Mount Airy News

Prison Talk Captivates Audience

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Those who have visited Salisbury might recall it as a pleasant community that is the home of Cheerwine and the Food Lion supermarket chain.  But there is also a much darker side to the city located about 75 miles from Mount Airy, which was brought to light during a free, well-attended program here Saturday led by a husband-and-wife historical team.

“To be honest with you, I had no idea there was a 15,000-person Confederate prison in Salisbury just down the road from us,” Executive Director Matt Edwards of Mount Airy Museum of Regional History said when introducing Ed and Sue Curtis.  They appeared as part of the final installment in a History Talks series at the museum.  The two proceeded to tell the story of the prison, one of the darkest chapters of a war known for its brutality and human misery.

Penal institutions have never been wonderful places even in the best of times. And conditions at Salisbury Confederate Prison were as harsh and deplorable as any during a period that produced such infamous locales as Andersonville, Georgia, and Elmira, New York.  “There’s plenty of room for blame on both sides,” Ed Curtis said of facilities housing prisoners of war in the 1860s.

Little Traces Today

Ed and Sue Curtis were in Mount Airy through their roles as heads of the Salisbury Confederate Prison Association, which is seeking to preserve the colorful history surrounding the facility and those who spent time there.  “The prison no longer stands — Yankees burned it,” Sue Curtis told the museum audience, explaining that this occurred during Union Gen. George Stoneman’s infamous raid through North Carolina in early 1865. Only one structure is believed to remain today which was part of the prison complex; it houses an antique store.  “There is no picture of that prison,” Mrs. Curtis added, with its appearance preserved only by artwork and drawings from people who were there including former inmates.  Finding such a photograph probably would make one rich, according to the historians, who at times mixed in humor to made the prison’s legacy less stark.

At first, Salisbury Confederate Prison was not that bad a place to be, according to their presentation.  As battles between the Blue and Gray unfolded after the war broke out in 1861, the Southern government sought locations for prisons to house captured soldiers.  Salisbury was not the first choice of Confederate leaders. “But it was the first one to say yes,” Sue Curtis said.  Sixteen acres were acquired from Davidson College for $15,000, not far from the present-day Interstate 85. The prison utilized facilities of a former cotton mill that had been vacant since the 1840s, with the old machinery removed and bars placed on windows.  Many new arrivals were glad to be there after the prison received its first captives in December 1861, including some transferred from other locations that were less inviting.  “They had been in prisons where there was no daylight,” Mrs. Curtis explained.

Along with open air, the prison had a source of good water, and there was only a 2-percent death rate. Prisoners could sign an oath and venture into town to shop, freely going back and forth simply by giving their word they would return.  Sometimes they played baseball, and Sue Curtis said a re-enactment of one notable game has occurred in recent years. Players used crude bats and other equipment reminiscent of the Civil War era, with the players promising to not to cause problems.  But a local church got hit twice by balls and a little girl was struck in the head. “Scared us to death,” recalled Sue Curtis, who added that the child was unhurt.  The prison housed not only Union prisoners, but Confederate soldiers who had been court-martialed and Southern civilians working against the Rebel cause.

Darker years

Conditions worsened at the Salisbury facility after Gen. U.S. Grant became commander of the Northern army and ended a prisoner-exchange program that had keep the population relatively low.  The prison was designed to hold no more than 2,500 prisoners, but by November 1864 that had ballooned to 10,000 due to exchanges ending and captured troops pouring in from Virginia battlefields.  About 15,000 men were incarcerated there from 1861-65, with an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 deaths occurring among them.  At the height of its miseries, the death rate was 28 percent. Prison officials ran out of space to house the men.

“They were digging holes in the ground and living two or three (at a time) in a hole in the ground,” Sue Curtis said of the conditions faced.  “The Union knew what was going on,” the visiting historian continued. “They didn’t allow any supplies to come in.”  Even those sent to the hospital didn’t fare much better, having no beds but only pallets of straw on a floor, with little in the way of medicine available.  Sanitary conditions were horrible, with one observer noting that “the smell would make a dead man heave.”  Prisoners who died were buried in mass graves along trenches, with an old cornfield that served as burial place eventually becoming the Salisbury National Cemetery. The numbers of unknown soldiers buried there rival those of any similar prison of the time, Sue Curtis said.  Prisoners were desperate to survive and would do anything to escape, including mounting a bloody riot in November 1864.

By the time Gen. Stoneman arrived in Salisbury around the time of the Southern surrender at Appomattox, the prisoner-exchange program had been revived. Although history suggests that the Union raider would have loved to be the liberator of thousands of captives at the time he torched the prison, that was not the case.  “There were very few prisoners left in Salisbury,” Ed Curtis told the museum audience.  Yet someone still saw fit to paint a mural of a heroic-looking Stoneman against a background of flames which now hangs in a Salisbury shopping mall as a reminder of the city’s history.  “He also killed the business at that mall,” Sue Curtis joked regarding the effect of Stoneman’s image on shoppers.

Preservation efforts

Among the work of the Salisbury Confederate Prison Association headed by Ed and Sue Curtis is seeking to establish a repository of names of all those housed there as well as the several thousand guards who served.  Some notable prisoners spent time at the facility, including the brother of poet Walt Whitman and the son of Dr. David Livingstone, the missionary and explorer.  An ancestor of Garry Moore, a popular television game-show host in the 1950s and 1960s, served as a quartermaster there, Ed Curtis related.  The Salisbury prison also has a local tie, Thomas Lenoir Gwyn, who was a guard in Salisbury before becoming a prominent industrialist and town official in Elkin.  A $14,000 project to excavate the prison grounds as part of the research of its history was undertaken in 2005 through Wake Forest University.  “We’re working on a new one for the future,” Sue Curtis said.

Salisbury Confederate Prison the topic for Mount Airy Museum history talk

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A old Confederacy-era prison will be the topic of the final history talk of the season for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History on Saturday. The Salisbury Confederate Prison Association will be be giving a slide presentation about the confederate prison that once stood there.  “We felt this was a great way to close out the season,” said Matt Edwards, the museum executive director.

The goal of the association is the preservation of the prison and the site in Salisbury.  Together, Sue and Ed Curtis, heads of the prison association, promote the archaeological exploration of the historic site for educational purposes. At this event, the two also will share history of the prison and the known experiences between the Confederate guards and Union prisoners of war.

The history talk will be held on the third floor of the museum at 2 p.m. Saturday.  The idea for this lecture originated when a sword was loaned to the museum to use in a display. The sword belonged to a prison guard, Thomas Lenoir Gwyn.  Gwyn was a student at Jonesville Academy and enlisted in 1862 to a North Carolina infantry battalion, eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant. After being wounded in the Battle of Cansbys Creek in Tennessee, he was reassigned to Company A, 5th Senior Reserves at the Prison.  Later in 1877 he co-founded the Elkin Woolen Mills and in 1899 served as a commissioner in Elkin. His image and Kenansville sword is on display at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.

Saturday’s event is free to the public.


Jim Frye donates $20 million to Mount Airy and Richmond, Va., agencies Jim Frye remembers Mount Airy in his will

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The Mount Airy Museum of Regional History has received a $30,000 endowment and could receive more thanks to the generosity of a Granite City native. Jim Frye, a career-long Phillip Morris executive, died in April and left behind $20 million in an endowment fund earmarked for a handful of agencies dear to his heart.

The $20 million bequest to The Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia endows an unrestricted fund that will enhance local grant making, as well as restricted endowments that will provide support to more than 30 eligible organizations in Richmond, Virginia, and Mount Airy. The support will be ongoing as the funding comes from the interest earned on the $20 million deposit.

In addition to that lump sum, his estate provided direct charitable bequests of more than $2 million to a number of Richmond and Mount Airy organizations. The Mount Airy Museum of Regional History is among those to benefit from his estate.“This truly was a tremendous gift for all of us,” said Matt Edwards, executive director for The Museum of Regional History. Upon receiving the $30,000 building gift, Edwards said, “The museum is honored to be one of the charities selected by Mr. Frye to benefit from grants made from his endowment bequest.” Edwards also said that this endowment will hopefully encourage others from and within the community to consider making similar philanthropic gift.

Surry Community College, Mount Valley Hospice and Palliative Care/Woltz Hospice home are among the beneficiaries who are eligible to apply and receive an annual gift from The Community Foundation. “Jim’s connection to the community showed that through his contribution, it really brought me a sense of pride,” said Marion Venable, executive director for the Surry Community College Foundation. Frye worked and retired in Richmond, where Phillip Morris is headquartered, but he came back home last year to accept his recognition in the Mount Airy Sports Hall of Fame.

When talking about his induction at that time, Frye spoke little about his football career at Mount Airy and the University of Richmond. Instead, he spoke of his charity work like the many foundations and boards of directors on which he served. In the early 1970s he became involved with the Richmond Boys and Girls Club and the local Police Benevolent Association. Later he would add posts with the Salvation Army, YMCA, Junior League, the governor’s Youth Crime Task Force and the Virginia Council on Health and Medical Care.

That Frye donated to the Mount Airy museum isn’t surprising considering his thoughts on culture. From last year’s interview, Frye said: “Regardless of the accelerating change in our culture, which is driven by an explosion in technology and information, the human experience down through the centuries has remained essentially the same. “That’s why we read Shakespeare and Thomas Jefferson. … That’s why we have museums and libraries. … While styles and trends may vary, you share with everyone in the world — and with everyone who came before you — the same basic emotions and the same abilities to experience the world and its wonders.”

Frye graduated from Mount Airy in 1948, part of the same class as longtime News editor R.J. Berrier, who died in 2000 with 52 years of service at the newspaper. Frye said his college graduation ceremony was on a Sunday in 1952, and he started work the next morning for Phillip Morris. Frye spent his entire 36-year career with Phillip Morris, the last 19 years as director of government relations. His only time away was for his two-year service in the U.S. Army after being drafted.

After retiring in 1988, Frye continued his charity work while also doing some consulting. In 1997, Frye suffered a near-fatal heart attack, an experience that caused him to contemplate his legacy. According to The Community Foundation, Frye started donating anonymously (and generously) while he was alive, with plans for how his estate could best be put to use after the death of himself and his wife, Virginia Nash Frye. Then he fashioned a plan by which meaningful capital gifts would go to selected charities upon their deaths: St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church (his church), Virginia Home for Boys and Girls (where he was a board member for 15 years) and then groups back in his hometown.

The balance of his estate was gifted to The Community Foundation. Of particular importance to Frye was the duty of the Foundation to monitor the organizations selected and to move endowment support to other organizations if they failed to perform effectively or if the need being served dwindled.

When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year, Frye told the crowd at the Andy Griffith playhouse, “Mount Airy is one of those towns that you never really leave.” Life might take someone away from town, but they find a way to come back. The Andy Griffith Playhouse was the Rockford Auditorium back when Frye was in school, four years behind Griffith himself. He recalled how there was a time when the school didn’t have a dedicated gymnasium. School dances were held on the stage of the auditorium. “There wasn’t space for a large band — there wasn’t even space for a small band — that didn’t matter, either, because we didn’t have money for any band,” he said. What the school did have was a 78 rpm Victrola record player playing big band music. Basketball goals were installed on the sides so that games could be played back and forth across the stage. Frye was proud to see how the old school was repurposed to serve the community.

Museum works to spur youth interest

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Mount Airy Museum of Regional History Executive Director Matt Edwards along with, from left) the winners of the teacher appreciation door prize, Nicole G. Scearce of Mount Airy Middle School and Melissa L. Martin of Jones Intermediate School
Hoping to spur more interest and use in the museum by local school children, officials with the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History held a teacher appreciation day on Wednesday. It didn’t turn out exactly as hoped, but Executive Director Matt Edwards said he is still optimistic about building stronger ties with area youth.The promotion was, at least in part, aimed at raising awareness about the museum and its programs among local teachers and school systems. Edwards explained museum staff had evaluated the number of student attendees over that past 10 years and noticing a significant drop.  Thus Wednesday event, during which he hoped a number of local teachers would stop in to see the museum’s offerings as well as to take part in a chance for a raffle prize.
Three teachers showed up before 2 p.m. when the event started and two teachers made their appearance around 4 p.m., near the end of the scheduled event.  Edwards said even though the audience was smaller than expected, “We know the number decrease we have seen over the years is not something that’s going to improve overnight. Hopefully we can get more students involved and we can continue to be a great resource to the schools.”  “It’s something that may take a few years to build back up,” he said.  Nicole Sceare, a teacher at Mount Airy Middle School, and Melissa Martin a third-grade teacher at Jones Intermediate School, were on hand at 4 p.m., winning the door prize and splitting the contents.

Museum plans events for Teacher Day

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The Mount Airy Museum of Regional History is holding a Teacher Appreciation Day on Wednesday.  The museum is inviting all educators to come and explore the museum and the four programs they have to offer to students, next week, free of admission. Matt Edwards, museum executive director, said student attendance at the museum has slipped in recent years.  “This is our way of reaching and reconnecting with the schools and educators,” he said.  Edwards hopes that the educators see that the museum can offer a valuable addition to their classroom learning.  “We know we offer a great product for kids,” said Edwards.  “Our exhibits tell the same story as a museum in Raleigh, only it’s closer to home and more locally focused. It offers a great resource to Surry and surrounding counties,” said Edwards.

The event will be held from 2-5 p.m., with a drawing for door prizes at 4:30 p.m. for registered attendees.  Edwards added that docents would be on hand at each exhibit to answer any questions about the exhibit or the four programs the museum currently offers.  Those four programs are Moravian Christmas Traditions, A Country Family Goes to Town, Journey Through The Carolinas and Meet Me at Wigwam: A Native American Experience.

Moravian Christmas Traditions:  Learn about the Moravian Christmas traditions first brought to this area by the early settlers along the Great Wagon Road in the 1750s. Many of these traditions continue today in the Moravian Church, and in the community as a whole. Topics covered include the “Love Feast,” ornaments, and candlemaking. These tours will be offered ONLY during the first two weeks of December. (One hour and thirty minutes) A craft/materials fee of $5 applies. Group size is 50 students.

A Country Family Goes To Town:  Join a rural family as they head into town to visit the blacksmith shop and general store. Decide what things you hope to bring home. Barter eggs and butter with the storekeeper. Sample a stick of candy, learn to shoot marbles (and take them home with you) and catch up on the community news. (1 1/2 hours.) A craft/materials fee of $5 per student applies to this program. Group size limited to 50 students.

Journey Through The Carolinas:  Join a pioneer family as they travel down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road to the Hollows in Surry County. Select the items to take on your journey to survive in your new wilderness home as you help pack the wagon for the trip. Visit the family’s new log cabin home. Talk about the chores the children would have been responsible for and then make a corn husk doll like the ones back country children would have played with. (One hour and thirty minutes.) A craft/materials fee of $5 per student applies to this program. Group size is limited to 40 students.

Meet Me At The Wigwam: A Native American Experience:  View a typical Southeastern Native American dwelling as you learn about the culture of the Sauras, the Native Americans who inhabited this region. View the types of items inside and outside of their bark hut, and discuss the importance of these items for everyday use. Participate in games the children played, listen to stories and legends the Eastern Woodland Native Americans would tell their children and sing Native American songs. Create a Native American craft and taste traditional Native American foods such as popcorn, beef jerky, and raisins. (Two hours) A craft/materials fee of $5.00 per student applies to this program. Maximum group size is 50 students.

Reach Eva Queen at (336) 415-4739.

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