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Times, they are a changin’

Charley Green from Charlotte walked onto the trading floor of Planters Tobacco Warehouse and, as was common, he struck up conversations with a number of local men there. He eventually asked one, Arthur Cooke, where a man could find a drink in the town.

Cooke sold him the pint jar of whiskey in his coat pocket for $4.

Green walked up Main Street to the office of Sheriff Belton where he turned the illicit liquor over with Cooke’s name and the date recorded on the bottle.

It was November 1919 and the making, sale, and distribution of distilled spirits had been illegal in the state for 11 years. Green was a private detective hired to help bring down the supply chain authorities knew, but couldn’t prove, was operating in Mount Airy.

He made several other undercover purchases but was soon identified as a detective by his “hardboiled” mannerisms.

So Belton sent him back to Charlotte and asked for another detective, expecting an older man with years of experience. What he got was M.L. Johnson, described in the Mount Airy News as “an awkward young man with freckles all over his face and red hair” who “looked as if he had just come from the farm.”

Within two weeks, the innocent-looking boy had identified dozens of whiskey suppliers in town but the jars he turned in were always half empty. When questioned on that he explained he always shared his purchase with the seller and bystanders. An unorthodox approach, to be sure, but it was netting results.

On December 29, Belton arrested 26 men. The trials started the next day in Mount Airy’s city hall. By Wednesday evening two had been found guilty and attorneys for the third were trying to discredit the young detective.

Johnson, a farmer, had been a detective only a week before coming to the city. When the defense lawyer questioned his lack of experience Johnson explained no experience was needed to buy liquor in Mount Airy.

So began the Roaring ‘20s in Surry County. It was a decade marked by great change across the country as women gained the right to vote and national Prohibition went into effect.

Here there was a sense of progressiveness as the region prospered with booming furniture, granite, and textile factories and tobacco sales. Main Street was paved and sidewalks installed. The state built a “hard-top road” from Mount Airy to Stuartm Virginia, and another to Hillsville, Virginia. Market Street was created and paved.

County officials, in the wake of the devastating Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 and increasing deaths from rabies, tuberculosis, and illnesses such as measles, hired a fulltime public health nurse, Miss Cleone Hobbs, and a full time sanitary officer to enforce health codes in the county of 32,464.

Fashions changed with young women cutting their hair short and raising their hemlines the whole way to their knees. Electric appliances began to appear in the homes of the middle class changing aspects of everyday life. It was simply easier to keep and prepare food safely with refrigerators and ranges than it was with ice boxes and coal-fired stoves.

Looking back at 1920 seemed reasonable as we rang in the new 2020 decade this week. But as I was researching I took a stab to see if I could find anything related to Surry County in 1820. It was a long shot since no newspapers from the county exist and there are precious few other written records from that long ago — but I got lucky.

On January 8, 1820, the New Bern Sentinel published the acts passed by the state legislature the month before. Two dealt with Surry: Commissioners were appointed for the town of Rockford, then the county seat; and it was decided “To lay off and establish a town on the lands of Constant Perkins.” Constantine Perkins owned the Blue Ridge Inn and the plantation he’d inherited from his father, Thomas, called Mount Airy.

I wonder what the 2020s will hold in store for us? Happy New Year, everyone!

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A view of Mount Airy’s business district on North Main Street looking south from the intersection of Oak Street. The Blue Ridge Inn is pictured to the right with a doorman waiting on the sidewalk for customers. The street is parked full of cars as the town, a center for tobacco, textile, and furniture industries in the region, grew more prosperous about 1927.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_Main-St-.jpgA view of Mount Airy’s business district on North Main Street looking south from the intersection of Oak Street. The Blue Ridge Inn is pictured to the right with a doorman waiting on the sidewalk for customers. The street is parked full of cars as the town, a center for tobacco, textile, and furniture industries in the region, grew more prosperous about 1927.

Magazines of the 1920s marketed motherhood and romance, fashion and artistically stylized flappers to women. Shorter hair and skirts scandalized many but the trend, which started with rebellious flappers, eventually became mainstream. These magazines from the museum’s collection are Good Housekeeping from 1921; Life with the butterfly flapper, 1922; Life with the “Modern Witch,” 1923; and McCall’s, 1926.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_20200102_144051-2-.jpgMagazines of the 1920s marketed motherhood and romance, fashion and artistically stylized flappers to women. Shorter hair and skirts scandalized many but the trend, which started with rebellious flappers, eventually became mainstream. These magazines from the museum’s collection are Good Housekeeping from 1921; Life with the butterfly flapper, 1922; Life with the “Modern Witch,” 1923; and McCall’s, 1926.

The fashion of the time moved away from curves to dresses with dropped waists and bare arms, giving a nearly adolescent boy appearance. The popularity of jazz and dancing that was associated with it made beads and draping (that accentuated all movement) popular. This lime-green dress with glass beads was handmade in France and belonged to Mattie Yokely George, born 1882 in Davidson County before marrying Roscoe A. George in 1915. The more demur grey and coral dress belonged to Catherine Hubbard Merritt. Also handsewn, it was no less titillating, made of nearly transparent fabric over a camisole underdress.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_20200102_143131-2-.jpgThe fashion of the time moved away from curves to dresses with dropped waists and bare arms, giving a nearly adolescent boy appearance. The popularity of jazz and dancing that was associated with it made beads and draping (that accentuated all movement) popular. This lime-green dress with glass beads was handmade in France and belonged to Mattie Yokely George, born 1882 in Davidson County before marrying Roscoe A. George in 1915. The more demur grey and coral dress belonged to Catherine Hubbard Merritt. Also handsewn, it was no less titillating, made of nearly transparent fabric over a camisole underdress.

Beaded bags have been popular since the 1600s but reached their greatest popularity in the 1920s when these bags were used. These purses, from the museum’s collection, came from local families, left to right, Oscar “Bud” and Clara Yokley, Beth George (daughter of Roscoe “Bowman” George and “Gertrude” Elizabeth Moore), and Elizabeth Payne Moore, born Dec. 4, 1906, and mother of Jo (Howard) Woltz.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_20200102_145421-2-.jpgBeaded bags have been popular since the 1600s but reached their greatest popularity in the 1920s when these bags were used. These purses, from the museum’s collection, came from local families, left to right, Oscar “Bud” and Clara Yokley, Beth George (daughter of Roscoe “Bowman” George and “Gertrude” Elizabeth Moore), and Elizabeth Payne Moore, born Dec. 4, 1906, and mother of Jo (Howard) Woltz.

Some beaded purses were so intricate and used such small beads they could have as many as 1,000 beads per inch and take up to a year to create. This bag has only about 550 per inch but includes jade, coral, lapis and cloisonné decorations on the closure. Prices ranged from a modest $5 to a more extravagant high of $100 ($75-$1,500 in today’s money). This is a detail of Elizabeth Payne Moore’s purse in the museum’s collection which dates from the 1920s.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_20200102_145536-2-.jpgSome beaded purses were so intricate and used such small beads they could have as many as 1,000 beads per inch and take up to a year to create. This bag has only about 550 per inch but includes jade, coral, lapis and cloisonné decorations on the closure. Prices ranged from a modest $5 to a more extravagant high of $100 ($75-$1,500 in today’s money). This is a detail of Elizabeth Payne Moore’s purse in the museum’s collection which dates from the 1920s.
1920 ushered in era of transition

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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