What has been known for years as Holmes Electric is actually two businesses now: Holmes Electric Security Systems and Holmes Fine Gifts. Both are located in the same store on Hay Street, and that is where it all started nearly 100 years ago.
Stephen Wheeler is the company’s president. His wife, Deanne, is in charge of the gift section. His mother, Katherine Wheeler, still comes in at least once a week. His son, Luke, works in the security end of the business.
Wheeler’s grandfather, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who was originally from this area, returned to Fayetteville from Charlotte in 1908 for the purpose of extending a trolley line down Gillespie Street. He converted the trolley from coal to electricity and opened a store in the 200 block of Hay Street.
Holmes sold electricity, electric lines and supplies, and he also did electrical contracting. He wired most of what was then called Camp Bragg as well as the Governor’s Mansion in Raleigh. Beginning as a contracting business, the retail side transitioned into appliances over time and was the first Frigidaire dealer in North Carolina.
“In the late ’40s, the store had become basically a department store,” Wheeler says. “It sold shotguns, appliances, china and crystal…we sold it all.
“During the Depression, at the end of the week, my grandfather would open the cash register, pay the expenses and divide what was left with the employees. He did that many times. He considered the people who worked in the store as part of his family.”
Holmes Electric remained on Hay Street, but moved to its current 127 address prior to 1920. The store was remodeled 20 years later. Luke Wheeler, Stephen’s father and Holmes’ son-in-law, joined the company in 1953 and began managing the store shortly thereafter. It was during that decade that a second location was opened at Eutaw Shopping Center. It later closed.
“We started the security alarm service in 1967,” Stephen Wheeler said. “The McDonald murders happened (in 1970), and business took off. In 1975, when Cross Creek Mall opened and everybody made an exodus out there, my dad stayed and continued to prosper. He made a conscious effort not to move from downtown. He stayed right here and survived because of the service the store provided.
“The one thing we try to do – and have always tried to do – is offer top-quality, above-average service in everything we sell. We back up what we sell. It is very personal with us. Once you are our customer, you are our friend.”
In 1981, Holmes Electric opened its alarm monitoring center, which is located in the Hay Street building. Within six months, the business earned its UL (Underwriters Laboratories) rating, and the company has maintained the highest rating possible.
In May of 2000, Holmes started a branch office of the security alarm business in Wilmington. Today, the company installs all kinds of automated systems, including sound, intercom, internet wiring, fire alarms, camera systems and even central vacuum systems.
“It’s almost like we have come full circle,” Wheeler says. “We are focusing on technology and bringing ourselves back to electricity-based work, which is where it all started with my grandfather.”
Luke Wheeler died in 2003, the same year Holmes phased out the appliance side of its business and renovated the building. Space previously used for the appliances was devoted to security alarm systems.
Stephen Wheeler has grown up in the store. He did little chores when he was small, spent many evenings in the place and saw his responsibilities increase as he became older. He installed his first alarm system when he was 14 years old.
“This store has been my life,” he says. “I never really considered working anywhere else. It was just natural to be here. It was always fun being around. The fact that my family works with me makes it extra special. I like that. It makes for an enjoyable day. Family is a wonderful thing. Hopefully, my other children will choose to be involved some day.
“We have four employees whose fathers have worked here in the past. I have a father and his son working here. This company is supporting 50 families, and they are all like family to me. I feel what my grandfather felt when he went to the cash register at the end of the week.
“We offer as many benefits as the company can afford. If we take care of our employees, they will take care of our customers and those people will continue to be our customers, and they will tell others about the service they get here.”
While changes have been good for business, Wheeler misses the old days when folks came in to shop for washing machines, dryers, ovens and refrigerators.
“To this day, somebody will walk in and say, ‘I need a stove,’” he says. “People are looking for service for appliances they bought here years ago. The one thing I really miss is seeing the people. Not nearly as many come in now because we go to them in the security alarm business.
“But I love what we are doing. It is a wonderful feeling when somebody calls with a need, and a couple weeks later, they call and say they can sleep at night. To feel you have helped somebody have a better quality of life is satisfying.
“Every day we have a success story of some sort,” Wheeler says, “where our alarm system has deterred or solved a crime. It is nice knowing that what we do saves and protects lives.”