On Sunday, May 6, 1759, a man rode in to the Moravian settlement at Bethabara with a small child. A series of broken agreements by the British military leadership angered Cherokees across the region. There were attacks on homesteads, horses and food stores taken, and, occasionally, people were killed.
The record of the unnamed man bringing the child he found alone in an empty house to the Moravians is one of the earliest records we have of the Hollow, the place we know today as Mount Airy. Then it was a sparsely populated primal forest filled with natural resources and stalked by wolves and panthers.
In February 1760 there was an attack on Fort Dobbs followed by the killing of William Fish and his son on their farm in the Hollow in March. Families from across today’s Surry County flocked to the safety of the fortifications at Bethabara and Bethania.
The Moravians often came to the Hollow to hunt, gather medicinal herbs and fungus, and for granite to make whetstones and millstones. They cleared a wagon road from Bethania to the Hollow in 1762, roughly the path of US Highway 52 today.
In 1770 a petition was presented to the royal colonial government to create Surry County from the much larger Rowan. Because of the growing tensions caused by the Regulators at the time, however, it wasn’t acted on until January 1771, 250 years ago this month.
As we bid adieu (with a collective sigh of relief) to 2020, let’s look at how the Hollow has changed.
1761 – Irish immigrant and veteran of the French and Indian War Capt. Andrew Bailey registers one of the oldest land deeds in present-day Surry County just east of where Mount Airy will be.
1771 – April 1 – Surry County is created. It included all of today’s Forsyth, Stokes, Surry, and Yadkin counties.
1789 – Stokes is created from the eastern half of Surry just in time for the first US Census.
1790 – Surry County (including what is today Yadkin) has a population of 7,192.
1801 – Post roads, the routes used to move the young nation’s mail, were announced each year as an act of Congress. Mount Airy is listed as a stop on the weekly route from Salem & Bethania to Grayson Court House, Virginia. This is the same year that Thomas Perkins buys a farm on the Tarrat River (Ararat) near the middle school’s current site and names it “Mount Airy.” The intersection of Hamburg and South Main streets is the business center of Mount Airy until about 1900. No evidence has been found to date that determines which came first; the name of the farm or the name of the infant town.
1811 – First school established in Mount Airy by Prof. Hickman near the Playhouse. There would be a school on this property, without interruption, until the Rockford Street School became the location of the Surry Arts Council in the 1970s.
1840 – Jacob Brower established cotton and woolen mills in the Hamburg area. The Census counts 15,079 people in the county (still including Yadkin). In 1935 historian Jesse Hollingsworth determined the area that is today Surry County was occupied by 3,925 farmers and 294 manufacturers and tradesmen and their families.
1849 – Forsyth is created from the southern section of Stokes and in 1850 Yadkin County is created from the southern half of Surry along the river leaving Surry as it is today.
1850 – The Census totaled Surry County, even with the loss of Yadkin, at 18,443 people.
1870s – Winston Fulton, James H. Sparger, and others establish several tobacco factories in and around Mount Airy. The Mount Airy News and the Surry Visitor, the area’s first newspapers, begin publishing.
1880 – Mount Airy population is recorded as 519.
1885 – Mount Airy is incorporated
1888 – Railroad arrives, igniting an explosion in manufacturing which, in turn, caused a population boom. Quarry operations begin in 1889. The first furniture factory opens in 1896.
1890 – Mount Airy population, 1,768, a 240% increase. Surry County population, 19,281.
1892 – Public & Private-owned utilities begin: 1892, Electricity; 1893, Telephone; 1895, Water
1899 – Fire and Police Departments established; Municipal garbage collection begun
1912 – Mount Airy begins paving streets. Cement sidewalks came earlier, often installed by businesses.
1914 – First hospital is built
1916 – First high public school is established
1920s – Textile manufacturing takes off as a major economic driver with mills such as Mount Airy Knitting/Spencer’s, Renfrow Hoisery, and others refit tobacco warehouses and factories to clothing production. This decade sees Mount Airy population exceed 6,000 and the county reach nearly 40,000.
1926 – Mount Airy establishes a public health office. Surry County follows 10 years later.
Today the Census Bureau estimates Surry population at 72,000 and Mount Airy at just over 10,000 (the official numbers of the 2020 count will be released in the new year). The changes have continued. Some good. Some bad.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the ability of the people here to pick up, dust off, and reinvent themselves regardless of what happens.
We here at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History wish everyone the best and brightest of new years and look forward to collecting the new stories the people living in this region create as we move forward.
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