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Giving memories to future generations

Life must be lived forward but understood backwards – Soren Kierkegaard

This region has produced some famous people who have touched our national culture and history in significant ways. Confederate Gen. JEB Stuart, the “eyes and ears” of Robert E. Lee, grew up not six miles from Mount Airy where he and his family came to worship, shop, collect their mail, and visit friends.

The “Happiest Girl In The Whole USA,” Donna Fargo was born Yvonne Vaughn and grew up on Slate Mountain in eastern Surry County. Elkin’s Chatham Mills produced thousands of blankets for US soldiers. And you may have heard, Andy Griffith of Mayberry fame was from here.

We celebrate the famous folks. Study the historical folks. And count the degrees of separation we might have from them. It’s important to remember, however, that there are many more people whose names we might never know but whose lives were no less important.

Genealogy, one of the most popular hobbies in America, allows us to study history in a personal way, drawing lines from ourselves, through our ancestors and cousins to historical events.

Many of us have heard stories told by our elders. Maybe we paid attention and remember them. Maybe we were too busy to stop and listen. Then, one day, when we’re finally curious and slow down enough to wonder it’s often too late and there’s no one left to tell the tales.

Thomas Winfred Frye, Windy to his friends, tackled this perpetual problem. In 1996, as he was coming out of retirement for a second time, he began to write his stories down.

“To my children,” he wrote, “When you were growing up … I would tell you of some of the things that happened in my life when I was young. At first you would listen and marvel at a story that seemed otherworldly to you.”

As his children grew, however, as with many of us, they grew bored of stories they’d “heard before.” So Windy wrote them out, talking about his parents, and grandparents. Sharing stories he’d heard about his great-great-grandfather Elisha Chaney who, family lore tells, was a full-blooded Cherokee whose family left Kentucky to escape sickness and settled on “the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains” in Patrick County, Virginia, where he married and raised a family.

He recalled hoeing tobacco on his uncle’s farm along Faulkner’s Creek. Working in the blazing Carolina sun he thought of the place as “Hell’s Half Acre” and made a plan that would make sure he didn’t spend his life doing the back-breaking labor of farming.

“Education,” he said, “is the key to open doors,” and he pursued it with a single-minded focus. To the best of his knowledge he was the first of his family to attend school beyond the seventh grade. After a stint in the Navy he graduated from North Carolina State College.

His career in logistics and engineering took him across this country and others. He was involved in the roll out of the F-8U Crusader, the fastest fighter aircraft in the Navy during the Cold War as Castro rose to power in Cuba.

But for all his personal and professional accomplishments, the greatest gift he left Surry County (aside from his military service) is the 180-page memoir he wrote for his descendants. It was not only his history, but a personal history of life in Surry County — history that didn’t make it into the newspapers or official records.

In it he remembers the impact of the furniture factories closing during the Great Depression, how neighbors helped each other where they could, but his family lost the home he’d loved so much. When he was a teen, he and his best friend, Fred Thompson, helped tear down and move prefab barracks from Ft. Bragg to Mount Airy where they were erected along South Street as low-income public housing.

Always working toward his college tuition, he talked about his job at Watson’s Department Store on Main Street “a block just past the post office” and how stores in Surry continued the WWII tradition of closing a half day early on Wednesdays so people could work their Victory Gardens.

He did us the great favor of telling us Surry’s story. “If I don’t tell you how it was growing up during the depression, WW II, the technology explosion and everything associated with the pre-space age, in all probability you will have only a limited, and possibly wrong idea of what ‘my world’ was really like.”

Like him, I encourage you all to record your own memories for future generations and to share those stories and pictures with the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History where they can be scanned and archived for everyone to see so our history, large and small, will not be forgotten.

His memoir and many others are available to anyone who wants to read them online at the Surry Digital Heritage website (



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