The Whittling Wall project in downtown Mount Airy — namely its eight sculptures of notable local individuals — will be celebrated in a program on Sunday.
It is scheduled from 3 to 5 p.m. at the wall located along West Oak Street, which will closed to traffic that day down to Market Street.
Years ago, local men gathered at that spot to whittle, chew tobacco and swap stories while their wives shopped at downtown stores, giving the Whittling Wall its name.
In 2016, an idea was hatched to place an array of lifelike brick statues on the long-dormant wall using a $94,340 downtown-revitalization grant from the N.C. Department of Commerce. The intent was to honor people who have played key roles in Mount Airy history, in cultural, business, educational and other areas.
The list includes Donna Fargo, a Grammy-winning country and pop singer who grew up in Mount Airy and now lives in Nashville; old-time fiddler Tommy Jarrell; Ralph Epperson, the founder of radio station WPAQ, a flagship for the traditional mountain music of this region;
Also, Leonidas Harold “L.H.” Jones, an educator and leader of the local African-American community; Fred Cockerham, an old-time banjo player and fiddler; Flip Rees, a longtime retailer in downtown Mount Airy; and two other figures portraying an anonymous whittler (reflecting the history of the wall as a gathering place) and a mill worker to signify Mount Airy’s textile heritage and the legions of area residents who have worked in that industry.
Reidsville artist Brad Spencer was commissioned to create the statues as a way of beautifying the downtown area while also honoring important local figures. The brick medium chosen dates to ancient Babylon and is known for its durability.
The sculptures were put into place late last year and the sidewalk there was reconstructed to allow better access to view and photograph the creations.
Planters and plaques honoring the people depicted on the wall also were part of the project.
‘A great honor’
Sunday’s celebration will include remarks from the artist, family members and friends of those depicted, historians and local officials.
Brief, five-minute, presentations on all eight individuals by some of those who knew them best will be part of the program. Fargo is the only living person among the actual people whose brick likenesses are seated along the wall.
Former Mount Airy mayor and local radio personality Deborah Cochran will speak on behalf of Fargo, who is said to be still recovering from the effects of a stroke suffered late last year and is unable to attend Sunday’s event.
Gene and John Rees are to offer remarks about their father Flip, and speakers for other sculpture subjects will include musicians mentored by Jarrell and Cockerham.
Local radio station owner Kelly Epperson will play a dual role Sunday, serving as both emcee for the event and talking about his father Ralph, who launched WPAQ in the late 1940s and died in May 2006.
Kelly Epperson said Thursday that “a big smile” crossed his face when first seeing the sculpture of his dad holding a microphone, and he marveled at its realism.
“It reflects to me the gentleness that my dad had about him,” Epperson said of an individual who came across as a genuinely nice guy to those who met him.
“He was so likable, and Flip Rees was the same way,” he added.
“It’s just a great honor — I’m just in awe that my dad would be chosen as someone significant to represent the historical contribution that he has made to his community,” Epperson said. “I’m just so thrilled.”
Epperson mentioned that his remarks on Sunday won’t necessarily focus on Ralph’s accomplishments, but other facets of his life.
“Just something lighthearted … that people may not know about.”
Mayor David Rowe also is scheduled to speak Sunday.
In addition, old-time, bluegrass and country music will be part of the event to honor musicians on the wall.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.