Mount Airy News

Museum readying for Casino Royale

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The Museum of Regional History is preparing for its fifth annual Casino Royale Fundraiser.  The event is held at Cross Creek Country Club, this year scheduled for Friday, Sept. 18.  The evening will start at 6;30 p.m. featuring an open bar and heavy horderves bar, followed by the gaming from 7-10 p.m., with a red carpet rolled out for guests.

The event is one of the most significant fundraisers the museum does each year; with an open bar and night of gambling with money that you don’t actually have to spend, it’s easy to see why.  A company comes in sets up several gaming tables such as roulette, craps and blackjack. 

“Once again this year, we’re working with a group of professionals who bring in professionally-trained dealers and croupiers. This isn’t like we have volunteers running the tables, these are professionals,” said museum Executive Director Matt Edwards.  “People do things they would never do in real life; betting $100,000 is not something the average person is able to do, and that excites people,” Edwards said. “We like to present a high-quality experience for our supporter,” he said.  Throughout the night a reverse raffle will be drawn with random winners of $100, and the last ticket drawn will win a $6,000 jack-pot. A cap of 300 tickets will be held for this portion of the night.

A silent auction will also be ongoing throughout the night with higher-end items such as vacation packages, electronics, a custom made quilt, Tour de’ Mayberry basket featuring gift certificates to every restaurant on Main Street and many more items.  “The fun is high stakes gambling with essentially free money. Who doesn’t like going all in with $50,000 and knowing you’re not going to lose a dime at the end of the night, except what you spend on the silent auction of course, ” said Jessica Bolick, a museum board member.

Tickets to both the draw-down raffle and the fundraiser can be purchased seperately or together. The price for just the event is $65 per person, the price for both the raffle and the event is $150 dollars. The raffle can also be purchased alone for $100 dollars.  “This is a critically important event for the museum,” said Edwards. The net profit was nearly $26,000 last year.    “It’s a great date night for the average couple. I’ve never had anyone tell me it’s not been fun,” Edwards said.

Photos taken by Maggie Nicholson Photography.

Museum making changes to exhibits

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The Mount Airy Museum of Regional History is making a few changes for the summer and beyond.

The first is a grant it received to provide an expansion to The Luthier’s Craft exhibit. The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Partnership provided the $6,500 grant to support the development of the traveling exhibit.

The exhibit explores the luthier’s craft of making stringed instruments and will include sections on banjo, guitar, and fiddle creation in the southern Appalachia and Blue Ridge Mountain areas, as well as biographical information on the luthiers.

The exhibit includes a number of hands-on activities, audio/visual, and interactive components

The Luthier’s Craft exhibit originally opened in 2013 and then in 2014 it traveled to the Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby, as well as to the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards event in Raleigh.

This new component opened the first weekend of June for the Mount Airy Fiddler’s Convention. Th museum is working on a new traveling component as well that should be finished by the end of the year.

The permanent component of “The Luthier’s Craft” was developed as a way to showcase the local craftsmen highlighted in the traveling exhibit as well as other area luthiers on a permanent basis in the museum.

“There is more to the rich musical heritage our area than just musicians. There’s a long and vibrant tradition of craftsmen building the instruments that make up the musical soul of this area,” said Matt Edwards, executive director of the museum.

This comes at a time when the museum is putting more focus on its displays, Edwards explained.

“After an incredibly active period of public programming in the late winter and early spring of this year, we planned to take a step back and focus our attentions on exhibit upgrades and enhancements rather than programming during the spring and summer months,” Edwards said. “We really want to make sure that we keep things fresh and new for our visitors.”

Since the Smithsonian’s “Hometown Teams” exhibit left the library in mid-April, and will be traveling to five other states, the museum has been focused on updating existing exhibits as well as instilling some new ones.

The Fire engine exhibit changes include repairs to the “hands-on” fire pole activity as well as the addition of a second kids-sized fire engine in the exhibit space.

The Model T exhibit changes included the addition of some graphics and a change to the tool display.

The children’s gallery changes included repairs to costuming and the addition of some new components within the exhibit itself. “We’ll also be adding in another hand-painted backdrop for the stage space in the next few week.” Edwards stated.

The artwork for the backdrop was done by the Women’s League of Mount Airy.

A new exhibit the museum is installing for public display ties in with the region’s old time music history in a new way, showing WPAQ letters. The letters were donated by WPAQ after they were removed during renovations to the station’s building and were too far deteriorated to be put back up.

“We unveiled the restored letters last summer at a screening of the documentary about Ralph Epperson and WPAQ and we’re finally ready to get them installed and on display in our hometown heroes gallery on the second floor,” said Edwards

The Donna Fargo exhibit also received some new costuming that is now available to view.

A new changing exhibit for the changing exhibit gallery will be in place by July 4.

The museum is also offering its annual story telling every second Saturday of the month throughout the summer.


Junior historians prepare for state convention Friday

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The Jesse Franklin Pioneers local chapter of the Tar Heel Junior Historian Association is making final preparations this week with an eye on capturing more state honors at the annual State History Conference in Raleigh on Friday.  “We are in our ninth year with the group officially staring during the calendar year of 2006,” said Mount Airy Museum of Regional History Executive Director Matthew Edwards. “We couldn’t have done it without local support. What a great example of broad community support Chick-fil-A has been.”  He pointed out the local historian group has previously earned two chapter of the year awards and was named to rookie chapter of the year honors its first year.  “This speaks well for the kids,” Edwards said. “We have expanded the chapter’s membership to include middle school age participants. We typically chose a theme yearly and build our projects around this.” He said last a recent program was presented by Laura A.W. Phillips, who did the Survey of Historic Architecture in Surry County for her work “Simple Treasures,” which chronicled the architectural heritage of the area.

Edwards said the group routinely meets on Thursday afternoons. Membership in the club is free. Phillips led the group in a discussion of bricks and brick making through the style of brick laying.  “We try to keep the kids stimulated intellectually and physically and mix things up with classroom study,” said Edwards. “We’re hoping to get them interested at a young age and excited about museums. We want them to be lifelong learners with a passion for history and museums where ever they go. We are building a future constituency. This year the number of members necessitated us having a group project.”

Edwards said he is hopeful the group’s unique entry will earn state recognition at the convention. The group has designed a board game based on “The Game of Life” with participants role playing 1920s tobacco farmers in Surry County.  “They get to see on the game board what life was like and challenges for tobacco farmers,” Edwards said. “It falls outside the normal guidelines for typical projects but I’m hopeful. We won’t know until the convention.” He said the Museum’s geo cache project and local cemetery history tour which later provided some material for the city’s ghost tour and “Darker Side of Mayberry” tour were first tested by the chapter.  The majority of the team is composed of veteran participants Edwards described as a “diverse group” in grades four through eight. He said the group plans on submitting projects in photography and artifact research. The latter project challenged chapter members to research heirloom objects found in their homes or their grandparents’ homes and relate it to North Carolina history.  “There are a lot of things lying around the house which have a great story to tell,” said Edwards. “We pepper the spectrum with projects they can do.” He said the state competition is slated to be held at the State History Museum and the entire chapter — 18 youths — gets to attend.  While the conference is organized like its adult counterparts, special sessions are geared toward the young participants. One popular session last year concerned representatives linking scenes shot for the film Iron Man III to North Carolina.

Power was at play with mill-town baseball

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Baseball usually is thought of as a simple, straightforward game that is, after all, America’s pastime.  However, a complex undercurrent of politics, social agendas and manipulation was at play among the teams that flourished in Mount Airy and other textile towns during the 1930s and 1940s, according to a baseball historian who spoke here Saturday.

“Mill-town baseball was much more than a game — it gave meaning to life,” Robert Billinger told an audience at Mount Airy Museum of Regional History during a presentation that included images and colorful stories from a long-ago chapter of the sport.

Baseball was vitally important not only to residents of a town, but the mill owners who used it as a source of control, added Billinger, a retired professor from Wingate University who is part of a “Road Scholar” program of the North Carolina Humanities Council. He was the final speaker in a six-part History Talks series hosted by the local museum.  Before the Great Depression, there were 26 different leagues around the country, Billinger said in described the prevalence of minor league baseball at that time.   But similar to a Louisville slugger, the sport wielded a huge clout in the so-called “Textile Belt,” an area encompassing Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Alabama where that industry was prevalent.  “Everybody had a dog in the fight,” Billinger said.

In Mount Airy’s case that was a team known as the Graniteers, which competed in the Bi-State League and was among numerous Class D squads dotting small towns at the time. The Graniteers played against clubs with other colorful names such as the Winston-Salem Twins, Danville Leafs, Reidsville Luckies and Tri-City Triplets (of Draper, North Carolina).  “Bigger places like Concord had numerous mill teams,” the speaker related.  Yet the same dynamics were prevalent regardless of venue. Those who owned the textile companies footed the entire bill for fielding a team, including paying players. The 1929 budget of the Concord Weavers, for example, was $350 per week for the total team salary, and no player could make more than $40 weekly.  While that is nowhere near the exorbitant salaries earned by baseball players today, Billinger said it must be remembered that the average textile worker made only about $10 per week in 1929.  Ostensibly, players came from within a mill’s employee base, but that didn’t keep “ringers” from joining teams at times when the price was right.  Billinger related one case in which a coveted player on a particular team secretly offered his services to another for $50. But when the management of his regular team found out about it, concern spread because that would interfere with a big game against the Kannapolis Towelers. So it upped the ante by paying the player $75.

Manipulative Owners

Those in charge of textile firms that sponsored teams didn’t do so for the betterment of the world, but had their own agendas, Billinger added, which involved more than just what occurred on the diamond. Mill owners not only sought enthusiastic workers, but loyal town residents as fans.  “Mill owners, of course, had an interest in getting people to support their mill team, or home team,” the historian said.  Baseball also influenced what went on in the workplace, Billinger said, with mill owners using it as a way to build unity, cohesion — and discipline — there.  “If you could train a country boy to do that,” Billinger said of mastering baseball skills, he also could be taught to rapidly remove and replace bobbins on machinery, or similar tasks.  And when strikes or other labor issues arose, owners would threaten to withdraw funding for teams as a bargaining chip.  The small-town fans also had their own special reasons for backing a team, the baseball historian said.  “During the Depression, it was fairly good enjoyment,” he said. “It was a diversion…people could be proud of.”  That sense of escapism was a huge factor especially for those who lived in company-owned neighborhoods sometimes resembling the worst kind of slums.  “You couldn’t go to Disney World,” Billinger said of one’s entertainment options at the time. “But to go to a baseball game is to kind of get out of the back yard.”  Collectively, a winning team allowed a community to achieve a sense of pride by beating other towns’ teams through a mindset not unlike warfare, according to Billinger.

The historian referred to a quote by Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian general and military theorist who lived from 1780-1831: ““War is the continuation of politics by other means.”  For the North Carolina mill towns, the message was that “baseball was the pursuit of power/empowerment by other means,” according to Billinger’s presentation.  “And there were a lot of winners,” he said, with baseball a game people often would play or watch to seek empowerment.  Fans pursued a sense of excitement or group identity, while the players sought self-esteem and personal glory, Billinger said.

Graniteers’ Glory

The Mount Airy Graniteers achieved a measure of success during their tenure, Billinger said.  This included capturing the Blue Ridge League championship in the late 1940s.  But the club also gained a bit of notoriety in 1948 in the form of a written reprimand from a national governing body for the sport.  A leader of that association fired off a letter to Dr. Otis Oliver, the president of the Mount Airy Baseball Club, complaining about the bad treatment of umpires by individuals involved with the Graniteers.  The local team also produced some interesting players, including Bobby Byrne Jr., Billinger said.  After signing his first pro contract with Knoxville of the Southern Association in 1939, Byrne was assigned to the Mount Airy Graniteers.  But just as his playing career was taking off, World War II broke out and Byrne found himself a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps, who built a distinguished military record that included shooting down German planes in Africa.  The Graniteers folded after the 1950 season.

TV Aided Demise

Mill-town baseball thrived in an era when many people didn’t even have radios in their homes for listening to Major League games, which motivated many to take in a live contest of their local team.  In turn, the advent of television in the 1950s would spell its demise, Billinger said.  For the first time, fans had something to compare their hometown teams to by being able to watch clubs such as the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals perform.  “Then the local teams sort of looked like amateurs,” Billinger said.  People also had more money in the post-World War II years and could drive to larger cities with big-league teams, he mentioned.  “Baseball was THE game.”

Moonshine was racing’s founding fuel

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NASCAR executives who wear expensive suits and occupy fancy corporate suites prefer to portray modern stock car racing as a sport inhabited by squeaky-clean role-models promoted by slickly produced TV coverage.

But that is a departure from racing’s hardscrabble early days, when moonshine was just as important as gasoline in fueling its growth, according to an event Saturday at Mount Airy Museum of History.

Rex White, a retired competitor who recently was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, was the guest of honor for the occasion — which included a racing roundtable discussion and other activities — but one could argue that moonshine had equal billing.

“I didn’t like the stuff — I never was a whiskey drinker,” said White, 85, who in 1960 won the points championship in a series that was the precursor to today’s Sprint Cup Series. He is now the oldest-living champion of NASCAR’s top division.

White said the influence of moonshine was hard to ignore in racing’s early days, which flowed like a river through drivers and other key figures in racing — and even spectators.

“The biggest fight I ever saw at a track was at North Wilkesboro,” he said of a venue that was part of the NASCAR circuit for years.

“There was probably a thousand or two (people) fighting in the grandstand,” White of the alcohol-fueled conflict.

The cars on the track kept running unencumbered as the drivers witnessed the melee in the stands — until someone threw a bottle through the windshield of Bob Welborn’s car.

Finally the crowd was brought under control. “But that was one heck of a fight,” White said.

This was part of a culture associated with racing’s beginnings, NASCAR expert Dr. Dan Pierce told the audience gathered Saturday at the museum. Pierce, a history professor at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and author of the book “The Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay and Big Bill France,” said those controlling the sport today can’t deny its moonshine heritage.

Pierce said drivers, track owners and others were part of that culture, to which White agreed.

“A lot of them were good honest people,” the retired champion said. He pointed out that those in the illegal liquor trade also had a lot of money, which gave them prominence during the hard times the country was going through.

“It was something people had to make a living,” Pierce, the author, said of moonshining.

Many fans are aware of how pioneering drivers such as Junior Johnson cut their teeth running moonshine on the back roads of North Carolina and transferred those skills to the track. But that was equally true of people who ran the sport, including track owners.

There is the question of why bootleggers would want to build a racetrack, Pierce said, and the answer was simple.

“People who make moonshine and make a lot of money have a problem,” the author and professor explained. “What do you do with the money?”

Depositing large sums of cash in a bank would draw the attention of the authorities, Pierce said, and keeping it stashed somewhere could invite trouble. He cited a long-ago incident in Wilkes County in which men with sub-machine guns infiltrated a place where a poker game took place and stole $17,000.

“It was a dangerous thing to have a lot of cash around.”

White recalled one establishment from those days where money was hidden in a jukebox. “You know what that building is now?” the racing legend said. “A church.”

Given the risk of such practices, some involved in moonshining saw having a track as a legitimate enterprise to funnel money through.

That included some of the sport’s founding fathers, Pierce said, including Clay Earles, who opened Martinsville Speedway in the late 1940s, and was known for having a framed set of brass knuckles on his office wall.

“They ought to name one of their races the Bootlegger 500,” Pierce said of the two Martinsville tour dates on the NASCAR schedule, because that activity enabled the track to be developed.

The late Enoch Staley, longtime owner of North Wilkesboro Speedway, also was in the illegal alcohol business, Pierce said.

Staley had a “day job” driving a truck for Coble Dairy, the NASCAR historian related. “But he would deliver liquor in his trucks as well.”

Even NASCAR co-founder Bill France Sr., himself a former driver, was linked to the liquor trade. “Bill France knew a lot of bootleggers,” Pierce said, and would have had to be aware of the side business many of those who he dealt with often were involved.

“You could actually make more money hauling liquor than you could racing,” said Pierce, who marvels at how NASCAR rose into a prominent sport from such humble beginnings.

“It’s amazing how a bunch of people not given much credit by society were able to do this.”

But Pierce says that those who run the sport today should be capitalizing on the present status of moonshine — including the emergence of a popular television show and the production and advertising of legalized moonshine, which is “going crazy.”

“If I could give NASCAR a piece of advice, I would say embrace this culture,” he said.

Veteran Recalls History

White participated in Saturday’s roundtable discussion with Jerry Hatcher, a longtime NASCAR official who was a flagger for races, and Steve Ramey, who heads the Richard Childress Racing Museum.

During his championship run in 1960, White won six races, and in his career scored 28 wins, took 36 poles and finished in the top five in nearly half of his 233 starts in NASCAR’s elite division.

The NASCAR pioneer, who responded to questions from audience members, said the youthful Kyle Larson is among his favorite racers today. “I think he’s going to be a good driver.”

He also commented about Danica Patrick.

“For a woman, she’s doing great,” White said with a smile, pointing out that she is now ahead of her team co-owner, Tony Stewart, in the point standings.

“She’s got good equipment,” he said, which allows Patrick to run well at times.

“You’ve got less chance of being in a wreck the closer to the front you can be,” White said.

He also relayed the story of his last days in racing, after one audience member asked White if he knew that the end was near.

This was in 1965 after White had built some Chevrolet Chevelles to race in Mexico.

White recalled Saturday how he went about 90 feet down the side of a cliff in a desolate area during one road-racing event, while riding with a Chevelle owner who swerved to miss two cows in the way.

“I had a broke back — I couldn’t move,” he said.

On that side of the road, no one came to help. “They just put a candle out where you went off,” the veteran remembered.

Two hunters finally came by and pulled him up the embankment, but this did not lead to visiting a treatment facility such as the infield care centers of today’s tracks.

“It was 24 hours later when I got to a hospital, in Mexico City,” White said.

But he was able to heal up and win Sportsmen races afterward, including one about 10 weeks later in North Carolina — while still wearing a brace.

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