Our History is a regular column submitted by Kate Rauhauser-Smith, visitor services manager at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, examining the region’s history and some related displays at the museum.
Come to the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History’s third floor and you’ll see two Model T Ford cars in pristine condition. I often ask people how they think the cars got there.
The museum has one elevator that’s too small for either of the cars. They weren’t taken apart. They arrived in one piece. How did those shiny black beauties get there?
My favorite answer to date was from a 5-year-old Raleigh boy in town for Mayberry Days last year who said, “Tabitha!” before he squinched up his face and twitched his nose like the ‘Bewitched’ character. That would be cool but, sadly, it’s not the correct answer either.
No, the answer is far more mundane but no less impressive.
Bobby and Sylvia Harold made a generous gift to the museum of two nearly perfect Model Ts in December 2006. After weeks of working out the logistics, before the third floor had any exhibits, a construction crew took out a window and its casement. A crane on Virginia Street lifted the cars, secured to flat utility trailers, to the third floor opening where the crew inside helped guide them in and secure the platform to the sill.
Then the Amish owner of the construction business scooted onto the trailer, into the car, and carefully backed the old machines down the ramp into the gallery that is their permanent home.
Model Ts have been an important part of the region’s story almost since they first went into production in 1908. At first, someone in Surry County buying an automobile was big enough news to make the papers. “Mr. J.K. Reynolds has shipped to this town this week two fine automobiles that he recently purchased. We hear that he will keep one for his personal use and sell the other,” an article stated in the Mount Airy News on April 20, 1911.
Though Ford dominated the American auto industry for years, represented by G. Fox Marshall’s dealership in Mount Airy, other makes were to be found on local roads as well. The News reported on July 10, 1913 that Marshall sold a “Hupmobile” to grocer Mr. WW Burke, and a Ford to Wesley Bean of East Bend. By 1920, cars were only mentioned as part of larger news about parades, accidents, and moonshine busts.
While it is evident many were fascinated by the vehicles, concerns about the cost of road paving and maintenance, the effect of “extravagant spending” beyond owners’ means would have on the economy’s stability, and, of course, road safety quickly became a concern. In June of 1910 The News reported an accident involving three young women and two little girls on Lebanon Hill when the horse pulling their buggy was spooked by a car. “No serious damage was done although Miss Margaret Gallaway and little Ruth Carter received some painful bruises and scratches.”
Cars and trucks were specialized machines bringing new technology and requiring new skills. Sidney Jones, who lived just west of Mount Airy, was big news when he headed across the state for a six-week course in automobile driving and maintenance in 1911. Several Surry men including Roger Allred and Andrew Greenwood were recruited to special units to drive trucks during WWI because of their motor and driving skills.
“It’s undeniable the advent of affordable cars fundamentally changed life in Surry and surrounding counties,” said museum director Matt Edwards. “It leveled the playing fields in a lot of important ways allowing people to travel further for a fraction of the cost and time. It changed everything from who they did business with to where they lived. You cannot adequately tell the story of Surry County without talking about the impact of cars.”
Kate Rauhauser-Smith is the visitor services manager 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