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Waterways key to region’s history

This region is criss-crossed with dozens of streams that empty into the Yadkin River which forms our southern border. More than 215 miles long, it is one of the longest rivers in the state and has been sustaining life and draining these lands to the PeeDee River for millennia.

More than half the earth’s population lives within two miles of freshwater. The next 40% are within six miles.

Water is not just important to human survival and human civilization, it is essential.

From our earliest days human activity has been linked to water. We find evidence of settlements by rivers, creeks, lakes, oases, and the ocean. Cities from Paris, to London, Rome, to Aleppo, Tenochtitlán — now called Mexico City, to Beijing are where they are because the freshwater attracted people who needed not only drinking water but to irrigate fields, water livestock and transport trade-goods.

When European settlers arrived on American shores they followed the same patterns, locating farms, towns, and cities, near good water sources. Mount Airy, Elkin, Pilot Mountain, Hillsville in Virginia, Salem, Siloam, nearly any town you can think of established before 1900 was located on freshwater or “sweetwater” sources.

Most people didn’t understand germs, bacteria, and parasites that were invisible to the naked eye until the late 1800s. They did, however, understand that illnesses could be transmitted by contaminated water sources so once sweetwater springs, streams, and wells were located, they became a strong selling point for the region.

In the earliest years of European settlement in America, one of the first businesses to be established were ferries. Wagons, pulled by oxen, horses, or mules, were often made to be somewhat waterproof by painting the cargo box with pitch or tar. It was always a risk, however, to take a team into a body of water and anything deeper than the animals bellies or the axles of the wagons caused delays as shallow crossings were sought.

The earliest record of a Surry County ferry being licensed was in 1779 with a Mr. Poindexter being commissioned to operate a ferry on the Yadkin near the then-county seat, Richmond. Surry County has long been one of the major routes from Greensboro and Winston-Salem to northern markets and to the Cumberland Gap in Virginia. Ferries were a vital component to the trade and migration prior to the advent of the railroads.

Once communities formed grist mills were needed to grind grain. Most residents in the area relied on barter and paid the miller with a measure of the flour. In 1779, the first year of record for the county, permission was given for the construction of five such mills: Osborn “near the Virginia line;” James Reavis on the north fork of Deep Creek; Robert Speer on the Little Yadkin; Terry Bradley on Snow Creek; and Robert Lanier on Dill’s Creek.

The mountain-fed streams in the county also attracted deer and other wildlife locals relied on to supplement their diets.

T.M. Brower, a member of the family who built and operated several of the county’s earliest manufacturing, grist- and textile-mills near the current location of the Mount Airy Middle School on Hamburg Road, got a prize buck as reported in the Oct. 19, 1872 edition of the Surry Visitor Newspaper.

Brower, the report read, “killed a very large Deer, on Thursday of this week, on Dan River some 14 miles from this place. It was a fine Buck, fat as a stall fed beef.”

Water-powered businesses, of course, were at the mercy of the water they depended on and the rivers required respect. Heavy rains have, too often, wreaked havoc on property as reported in the December 1877 Mount Airy Times when the Yadkin crested at a then-30-year high.

“We learn that Mr. A.H. Kapp and E. Galyan each had their mill damns, on Mitchel’s (sic) river, washed away. Also the new dam of Mr. John M. Brower on Little Fish river, broke and about 50 feet washed out. The large dam and mill at Blackwoods is entirely gone.”

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In the days before paved roads and trains or automobiles, rivers and streams of even modest depth and width were an impediment to trade and travel. Bridges required more resources to build than most rural communities could manage. One of the oldest ferries to operate in Surry County across the Yadkin River was the Siloam Ferry. Note the mailman in the basket suspended above the river in this early 1900s photo.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_Siloam-Ferry.jpgIn the days before paved roads and trains or automobiles, rivers and streams of even modest depth and width were an impediment to trade and travel. Bridges required more resources to build than most rural communities could manage. One of the oldest ferries to operate in Surry County across the Yadkin River was the Siloam Ferry. Note the mailman in the basket suspended above the river in this early 1900s photo.

Kapp’s Mill in the Mountain Park area on Mitchell’s River, one of the largest gristmills serving Surry County in the 1800s. Built in 1827 by two men named Nixon and Jackson, it was purchased by John Kapp in 1843 and operated by several generations of the family until the mid-1900s. Surry County, at one time, had many water-powered mills for grinding, textile manufacture and other uses.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_Kapps-Mill-.jpgKapp’s Mill in the Mountain Park area on Mitchell’s River, one of the largest gristmills serving Surry County in the 1800s. Built in 1827 by two men named Nixon and Jackson, it was purchased by John Kapp in 1843 and operated by several generations of the family until the mid-1900s. Surry County, at one time, had many water-powered mills for grinding, textile manufacture and other uses.

John M. Kapp was born in Surry County but when he was still a child his father moved the family to Salem to work in the roller mill there. John grew up working in the mill as well and, in 1834, returned to Surry County to operate Kapp’s Mill. His grandson, John C. Kapp, shown here with his wife, Alice Cockerham about 1880, ran the mill until his death in 1931.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_HH-and-Fannie-Kapp.jpgJohn M. Kapp was born in Surry County but when he was still a child his father moved the family to Salem to work in the roller mill there. John grew up working in the mill as well and, in 1834, returned to Surry County to operate Kapp’s Mill. His grandson, John C. Kapp, shown here with his wife, Alice Cockerham about 1880, ran the mill until his death in 1931.

Surry County’s earliest land grants clustered along the many waterways spilling from the mountains to the Yadkin. Generally farmers, the settlers wanted the rich bottom land on either side of most creeks scoured flat by floods that left nutrient-laden soil behind. This original land grant for acreage along Hogan’s Creek was issued to James Rainwater in 1784. Born in Bertie County he owned land and started his family here but they seem to have continued West to Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The document is from Marion Venable’s collection.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_Rainwater-Land-Grant.jpgSurry County’s earliest land grants clustered along the many waterways spilling from the mountains to the Yadkin. Generally farmers, the settlers wanted the rich bottom land on either side of most creeks scoured flat by floods that left nutrient-laden soil behind. This original land grant for acreage along Hogan’s Creek was issued to James Rainwater in 1784. Born in Bertie County he owned land and started his family here but they seem to have continued West to Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The document is from Marion Venable’s collection.

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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