Chuck and Brenda Pierson have been in Mount Airy this week trying to solve a mystery.
The two have been in town celebrating their 53rd wedding anniversary in a curious way — trying to find just where they were married.
The couple, Ohio natives who have lived in the Newport area of North Carolina since 2012, were just young adults — she was 18, he was 20 — when they planned a clandestine wedding more than five decades ago, as 1969 was drawing to a close. They put that plan in action just after the first of 1970 — the two hopped in a car, drove from Ohio to North Carolina, where they could marry without parental permission or a waiting period, and Mount Airy was the first city they found once they drove across the border.
Brenda Pierson said both sets of parents were not necessarily against their planned matrimony, but they wanted the two young lovers to slow down just a bit.
“We dated 19 days before he asked me to marry him,” she said. “That was a Thursday night. I told him ‘Come back tomorrow and I’ll let you know.’”
The next evening she told him yes, but then their parents stepped in.
“Needless to say, after the short period of time we dated, neither set of parents were extremely pleased with it. They asked us to hold off to June. So, we started planning a June wedding,” she said.
That was in October 1969. By December, the two had decided waiting was not in the cards. With the help of a relative on each side of their families, the two planned to elope, but not tell anyone about their marriage, carrying on through the June wedding as if the marriage had never taken place.
As is often the case when two young folks drive off with what some might consider an impetuous plan — enacting that plan was fraught with obstacles.
“We planned to leave Ohio on Friday morning, to come to North Carolina to get married, and our bloodwork was delayed at the hospital in Ohio, we got a very late start,” Brenda Pierson said.
Chuck Pierson said once they were in Mount Airy, they stopped at the first store they saw to ask where the courthouse was so they could secure a marriage license, only to learn they had to drive to Dobson.
“We got into the courthouse, into the office to get our marriage license, I looked up at the clock and it was 5 til 5,” Brenda Pierson said. “We cut it very close. I didn’t think there was any way we would get a license that day.”
But they did, and then motored back to Mount Airy, stopping in some unremembered store to buy a Bible and a set of rings.
So the young couple found themselves with everything they needed to get married — except a minister or Justice of the Peace.
“We went looking for a church, but it was Friday, 6:30 or 7 at night,” she said.
Finally, the two stopped at a local pharmacy — and this is where the mystery begins.
“The owner was the pharmacist. We asked him if he knew where we might find the Justice of the Peace,” Barbara recalled when telling the story this week.
In a scene that would be very Mayberry-like, she said the owner laughed.
“So ya’ll want to get married? He’s (the justice of the peace) a friend of mine, I’ll call him and he’ll be right up.”
Sure enough, he was there in just a few minutes, and corralled a couple of his friends who happened to be shopping in the store at the time to be witnesses.
“We didn’t have a church, he (the justice of the peace) said ‘Let’s use the back of the store.’ I didn’t want to get married in a pharmacy, but I didn’t want to say no,” Brenda said. “I had imagined getting married in the living room of the justice of the peace, or at the courthouse, but not in a pharmacy.”
Still, the two went through with the service, and soon were Mr. and Mrs. Chuck Pierson.
Return to Mount Airy
Now, 53 years later, the couple has been back in town this week trying to find the building that served as their wedding chapel.
Their search has sent them to a number of places to check out older buildings — Holcomb’s Hardware, the current home of Surry Medical Ministries, and a few others, including a vacant building on the corner of Rockford and Worth streets.
Both of them thought that building looked familiar, until they discovered it was a former bus depot.
That sent them searching again, with few clues. Even on their marriage certificate they could glean little useful information — the hand-written signature of the magistrate, along with any information about where the wedding may have taken place, was illegible.
Amy Snyder, curator of collections at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, did a bit of sleuthing and discovered the name of the Justice of the Peace at that time — J. Earl Ramey. He worked at Granite City Insurance Agency, was secretary at Surry Milling Co. & Ice Plant and also served as the Justice of Peace.
She also landed on what might have been the wedding location, the former hospital pharmacy on Rockford Street across from Super Mercado Esmeralda — known as The Red Barn. That pharmacy building, unfortunately, was razed a few years ago for expanded parking space.
While it appeared the couple might not definitely learn where their marriage took place, the two decided to make one more stop in their search — at the Mount Airy Public Library. There, in a stroke of good luck, retired head librarian Pat Gwyn happened to be attending a book club meeting there. Learning of their search, Gwyn was able to direct them to some old Mount Airy telephone directories still on file at the library.
Utilizing those, the couple discovered while the building on the corner of Worth and Rockford had been a bus depot, its prior use was as Surry Pharmacy.
“Pat said it used to have a lunch counter and a few small booths,” Brenda Pierson said. “I remembered those.”
Standing outside the vacant building Wednesday, peering through the windows, she also pointed out a series of support poles inside. “I remember those. I think the pharmacy counter was there.”
Given that the couple is marking their 53rd anniversary, the quickie wedding seemed to suit the two. While relations between their two families were strained for a bit after everyone learned of the wedding — one of those relatives helping set it up apparently spilled the beans a couple of months later — Chuck Pierson said all involved became the best of friends, often vacationing and socializing together.
His younger sister even married Brenda’s younger brother a decade later, the two men spending their careers working in the same manufacturing plant, the two women spending their careers working in the same school system.
“Our kids are all double-first cousins,” he said, with Brenda chiming in that the entire extended family has remained close over the years.
But that one question, about where they were married, tugged at them.
Now, the two seem to have closure on that mystery.
“I didn’t think we were ever going to figure it out,” Chuck Pierson said Wednesday, standing outside the former pharmacy. “But it’s been worth it. I’m glad we finally figured it out.”