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Who was the blind man who sold roasted peanuts on Front Street?

Ben Steelman

You’re probably thinking of John W.  Wilkins, who ran a peanut and news booth at the southwest corner of Front and Princess streets from sometime in the mid-1920s into the 1950s — “rain or shine,” as the Wilmington Morning Star noted in 1929.

Sometimes referred to as “Johnnie” or “Blind John,” Wilkins seems to have lost his vision sometime around 1916 (news accounts are inexact). Judging from newspaper clippings in the Bill Reaves Collection at the New Hanover County Public Library, Wilkins was a popular character, admired by locals for his work ethic.

In January 1929, Wilkins’ peanut roaster was destroyed by fire. Locals took up a collection to buy him a new one.

In November, 1932, Wilmington city commissioners approved a permit for Wilkins to operate a “huckster’s truck” downtown. (A partner, news stories emphasized, would do the actual driving.)

In 1934, with support from an editorial campaign by both the Morning Star and the afternoon News, a number of Wilmington residents — including a large group of Atlantic Coast Line employees — chipped in to pay for Wilkins to travel to the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia for surgery that was hoped would restore his sight in at least one eye. Wilkins boarded a northbound train on Sept. 24, 1936, but returned home two days later “disappointed” — surgery could not help — but expressing thanks to his benefactors.

Sometime around 1936, Wilkins left Wilmington and apparently tried farming in the Dixon community of Onslow County. Those efforts failed, however, and Wilmington residents chipped in again to give him a start-up loan to launch a firewood business. In 1937, Wilmington city commissioners again approved a permit allowing Wilkins to reopen his stand at Front and Princess, assuming there were no public objections. (Apparently, they weren’t any.)

Wilkins was married to Molly Sellers and had a family. On Nov. 25, 1926, their four-month-old daughter Ovida died of pneumonia. Local papers gave heart-rending accounts of the funeral, describing how Wilkins last touched the hand of the child he had never seen.

According to back issues of the Wilmington City Directory,  John sand Molly Wilkins lived at 523½ Castle St. in 1932, 713 S. Fifth Ave in 1938 and 1942  and at 114 S. Eighth St. in 1958.

For a time, Wilmington had more than one blind vendor. “Doc” Ganous had a stand at Front and Dock streets in 1937, according to the Star.

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One Response to “ Who was the blind man who sold roasted peanuts on Front Street?”

  1. On July 3, 2016 at 10:46 pm E johnsoon wrote:

    John Wilkins was my maternal grandfather. My mothers name was ruby Wilkins Johnson. I am 60 years old. I remember eating peanuts and candy corn from granddaddy!

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