Mount Airy News

93.7% eclipse well-received locally

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With cereal boxes and shoe boxes aimed skyward, children and science enthusiasts of all ages peered into the heavens Monday for a rare glimpse of the sun being eclipsed by the moon.

Feb. 26, 1979, was the last time a total eclipse was visible within the 48 contiguous states of the United States. Not since 1919 has an eclipse crossed both East and West coasts. Yesterday’s event, called “The Great American Eclipse” by some, according to AccuWeather, because it’s entire path was within the United States, was the first time that had happened since before the United States became a country in 1776, according to Reuters.

Reuters predicted $694 million dollars in lost productivity as workers took time off to view the celestial spectacle. All across Mount Airy, where the eclipse was 93.76 percent total, parking lots, sidewalks and open spaces contained people doing exactly that.

Mount Airy Museum of Regional History was the center of local activity with 70 to 75 people of all ages showing up for an eclipse viewing event at the museum with many of them arriving exactly at 1 p.m. when the event began, and more than an hour and a half before the eclipse would reach its peak.

“You’d think we were giving out gold from the sky,” said Karen Nealis, administrative assistant, of the deluge of attendees.

Participants’ time was well-spent building viewing boxes up on the third floor before moving down to the museum’s courtyard to view the eclipse. Some people used eclipse glasses made for the occasion but plenty of others went DIY and converted cereal boxes, shoe boxes and small shipping boxes into viewing apparatuses to get a view of the eclipse without burning out their retinas.

James Caudill, 10, of Mount Airy, got the best results of anyone from a year-old recycled science project that he brought out for the occasion. His mom, Jennie Lowry, said “To be honest, when he made it, we didn’t know anything about the eclipse coming up.” She was pleasantly surprised James was able to find it. James’ project was a large box with one open side and the eclipse was easy to follow just by looking into the box.

Other folks were not having such an easy time of it. “You kind of have to wiggle it around and get a little bit of light,” advised Sonya Laney, director of education for the museum, as she assisted children who were not having as much luck as James.

“It was like so awesome,” said Emma Edwards, age 5, after getting a good look at the eclipse through her Raisins, Dates and Pecans cereal box.

Harrison Lee, 8, of King, came to the museum with his grandmother, Nancy Jo Goad, of Mount Airy. Harrison got a look at the eclipse and said, “It’s kind of like a little tiny crescent moon and a string.”

Aubrey Lowe, who admits to being 70-something, enjoys celestial events and often watches meteor showers with his daughter. They stand back to back outdoors in the open so that between the two of them, they can see the whole sky until one of them spots some action.

Yesterday’s eclipse was a little easier to find.”It’s going to get pretty shady,” Lowe said, as 2:40 p.m., the time of maximum eclipse, approached, “It’s amazing how our scientists figured out exactly when it was going to happen. I don’t know how they gathered all that information.”

“I’m glad people were so excited about the eclipse,” said Sonya Laney of the event’s large turnout. As the eclipse came and went, with the sky darkening and the temperature dropping, with young and old alike impressed with the eclipse, Laney confessed she was afraid things might not have gone so well.

“I’m not so sure why I thought nature was going to be disappointing,” she said.

There will be another total eclipse on April 8, 2024, but the path of totality will be a bit further away from Mount Airy. The museum has not yet announced plans for a viewing event.

Get to know a few ghostly town residents

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Visitors and local residents walk the streets of Mount Airy, but they aren’t alone.  According to local legends, the real-life Mayberry plays host to a number of ghosts. And in a 90-minute tour visitors can become acquainted with them, their stories and some of the history of the city.  Matt Edwards, executive director of the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, said about six years ago he was approached with a new idea — ghost tours.  Edwards can’t take credit for the idea or the implementation of the program though. He said a museum volunteer, Mark Brown, stepped up to the plate and built the program.  Brown, who is also involved in community theater, designed the initial ghost tour from 13 stories, some of which hit pretty close to home. “The museum is home to several,” said Brown, who explained that spirits often attach themselves to items or places which meant something to them in their lives.

That’s likely the story behind the Lady in White, said Brown. She was last spotted in the stairs leading to the clock tower at the museum. When a medium visited, she determined the woman was a nurse, and she likely showed up at the museum with some medical equipment that was donated. “At first we wondered if she was a prostitute ghost,” said Brown. “The museum sits on the site of a former saloon.”  With a large building filled with old stuff, Brown said the museum is filled with spirits like the Lady in White. “We are kind of running a retirement home for ghosts,” joked Brown.

The building which houses the museum meant a lot to Mr. Merritt, who built it, and he still keeps an eye on it. Mr. Merritt sightings are pretty frequent, and though Brown has never seen him, he knows Mr. Merritt better than most. On New Year’s Eve a few years ago, Brown was tasked with lowering a lighted sheriff’s badge from the roof of the museum. As he passed through the dark third floor a few minutes before midnight, he said, “Come on Mr. Merritt. Let’s go up on the roof.” Brown said he is afraid of heights. After carrying out his duties he had a panic attack on the roof. He laid down flat, and Brown’s dad came up to check on him. “When my dad got up on the roof he saw me laying down and somebody standing over me,” said Brown. “Mr. Merritt must have come up on the roof after all.” Edwards said the tales of those two ghosts are two of more than 20 stories folks on a ghost tour might hear. When the community got word of the ghost tours, they submitted a number of other ghostly tales. “Ghost stories are like Hawaiian shirts. Once you have some, people give you more,” joked Edwards.

Edwards said the tours are guided by four regular guides and two trained fill-in guides. Though they all know the stories of the 21 or 22 ghosts they can choose which stories to tell on any given night. Thus, Edwards said one is likely to get a different ghost tour experience every time he or she takes a tour. Many of the guides have backgrounds in theater like Brown, and others have a background in story-telling. Such experience makes for an entertaining 90 minutes of wandering around downtown Mount Airy. And for the history buffs, Edwards is making sure those storytellers aren’t concocting a story about too big of a fish. “The historian in me wanted to make sure this was factually accurate,” said Edwards. That stated, Edwards said the tour is about ghosts, so a little imaginative license is granted to guides. “It’s entertaining, and it’s a great way to share some of our local history,” said Edwards. “There is some sort of documented paranormal activity surrounding most of the ghosts.” Looking back at the tour’s origins, Edwards had to admit, he was skeptical at first. “I wasn’t a huge proponent of the idea after it was pitched to me,” recounted Edwards. “I wasn’t sold. I just didn’t get it.” However, the museum’s board president at the time advocated quite hard for the program. Eventually, Edwards gave in, and now he’s glad he did.

About 1,000 people annually hop on a ghost tour on Friday or Saturday nights. At $13 per person, that makes the tours a great source of revenue for the museum. “It’s been a tremendous program for the museum,” said Edwards. “It’s a good, dependable source of income for our non-profit organization.” Edwards said ghost tours begin at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday evenings from the Memorial Day holiday through November. The cost for the tour is $13 per person, and tours are capped at 20 people. Individuals interested in taking a tour may call the museum at 786-4478, or book online at Groups of ten or more can arrange a tour for another night or during the off-season, added Edwards.

Painting workshop on tap at museum

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The last session of a series of art workshops is set to take place at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History on Saturday.  Museum executive director Matt Edwards said the museum’s fifth and final spring art workshop will begin at 1 p.m. on Saturday. The session is expected to be complete at 4 p.m.

Edwards said local artist Candice Martin will lead a painting workshop. She will walk participants through the entire process of painting an acrylic farm scene, from sketch to completion. Each person who takes part in the workshop will walk away with her own 11 inch by 14 inch canvas.  Edwards said Saturday’s program will end a months-long program funded by a Surry Arts Council sub-grant. In January and February, five local artists displayed their work at the museum.  Each of the artists chose a piece from the museum’s collection as their inspiration, explained Edwards. The art was then displayed next to the piece. Many chose pieces which aren’t normally on display at the museum, which allowed Edwards and his staff the opportunity to show off portions of the collection which might otherwise have remained in storage.

For the opportunity to display their work, artists agreed to lead a workshop in their field, with proceeds from that workshop going to help fund the operations at the museum.  The series kicked off in March with a blacksmith workshop. Edwards said the program was a success in its pilot year, and he hopes to expand upon the art program in years to come.

Though advance registration for Saturday’s class is not required, Edwards said he would encourage those interested to reserve a slot, as seats in the workshop are limited. The cost to participate in the program is $25 for museum members and $30 for non-members.  Interested persons may call the museum at 786-4478 for more information or to register for the event.

Weekend of events planned at museum

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There’s plenty to do this weekend at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.

On Saturday, the museum will play host to a stained glass workshop, and on Sunday, History Talks will continue with a presentation by a paleontologist.

Gwen Jolley’s stained glass work is always on display at the Mayberry Antique Mall, said museum executive director Matt Edwards, and earlier in the year it was on display at the museum as part of an arts show the museum hosted.

“She’s a remarkable stained glass worker,” noted Edwards.

On Saturday Jolley will host a workshop. Those who participate will have the opportunity to make a piece to take home at the end of the day.

“It’s generally pretty fun,” said Edwards, who noted he has done some stained glass work in the past.

The cost to take part in the workshop, which runs from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. on Saturday, is $25 for museum members and $30 for non-members. Edwards said advance registration is not required. However, space is limited, so interested parties are encouraged to reserve a space.

Edwards said anyone interested may call the museum at 786-4478.

History Talks

The museum hosts its History Talks series of events every fall and spring. It includes three presentations throughout each season by historians or other scholars in that individual’s area of expertise.

Edwards said Sunday’s talk will highlight the traveling exhibit, Tiny Titans: Dinosaur Eggs and Babies, which has been on display at the museum since February.

Dr. Alex Hastings, who is the assistant curator of paleontology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, will begin his presentation at 2 p.m. on Sunday on the third floor of the museum.

Edwards said Hastings is a vertebrate paleontologist who did a great deal of work on the titanoboa, a prehistoric snake which stretched 40 feet long. The paleontologist will be speaking about current field research.

Hastings’ biography notes his dissertation work at the University of Florida focused on adaptability in a group of crocodilians that survived the mass extinction which ended the age of the dinosaurs.

“He will be talking about digs — the adventurous side of things,” explained Edwards. “It will be a great event for folks with kids who might be interested in paleontology.”

Sunday’s program is free and open to the public.

Aaron Blackwelder pottery workshop set for Saturday at Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

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The next session in a series of workshops at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History will feature the art of pottery, while another museum program, set for Sunday, has been canceled.  On Saturday the museum will host a pottery workshop at 1 p.m.  The event is part of an ongoing series of programs at the museum. In February and March the museum hosted an arts show. In exchange for having their work on display, the artists and craft makers who took part in the show are hosting sessions with the public.  A blacksmith workshop and a bead embroidery workshop have already been held as part of the series of events, and stained glass and painting workshops will follow this.  Museum Executive Director Matt Edwards said the four-hour workshop will be led by Aaron Blackwelder from Elkin. Participants will use basket-weave pottery skills to make a pot.  “It’s a great chance to get your hands dirty and have some fun,” added Edwards. Participants will have the opportunity to make their pot, and Blackwelder will fire the pottery at his workshop. Those who take part in the workshop will then be able to pick their pot up at the museum.  The fee to take part in the workshop is $25 for museum members and $30 for non-members. The class is limited to 12 participants. Thus, Edwards said advance registration for the event is strongly encouraged.  Those interested in participating may call the museum at 786-4478 to reserve their spot.

Edwards also said the monthly History Talks program which was scheduled for Sunday has been cancelled.  History Talks is a series of programs in which the museum brings in historians from the region to speak about their areas of expertise. The events are held in the spring and fall.  Edwards said Sunday’s event was scheduled to be the second of three talks in the spring. However, museum staff were unable to find a speaker without scheduling conflicts.  That stated, Edwards noted History Talks will be back in May. On May 7, a paleontologist from the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, Virginia, will speak as part of the series.

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