Board gives nod to statue project

By Tom Joyce -

A wall in downtown Mount Airy described as “bland” in city government documents will become filled with famous local residents in the coming months — at least statues of them.

This will result from the board of commissioners’ unanimous approval Thursday night of a project targeting the “Whittling Wall,” located along West Oak Street near its intersection with North Main Street.

It will involve the creation and placement of brick sculptures, or statues, of individuals who have played key roles in making Mount Airy what it is today. This will be accomplished through a $94,340 downtown-revitalization grant recently awarded to the city by the N.C. Department of Commerce.

The scope of the project approved Thursday night represents some changes from plans originally proposed by local officials and previously reported. Andy Griffith and the Siamese Twins (Eng and Chang Bunker) have been dropped and other characters added who represent the area’s unique musical, economic and cultural heritage.

Making the cut of notable former local residents on the final list are Grammy-winning country and pop singer Donna Fargo, who now lives in Nashville, and some others who are deceased:

Ralph Epperson, founder of local radio station WPAQ, which has preserved an area tradition with its mountain music format; old-time fiddler Tommy Jarrell; Fred Cockerham, an old-time banjo player and fiddler; and Flip Rees, a longtime retailer in Mount Airy who is credited for much of the success of downtown Mount Airy today.

Two other statues will pay tribute to local history in a different way — one will be of a mill worker and the other a whittler, reminiscent of olden days when men would sit along the wall and whittle.

But this does not mean that Griffith and the Bunker twins are being disrespected by their exclusion from the Whittling Wall lineup.

Copyright-type issues likely would arise from depicting Griffith, especially if he is shown as the Sheriff Andy Taylor or Matlock characters he portrayed on television, according to city Community Development Coordinator Martin Collins.

“A lot of paperwork,” predicted Collins, who gave a presentation on the project Thursday night.

“You’d probably have to get TV Land’s approval,” he said in reference to the cable TV network that broadcasts shows starring the late actor from Mount Airy. This would upset the timetable for having the brick sculptures completed and in place by next September or so.

In the Siamese Twins’ case, there might be another effort under way regarding recognition of the famous pair. “The Bunker family may have some other plans, something else in mind, to honor them,” Collins said.

The statues will be sculpted by a Reidsville artist.

Having a total of seven statues rather than six also will not affect the cost of the creations. Collins explained that since the whittler and mill worker will not represent specific people and be more generic in appearance, the expense for those statues will be cheaper and covered under the original price structure.

Collins explained that the grant for the local project became available during final budget actions in Raleigh, when state officials earmarked about $5 million for localities in the North Carolina Main Street Program, including Mount Airy.

The statue project was approved on the state level and the city commissioners OK’d a grant agreement Thursday night to allow it to proceed.

It will enhance the previously developed Carlos Jones Blue Ridge Park at the corner of West Oak and North Main streets, and also provide a “visual” attraction to other nearby areas from the vantage point of the Whittling Wall, Collins said.

This includes the Spencer’s redevelopment site and Market Street, an older local street that is getting a major facelift.

The statues also will be a tourism draw. “It’s a very valuable marketing resource,” the community development coordinator added of these types of projects.

Whittling Wall recalled

The cut-and-dried process of approving the grant agreement was accompanied Thursday night by fond memories of the Whittling Wall among Mount Airy officials.

“I have to say I do remember when the old men were whittling at the wall,” recalled Commissioner Dean Brown, a longtime local resident whose father operated a store downtown.

“But you had to be careful,” Brown said, mentioning piles of wood shavings and spit that would accumulate there.

City Clerk Nicki Brame also offered a recollection, as relayed by her grandmother.

“My nanny used to call the Whittling Wall the rooster perch,” Brame said.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

By Tom Joyce

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