Press "Enter" to skip to content

Museum tells story of Mount Airy

Mount Airy is, at its heart, a small Southern town, known for the hospitality of its people and, along with the greater Surry County area, as a community where the roots of old time mountain music run deep.

It’s also known as the real life Mayberry, the idyllic town of “The Andy Griffith Show” fame, the birthplace of Andy Griffith. Donna Fargo, who put together a string of country hits as both a singer and song writer, grew up in Mount Airy.

Surry County is where the famous Siamese twins, Eng and Chang Bunker, eventually settled, married and raised their families. Today, more and more people seem to be moving to the community for retirement, or to leave the big city rat race for a more enjoyable pace of life.

But what made Mount Airy, and Surry County, what it is today? Why was the region originally settled? Who worked generations ago to make the community what it is today, set the stage for Mount Airy to eventually become the town that is known across the nation?

That’s the story told by the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.

It’s quite a story to tell, and the museum has been telling that history for nearly 25 years in a sprawling, four-story facility that sits on Main Street, in the heart of downtown.

A different sort of museum

Most every town in America, from the smallest village to large metropolitan cities, have a museum which tells its local history.

In many of the smaller towns, that is often a couple of rooms in an old courthouse or former library, with a few display cases filled with local artifacts. There might be a mural or two on the walls, a few posters, some short written descriptions accompanying the artifacts.

The Mount Airy museum is different, designed and operated in a manner that makes one think of a big-city museum. It’s hosted exhibits designed by the Smithsonian Institute. The local museum has built its own traveling exhibits, sent out around the state.

“Sometimes we’ll get tourists who stop in,” says Kate Rauhauser-Smith, visitor services manager at the museum. “Sometimes they come in to get out of the rain, maybe to rest from walking.” She also cites support from the local visitor’s center, which she credits with steering tourists toward the museum.

At $6, admission to the museum is fairly inexpensive, so many of them will pay to view the exhibits while taking their break from the Mayberry experience.

“They’ll go through the first floor, then get ready to leave…we go to them and say ‘did you want to come back later to see the rest of the museum, or see the rest now?’” she says. Generally they are surprised to learn there are three more floors of exhibits — often expressing surprise as they leave at both the quality and vastness of the collections.

Rauhauser-Smith, a long-time journalist who writes a weekly history column for The Mount Airy News, says the museum’s commitment to quality goes back to its earliest days, even before the doors first opened in 1995.

Two years before that opening, local residents — industry and business owners, families with long histories in the community, had gathered and decided to establish the museum.

“Those were families with a real passion for their community, for their history,” she said. “They had the resources, or the connections to get those resources,” to reach for something far beyond a typical small town museum.

“They had a grand idea of what this museum could be,” she said. Along the way, those founding families, and successive board members and directors for the facility, have continued to push for better and stronger work, never quite settling for simply meeting their original goals. “They continue to shoot for grander and grander ideas.”

The History

The museum isn’t simply a collection of a few artifacts and pictures — it tells, and shows, often in painstaking detail what life in this region, has been like for hundreds of years, even before the first European settlers.

One of the first exhibits greeting visitors who come through the front door is the living quarters and small encampment of the Saura Indians, the Native Americans who lived in the region when those first European settlers made their way to what would become Mount Airy.

Rauhauser-Smith said the museum was careful to be as authentic as possible, respecting and accurately portraying Native American life at that time. The hut, made of a small wood frame, bark, and animal skins, was designed and built by a Native American father and son duo who specialize in building authentic Native American structures.

Artifacts discovered over the decades by local residents, many of which date back to pre-European times, are displayed with explanations of what they were used for, how they were fashioned.

Visitors move on to displays showing the European settlement of the region, where they learn the Mount Airy area got a bit of a leg-up on the rest of North Carolina because of a survey mistake.

Peter Jefferson — father of Thomas Jefferson — along with Joshua Fry were commissioned to survey Virginia by King George of England. Along the way the duo ended up surveying the northernmost parts of North Carolina, including the area that would become Mount Airy, in maps that were completed around 1747.

They found a few scattered families with cabins in the area — Rauhauser-Smith says those were Scottish families, trying to settle as far as humanly possible from the English. Those surveys eventually led to the migration of Pennsylvania Moravians to the Salem area (now Winston-Salem) of the North Carolina colony.

Many of them traveled down the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, then through Surry County, blazing a path that would eventually led to stage coach lines coming through Mount Airy.

That, in turn, led to the eventual development of businesses catering to the needs of the travelers — places to repair wagons, rest and replace horses and mules, place to replenish dwindling supplies.

That is part of the story told at the museum. That tale continues, through the development of settlements and towns in Mount Airy and the surrounding region, the eventual establishment of blacksmith operations, tobacco and other farms, mercantiles, on down to the textile and furniture industries that drove the local economy for generations.

Other exhibits at the museum focus on the daily lives of local residents, from the time when sun-up to sun-down work was necessary for survival, through the development of a local middle class.

And of course, the exhibits delve deeply into the birth and growth of old time mountain music, which spread from Surry County to influence generations of musicians throughout the world.

Other displays take a look at some of the area’s more famous native sons and daughters, including Fargo, of country music fame, and Griffith, whose film career and development of The Andy Griffith Show is still a major driving force in the local economy.

Many of the exhibits are as detailed and authentic as that first Saura home. A settlers cabin, as it would have looked in the early 1800s, is displayed prominently in one area of the museum; a merchant’s store from the 1800s makes up another exhibit; and cars and trucks from the early part of the 20th century show what transportation was like a hundred years ago.

There’s also a large exhibit dedicated to local fire fighters and fire departments, with pumper trucks used in ages past on display.

In short, the museum has built a collection that tries to show not only how the local community developed, grew from those earliest settlers to what it is today, but to show how people lived, day-to-day, through those changing times.

Museum Changes

The museum is experiencing a few changes of its own, embarking on a multi-million dollar capital campaign that will upgrade and change both the look and the offerings at the facility.

Some of the displays will be moved, rebuilt, with additions popping up in various portions of the building.

“We will still tell the story, but we’ll tell it a little differently. A little more innovation in how we tell the story,” Rauhauser-Smith said.

An example would be how the museum hopes to put an emphasis on technology, and show how today’s area residents aren’t the first to utilize the best technology.

“Today, when we talk to kids about technology, they think of handheld devices,” she said, referring to smart phones, computers, and similar devices. “Think about when the first settlers came here…there were no roads, no signs.”

It was, she said, an untamed wilderness.

“They had to navigate by the stars, by the sun, with a compass,” she said. “You give someone a compass in the 1700s and they are never lost. That was technology of the day. We want to show people technology isn’t just something that’s new, people then understood technology, used the best technology.”

Another area the museum hopes to expand upon is the Victorian era in Mount Airy, showing the growing middle and upper class, and how life was like for those people who, for the first time, were finding themselves with leisure time, the ability to pursue more than just substance living.

The museum is undergoing those renovations and changes now, temporarily breaking down some displays, ready to build new ones over the coming several years.

By spring, Rauhauser-Smith says the museum may have the first of the new exhibits up, with a new entrance to the museum ready for visitors, and work will proceed from there, as the facility reaches the 25th year of its grand opening.

Ultimately, she said how fast the museum’s capital improvements are completed will depend largely on the public — support from the community and from visitors.

However long it might take, the museum is still open, waiting to show off how Mount Airy and Surry County became the community it is today, and very possibly where it might be going in the future.

.neFileBlock {
margin-bottom: 20px;
}
.neFileBlock p {
margin: 0px 0px 0px 0px;
}
.neFileBlock .neFile {
border-bottom: 1px dotted #aaa;
padding-bottom: 5px;
padding-top: 10px;
}
.neFileBlock .neCaption {
font-size: 85%;
}

Kate Rauhauser-Smith, visitor services manager at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, explains how some of the exhibits in the museum fit into the telling of the region’s history.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_20191217_112310ffff.jpgKate Rauhauser-Smith, visitor services manager at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, explains how some of the exhibits in the museum fit into the telling of the region’s history. John Peters | Mount Airy News

The Touring Car is raised to the top floor of The Mount Airy Museum of Regional History as part of the Moded-T exhibit in the museum. Editors of the Mount Airy News wrote in 1913, “The automobile is here to stay. During the years to come farmers as well as business men will own them.”
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_29-Touring.jpgThe Touring Car is raised to the top floor of The Mount Airy Museum of Regional History as part of the Moded-T exhibit in the museum. Editors of the Mount Airy News wrote in 1913, “The automobile is here to stay. During the years to come farmers as well as business men will own them.” Courtesy Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

Donated by Bobby and Sylvia Harold, the museum’s Model Ts were both built in 1924. The Run About is a convertible with only one door. The original owner was Howard Hardy of Siloam. The hard top is a Touring Coupe with wood-spoked wheels, tilt steering wheel, manual wiper, and three gears — high, low, and reverse. These two were originally from Tazwell, Virginia.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_Current-Exhibit.jpgDonated by Bobby and Sylvia Harold, the museum’s Model Ts were both built in 1924. The Run About is a convertible with only one door. The original owner was Howard Hardy of Siloam. The hard top is a Touring Coupe with wood-spoked wheels, tilt steering wheel, manual wiper, and three gears — high, low, and reverse. These two were originally from Tazwell, Virginia. Courtesy Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

George Speight is a 20-year volunteer here at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History. Since 1999 he’s given countless tours to school children and adults and demonstrated the use of the floor loom as shown in this 2006 picture with some area students.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_Docent-George-Speight.jpgGeorge Speight is a 20-year volunteer here at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History. Since 1999 he’s given countless tours to school children and adults and demonstrated the use of the floor loom as shown in this 2006 picture with some area students. Courtesy Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

The Mount Airy Museum of Regional History’s general store exhibit is crafted from pieces and items of the H.F. Wright Store that stood in Big Creek Township, Stokes County from 1888-1985. The counter and glass case, the brown paper and over-head string set up to wrap packages and the block pencil holder all come from the store, as is. The exhibit shows many examples of a simpler approach to life where recycling was common. Bottle caps are one example as they were collected for many purposes, from use as scrap for the war effort to pieces in a game of checkers.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_General-Store-Exhibit-4.jpgThe Mount Airy Museum of Regional History’s general store exhibit is crafted from pieces and items of the H.F. Wright Store that stood in Big Creek Township, Stokes County from 1888-1985. The counter and glass case, the brown paper and over-head string set up to wrap packages and the block pencil holder all come from the store, as is. The exhibit shows many examples of a simpler approach to life where recycling was common. Bottle caps are one example as they were collected for many purposes, from use as scrap for the war effort to pieces in a game of checkers. Courtesy Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

In 2001, the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History created an exhibit on the earliest known inhabitants of Surry County, the Saura. Friends of museum staff John Candillo (right) and his son Joe, both from Winston-Salem, built the traditional bark lodge, which is the centerpiece of the exhibit. Members of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, they used traditional methods of the eastern native groups to create the hand-tied poplar sapling frame to create a dwelling used by the woodland tribes across the region.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_Lodge-Build.jpgIn 2001, the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History created an exhibit on the earliest known inhabitants of Surry County, the Saura. Friends of museum staff John Candillo (right) and his son Joe, both from Winston-Salem, built the traditional bark lodge, which is the centerpiece of the exhibit. Members of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, they used traditional methods of the eastern native groups to create the hand-tied poplar sapling frame to create a dwelling used by the woodland tribes across the region. Courtesy Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

The museum’s stunning Saura exhibit shows a bit of how the tribe lived. The lodge would have been much larger and housed several families. Small fires for heat, low cots and handwork would have been in the homes. Most of their waking hours would have been spent in communal areas of the village, growing, gathering, preparing, or preserving food. The exhibit also includes a dugout canoe, fish trap, and other items used in daily life.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_Saura-Exhibit.jpgThe museum’s stunning Saura exhibit shows a bit of how the tribe lived. The lodge would have been much larger and housed several families. Small fires for heat, low cots and handwork would have been in the homes. Most of their waking hours would have been spent in communal areas of the village, growing, gathering, preparing, or preserving food. The exhibit also includes a dugout canoe, fish trap, and other items used in daily life. Courtesy Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

John H. and Malissa (Coleman) Wright opened their store in 1888. John Wright, a Primitive Baptist preacher and farmer, ran the store with his wife and children until his death in 1920. Malissa was the operator until her death in 1934 when their son, Henry Franklin Wright, took it on. He is seen here with his son Kenneth and wife Fannie next to the counter and with many of the artifacts in the museum’s display. His son Cleve and grandson Roger ran the store until it closed in 1985 when competition from grocery, department and convenience stores changed the economics of the business.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_Writght-Store-Interior-store-store-store.jpgJohn H. and Malissa (Coleman) Wright opened their store in 1888. John Wright, a Primitive Baptist preacher and farmer, ran the store with his wife and children until his death in 1920. Malissa was the operator until her death in 1934 when their son, Henry Franklin Wright, took it on. He is seen here with his son Kenneth and wife Fannie next to the counter and with many of the artifacts in the museum’s display. His son Cleve and grandson Roger ran the store until it closed in 1985 when competition from grocery, department and convenience stores changed the economics of the business. Courtesy Mount Airy Museum of Regional History
Visitors can see what made community what it is today

By John Peters

jpeters@mtairynews.com

John Peters can be reached at jpeters@mtairynews.com

Source


Source: https://www.mtairynews.com

Be First to Comment

    Leave a Reply

    %d bloggers like this: