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Mount Airy Historic District


The Mount Airy Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2012, The Gombach Group.

The Mount Airy Historic District encompasses 248 commercial and residential buildings located within a compact, architecturally and historically significant, and largely intact twenty-block area centered by the Main Street business district and including portions of four contiguous residential areas. The architectural fabric of the Mount Airy Historic District is unique in the state due to the widespread use, in both residential and commercial construction, of a distinctive light-colored indigenous granite quarried nearby from the world's largest open-face quarry. The Mount Airy Historic District's significant late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries architecture reflects an unusually sophisticated and wide variety of nationally popular styles including Italianate, Queen Anne, Gothic Revival, Romanesque Revival, Art Deco, Spanish Colonial Revival, English Cottage and Tudor Revival. The district is associated with Mount Airy's growth from a stagecoach stop on the principal early nineteenth century road between the North Carolina piedmont and the southern Virginia mountains, to the major commercial, residential and industrial center in Surry County today. A strong post-Reconstruction era tobacco industry and the 1888 completion of a railroad line, which enabled the commercial exploitation of granite and lumber, the area's greatest natural resources and the basis of the area's economic growth, precipitated a major period of growth from 1880-1920. Another significant period of building activity occurred during the 1920s and 1930s, spurred by the re-establishment of the long dormant textile industry. Most of the structures representative of the town's primary growth periods remain intact with few intrusions or infill buildings.

On a clear, spring day in May, 1858, Reverend Marquis L. Wood, newly appointed Methodist circuit rider, rode to the top of Pilot Mountain, an ancient northwest North Carolina landmark in the Sauratown Mountain range. He enjoyed a picnic lunch and the panoramic view of his charge, the Surry County Circuit. Below the 2,500 foot pinnacle lay a beautiful 1,100 foot high valley ringed by mountains and known by the region's earliest settlers as "The Hollows." The valley was, since the 1820s, the site of the small community of Mount Airy. "...we gazed intensely upon...the verdant landscapes dotted with farms and dwellings and marked with roads. To the right of Sauratown mountains, as the distance increases, the picturesque landscape seems to heighten, till it meets and mingles with the blue heavens, forbidding the vision of man to reach further, and at the same time causing the beholder to feel how finite — how small — how circumscribed the sight, even when upon the tallest peaks of each.... As the eye is lifted toward the south-south-west the sparkling waters of the Yadkin at different places meets the view. Beyond its rolling ripples...the Brushy mountains whose blue tinged tops shut out all beyond peer up, to add to the grandeur of the scene. On the west and north-west lies the sublime Blue Ridge defying the gaze. While upon its side and top may be seen marks of the woodman's axe and the farmer's utensils, as if man was determined to make every spot of the world, however rough, yield to his support."[1]

When Rev. Wood served this area on the eve of the Civil War, Mount Airy was a village of about 300 people. At that time, Mount Airy boasted an inn, a small textile factory, a wagon/buggy shop, a school, a few small mercantile businesses and a long, largely undocumented, history. Even though a few settlers had located in the vicinity of Mount Airy in the mid-1700s, it was many years before a true community was formed. The main stage coach road from Salem, North Carolina to Wytheville, Virginia (roughly paralleling the present Highway 52) included a portion of Mount Airy's main street. The community originally developed as a convenient stop along the stagecoach route and the present downtown grew up around the site of the c.1830 Blue Ridge Inn, formerly located at the southwest corner of Main and Oak streets.

Surry County, formed in 1771, is bounded on the north by the Virginia line; the Yadkin River marks the southern border.[2] To the west lie the Blue Ridge Mountains; to the east, the hilly and rolling piedmont region. Many small rivers and streams cross the county, draining southward to the Yadkin River. Prior to the mid-18th century when pioneer settlement began, the area was inhabited by Indians of the Siouian linguistic group. The earliest European explorers in the region were a small number of surveyors and map-makers, hunters, and itinerant traders who bartered with the Indians at scattered trading posts, including one on the Yadkin River.

A major Indian trail traversing Surry County lay along a ridge bounded on the west by Lovill's Creek and on the east by the Ararat River. This creek and river marked the future boundaries of the town of Mount Airy. The Indians' trails grew into wagon routes utilized by pioneer settlers who began emigrating south into the Hollows from Virginia and Pennsylvania in the mid-18th century.. By 1749 a map drawn by Joshua Frye and Peter Jefferson located seven settlers with sizeable acreage on the Ararat River.[3] The earliest area land deeds date from 1756-60. The Moravians, who had settled Salem thirty miles to the southeast in 1766, recorded encounters with pioneers in the Hollows including references to marriages performed and concerns expressed over the presence of horse thieves and robbers in that sparsely settled area.[4]

The origin of Mount Airy's name is uncertain. It is most commonly accepted that the town is named after Jonathan Unthank's plantation "Mount Airy" established in the early 1800s beside the stage road about a mile east of the Ararat River crossing.[5] The Unthank house became a favorite stopping place for travellers on the stage road. The post-rider found it a convenient mail distribution point also. Eventually the name of the plantation became associated with the settlement and when a post office was established in February, 1832, it was designated, Mount Airy.[6]

From the earliest settlement until the 1840s, Surry County had a subsistence frontier economy with industries based on local raw materials and locally developed crafts.[7] The earliest industries were probably centered around the several grist mills located on the area's numerous mountain streams.

Contemporary accounts of this era are rare; however, an interesting collection of rustic folk tales "enacted and told between 1820-1829" was published in New York c.1859. Fisher's River: Scenes and Characters was written by the Reverend Hardin E. Taliaferro, an early nineteenth century settler in the secluded, mountainous area of the Fisher's River settlement in northwest Surry County. Taliaferro wrote of the insularity of this still largely frontier "belligerent and romantic section." He described the tiny community of Mount Airy in 1829 as "a sort of foreign city place where boastful fox hunters and the 'dry' forces live."[8]

A 1939 issue of the Mount Airy Times described the nascent community of a century earlier: "Even in 1835, three score years after the Declaration of Independence, Mount Airy was nothing more than a 'wide place in the road,' and the only public enterprises worth mentioning were a few scattering [sic] roadside stores, whose goods were probably brought in packs on the backs of horses or mules, and every now and then a little grist mill on the banks of some mountain stream."[9]

Among the local public enterprises was the c.1830 Blue Ridge Inn. A documentary photograph reveals that the Inn was a large, rectangular two-story brick building with twin exterior end chimneys in each gable end. This building served until 1892 when it was replaced on the same site by the Blue Ridge Hotel. Constructed by local contractor Rufus Roberts, the rambling two-story frame structure stood until 1965. As befitting a "sort of city place," Mount Airy acquired its first lawyer when Solomon Graves moved from Caswell County to the community sometime during the 1820s with his wife Mary Cleaveland Franklin, daughter of Senator Jesse Franklin. Graves had a distinguished career, serving in the state Senate from 1820-1823. His son, Jesse Franklin Graves, followed in his father's legal footsteps and became one of the town's most prominent citizens, serving as Judge of Superior Court from 1878-1894. Judge Graves' antebellum house and law office set in extensive formal gardens at the corner of Rockford and Main streets were town landmarks until razed in 1982 and replaced by the new library.[10]

The earliest known industrial enterprise in Mount Airy dates from about 1840 when Jacob W. Brower established a cotton textile mill. His water-powered mill was located southeast of the present central business district in the Hamburg settlement on the Ararat River. His sons expanded the operation by adding a woolen mill, shoe factory, planing mill, leather tannery and grist mill. According to the Sanborn Insurance Maps, the Brower complex continued in operation until the close of the nineteenth century and included a box making factory and a large, rectangular row of "tenements." The 1900 map indicates that the textile mill still functioned but the planing mill was "vacant and dilapidated;" by 1905 operations had ceased at the textile mill; the 1910 map is the last one on which the vacant buildings are recorded as standing. All that remains of the site today is an arched stone bridge which spanned the race.

Another notable antebellum industry was located in the historic district. The William Thomas Schaub woodworking shop and wagon factory was established c.1855 on a large lot at the northwest corner of South Main and Cherry streets. The woodworking shop was a forerunner of the major furniture manufacturing firms operating in Mount Airy today. This complex of shop, residence and various supporting outbuildings and sheds existed well into the twentieth century. The 1910 Sanborn map indicates it was known then as the J.W. Schaub Wagon Factory; one of the buildings housed a woodworking shop on the first floor and a printing company on the second. By the time the next Sanborn map was printed in 1916, the complex had been razed and the lot was vacant.

Between 1825 and 1860 Surry County and Mount Airy's frontier based economy grew into one based on agriculture and manufacturing enterprises. The produce and manufactured goods travelled by wagon trains to markets as distant as Georgia. The public toll road leading north through Mount Airy to Fancy Gap at the Virginia border was the only graded and maintained road along the mountains for seventy-five miles. This road, and the drive and ambitions of the early merchants and manufacturers, enabled Mount Airy to grow into a village of approximately 300 people by 1860. According to one account, by 1849 there was a business block extending from the Blue Ridge Inn south to Renfro Hill. The merchants in the block included Robert S. Gilmer, Samuel D. Moore, William L. Nance, S.T. Allred and W.R. Bray.[11]

The manufacture of tobacco products, which later became an important element of Mount Airy's post-bellum economy, began in a small way as early as 1852 or 1853. Early Mount Airy plug tobacco manufacturers included William Rawley, Thomas F. Prather, Winston Fulton, Murlin Sparger, and Elisha Banner. Some, like Winston Fulton, lived in the country, grew their tobacco with slave labor on their plantations, and manufactured the tobacco at factories located on their property. Others, like John Prather, relocated to the village of Mount Airy and built tobacco factories there. None of these original frame tobacco factories survive today. By 1850 agriculture was a basic industry of the county, with over 100,000 cleared acres and property values of over one million dollars.[12]

During the Civil War, Surry County was free of hostile invasion until spring, 1865 when Major General George Stoneman's cavalry entered the western part of North Carolina via Tennessee as part of a Union plan for dual invasion of the state with General William T. Sherman in the east. Even though Stoneman's cavalry encamped only overnight in Mount Airy — from about 9 PM, April 2 until 3 PM, April 3 — local tradition holds that William Schaub's house at the corner of Main and Cherry streets was "in the line of fire" and a bullet lodged in a wooden clock in the house.[13] The William A. Moore House, located on Moore Avenue a short distance east of the historic district, is the town's only extant antebellum structure. According to family tradition, the two-story frame house was built c.1862, and although remodeled slightly in the twentieth century, it remains largely intact and its Greek Revival style influence is strong. Even more significant than the house, is the summer house/gazebo which probably dates from the same period. The small hexagonal structure, with arched door and window openings, is constructed of intertwining pieces of laurel root and is roofed with wood shingles. Inside, the original matching laurel root furniture remains. The summer house is reflective of the romanticism of the period and of designs found then in popular landscape books.[14]

After the collapse of the Confederacy, the county was economically prostrate. The dismal agricultural outlook was exacerbated by the failure of many banks and the freeing of the slaves. "The inhabitants of the county were forced to the primitive custom of trading by barter."[15] The 1867-1868 Branson's North Carolina Business Directory recorded that Mount Airy had three hotels operated by M.R. Banner, Elisha Banner and William Rawley. There were also two attorneys, seven merchants, two physicians, two dentists and the W.M. Banner and Prather & Banner tobacco factories.

Five Mount Airy newspapers were founded in the 1870s and 1880s: Mount Airy News began a short-lived publication in 1874; J.M. Brower began publication of The Surry Visitor in 1877; Charles Harryman edited the Mount Airy Watchman in the mid-1870s; The Mount Airy Times and The Yadkin Valley News were also being printed by 1880. The newspapers of this era had much to report. Mount Airy experienced a phenomenal period of growth during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. The expanding economy was fueled by the success of the tobacco, granite, furniture and textiles industries. The commercial and residential building boom is embodied in the wide architectural variety of the still largely intact historic district.

Tobacco manufacturing was Mount Airy's primary industry during the 1870s, 1880s and the early 1890s. The major manufacturers included the W. Fulton Company, Fulton and Brother, James H. Sparger (whose factory was located in 1880 on Franklin Street about where the Masonic Temple (212 Franklin Street) now stands), Lafayette Ashby & Sons, and Forner and Olive. Other factories were located outside of town on nearby farms. The earliest series of Sanborn Maps for the town, 1891, record eleven tobacco factories and warehouses; these were located on Main, Hamburg, Willow, Franklin, Worth and Oak streets. The industry flourished and twenty-one factories or warehouses are recorded on the 1896 Sanborn Maps. However, the industry was soon forced into oblivion by the general financial panic of 1893 and the competition of the growing monopoly of James B. Duke's American Tobacco Company. Small-scale factories, unable to compete with the industrial giant were bought or forced out of business. A broadside printed May, 1894 advertising Mount Airy's Globe Warehouse acknowledges the ascendancy of the American Tobacco Company: "See Here, Farmers," it proclaims, "the Manufacturers and Leaf Men of our town, and the American Tobacco Co. are making continual inquiries for Leaf, Good Leaf and Wrappers and Cutters. If you can get your Tobacco to market and get it here in good shape, you can get fair prices for all grades and for Fine Tobacco, High Prices!"[16]

Of even greater economic significance to the town than the thriving tobacco business was the arrival of the rail lines of the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railroad in 1888. The slow progress of the railroad's construction and its anticipated economic benefits were long-running news items in the local newspapers during the 1870s and 1880s.

Construction of the rail lines began in 1877, but progress was slowed by lengthy right-of-way acquisitions, construction of the road bed through mountainous terrain with hand labor, bad weather, and occasional cash flow problems. The Yadkin Valley News rather glumly reported on July 21, 1881: "The Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railroad is being graded slowly, but surely. It can't be did in a day. Time will tell." Indeed, it was another seven years before the first train arrived, eleven years after the first shovel of dirt was turned.

The growth of Mount Airy after the arrival of the railroad was remarkable. The population grew from approximately 500 in 1880 to approximately 3,000 by 1893.[17] A real estate boom was underway. Newspaper real estate ads urged investment in "the most flourishing town in Western North Carolina. Don't delay, come on, buy a nice home in the mountains, breathe exhilarating air and drink pure water — you will make more money, live longer and die happier."[18] A magazine article from the period reported that "The rapid growth of Mount Airy and the solid character of this growth have led to a great increase in the price of real estate. Plats that eight years ago sold for $100 are now worth $3,000."[19] An 1891 newspaper article reported: "Mt. Airy is on the build! A village yesterday, a town today, a city tomorrow. No one can for a moment doubt that Mt. Airy enjoys to-day the most solid prosperity of any town in North Carolina." The reporter surveyed the new construction underway that day and listed one summer resort, five tobacco factories or warehouses, five commercial buildings including a "block of stores, iron fronts" and about twelve residences on North Main, South Main, Pine, Granite and other streets..."And all of this for a town of 2,500 people."[20]

During the construction boom, a number of Yadkin Valley News ads recorded the contractors and lumber yards eager to build housing for the rapidly increasing population. W.B. Shelton, contractor and builder, offered to build "residences, business houses, etc. wood and brick put up to order. Stair building a speciality." Roberts and Siceloff advertised their lumber and saw mill, "Six miles north of Mount Airy, $7.50/thousand feet — also contract for building of houses." Other construction projects were noted by the newspaper: "The work on the new warehouse progressing quite lively.... The brick walls are crawling up towards the sales floor;" "...the neat paling fence and board sidewalk in front of J.F. Moore's residence are improvements worthy of mention," and "The brick work on the new bank building will soon be completed. We are glad to see the new bricks going up. They make insurance cheaper, are better, and look much nicer than frame buildings. Let's have a few dozen."[21]

During the 1880s, the nationally fashionable Italianate style was popular in residential construction and several good local examples survive. These include the J.M. Fulton House at 926 S. Main Street, the Hodge House at 629 South Main Street, the Robert Hines House (329 West Pine Street) and W.W. Burke House at 314 West Pine Street. These stylish houses share many similarities including paneled corner posts, paneled window casings with bull's-eye corner blocks, awning-like wooden hood molds and a classically-inspired cornice frieze imitative of triglyphs and metopes. The contractor or architect of these houses is unknown, but the similarities suggest they may have been designed and/or constructed by the same person, or possibly have been pattern book designs.

In 1891 the newest fashionable residential area was along Pine Street. In September of that year the Yadkin Valley News reported, "a large force of hands is opening and grading Pine Street. This will make a very convenient drive to the depot, and the residence lots on that street will be in demand from the fact that they are on high rolling land and command a view for a 100 miles."[22] Two weeks later the paper reported that "Pine Street was completed beyond the city limits today and it is by long odds the most beautifully situated street in the city."[23] The same issue reported that "J.A. Hadley, our new and aggressive citizen who is to build a large plug factory here this winter has purchased a lot on Pine Street."[24] Hadley (1853-1916) co-owner with A.E. Smith of the Hadley-Smith Tobacco Factory, became one of the town's largest property owners and constructed over fifty rental houses, many on Hadley Street southwest of the Mount Airy Historic District. His private residence, 400 West Pine Street, was constructed between 1894 and 1900. It is a magnificent brick and granite, two-story Queen Anne style mansion with a three-story bell-cast roof central tower. The elaborately detailed house boasts a wealth of fine stained glass windows, two handsome staircases, plaster ceiling medallions and the original lighting fixtures. There were only two other houses in the immediate vicinity when it was built. Originally, there was a barn and chicken house at the rear of the property.[25]

The railroad was the catalyst for the successful commercial exploitation of the area's two greatest natural resources-granite and lumber. Quarried granite and furniture production are today the cornerstones, along with the textile industry which developed in the 1920s, of the town's economy.

From Mount Airy's earliest settlement, until the railroad came, the vast 266-acre granite deposit, commonly known as the "Flat Rock," located about a half a mile east of the central business district, was nearly worthless real estate. In 1800 the granite mound, almost one mile long and a half mile wide, was covered with soil, underbrush and trees. "It was only when the settlers tried to till the soil that they found their plowshares bent and broken by the acres of white rock just below the surface."[26] The first known owner of the "Flat Rock" was Samuel Moore, one of the town's pioneer merchants. In 1849 he sold the rock to Robert Gilmer, manager of Jacob Brower's early textile mill, merchant, large land owner, and organizer of the Presbyterian Church in 1858. Gilmer sold the granite deposit in 1888 to Thomas Woodruff, an English-born contractor, who operated a Greensboro based building firm. Woodruff's company, which was employed by the railroad to build depots along its route, utilized local construction materials wherever possible. According to local tradition, he took one look at the high quality Mount Airy granite, and recognizing its potential worth, purchased the quarry in 1888 in partnership with his sons and several prominent Greensboro businessmen.[27]

Commercial quarrying began in 1889 with a production of 135 carloads in 1890. The State Geologist, J.A. Holmes, described the deposit's quality: "The stone of a medium grain, light colored, biotite granite, of marked uniformity in color and texture. It is an excellent stone for general architectural purposes and for Belgian blocks."[28] An 1893 letter written on the impressive letterhead of "Charles M. Gresson, M.D., Chemist, and Expert" described the stone's striking visual quality: "The stone [has] a peculiar brilliancy of appearance which I have never seen in any other granite. It is beautifully bright, calculated to make handsome buildings, in strong contrast with the somber cast which usually accompanies granite facings."[29] In 1910 J.D. Sargent, a thirty-nine-year-old stonecutter from Vermont, was hired as superintendent and soon became the dominant man in the company. He eventually bought the operation in 1918 and, until his death in 1945, used aggressive marketing techniques to build the (renamed) North Carolina Granite Corporation into a successful enterprise that continues in operation today.

In addition to the many handsome public, commercial and private granite structures found in Mount Airy and Surry County, a number of structures of national and state significance have been built of stone from this quarry. These include the Arlington Bridge, the gold bullion depository at Fort Knox, the Wright Brothers Memorial, and several state government buildings in Raleigh.

The quarry, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, is the largest open-faced granite quarry in the world. It currently employees about 250 people. Because of the extreme importance of the quarry to Mount Airy, the town acquired the nickname, "Granite City." A large number of Mount Airy buildings utilize in whole or in part this indigenous building material. Trinity Episcopal Church at 472 North Main Street, constructed in 1896, was the first building to make full use of the granite. Congregation member Thomas Woodruff donated the stone for this small Gothic Revival church. Other denominations soon followed suit. These include the Mount Airy Friends Church, also rendered in the Gothic Revival style and built in 1904 at the corner of South Main and Wilson streets; the monumental Romanesque Revival style Baptist Church, constructed between 1906 and 1912 at 714 North Main Street; the Presbyterian granite Gothic Revival style church, constructed between 1907 and 1914 at South Main and Church streets.

Banks and other commercial buildings also utilized the stone. Handsome examples of these include the 1893 First National Bank located on the corner of North Main and Moore Avenue, originally brick and refaced with granite c.1912; the neighboring Bank of Mount Airy (201 N. Main Street), built in 1923 is also a granite, classically-influenced structure; Hale Dry Goods Store at 226 North Main Street and the building at 236 North Main Street both reflect Romanesque Revival style influence. The (former) Martin Memorial Hospital (now adaptively reused as apartments) on the corner of Cherry and Gilmer streets was built in November, 1914 and its neighboring Nursing School at 113 Gilmer Street was built in 1918. The granite hospital was gutted by fire in 1953, but the shell was not damaged. The fire destroyed the original hipped roof and this was replaced with the present flat roof.

Granite was also used extensively in residential construction, sometimes in conjunction with brick. Granite was used often as a foundation material, and for window sills and lintels. Other houses were built completely of granite. Examples of these include the Garnett Fawcett House (607 N. Main Street) and George Fawcett House (603 N. Main Street), built c.1906 and c.1910 respectively. The most significant granite residence, however, is the extraordinary granite bungalow at 619 North Main Street, constructed in 1919 for J.D. Sargent. The house was built shortly after he became president of the North Carolina Granite Corporation. The imaginative, unaltered house exhibits a well detailed Tudor Revival style exterior and a Craftsman style interior and is a perfect expression of Sargent's business role in the community.[30]

In addition to the granite industry, the railroad's arrival was also responsible for the growth of Mount Airy's lumber and furniture manufacturing industries. Easy transportation opened up the possibility of shipping lumber cut from the mountain-side timberlands to factories in other areas of the state. A few scattered, small-scale wood-working shops, like Thomas Schaub's antebellum shop, evolved in the 1890s into a number of large furniture factories. Mount Airy Furniture Company, which continues to be a major town industry, was the first company organized in 1895 with J.A. Yokely, J.C. Hollingsworth, C.R. Merritt, A.G. Trotter, and E.H. Kochtitzky among the early stockholders. National Furniture Company was organized in 1901 by J.H. Prather, Charles J. Whitlock, J.B. McCargo, E.C. Foy and R.L. Haymore. In 1902 the Mount Airy Mantel and Table Company was organized by George O. Graves, B.H. Williamson and Calvin Graves. All three of these plants were located outside the historic district, near the railroad tracks.[31] Contemporary with the furniture factories were three lumber mills that specialized in fine mill work. Their products are still evident in the interiors of several structures in the historic district. Among these are the walnut interior of the John Sobotta House at 347 W. Pine Street (Sobotta was President of the National Furniture Company) and the Bruce Yokely House at 306 Cherry Street which features cherry woodwork throughout.

The town of Mount Airy was incorporated in May, 1885. A mayor and five commissioners were appointed to govern the population of 800. There were a score of commercial establishments, seven tobacco factories and three churches at that time. Two of the oldest residences in the Mount Airy Historic District may pre-date the town's incorporation. These are the c.1875 William A. Estes House at 724 South Main Street which features a classically-inspired front portico with flush-sheathed siding, and the low hip-roofed Galloway-Linville House located at 739 North Main Street which was extensively remodeled in the 20th century.

The 1891 town charter defined the corporate limits as the small area which lay between Lovill's Creek and the Ararat River. The charter also imposed construction and design controls within the "fire limits" of the small central business district. Frame structures were prohibited and only "brick, stone or metal structures with metal or stone roofs allowed."[32] This control applied to the block of Main Street between Hines Avenue and Cherry Street. Potential public nuisances were also regulated: "All persons having Alanthus or Paradise trees on their lots shall cut them down;"[33] "...hog sties to be thirty feet from public streets; ...privies to be located...at least as far from the dwelling houses, kitchens, and dining rooms on the adjoining lot or lots as they are from the dwelling house, kitchen and dining room on the lot where it is located."

City services soon followed incorporation: the Mount Airy Power and Light Company was organized in 1891; the water system was built about 1901, followed by the construction of a power plant at Buck Shoals, former site of Brower's Mill; in 1894 the town hired a garbage wagon, mule and driver; the same year, the town board voted to pay R.T. Joyce twenty dollars a year to keep the clock, erected on his store "in proper order, wound and regulated" (the clock is a prominent feature in documentary photographs of the era); 1895 saw the establishment of a graded school system; telephone service arrived in 1906; Main Street, often a muddy quagmire, was paved in 1912.[34]

The Sanborn Maps between 1891-1916 reflect the major period of construction spurred by the catalyst of the railroad. Probably the least altered of the era's commercial structures are those in the G.C. Welch Block on South Main Street at Hamburg Avenue. The well-preserved c.1890 two-story commercial block is located at the southern end of the historic district. The corner "flatiron" shaped building was the G.C. Welch Store and later, the Welch and Mitchell Store. They sold dry goods, notions, boots, shoes, hats, groceries, etc. The remainder of the block, added c.1896, was used for a variety of purposes throughout the years. Farther north on Main Street, the few scattered businesses were absorbed into or replaced by two- and three-story blocks of brick and/or granite commercial buildings. Good examples of these include the Prather Block at 316-322 North Main Street, the Galloway Opera House at 420 North Main Street, and the Merritt Building (301-307 N. Main Street) at the northwest corner of North Main and West Oak streets.

In 1916, when Mount Airy needed a new post office, W.F. Carter, prominent local attorney, travelled to Washington, D.C. to seek construction funds from Congress. His testimony, hyperbole aside, provides an interesting glimpse of the flurry of business activity in the booming town during the World War I era: "...we have a climate that is unexcelled; we have water that is as pure as the streams that ran from the Garden of Eden. We have a citizenry up there that is as true, as good, as loyal, as progressive and as patriotic as any you can find in the State of North Carolina...in 1910 our town had a population of 3,800.... In 1915 it had increased to 5,100.... In 1910 property assessed at $800,000...today, $12,500,000.... The furniture factory ships every year 1,000 solid cars to various points all over the U.S. We have a rock quarry...the eighth wonder of the world [shipping] 3,600 carloads. We have manifested this same spirit in our public development. Five or six years ago we started out in the dark. We had no light; we had no water except the water that came from the wells by means of a rope and wheel. Today we have a lighting system that is second to none...four years ago we did not have a sidewalk in town. Today we have 12 miles of concrete sidewalks. Three years ago we did not have a street where, in the wintertime, the mud was not up to the hubs of the wheels. Today we have our main street and residence streets paved.... Just a few years go we had a simple little wooden [school] building. Now we have a magnificent brick building.... You cannot find in North Carolina better and handsomer churches than we have.... They have built churches of the granite rock that I have spoken about. It is a well-known fact that in the county of Surry and in Mt. Airy there are beautiful private residences. The residences, considering the size of the town, are as beautiful as any that you will find in North Carolina."[35]

Three years earlier, in 1913, the government had appropriated $5,000 for purchase of a new post office site, but Carter argued that due to the real estate boom, $12,500 would be required for "a suitable site" and that "there is not an available building of any sort that I think we could [rent]..." Another Mount Airy citizen, S.G. Pace testified before the same committee and noted that "the principal part of the business district is on Main Street and Franklin Street" and that about a "half a mile on Main is pretty solid" with business establishments. These petitions for post office construction funds were apparently unsuccessful. The Post Office continued to be located on the first floor of the Banner Building (153-155 N. Main Street) from c.1907 until c.1924. It was then located at 140 West Pine Street until the present Post Office (southeast corner of South Main and Pine streets) was completed in 1933.

Textile manufacture in Mount Airy began as early as 1840 with Jacob Brower's Hamburg Mill, but the industry soon faded and lay dormant until the 1920s. Today it joins furniture manufacturing and quarried granite as the major local industries. In 1921 Renfro Hosiery Mills was formed and the plant located in the former Sparger Brothers Tobacco Factory on Willow Street, just outside the boundaries of the historic district.[36] By 1939 the mill had expanded into one of the largest hosiery plants in the region and was regarded "as one of the four leading concerns in the children's hosiery field in the nation."[37] The large four building complex, which also includes the former Roberts Leaf House, today houses Renfro and Spencer Mills, manufacturers of children's clothing.

Other textile mills soon followed. These included the Argonne Mill, 1927; Piedmont Hosiery Mill, 1932; Barber Hosiery Mill, 1938. In addition to hosiery mills, other knitting plants were established including the Mount Airy Knitting Company, 1926; Hynes Textile Company, 1938; Pine State Knitwear, 1930; and Quality Mill, 1936. Presently, this important component of Mount Airy's industrial history is represented in the Mount Airy Historic District by the presence of the Adams-Millis textile factory located at the northwest corner of South Main and Worth streets.[38] This mill is located in the former Globe Tobacco Warehouse.

Most of these mills continued operation through the depression years. Also, the continued success of the North Carolina Granite Corporation enabled the whole town to weather these years in relatively good shape. During the 1930s architecturally significant Art Deco influenced buildings were erected in the central business district. The large, two-story granite Post Office, designed by George R. Berryman and constructed in 1932 at the southeast corner of South Main and Pine streets, is somewhat classical in feeling, but the Art Deco influence is strong. Stylized floral motifs and bands of low relief geometrical designs ornament the smooth, streamlined granite walls. The handsome stone carvings were executed by Vincenzo "Big Jim" Alfano, an Italian immigrant who began working for the North Granite Corporation in 1915.[39] Other Art Deco structures, which add variety to the streetscape, include the Masonic Temple at 212 Franklin Street and c.1930 Art Deco movie theatre at 142 North Main Street.

A variety of period revival styles was popular in residential construction in the Mount Airy Historic District during the late 1920s and 1930s. These include the unusual Spanish Colonial Revival style James F. Yokely House at 350 West Pine Street; the classic Tudor Revival style John Sobotta House at 347 West Pine Street; the picturesque English Cottage style house at 319 Granite Street; and the handsomely detailed Colonial Revival Georgian style Edward C. Ashby House constructed in 1937 at 302 Cherry Street. The Spanish Mission Revival style is also represented in commercial buildings in the c.1930 service stations located at 806 N. Main Street and 611 S. Main Street. Typically, these buildings have red tile roofs and stuccoed walls.

In 1949 Renfro Street, which parallels much of the Mount Airy Historic District's eastern boundary was opened to Elm Street. With the exception of the construction of the large, one-story, Art Moderne style Reeves Community Center (complex used for a variety of recreation activities, including swimming) constructed in 1952 just outside the historic district at the northeast corner of Cherry and Renfro streets, the historic district remained largely unchanged for the next decade. In 1965 an important Main Street landmark, the Blue Ridge Hotel, was razed and replaced by a bank and parking lot at 259 North Main Street. Other new construction or facade alterations occurred in the 100 block of Main Street when Rose's (1963) and Baldwin's (c.1965) department stores (170-192 N. Main Street) were added to the streetscape. During the 1960s shopping centers became a nationally widespread commercial phenomenon. Mount Airy's first shopping center, Mayberry Mall, was constructed in 1968 on the Highway 52 Bypass. However, the central business district still remains the dominant commercial area and a lively town center. Much of the credit for the ongoing commercial success of the downtown is due to preservation-minded property owners and businessmen like Floyd Rees. Rees has recently renovated and preserved several downtown structures on Moore Street and in the 100 and 200 blocks of North Main Street. Since World War II, the residential areas of the historic district have remained virtually unchanged; most new residential growth has been concentrated in outlying suburban areas. Mount Airy is the largest town in rural Surry County and is the county's economic center. The 1980 population was 6,852.

During the 1960s, Mount Airy received national attention by serving as the model for the fictional town of Mayberry, setting of the Andy Griffith Show. This popular television show aired from 1960-1968 and a later spin-off, Mayberry, R.F.D., ran from 1968-1971. The programs are still widely syndicated. While the characters and situations are representative of many small towns, occasional indirect or direct references are made to Mount Airy. For instance one wall of Sheriff Taylor's (played by Andy Griffith, a Mount Airy native) living room is dominated by a granite block fireplace; in one episode, Taylor suggests to his deputy, Barney Fife (played by Don Knotts) that they take their lady friends "to get a bite after the show at Snappy Lunch." The Snappy Lunch has been in business at the same location, 125 North Main Street, since c.1923. Mount Airy honored its native son by naming the local community theatre on Rockford Street, The Andy Griffith Playhouse (southwest corner Rockford and Graves streets). The theatre, operated by the Surry County Arts Council, is housed in the former gymnasium/ auditorium of the Rockford Street School. The school was razed in 1977 and the gymnasium was retained for this adaptive reuse.

New construction in the historic district from the 1960s through the early 1980s produced some handsome, contemporary commercial and municipal buildings rendered in the indigenous granite. These buildings include the neighboring Workman's Federal Savings and Loan (1963) and Planter's Bank (1974) at 541 and 501 North Main Street, as well as the neighboring Mount Airy Public Library (southwest corner Rockford and Graves streets) and municipal building (1983) on South Main Street at Rockford Street. A multi-story granite-faced Duke Power office building is currently under construction across the street from the library at Rockford and Graves streets.

The Mount Airy Restoration Foundation, Inc. was formed in 1981. This preservation membership organization promotes local preservation education. It initiated and funded the National Register Historic District nomination and is also exploring the future possibility of creating a local revolving fund to purchase and re-sell endangered historic properties.

Endnotes

  1. Wood, Marquis L., Diaries, Unpublished manuscript 1858, Marquis Lafayette Wood Papers, located Duke University Archives, Perkins Library, Durham, N.C. Marquis L. Wood (1829-1893), Methodist clergyman and missionary was appointed to the Surry Circuit 1858-1859. In 1859 he became the first missionary from the North Carolina Conference to China. When he returned in 1866, he received an appointment to the Mt. Airy Station (1867-1870). He had a life-long devotion to Trinity College (Duke University after 1924) and served as Trinity College President June, 1883-Dec. 1884.
  2. Surry County was named for the County of Surrey in England, birthplace of the then Governor William Tryon. See Corbitt, David Leroy, The Formation of the North Carolina Counties, 1663-1943 (Raleigh: State Department of Archives and History, 1969), p. xxviii.
  3. Hollingsworth, J.G., History of Surry County or Annals of Northwest North Carolina (privately printed, 1935), p.15.
  4. Phillips, Laura, A.W. "Preliminary Report: Surry County Inventory," unpublished typescript, 1982, p.72. On deposit at Survey and Planning Branch, Division of Archives and History, Raleigh.
  5. Jonathan Unthank (1758-1843?) married Sarah Franklin, daughter of one of the area's earliest settlers, later governor and U.S. Senator, Jesse Franklin. Perhaps Unthank named the house "Mount Airy," because of its location with a fine view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A famous c.1760 Virginia house of the same name was located on the Rappahanock River and may have been known to Franklin and his daughter. Carter, William Franklin, Jr. and Carrie Young Carter, Footprints in the "Hollows" or Surry County and Her People (Elkin: Northwestern Regional Library, 1976) p.69. Hereinafter cited as Footprints.
  6. Other origins for the town's name have been offered: On the 1749 Frye-Jefferson map the mysterious notation "Mount" appears where the present town is located. An early settler named Mount married a Susannah Stewart for whose family Stewart's Creek, which joins the Ararat River south of town, is named; this map's notation may designate his land. Or the name may date from 1819 when Thomas Perkins willed his plantation, located just east of the Ararat River, "including the seat which I now have called and known by the name of Mount Airy" to his son Constantine. (Will Book 3, page 138, Office of the Surry County Clerk of Courts, Surry County Courthouse, Dobson.)
  7. North Carolina Department of Conservation and Development, Division of Community Planning, Economy of Surry County, (Raleigh, 1963), p.3.
  8. Taliaferro, Hardin E., Fisher's River: Scenes and Characters. (New York: Arno Press, 1977), p.45. Reproduced from privately printed volume, c.1859.
  9. Mount Airy Times, January 6, 1939.
  10. Footprints, pp. 48 and 71.
  11. Footprints, p. 80.
  12. Hollingsworth, p. 122; Census Report, 1850.
  13. Hester Bartlett Jackson, ed., The Heritage of Surry County, (Winston-Salem: Hunter, 1983), p.465.
  14. Phillips, p. 73.
  15. Hollingsworth, p. 166.
  16. "See Here Farmers," Broadside in North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill.
  17. "Mt. Airy, A Thriving North Carolina Town, The Southern States: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine Devoted to the South, Vol. 1, No. 3 (May, 1893), p.9. Located North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
  18. Yadkin Valley News, July 17, 1886.
  19. "Mt. Airy, A Thriving North Carolina Town," p.10.
  20. Yadkin Valley News, November 13, 1891. The railroad was a great boom to the area's already established tourist industry: "Before Mount Airy had gained any importance as a commercial and manufacturing center it had become a favorite summer resort for people in the lower Piedmont who were attracted by the cool weather and beautiful scenery. They came to drink the water from the mineral spring which was known in the early days as 'Gunpowder Spring.' This spring, which was located four miles north of the village beside the Ararat River, derived its name from the yellowish-green deposits of sulphur which covered the rocks over which it flowed. The medicinal qualities of this water was demonstrated in the treatment of kidney and bladder ailments. Many people, claiming wonderful results, were regular patrons year after year. Others came for the gay social life they enjoyed here among the people, many of whom opened their homes to supplement the hotel facilities. The name of the spring was changed to White Sulphur Springs when a hotel was erected among the trees and a dance pavilion built beside the river near the spring. For more than half a century this was one of the most popular summer resorts in the state, losing its patrons at last to the lure of automobile travel along the newly paved roads of the twentieth century, and the medical discoveries which replaced the primitive remedies of the early settlers." (Footprints, p.83.). The hotel survived until January, 1955 when it burned to the ground. It had been vacant for over twenty years, but had been in use as a giant chicken coop. Over 28,000 chickens were killed in the fire.
  21. Yadkin Valley News: February 21, 1885; July 17, 1886; September 25, 1886; May 28, 1887.
  22. Yadkin Valley News, September 11, 1891.
  23. Yadkin Valley News, September 25, 1891.
  24. Yadkin Valley News, September 25, 1891.
  25. Mt. Airy Times, December 23, 1976.
  26. Footprints, p.68.
  27. Parham, David W. and Jim Sumner, National Register of Historic Places Inventory — Nomination Form, "North Carolina Granite Corporation Quarry Complex Historic District," 1979, Item Number 8, p.1, Division of Archives and History, Raleigh.
  28. Holmes, J.A., State Geologist to R. Percy Gray, President Mount Airy Granite Company, October 28, 1893. As reproduced in The Mt. Airy Granite Company (Press of Allen, Lane and Scott, 1893) promotional booklet, located Perkins Library, Duke University, Durham.
  29. Charles M. Gressom to Msrs. Garrett and Dix, Philadelphia, September 27, 1893. Letter reproduced in promotional booklet cited above.
  30. Phillips, p. 82.
  31. Mount Airy Times, January 6, 1939, See also Sanborn Insurance Maps 1896, 1900, 1905.
  32. The Charter of the Town of Mount Airy (Winston: Stewart's Printing House, 1892), p.31.
  33. Town Charter, p.39. The Alanthus tree, also known as stinkweed is famous because of the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It grows in urban areas where many other species won't. It is considered a nuisance due to its large size, weak and brittle limbs, and foul-smelling flowers. (Information provided by Durham County Agricultural Extension Service).
  34. From various news clippings found in private scrapbooks compiled by Ruth Minnick, Mt. Airy local historian.
  35. W.F. Carter's testimony before Subcommittee No.5 of the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, April 10, 1916. House of Representatives on H.R. 8230, Public Building at Mt. Airy, N.C. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1916). Located North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
  36. The owners of this pivotal industrial complex declined inclusion within the boundaries of the historic district.
  37. Mount Airy Times, January 6, 1939.
  38. Mount Airy Times, January 6, 1939.
  39. Heritage of Surry County, pp. 8-9.

References

Carter, William Franklin, Jr. and Carrie Young Carter. Footprints in the "Hollows" or Surry County and Her People. Elkin: Northwestern Regional Library, 1976.

The Charter of the Town of Mount Airy. Winston: Stewart's Printing House, 1892.

Corbitt, David Leroy. The Formation of the North Carolina Counties, 1663-1943. Raleigh: State Department of Archives and History, 1969.

Hollingsworth, J.G. History of Surry County or Annals of Northwest North Carolina. Privately Printed, 1935.

Jackson, Hester Bartlett, ed. The Heritage of Surry County. Winston-Salem: Hunter, 1983.

Minnick, Ruth. Private collection, scrapbooks. Mount Airy.

"Mount Airy, A Thriving North Carolina Town." The Southern States: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine Devoted to the South. May, 1893.

The Mount Airy Granite Company. Press of Allen, Lane and Scott, 1893. Perkins Library, Duke University, Durham.

Mount Airy Times. See footnotes for issues.

North Carolina Department of Conservation and Development, Division of Community Planning. Economy of Surry County. Raleigh, 1963.

Parham, David W. and Jim Sumner. National Register of Historic Places — Nomination Form, "North Carolina Granite Corporation Quarry Complex Historic District," 1979. Division of Archives and History, Raleigh.

Phillips, Laura A.W. "Preliminary Report: Surry County Inventory." Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, Survey and Planning Branch, 1982.

"See Here Farmers." 1894. North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Taliaferro, Hardin E. Fisher's River Scenes and Characters. c.1859; rpt. New York: Arno Press, 1977.

U.S. Congress. House. Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1916.

Wood, Marquis L. Diaries (1858). Marquis Lafayette Wood Papers. Duke University Archives. Perkins Library, Duke University, Durham.

Yadkin Valley News. See endnotes for issues.

† Patricia S. Dickinson, consultant, North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Mount Airy Historic District, Surry County, NC, nomination document, 1985, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Mount Airy Historic District Map

Street Names
Brown Street • Cherry Street • Franklin Street • Gilmer Street South • Granite Street • Hines Avenue • Main Street North • Main Street South • Market Street • Moore Avenue • Pine Street West • Rockford Street • Worth Street

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