Mount Airy News

Volunteers continue tradition

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Volunteering is a fundamental American value. One that has built a nation from a ragtag group of loosely connected colonies populated by people from many nations, religions, languages, and ethnicities. A nation that has led and served the world for a hundred years.

It is a value the people of this region have embodied from the earliest settlements here.

This week the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History thanks and celebrates the many folks who’ve created a legacy of volunteerism that gave birth to and grew the museum and who continue the work in a multitude of ways.

It’s always dangerous to start ‘naming names’ in such conversations because every contribution is important and there is simply no way to mention everyone who’s given time, energy, and resources across three decades since the museum’s inception. But it’s important to recognize the vital role volunteers have played to make this institution possible.

From our founding members to the folks who staff the gift shop, board members to tour guides, hundreds of thousands of hours have been donated to tell the stories and preserve the treasures of the region. Some have been educators or historians, others retired lawyers, executives, retail workers, and housewives. One thing they all have in common has been their love of community and the museum.

There is a long tradition of working together in counties of this region. During the French and Indian War they sought shelter together, helping neighbors reach Fort Dobbs below Elkin or Bethabara near Winston-Salem. As communities grew people coordinated efforts for large tasks such as fighting fires.

Benjamin Franklin is credited with forming the first volunteer fire department in 1736. His model remains in force to this day as 70 percent of America’s fire fighters are still volunteers. Surry County has 16 volunteer fire departments.

Community service organizations such as the YMCA, the Red Cross, Rotary International, and ‘ladies’ aid societies’ were spawned by social movements in the 19th century. As members of such clubs, local residents coordinated efforts to improve education, medical care, and sanitation. During WWI they supplied canned goods and sweaters to the military and created a fund to ensure the families of soldiers would be taken care of in the absence of the primary breadwinners.

The ladies of the Mount Airy Presbyterian church, under the leadership of Mrs. J.L. Gilmer and Mrs. W.E. Merritt, organized a sewing circle to raise money to build their new church. Folks could pay a small fee to have “plain or fancy needlework, plain machine work, embroidery or button-holes” done as reported in the Mount Airy News Sept. 26, 1912.

“There are so many little ways to show kindness,” wrote Mrs. F.L. Townsend in the News on Mar. 2, 1904, encouraging people to do service in their neighborhoods in any way they could find. “I wonder that more of us do not spend time in these little things.”

Surry residents do spend time doing for their community, in large ways and small. From the libraries to Head Start, the Jones Family Resource Center to, yes, the museum, folks in this region work hard to help their neighbors and keep the community working.

My Grandma Rauhauser used to say, “Many hands make light work.” She was right. Thank you, with all our hearts, to the many, many hands who’ve done the work here, but most especially for the honor of your friendship and dedication.

Surry County Election Tradition

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I remember watching the election results with my great grandmother as President Richard M. Nixon trounced South Dakota Sen. George McGovern in the 1972 election. I felt sorry for the senator, he carried only one state, Massachusetts, not even his home state. Bless his heart.  Of course, at 10 I had no idea what was at stake or what motivated anyone to vote aside from the Vietnam War that was the backdrop of my life to that point. In my family there has never been any question about whether I would vote. It is simply what you do, an action as unquestioned in my family as breathing or eating Grandma Rauhauser’s pie.

As I’ve learned about our nation’s history, I’ve come to value that vote even more, and the people who fought for my right to do so. Voting is a privilege that hasn’t always been available to all citizens. Who gets to vote and when is largely decided by the states. When the nation was young, most states limited voting to white men who owned property. This was true in North Carolina until 1856, the last state to do away with property requirements.Voting was set in November during the 1800s when most Americans were farmers. This ensured the harvest was secure and beat winter storms that would make travel difficult. As in most of the country, Surry residents were spread across the county which meant people came to polling places in Mount Airy, Dobson, and Elkin on foot or by horse, a journey that might take all day and require an overnight stay.

Tuesday was chosen to allow travel on Monday with voting and travel home the next day which avoided Sunday worship and Wednesday market day. The requirement that it be “the first Tuesday after the first Monday” of the month was set in 1845 to give members of the Electoral College enough time to travel to the capital in time to finalize elections as laid out in law. Today, of course, voting is much less inconvenient, taking only a few minutes for most of us at locations within our neighborhoods or communities..

Surry County has a pretty reliable track record for voter turnout since 2000, according to the county Board of Elections; 66 to 70 percent in presidential years and 40 to 45 percent for the mid-terms like this year. Historically, the county (and state) seems to have been Democratic (called the Democratic Conservative Party at first) much to the concern of the Surry Weekly Visitor newspaper, a Republican-leaning publication in 1872. They warned readers to beware Democrats handing out ballots said to be Republican but with Democratic candidates listed to fool illiterate and partially literate men. The region was still mostly Democratic when they sent both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to the White House in 1960 and ’64 but they followed the Southern shift to the Republican party in the mid-20th century going for Nixon in ’68 and ‘72. Watergate caused a backstep for Republicans, however, and the county “cleaned house” in 1976 with the election of Democrat Jimmy Carter to the Oval Office and local Democrats such as then-high school social studies teacher Dennis “Bud” Cameron to many local offices.

The Mount Airy News ran a pointed front-page piece of satire on Sept. 16, 1876, meant as exaggeration but true at its core, then and today; “…my dear fellow-citizens, male and female, of every condition, the great day is coming and on that great day I want to see you march up, walk up, run up, roll up, tumble up, and crowd up to the ballot box. Never mind torn flounce, and muddied ruffies, and crumpled crinoline and mashed toes and skinned shins, never mind muddy boots and dirty shirts, never mind the sweet perfume, go forward in the exercise of your glorious rights of suffrage.”

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 or by calling 336-786-4478 x229

Masks out, harvest in, at Museum gala

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Mount Airy Museum of Regional History’s fall fundraising gala has a new take on what’s “in” and what’s “out.”

Out — masks and casino gambling.

In — the first of two 25th birthdays along with an inter-generational take on the fall harvest.

The museum has tried for the past few years to find the perfect replacement for its popular Casino Royale gala which was discontinued in 2016 when state authorities called museum director Matt Edwards days before the event to tell him the long-running event violated state law.

That year, the event proceeded without gaming. In 2017, the event was replaced by a masquerade ball.

“This year,” said Edwards, “we’re not so close to Halloween, so the board chose a Fall Harvest Gala as the theme for the fall fundraiser, which will also mark the museum’s first 25th anniversary.

The museum was established 25 years ago: in 1993, but the doors did not open to the public until 1995, thereby setting up 2025 for another silver anniversary.

Edwards said people have been inquiring what the dress code is going to be, to which he has been replying, “The word ‘gala’ in the name implies you should put a little effort into getting dressed up. I think it’s appropriate to do that.”

Unlike most area non-profits, the museum operates on a calendar fiscal year, according to Edwards, and this event is make or break to keep the museum’s finances on the black side of the ledger as the year ends, shoring up funds for operating expenses.

Two new things for 2018 will be Interlam taking on the mantle of title sponsor, and the day of the gala, which has been moved to Saturday from Friday.

“We constantly butt up with high school football on Friday. But on Saturday, there’s college football. We’re going with Saturday this year, so everybody doesn’t have to rush around after work on Friday, get here, have a cocktail, eat dinner, and rush home. We’re hoping Saturday will accommodate the schedules of some folks who might not have made it on Friday. And we hope they’ll relax and stay and dance and enjoy themselves after dinner.”

The music and dancing part of the equation has been successfully resolved. The band Continental Divide will return after a successful engagement in 2017.

“Everyone liked them so much, we brought them back,” said Edwards.

The band’s lead singer, Gene Pharr, was inducted into the Carolina Beach Music Hall of Fame in 2016. But the band ventures out past beach music. According to Edwards, they play a balanced set that includes several genres, including covers of recent hits.

“They play a little jazz early in the evening, but as the night gets going, they play whatever makes the crowd get involved.”

Though Edwards freely concedes the Fall Harvest Gala doesn’t have much in the way of a gimmick — “It’s a dinner-dance; There’s nothing groundbreaking there” — he is counting on the museum’s inter-generational appeal to make it work.

“Our events are unique in the diversity in ages we get to them. We have been trying to attract a younger clientele. It’s part of our bigger program here at the museum. We want to capture kids’ attention when they’re about this big,” said Edwards, gesturing at a height somewhere waist and knee high.

“All of the programs we aim at children are focused on getting children accustomed to being museum patrons at a young age. Getting kids affiliated when they’re young will set them up to be comfortable in museums as they get older. And with kids, you get their parents, which are usually younger.”

Edwards said it’s sometimes challenging for folks on a budget — and younger people often have less disposable income — to get them to a charity fundraiser.

“But for folks who see the value of investing in the museum, it will work,” he said.

Event tickets are $65 and drawdown tickets are $100. A couples special is $200 and includes two event tickets and one drawdown tickets, a savings of $30.

The drawdown has a cash prize of $6,000 plus a few $100 prizes along the way. Drawdown ticket holders do not have to be present to win, but to split a ticket, the physical ticket must be present.

Mount Airy Museum of Regional History’s Fall Harvest Gala will be Saturday, Sept. 15, from 6:30 to 11 p.m. Dinner at 7:30, music and dancing at 8, and final drawdown drawing from 10:30 until 11. Tickets must be purchased in advance and are available at the museum. Call 336-786-4478.

Oral Histories Reveal Much

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Francis Fallenstein was born, it is said, to a noble family in Dusseldorf, Prussia in 1822 but his loving, gentle mother died when he was young. Chafing under his father’s strict rules, he and his brother Hugo, ran away about 1837, stowed away on or joined the crew of a ship bound for America, and started a new life. He didn’t want to be found so he gave his mother’s maiden name, Mueller. The official recorded it as Miller and Francis and his family have been Millers ever since.  We know these details and many others because members of the family told the stories and wrote them down, some were eventually videotaped and archived by professors at Appalachian State University.  Official records such as the census, death, and land records are among the best tools for genealogists and historians but informal records such as diaries, letters, and memoirs are also invaluable. They are often the only place a name change at the border will be explained or personality traits will be remembered long after the person is gone.

For generations we have learned these stories at dining room tables, on grandma’s porch, at church, or family reunions. Details are sometimes lost or grow hazy with retellings but the gist of the stories remain.  Too often, however, we move through life, too busy to sit and listen. There are bills to be paid, meetings to attend, things to do that draw us away from the elder members of our family until age, disease, and death steal them away and, too late, we realize we didn’t have another Sunday to ask those questions or to write names on the back of photos.

For years I’ve encouraged folks to write their stories down or record them on tape, the ones they’ve been told or the ones they’ve lived. The answer is often, “I’m nothing special. No one cares about these old stories.”  Respectfully, I beg to differ. Stories about military service or going to meeting across the ‘holler,’ doing laundry in a wringer washer, or grandma courting that Edwards boy even though her brothers tried to warn him off are part of the fabric of Surry’s history and those of us who didn’t live it will want to know even if we don’t realize it yet.

I wonder how many local Millers, a name that is, according to the US Census Bureau, the sixth most common surname in the United States, know at least some of them are descended from Fallenstein? Or that Miller Road is named for their family? Or that there is a monument in the front yard of the home Francis built?  We have a rich collection of family lore about the early Miller generations for a few reasons, not the least of which is Francis’ half-sister’s son, Max Weber, internationally credited as one of three founders of sociology. Max and his wife visited his cousins here in October 1904 during his trip to speak at the Worlds Fair in St. Louis.

Such stories are gathered in the Surry County Genealogical Society’s Surry County Heritage books published in 1983, in the indominable Ruth Minnick’s columns, and, to some degree, in papers in the museum’s collection. There are so many more stories in this region, though. Treasure troves of history are stored in the memories of our elders and every time we lose one, every funeral we attend, is the loss of an encyclopedia of knowledge we will never get back.

The museum is planning some oral history workshops in the coming year, watch for information about them. But you don’t need to wait for us. I encourage you all to make the time to sit and talk, to write down, or digitally record your family’s stories.  And, I hope, share them with us at the museum. Future generations will thank you.

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 or by calling 336-786-4478 x229.

Museum Offers Answers, Mysteries From the Past

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Our History is a regular column by Kate Rauhauser-Smith, Director of Education and Programs at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, examining the region’s history on display at the museum.

As I’ve been told many times since moving to Mount Airy in 2005, I’m “not from around here.” I grew up in Pennsylvania’s gently rolling farm country. I’ve always loved history. It’s a passion I learned at the knee of my Pappaw who took the family to many battlefields and historic sites when I was small.  He cherished and, more importantly, shared the stories he’d grown up with about our early family who settled the state in the 18th century and he kept me wide-eyed with tales of his grandfather watching the Confederates march right passed the house in the sweltering heat of 1863. It made me feel anchored to that place in ways I never understood until we moved 450 miles away.

From our earliest days here I’ve been fascinated by people’s stories. There are cousins here of George Washington, Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and Sequoyah, the man who developed an alphabet for the Cherokee language. I’ve had tiny ladies of great age tell me their family stories of the Yankee troops camping at the south end of town and it seems everyone knows someone with artifacts from the Native America village when it was disturbed by the Proctor-Silex construction.  Museums, for me, are wonderful places filled with treasures just like my great grandma’s attic. Each bit and bauble holds a story. Some of the stories are tied together. Some stand alone, incomplete because no one remembers who wrote that letter or whose sweet face peers through the ages from that long-ago day when someone took a picture.  I held one of those orphaned memories late last year, a simple piece of blue-lined school paper, brown with age, and covered in a spidery scrawl and uncertain spelling.

“August the Second 1895,” it reads, “Being the day on which I am sixteen years old I propose to keep a general record of what time I remain here”  The author, who was unknown at the time, was clearly a farm boy, he stacked oats, cut buckwheat, went to ‘preaching,’ made cider with his cousins, and helped Grandpa bring in hay. He traveled to Hillsville that month to see men put in jail for fighting and for selling brandy.  The boy talked of helping his uncles, Enoch Webb and WL Martin, with chores but never identified himself, and so it was a mystery … Until this week. As I cast about for the subject of this, my first column for The Mount Airy News, I was drawn back to that diary letter and the mystery boy. I asked Amy Snyder, the museum’s curator, what she knew about it. Only that it came from papers from Miss Neeta Webb’s estate in the late 90s, she said.

On a whim I searched online for information about Miss Webb and found her father was OB Webb…who had been born on Aug 2, 1879…16 years before the diary was written. His father had several siblings, one named Enoch and a sister Stella Mae who’d married Wyatt L. Martin. We had our boy.  Continuing to search online and through the many pictures we got from the estate, we know Obe was a tall, lanky boy with black hair and striking blue eyes born near Laurel Fork, Carroll County, Virginia. We also know he is first cousin twice removed of Mount Airy Mayor David Rowe, whose mother was a Webb.

A 1928 biographical sketch of O.B. (as he styled his name in adulthood) says he had a talent for mechanics. He was hired to build a bandsaw for Mount Airy lumber yard and he stayed, establishing a plumbing business on Main Street. He had a hand in several businesses and was a Mason, a Shriner and a member of the Kiwanis Club here.  The Webbs have been in Carroll County since about 1835 when it seems the entire clan and several other families moved from Grayson County. The Martins, Goads, Nesters, Edwards, and others seem to have been living in community for generations, moving from Franklin to Grayson not long after the Revolution, then into Carroll County and many continuing to move south into Surry. Members of each family have served in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and both World Wars.

There are pieces and clues of thousands of regional stories tucked away in the archives here and many thousands more waiting to be unearthed. What’s hiding in your attic? That box under Grandma’s bed or at the back of the old tobacco barn?  Let me know if you have questions about items in the museum. I welcome history and family stories passed down to you. Share them to my email and we’ll explore the answers through this column. or by calling 336-786-4478 x228

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