is now Fifth Street, he had a small ice-making plant.
Pete was a licensed distiller, and paid taxes to the federal government for the right to make whiskey, but he didn’t declare all of it because it would have been next-to-impossible to make a profit otherwise. What he didn’t declare he sold at his bar. Although the bar was technically illegal, since the railroad prohibited the sale of alcohol anywhere on its former property via restrictive covenants, no one interfered with Pete’s operation because it was said that “if we get rid of Pete someone worse might come along.”
The sale of alcohol wasn’t Pete’s only occupation, although it is the one for which he is best remembered today. He also had a brick making plant and supplied the bricks for many of Burlington’s earliest buildings. In addition, he also had a three-story brick tobacco prizery constructed between his house and his bar. (A prizery is a place where recently purchased tobaccos are assembled and “prized” or tightly pressed into hogshead barrels for shipment to re-drying plants.)
But Pete’s livery business was his primary occupation and his large brick stable on Worth Street was his pride and joy. He loved horses and kept lots of prize stock there. He was best known for his large draft horses and his racehorses, which won several prizes at the Alamance County Fair.
Pete became one of the richest men in Burlington in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. He built a large, two-story home, entirely of oak, on Main Street (close to where the Times-News offices are today). His shirt buttons were made of gold coins and his family always had servants.
Nevertheless, Pete was not well respected, mainly because dispensing alcohol was not considered to be an “honorable” profession. In addition, he wasn’t a regular “church-goer.” Moreover, his prior Union service was held against him, as well as the fact that he welcomed black men into his bar, had numerous black friends and also hosted meetings of the Republican Party there.
Pete was also very civic minded. He donated what is now the old part of Pine Hill Cemetery to the city. And, when Elon College was founded in 1889, Pete offered a donation of $500, a fortune at the time. But Elon’s founder, the Rev. William S. Long, couldn’t publicly acknowledge it because he was also head of Alamance County’s Prohibition Party. But the new college was so desperate for money that Long met Pete one night behind his bar.
When Pete handed over the money,Long said, “It’s been in the devil’s hands long enough; I’ll accept it.”
Pete was a brawler and often had to discipline drunks in his bar. Sometimes things got out of hand. In 1875, Pete received a six-month prison sentence for gouging out Robert Thompson’s left eye in a fight. In 1886, Pete was involved in another fight that resulted in another six-month sentence for assault and battery. It is said that Pete only lost one fight and that was when a maniac sliced opened his abdomen with either a knife or broken bottle. Pete’s intestines spilled out. He calmly picked them up and stuffed them back in, then bet the patrons in the bar on whether he would survive. He won his bet.
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The following story appears in the Sept. 2020 edition of Alamance Living magazine. If you want to read more stories like this, pick up a copy of the magazine at various locations in Alamance County, or call 336-227-0131 to subscribe so issues will be mailed to your home.
On Feb.14, 1893, Burlington became incorporated as a city and banned alcohol. Pete had known it was coming, so he packed up and moved just outside the city limits. He bought the old Stagecoach Inn, just off what is now South Church Street (on what is now May’s Lake) and erected a new bar, still and grocery store at the intersection of Alamance Road, Chapel Hill Road and the Greensboro Highway.
As he approached 50, Pete developed high blood pressure and gained a great deal of weight. One morning, he woke up and was unable to move. He passed away on Nov. 10, 1895, just short of his 53rd birthday. He was buried in a prime lot in Burlington’s Pine Hill Cemetery, just behind the present gazebo.
All of Pete’s fine brick buildings, including his two magnificent homes, were demolished over time. All that is left today are some of the bricks from his second bar and grocery store, which Robert Staley used to build his hamburger restaurant, Staley’s (now Skid’s II) on South Church Street nearly 60 years ago.
Walter Boyd is a freelance writer for Alamance Living.