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 history on display at the museum. This week, we learn how the museum got the WPAQ letters and what other items it desires.
WPAQ began broadcasting old time and gospel music and local news and sports 70 years ago with the call letters in bright neon above the station’s front door most of that time.
Matt Edwards became the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History’s director in 2009 and from the first time he saw those 18” beauties, he’s wanted them for the museum and told station owner Kelly Epperson as much. The letters, part of an institution so deeply associated with Surry County, were on Edwards’ Want List, a short, specific wish list of items to better tell the region’s history.
When Edwards designed the museum’s WPAQ exhibit he did it with a place for those letters even though they were still firmly in place over that door and Epperson had no intention of taking them down or giving them away. But Edwards was ready if that should ever change. He even went so far as to joke with Epperson, “If those letters ever go missing you should look at the museum because I probably took them!”
In 2014 the station did some repair work on the porch roof that held the letters requiring them to be taken down. As is often the case with older electrical items, the letters no longer met building codes and could not be reinstalled without costly updates and so Edwards got his wish. He called a friend, Jan Legere, owner of Jantec Neon Products here in Mount Airy, to celebrate the donation.
Legere, knowing the historical significance of the letters offered to work on them and get them fit to light again, albeit indoors only. Part of the restoration work was an analysis of the gas in the tubes, which had glowed red for many years. The result showed the gas, when new, had been a brilliant pink, which is what they are today. He also offered to craft new letters that could be installed outdoors for Epperson. A community coming together for the win.
The museum has a simple purpose: “To collect, preserve and interpret the natural, historic and artistic heritage of the region.” It’s a mission statement Edwards takes seriously as he seeks the items that preserve and tell the region’s story most clearly. He works with museum curator Amy Snyder, who has been at the museum since 1996, to determine what pieces of Surry’s tangible history they want to actively seek out.
“The stories we tell are dictated by the objects we have available,” Edwards said, “because people come here to look at the things. However, there are more stories than there are objects so there are holes in the story.”
The museum relies on folks to donate artifacts. Often people don’t know the items hold value to the community or they are not willing to part with them. But, as a non-profit organization supported by memberships, donations, and attendance, we don’t have a budget for buying artifacts.
That said, we’ve done well relying on friends and strangers. Just last week Edwards got a surprise email about one of the items on his list: a Kyle Creed banjo.
Kyle Creed, born and raised in Beulah and Stewart’s Creek, was a son of two powerhouse musical clans, the Creeds and the Lowes. Considered an old-time music legend, he played fiddle, and banjo and made banjos that are highly prized to this day, selling for $2,500 and more.
Considered one of the masters of Round Peak style of old-time music, Creed lived in Surry and Carroll counties. He was a grocer, a carpenter, a sawmiller, performer, and banjo builder. He was known for using Formica on the necks, making it easier for the player to do the signature slide of the Round Peak style. He is thought to have created just shy of 200 banjos.
A friend of the museum aware that Edwards wanted a Creed banjo to add to the growing luthiers and traditional music collection, knows a man in Canada who owns two and wants one to be preserved where it can be treasured. A phone call and several emails later, and the five-string banjo will arrive in the next months.
And so the museum grows and is better able to tell the local story to the larger world.
Kate Rauhauser-Smith is the director of education and programs for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History and previously had 22 years in journalism before coming to the Granite City. She can be reached at KRSmith@NorthCarolinaMuseum.org or by calling 336-786-4478, x228.