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Museum developing history of its own

Mount Airy Museum of Regional History is four floors of artifacts and information telling the stories of the people who settled this area and built these communities. Begun by private citizens, artifact collection began years before the museum would open, before anyone knew where the museum would actually be.

Once the building, an old hardware store, was acquired, galleries opened one at a time over several years, as resources allowed exhibits to be completed. Today we have one of the most impressive local museums I’ve ever seen.

I don’t know if the folks who live in the area today understand how unusual it is for a county of this population and location off the beaten path to have a museum of this size and quality.

I’m sure that will strike some as self-serving but, remember, I’m not from here. I had nothing to do with building the museum or gathering her collection though I count myself fortunate to work here these past few years.

This was obviously a labor of love for a great many people who, for more than a quarter century, worked to create and maintain a history museum on Mount Airy’s Main Street.

The museum began as an idea of the Mount Airy Restoration Foundation, known today for their beautiful property, the Moore House. The foundation was established in 1982 with the express goal to “promote, restore, preserve, and revitalize the Greater Mount Airy area” by the preservation of significant structures and encourage their development into modern uses.

In 1988 they formed a museum committee to explore the idea of a history museum in Mount Airy. They set their sights high — Smithsonian high.

“Our emphasis at the museum is going to be on programs and primarily tied to local history in the schools,” chairman Barbara Summerlin was quoted in the Mount Airy News in January 1990. “This will help a lot of young people realize that what they have and where they live …(is the result of) a lot of hard work and commitment to a community.”

They also wanted historic items from Surry County to stay in Surry County. In the few years prior, a locally owned antique doll collection had been sent to Old Salem Museum and Gardens and a piano belonging to the Brower family of Mount Airy went to Greensboro History Museum.

The committee hired an architectural firm in Winston-Salem specializing in historic buildings to conduct a feasibility study. Several properties were considered, including some historic homes, but the 30,000-square foot empty W.E. Merritt Hardware building was chosen. It had room enough for active demonstrations and Smithsonian-style exhibits.

“We’re fortunate in this community to have a really well-executed museum that is more than just our collective ‘attic.’ It’s really a testament to the enduring vision and hard work the founders put into creating a quality experience 25 years ago,” Matt Edwards, the museum’s executive director, said recently as he guides the institution into the first major renovation in many years.

The committee organized as a separate non-profit in 1992 and established the museum with primarily private money. It continues in that status unlike many other museums in the state that are operated by state or local governments.

Our mission statement is deceptively simple. “The purpose of the Mount Airy Museum of regional History is to collect, preserve and interpret the natural, historical, and artistic heritage of the region.” Adopted by the board of directors in October 1994, it leaves a vastly open-ended goal but one our volunteers and staff continue to pursue.

“As we start this project, we’re building on those solid foundations,” Edwards said. “We can incorporate new stories, technologies and new amenities that were not readily available when the museum first opened. This project will allow the museum to continue serving this community and visitors to it long into the future as one of the premier community museum’s in the state.”

If you’d like to be involved in the next stage of the museum’s life through docent work, volunteer participation, financial support, or photo or artifact donation, please contact the museum at 336-786-4478.

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William Edward Merritt ran several businesses, including a brickyard, at the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s. His first Main Street location was lost in the Blue Ridge Inn fire on New Years Day 1892. Built between 1905 and 1910, the W.E. Merritt Hardware Company was an impressive change from the two-story wooden saloon it replaced.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/web1_Merrit-Building-c-1950.jpgWilliam Edward Merritt ran several businesses, including a brickyard, at the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s. His first Main Street location was lost in the Blue Ridge Inn fire on New Years Day 1892. Built between 1905 and 1910, the W.E. Merritt Hardware Company was an impressive change from the two-story wooden saloon it replaced. Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

The museum relies on the community for its existence, from monetary and artifact donations to thousands of hours of volunteer work each year. More than 17,000 people visit the museum annually, including hundreds of local school children who come on field trips.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/web1_Museum-Today.jpgThe museum relies on the community for its existence, from monetary and artifact donations to thousands of hours of volunteer work each year. More than 17,000 people visit the museum annually, including hundreds of local school children who come on field trips. Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

Opened in stages, the building dedication of the first floor Communities Gallery was held Oct. 2, 1994. The developing museum was part of the reason Mount Airy was named an All-American City that year. The clocktower was built at the end of 1998. The 1920 Model Ts, the first exhibits in place on the third floor, arrived in 2006.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/web1_Museum-Dedication.jpgOpened in stages, the building dedication of the first floor Communities Gallery was held Oct. 2, 1994. The developing museum was part of the reason Mount Airy was named an All-American City that year. The clocktower was built at the end of 1998. The 1920 Model Ts, the first exhibits in place on the third floor, arrived in 2006. Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

The Merritt and Cooper buildings on North Main Street between Virginia and West Oak streets housed a variety of businesses over the years including the Merritt Hardware Co. with the state tag office, the John D. Thompson Furniture Store, the Hanna Harness Shop, and the Totten Undertaking Services. The smaller building was torn down after it was determined the cost of making it structurally sound was more than the museum group could afford. Today the museum’s courtyard and clocktower occupy that space.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/web1_Museum-and-Cooper-Building.jpgThe Merritt and Cooper buildings on North Main Street between Virginia and West Oak streets housed a variety of businesses over the years including the Merritt Hardware Co. with the state tag office, the John D. Thompson Furniture Store, the Hanna Harness Shop, and the Totten Undertaking Services. The smaller building was torn down after it was determined the cost of making it structurally sound was more than the museum group could afford. Today the museum’s courtyard and clocktower occupy that space. Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

By Kate Rauhauser-Smith

Kate Rauhauser-Smith is the visitor services manager for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with 22 years in journalism before joining the museum staff. She and her family moved to Mount Airy in 2005 from Pennsylvania where she was also involved with museums and history tours. She can be reached at KRSmith@NorthCarolinaMuseum.org or by calling 336-786-4478 x228

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Source: https://www.mtairynews.com

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