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Victorian era prosperous for Surry County

On a soft April evening in 1904, Florence Alma Prevette entered the parlor in her mother’s Wilkes County home. It was filled with family and friends as Mendelsohn’s “Wedding March” played on the piano. The flickering light of candles and gas lamps would have danced on the creamy silk crepe de chine gown as she and her sister Viola approached the nervous groom.

“The bride was beautifully attired in white crepe de chine,” wrote the correspondent for the North Wilkesboro Hustler. “She is one of Wilkes’ fairest daughters while the groom (Bradshaw Partridge) holds a responsible position with the Southern Railway. Both have a host of friends and were the recipients of many handsome and valuable presents.”

The young couple lived most of their lives in Mount Airy where, after leaving the railroad, Partridge sold New York Life insurance. They raised seven children here, one of whom donated the beautiful gown to the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History where it now holds a place of honor in the Victorian gallery.

Named for Great Britain’s Queen Victoria, the era lasted longer than Her Majesty who reigned from 1837 until her death in 1901. The Victorian Era, especially in the United States, is generally considered to extend to 1910.

American society saw a tremendous economic expansion with what is called the Second Industrial Revolution. Advances in steel and chemical production fueled other industries such as railroad, electric generation, and manufacturing machinery for everything from textiles to bicycles. Surry County benefitted from these advances as existing businesses incorporated the progress to enhance their facilities and new entrepreneurs saw untapped natural resources.

The arrival of the railway in Mount Airy and Pilot Mountain in 1888 and Elkin in 1890 made personal travel and transportation of goods significantly easier. County population exploded nearly 67% between 1880 and 1900 to 25,515 as people came looking for opportunities.

Chatham Mills in Elkin expanded and doubled production. Members of the Sparger family lead business in the northeastern section of the county in many areas including nationally recognized orchards and a booming tobacco manufacturing.

“Our people do a cash business,” said G. W. Sparger, Esq., of Mount Airy, who was in Raleigh recently. “There is very little of the credit business in Surry. Our farmers are not in debt, they buy and sell for cash and are absolutely independent. Merchants who do a business of $100,000 have little need of a bookkeeper as their business is almost wholly for cash.” That bespeaks a prosperous section.” So reported The Raleigh State Chronicle in October 1891.

Industrialists and merchants built beautiful homes at a surprising pace. Many still stand across the region such as the magnificent Queen Anne-style Alexander Martin Smith home in Elkin with its delicate gingerbreading and the James Hadley home on West Pine in Mount Airy.

Others, like the great brick homes of Jesse Franklin Moore (corner of Franklin and South Main streets) and Jesse Prather (corner of Rawley and North Main) have been lost to development as the communities continued to grow.

Congregations were able to build new church homes in that time as well, sometimes it was the first building dedicated to housing worship services as many congregations met in homes, barns, or open fields in earlier days.

The Westfield Friends Meeting House was built in 1885; The Pilot Mountain Primitive Baptist Church, 1896; Elkin’s Galloway Memorial Episcopal Church, 1897; and Mount Airy’s Main Street granite churches – Trinity Episcopal, Friends, First Baptist, Presbyterian, and Holy Angels – were built between 1896 and 1921.

There is no doubt that some faired better than others and poverty and inequity were still present across the county, but the Victorian Era was definitely one of growth and change for Surry. And it was noticed.

The Wilmington Messenger wrote in October 1891, “A great deal has been said about Mount Airy of late. Its growth, its trade, its business energy, its possibilities well merit attention. It is doubtful whether there is a place in NC to day (sic) that bids fair to have such a growth for the next two years as Mount Airy. Its trade is getting to be astonishingly great.”

But, perhaps the words reported in November 1897 by the Greensboro Telegram were even better. A businessman from Greensboro had visited Mount Airy and Surry County and shared his thoughts after a rough and sometimes hair-raising train ride but clearly enjoyable visit.

“At Mt. Airy, a feeling of wonder … a feeling of thankfulness that you are up side up …But for good food, pure air, healthy water, clever people, stirring people, working people, prosperous people, crooked streets, hilly streets and a general good time, go to Mt. Airy and take your chances for getting back.”



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