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.
One of the first architectural features I learned about in Mount Airy was “the wall.”
Depending on who you ask it was called the Whittlin’ Wall, The Spitters’ Wall, Or the Liars’ Wall — a place where men with some time to kill would stand during part of a day, whittlin’ on a bit of wood, chewing tobacco and spitting on the ground, swapping lies and jack tales with each other.
Also depending on who you asked, it was a charming bit of nostalgia or cause for a raised eyebrow and scowl of disapproval, especially from ladies who remember having to walk carefully to avoid the tobacco juice on the ground and the comments of the whittlers as the ladies walked by.
Today the town dedicates a piece of public art which celebrates some great individuals who called Surry County home and much will be said about these deserving performers, educators, philanthropists, and business people. It also celebrates two anonymous groups of people: the mill workers who were the driving economic engine of this region for decades and the whittlers who worked the fields or factories, came to town to sell or buy and gathered on the corners and at the wall beside the Blue Ridge Inn to “jaw jack” with the other men.
Mount Airy is the center of a micropolitan statistical area, created by the Office of Management and Budget in 2003 to improve understanding of labor statistics, socio-economic patterns across the country outside of large cities. The areas surround smaller cities and large towns that draw from a rural population providing employment, services, education, worship, and shopping. Community continuity across the region is an important factor in identifying such areas.
This isn’t new. Mount Airy has long served as the anchor of economic and social structure for a several-county region including Carroll and Patrick counties in Virginia and Wilkes, and Stokes in North Carolina. We know, for example, that J.E.B. Stewart’s family traveled to Mount Airy for their shopping, medical, and worship needs, as did many of their neighbors. Doing research I’ve seen more than a few records for folks from up the mountain as being in Cana, North Carolina instead of Virginia.
For many years county farmers and crafters brought their goods and produce to town to sell. They’d come shopping for items the family couldn’t make such as sugar or silk ribbon, hammers or harness. They’d pay for it in trade, with profits, or put it on the family’s account which would be settled at the end of the season. If the trip was too long to make in one day they’d camp on the hill where Main-Oak Emporium now stands.
The advent of furniture factories and textile mills in the ‘20s made downtown Mount Airy a busy place with hundreds of employees coming to town each day. Two World Wars and booming economic demand for the finished goods gave women an opportunity to find employment outside domestic service, earning serious income for the first time. Textile mills such as Renfro Hosiery, Argonne Mill, Piedmont Hosiery, Barber Hosiery, Mount Airy Knitting Company, Haynes Textiles Company, and Pine State Knitware, staffed largely by women, turned out socks, long johns and baby clothing for decades.
I’ve heard from several men who remember downtown in the ‘50s and ‘60s. They laugh and recall wanting to get off the sidewalks when the mill whistles blew for lunch or shift change when the women headed for shops and offices on Main Street to run errands before it was time to get back to work. The ladies, it is said, had no time for “trifling” and you’d do well to stay out of their way.
Today these hardworking women and men who built the town are represented on the wall, he with a pocket knife and whittled stick and she with a sewing machine in her lap.
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