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. This week, we look at the history behind The Liberty Tobacco Warehouse, which burned last week.
Feb. 13, 1986 was brutally cold but when the call went out just before 3 a.m., Mount Airy firefighters geared up and rolled, just as they and their comrades across the county do every time. When they arrived at the Samet Furniture Store on North Main Street, the rear of the building was fully involved with flames shooting out of the second-story windows.
Water used to battle the fire came pouring back onto the street where temperatures in the mid-teens froze it into a treacherous sheet of ice. Firefighters, trying to direct hoses with water under hundreds of pounds of pressure, had difficulty keeping their feet. They sat on the ground to maintain as much control as possible and became frozen to the street themselves. Bystanders would later help chisel them from the ice or pour hot water around their legs to release them.
The community really came together that evening according to reporting in the Mount Airy News. Roger Mosely opened his business, Main Street Grill (where Leon’s Burgers is now), to make coffee and food for the people fighting the fire. Volunteers from the department’s ladies’ auxiliary and the Salvation Army worked the grills and coffee makers, and local businesses chipped in to help cover the cost.
While fires are dangerous and remain in the public memory for a long time, structure fires are actually pretty rare, according to Mount Airy Fire Chief Zane Poindexter. The department receives many calls but most are medical situations, traffic accidents, or false alarms, he said. They have 12-15 structure fires a year. Large ones, such as the Samet fire in ’86 or the Liberty Warehouse fire last month, are 10-15 year occurrences.
Since 1790 when the name Mount Airy first appeared officially, several fires have struck significant buildings in downtown and the surrounding area: the Blue Ridge Inn in the 1850s, and again New Year’s Day 1892; the Mount Airy Veneer Factory on South Street and the Midkiff & Brannock Hardware store and three other businesses on N. Main Street in December 1926 (Samets Furniture was built on this lot in the 30s); National Theatre and the Goldsmith block, Jan. 2, 1929; the horrific Flat Rock School fire, Feb. 22, 1957; Harrisons ladies’ wear on N. Main Street, Feb 19, 1968; the Mount Airy Furniture Factory, June 9, 1997; B&O Furniture factory on S. Main Street on March 19, 2002.
Fires in Surry County were fought by neighbors and community fire brigades from earliest days. Laws across the country required townspeople to keep fire buckets by their doors and that someone from the home bring it to help whenever the fire alarm was raised. Homes and businesses built of wood and close together were all in danger when one burned.
By February 1904 the citizens of Mount Airy decided to organize a regular department and Doctor Daniel Parks (Doctor was his name, not his profession), already captain of the Surry Rifles unit, was elected the town’s first fire chief. He oversaw the training of the men who drew reeled water hoses to fires by hand in the early years.
In August 1913 the company bought a sorrel horse named Old Reuben to pull the fire wagon to emergencies. Reuben served the town until Mount Airy Fire Engine #1 arrived in 1917. The Mount Airy Museum of Regional History holds the first three fire engines in its lower level fire service exhibit which celebrates the 19 departments in the county.
Today the Mount Airy Fire Department has 41 personnel, four engines, one ladder truck and several other vehicles. They work together with other departments and emergency services to ensure citizens of Surry County are well-served during crises in the region. The department stresses prevention and preparedness, with public education, smoke detector drives, and pre-fire planning that allows them to save precious time in times of real emergency.
Kate Rauhauser-Smith is the Director of Education and Programs 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 KRSmith@NorthCarolinaMuseum.org or by calling 336-786-4478 x228