Mount Airy News

History Talks series kicks off at Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

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A presentation that looks at local opposition to slavery during the 1800s will kick off another season of an ongoing educational program offered at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.  On Sunday at 2 p.m. the museum renews its spring season of History Talks, a program which brings historians and scholars from the surrounding area to Mount Airy to present and lead a discussion in their respective areas of expertise. Museum executive director Matt Edwards said Sunday will be a bit of a homecoming for the historian the museum will welcome. Douglas Porter Jr. is the downtown cultural resources director for the city of Raleigh, but is originally from Surry County. Porter earned his doctorate in history with an emphasis on the American South from the University of Mississippi, according to a statement regarding Sunday’s program. His primary interest, however, is the Surry County area during the 1800s.

Porter’s program, “Opposition to Slavery and Antislavery Efforts in the Surry County Area,” will focus on how people from Grayson County, Virginia, to Guilford County opposed slavery both actively and passively. In his statement, Porter notes the program “will explore this fascinating, yet virtually forgotten, piece of local and regional history.” Edwards said he believes the content of the talk should help the turnout on Sunday.

“There are always great crowds for our Civil War-themed programs,” explained Edwards. “It’s a theme which appeals to the local audience.” The talks usually attract a crowd of 20 to 30 people, added Edwards. The museum director said he has high hopes for Sunday’s program, as he believes weather may not play quite the role it has in past years in driving attendance. “The weather is always a question mark. People don’t want to spend the first nice day of the spring inside,” Edwards elaborated. “But we have had nice, pretty spring days all winter long.” While the first of the three programs included in the spring months is set for Sunday, Edwards noted he is still working to organize the next two. He would like to tie the second two talks to the museum’s visiting exhibit, Tiny Titans: Dinosaur Eggs & Babies.

He said he is looking forward to seeing how those programs are received, as the dinosaur exhibit has been well received by the surrounding community. The events are free to the public and take place on the second floor of the museum.

Dinosaurs on display at museum

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Dinosaurs have returned at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.  The museum is playing host to a Tiny Titans: Dinosaurs Eggs & Babies exhibit until the end of May. It opened to the public on Saturday. “It went really well,” said museum executive director Matt Edwards, noting he did not have attendance numbers available. Edwards said Saturday the museum saw a much higher than normal turn-out, especially for the month of February. “A lot of folks came just for the exhibit.” added Edwards. “I’m pretty optimistic about this one.”

According to Edwards, the exhibit offers a rare opportunity for local residents to learn about dinosaurs. The nearest permanent dinosaur exhibits are located in Raleigh, Asheville and Martinsville, Virginia. Since the museum has a fairly small area in which it can play host to a traveling exhibit, dinosaur babies and eggs were a more realistic manner to display dinosaurs than full-size dinosaurs might have been. Edwards described the set-up process of the exhibit as a little tough, noting the museum was “a little tight on space.” However, he is pleased with the way it turned out. Edwards explained the exhibit tells the tale of dinosaurs through hands-on and visual displays. Children can dig in sand for fossils, read about dinosaurs or view renderings of baby dinosaurs.

The dinosaur displays tap into a new area for the museum. Edwards explained his organization will be placing more emphasis on the sciences, as the museum is a recent recipient of a $62,000 grant from the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. The grant was used to fund the Tiny Titans exhibit and a new education position at the museum. It will also fund a few more temporary exhibits, according to Edwards. Edwards said a grand opening for the exhibit, scheduled as a “mid-exhibit revival” will occur at some point in March. That “Dino-day” will include additional activities.

The dinosaur exhibit can be viewed during the museum’s regular operating hours, which are Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $4 for students. Children 4 years old and younger may enter for free. No additional fee is assessed to view the Tiny Titans displays.  The museum is located at 301 North Main St. in Mount Airy and may be reached at 786-4478.

Grant to fund exhibit, education position

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For about 165 million years dinosaurs walked the earth, and they’ll soon be making a return trip to Mount Airy. On Feb. 18 the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History will open a traveling exhibit called Tiny Titans: Dinosaur Eggs & Babies. The exhibit will be on display through the end of May. Museum executive director Matt Edwards said he has worked with the contracted company before and knows that it offers a tremendous product.  The exhibit will offer hands-on components and displays, and Edwards hopes it will be a big hit, as the nearest museums which offer dinosaur exhibits are located in Raleigh, Asheville and Martinsville, Virginia.  Of course, the Mount Airy museum isn’t exactly ready to play host to a full-size tyrannosaurus rex, said Edwards.  “Our temporary exhibit space is fairly small,” said Edwards in explaining the exhibit will tell the story of dinosaurs by way of smaller baby dinosaurs and dinosaur eggs.  The exhibit even features a model of a baby triceratops on which people can sit for a photo opportunity. Edwards said he was lucky enough to schedule the exhibit between its showings at two other museums, allowing for some cost-savings.  According to Edwards, the baby dinosaur exhibit will tap into an area which is a little new for his organization — the sciences. That’s important since the funding for the exhibit will come by way of a natural sciences grant.  “It’s a huge grant for us,” said Edwards.

The museum recently received a $62,000 grant from the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, explained Edwards. It’s a one-year, renewable grant which is contingent on continued funding from the legislature. The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences handed out $2.3 million in such grants statewide, with emphasis going to museums which receive little or no state funding and operate in under-served communities.  One condition of the grant is that money be put toward the sciences, said Edwards. However, the grant is enough money to fund a number of exhibits, offer some general operating dollars and allow the museum to reinstate a position it has operated without since 2010.

Education director

Edwards said one area in which the museum has failed to make headway in recent years is the continued development of education programs. In 2010, “circumstances following the recession” made it necessary for the museum to trim its staff. One position cut was the education position.  With the new funding, Edwards is getting ready to post the position, which was included in the museum’s grant application.  Though current museum staff members have kept the education programs at the museum running throughout the past six years, Edwards said the museum has done “nothing extensive in new program development.” Participation in the programs from local schools is also not as extensive as it once was.  Edwards said one task for the new staff member will be to find ways to link the history lessons the museum offers with the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) curriculum schools are now using.  “This position will offer a tremendous opportunity to reconnect with the education community and the community as a whole,” noted Edwards.  Edwards explained the first task for the education director will be a complete overhaul of the museum’s education programs. Some successful portions of the programs will remain in place, while the museum may end others. New programs will be offered eventually.  The person will also lead a teachers advisory committee, comprised of volunteer teachers, to ensure the museum is offering programs which are helpful to local schools and that the programs align with the curriculum taught to local youngsters.

Edwards said he’s looking forward to the dinosaur exhibit, a revamping of the education program and other exciting opportunities which the new grant will help to fund.

Genealogy Swap Meet Draws a Crowd

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A genealogy swap meet this weekend helped many folks progress with their family histories.  “We’re making a small dent,” said Elder Billie King, of Mount Airy. Hosted by the Surry County Genealogical Association, the event was held Saturday at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.  King brought information about several of her family members who had worked at the North Carolina Granite Corp.  “They helped make and mold that rock,” she said.The granite quarry, a cornerstone of local history, served as a focal point for the third-annual swap meet.

Anyone with any family ties to the quarry was asked to attend as a special guest. “You can see a name of a person on a census record and see they worked there,” said Esther Johnson, president of the local association and event organizer. “This puts a face with those people.” At the swap meet, vendors set up booths with genealogical information to share from their own family trees as well as items such as books or maps. When working on genealogy, “You always have dead ends,” Johnson said. “Places like this might have all that information you’re fighting for.”

By about noon, the crowd had started to pick up at the meet on the museum’s third floor. Sandy Ayers and her son, Matthew Holder, of Reidsville, spent some time at the Patrick County Historical Society’s table, where she was provided with information about joining the Daughters of the American Revolution. “Tracing my family tree I discovered a great-grandfather that was in the Revolutionary War,” she said. “I’m trying to connect the roots.” Ayers said that the swap meet Saturday was her sixth and that she enjoys genealogy. “I know I enjoy it,” Holder added. “I enjoy helping my mom.” Jancie Poplin, of Mount Airy, sat at a table with Mary McGhee, of Pilot Mountian. Poplin sat out a list of last names on a placard in front of a computer. “I’m offering help if anybody has these last names in their family,” she said. Because those names appeared in her own family tree, it might help somebody find new information about their own. “I’ve had several people stop by,” she said. “I’ve got notes I’m going to follow up with later.” Poplin said she’s been involved with the Surry Genealogical Association since about 2010. “I love this,” she said. “This is my number one hobby and pastime.” Swap meets provide the opportunity for fellowship, she said, and to interact with those who share the same interest – some of whom may turn out to be family. “I’m hoping to find long-lost relatives,” Poplin said. “A lot of my family members are dying out. This gives me hope I can reconnect and make new friends.”

In a different area, Winnie Banner, of Mount Airy, had embarked on a similar mission. “I’m the only one left in my family,” she said. “I’m trying to find out about my grandfather. He used to work at the quarry years ago and I didn’t know too much about him.” Banner worked with Cheryl Mosely, a member of the genealogical association, to find some new information. Mosely was stationed at a table set up with computers connected to, where those experienced with the program could help those just starting. They discovered a couple of interesting tidbits, including that Banner’s grandfather’s mother had been named “Pokey.” Mosely noted that the Surry County Genealogical Association’s website has been recently revamped. “We’ve totally redone it so it’s easily accessible now,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of information on there,” that may be of use to those researching in Surry County.

A six-week introductory genealogy course, also led by the genealogical association, will kickoff at the museum next week. “We love doing events like this,” said museum director Matthew Edwards. “Part of our big picture mission is to collect and preserve local history. Events like this really help us achieve that goal on an institutional level but also for individuals and families.” History and genealogy are intertwined and can’t be separated, Edwards noted. “I guess they can be,” he said, “but then it’s just names.”

Swap Meet to feature "The Rock"

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An event next weekend will honor ‘The Rock’ — no, not the professional wrestler and action-movie actor with that nickname — but a big chunk of Mount Airy history, or make that many chunks.  To be exact, the world’s largest open-faced granite quarry — aka North Carolina Granite Corp., and also “The Rock” — is expected to take center stage during a family history and genealogy swap meet at Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.

The event, a late-January fixture in recent years which is free and open to the public, is scheduled next Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the third floor of the museum at 301 N. Main St. It is sponsored by the museum and the Surry County Genealogical Association.

Usually, it’s an occasion for area residents to compare notes on family links, access information for free via the database and pick up various other historical tidbits. It’s one geared toward experienced genealogists as well as those just getting started in building their trees.  All that will be included again, but next Saturday’s event offers the added attraction of focusing on a cornerstone of local history, literally, the granite quarry. “This year we are asking anyone who has ever had family that worked at our quarry … to come as our special guest that day,” explained Esther Johnson, president of the Surry Genealogical Association. “And we hope they will bring pictures of their family and the quarry and share them,” Johnson added.

Steadfast industry

As textiles have faded over the years locally, North Carolina Granite Corp. has remained an industry as durable as the material it produces. Its roots run deep in local history and have forged strong ties with the community and its people. The granite company site in Flat Rock once was considered a worthless piece of rocky land — but would become a multimillion-dollar enterprise. Records of early Moravian settlers indicate that their millstones came from the quarry, and the company itself dates to the late 1880s. After Thomas Woodruff bought the site, history shows that the versatile local businessman used his marketing expertise to grow the operation tremendously. It really boomed when a railroad line was established to the quarry. This allowed a reliable means for the heavy material to be shipped from the Granite City to distant locations. In the earlier years of North Carolina Granite Corp., master stonecutters from Italy were brought in to ply their skills here, and their descendants still live in the area. Meanwhile, many buildings around the state and nation, including in Washington, D.C., have been constructed with the unique white granite from Mount Airy. Over the years, the quarry has affectionately been known by local residents as “The Rock.”

Something for all

In addition to urging those with ties to North Carolina Granite Corp. to attend Saturday’s event at the museum, an invitation is being extended to anyone who has ever enrolled in a beginners genealogy class sponsored by the museum to come as a special guest. Organizers have sought to provide something of interest to everyone regarding local genealogy and history:

• This includes persons connected with any history or genealogy group being invited to set up at the swap meet to advertise their organizations and sell books, maps, etc. it might have.

. • Authors of books on local history also may offer them for sale. • A regular swap meet attraction in which someone will help attendees look up family names for free on is to be continued this year.

• Examples of DNA analysis, a growing genealogy trend, also are to be on hand to show attendees what’s involved with those.

Wanted: family info

No genealogy forum would be complete without the lifeblood of such events: compiled family histories that can be shared with others. “The big thing will be, everyone is invited and you are asked to bring your genealogy (information) and display it so everyone can make connections and find new family information,” Johnson stressed regarding a process often compared to filling in puzzle pieces. “Sometimes all it takes is one name or one date and it may have been something you have looked for, for years,” she added of how networking with others at a genealogy event can help bridge gaps. “Be sure and bring any old Bibles you have and old letters, and old pictures or diaries or scrapbooks — also old obituaries.”

Those attending are encouraged to use laptops to record information, with a copy machine also to be available for duplication of materials at a small fee. “If you do not know one thing about genealogy or your family, come anyway and what is going on,” Johnson urged in inviting everyone to attend.

A natural tie-in

Museum Director Matt Edwards says it is only natural for the museum to host an event furthering the field of genealogy as well as focusing on a colorful segment of local history.  “I think the inclusion of the granite quarry this year is fantastic,” Edwards said.  The museum is home to archives of North Carolina Granite Corp., including about 2,000 photographs from the company’s files.  “And they are a huge supporter of the museum,” Edwards said.  “So it’s a natural tie.”  Edwards said next Saturday’s event also serves as the kickoff for a six-week introductory genealogy course to be hosted by the museum.

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