Our History is a regular column submitted by Kate Rauhauser-Smith, Director of Education and Programs at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, examining the region’s history and some related displays at the museum.
An unremarkable gray metal door is displayed on the third floor of the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History. If you take time to look you will see the patent was awarded in 1923 to P.G. Wall of Pilot Mountain. The tobacco barn furnace door was manufactured by Wall & Denny of the same town.
It is one of two items invented and patented by Surry County residents in the museum’s collection, a small sampling of an impressive number of patents granted to local folks.
Patent law has existed for hundreds of years as a way to encourage innovators. They give exclusive rights for production control to the inventor or their assigns for a limited period of time, usually 20 years. The first US patent was issued in 1790 for a method to produce potash (used in soap, glass-making, and fertilizer). Since then more than 10 million have been issued.
The US Patent Office’s online records are clumsy to search and other sources are spread across the Internet and library collections but we’ve identified 26 patents awarded to county citizens thus far.
Porter Wall, raised in Eldora Township, had deep roots in the area as a son of the Wall, Whitaker, Lewis, and Johnson families who’ve lived in Dobson, Pilot Mountain, Siloam, and Eldora since the early 1800s at least. Many in the family farmed tobacco so it’s no surprise his invention dealt with its curing process. He partnered with a son of another long-time Pilot Mountain family, John Willis Denny, to manufacture and market his invention but according to census records both men identified as farmers.
The other item in our collection, equally as practical, is a wrench patented by Jason Carson Harris of Mount Airy and assigned to his Harris Wrench Company.
The oldest Surry County patent we’ve found thus far was awarded to Jacob W. Brower in 1844 for the unfortunately named ‘smut machine.’ Well known in the 19th century, such machines were used to clean foreign matter and dust from grain before grinding. Between 1804 and 1845 slightly more than 100 patents were given for similar machines.
Those who came to the region were made of stern stuff, especially in the early days when the resources were abundant but transportation to and from the area was difficult. Brower was among the earliest entrepreneurs when he bought 300 acres along the Ararat River near Hamburg Street in 1841 and established a mill. Eventually he owned several businesses including a general store, shoe factory, cotton mill, and box production factory. When he died in 1872 his estate was valued at more than $52,000, about $1.074 million in today’s dollars.
Local innovators have never stopped coming up with better ways to do things as evidenced by the parade of patents. Most but not all stem from the principle industries of the area — tobacco, textile manufacturing, and agriculture. They range from William Gilmer’s tobacco box clamp in 1879 to a “smoking article inspection system and associated method” developed by Charles Reddell’s team for RJ Reynolds just last year. From Thomas G. Crissman’s bed slat fastener in 1914 to yet another improvement to LS Starrett’s saw blades in 2008.
Some say Surry has lost her connection to manufacturing and innovation but the historical data would suggest the county is on the cusp of the next great idea. I’m excited to see where our modern-day innovators will lead.
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