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Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

museum001 Ours is an all American story - typical of how communities grew up all across our great nation. While our story takes place in the back country of northwestern North Carolina at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it is likely to bear many similarities to the development of crossroads, towns, and cities throughout America.

It had taken little more than 100 years for the corridors along the coastline of this still-new continent to overflow. As tensions grew and conflicts flared, the pioneer spirit set in. Families literally packed up everything they owned and headed into the unknown-searching for the "promised land."

Mission Statement:

The Purpose of the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History is to  Collect, Preserve and Interpret the Natural, Historic, and Artistic Heritage of the Region

                                                                      Adopted by the Board of Directors   October 9, 1995


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Mount Airy Museum Of Regional History

Fargo Greets Fans

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She became a celebrity after moving from Mount Airy, but Donna Fargo can still find her way around town.  The Grammy-winning country music artist, who was born Yvonne Vaughn in Mount Airy, made multiple appearances in the Granite City after carrying out her duties as grand marshal in Saturday’s Christmas Parade.  Following the parade in the morning, Fargo stopped by the Earle Theatre where she spoke with WPAQ’s Kelly Epperson.  After that she headed to the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, where a Hometown Hero exhibit tells Fargo’s story. She held a meet-and-greet and autograph signing there before moving further down Main Street for an appearance at Pages Bookstore.

At the museum Fargo met up with her old friend Pete Ballard (an artist and costume designer from West Virginia who has local ties) prior to meeting with fans, who assembled in a long line on the second floor of the museum to await their turn to meet Fargo.  She was also interviewed by two students. Fifth-grader Savannah Allen interviewed Fargo for her project with the Jesse Franklin Pioneers Club of the Tar Heel Junior Historians; and 19-year-0ld UNC Chapel Hill journalism student Sara Pequeno interviewed Fargo for a final paper in one of her classes.  In answering one of Savannah’s questions, Fargo called singing “my little secret wish,” noting it was a dream she had always hoped to attain. The star sang at Slate Mountain Baptist Church as a child and in college for sorority events.  Fargo said singing in front of large crowds didn’t come easy, however, as she was a little nervous. She even fainted once when her brother set her up to sing without her knowledge of the plans.  She noted she draws inspiration for her songs from her childhood here and from her fans.

“My life in Mount Airy influenced me greatly,” said Fargo, noting she attended school in Flat Rock and at Mount Airy High. “The people of Mount Airy are wonderful people. They encourage you just because they love you.”  Fargo, who now lives in Tennessee, said she doesn’t regularly travel back home to Mount Airy. Instead, she makes occasional appearances for book signings, parades and other events.  She has an affectionate place in her heart for her old hometown.  “Visiting is a great opportunity to meet people who are new to Mount Airy, and I also get to see people I grew up with,” said Fargo. “It feels good to be home.”  She said the life experiences she gained in Mount Airy helped in her music career, and she was inspired to become a teacher by her own teachers in Mount Airy.  “It’s important we never lose sight of where we came from,” explained Fargo. “I’m a better songwriter and writer because I grew up here.”

According to many in town, Fargo breaks the mold when it comes to celebrities. She never forgot the town from which she came and adores her fans as much as they love her.  After graduating from then-High Point College in the 1960s, Fargo headed west to California, where she began teaching, according to a Fargo biography.  However, she saw her career in singing and writing take off when Dot Records picked up what would become her hit single, The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA, in 1972. That debut song hit number one in country music and also broke into the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart in the same year.  Taylor Swift would be the next artist to accomplish that feat more than 30 years after Fargo did it.  Fargo has done much since her breakthrough, including recording multiple albums and writing many songs.  She also began work on her autobiography in 1992 and has a line of greeting cards. In 2010, she released her fourth book, I Thanked God for You Today. Prior to that, she had released three poetry books.  On Saturday she noted she has written seven total books.

Donna Fargo itinerary for Mount Airy visit announced

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Fans will have several opportunities to interact with local celebrity Donna Fargo over the weekend.  The Grammy-winning country music/pop singer will serve as grand marshal Saturday in the Mount Airy Christmas Parade, which kicks off at 9 a.m. After the parade travels up Main Street and concludes at the Southern end of the Main Street business district, Fargo will stop by the Earle Theatre for a brief noon appearance with Kelly Epperson of WPAQ.  The singer will next be whisked off to the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History for a meet-and-greet and autograph signing slated to begin about 12:30 p.m.  On Sunday, Nov. 27, a book signing will begin at Pages Book Store on Main Street at 2 p.m. until closing.  Representatives from the bookstore indicated that Fargo will be releasing a new book but did not provide any additional details.

“I think you will not find a famous person with more affinity for her fans than she has,” said Matt Edwards, museum director. “She loves her fans as much as they love her.”  Edwards noted that he grew up “functionally post-Donna Fargo,” and that his appreciation for Fargo was developed after he began work at the museum.  “I didn’t have a clue,” he said, but became familiar with Fargo’s historical significance while developing her exhibit at the museum.  “Working with her, she’s a great lady,” he said. “I cannot say enough good things.”

Fargo is best known for her music career, during which she released hits such as “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” in the 1970s.  But a lesser-known detail impressed Edwards as far as her historical contribution.  “She was the first woman to host her own TV variety show,” he said. “That’s pretty impressive. Everybody remembers Barbara Mandrell because her show ran for several years, but Donna’s show preceded that.”  The show, which was produced by the Osmond Brothers, ran for a year beginning in 1978 and ended so Fargo could address serious health concerns.  “It wasn’t because it wasn’t popular enough and it wasn’t because people didn’t love it,’ Edwards said. “She made the decision to step away.” 

Though the museum meet-and-greet is scheduled to continue until 5 p.m., the director said fans won’t be turned away.  “She will stay until everybody gets the opportunity to do so,” he said. “In many cases it’s really an old home feeling,” he said, a reunion of sorts for those who knew Fargo back in the day.  Edwards said, “Even if you aren’t one of those people, she treats you like you are.”

Fundraiser a success despite changes

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Even without the gaming included in past events, a fundraiser for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History ended up being a successful event, says the museum’s director. While attendance was down, Matt Edwards said the museum staill raised more than $40,000 at its Casino Royale night, which saw some last-minute changes that Edwards worried would hinder the museum’s efforts at its largest fundraising event of the year. A little more than a week prior to the Casino Royale event, which took place on Sept. 17, Edwards received a phone call from a state agency warning him the gaming, which included roulette, black jack and craps, violated state law. Though the museum had held the event featuring such gambling games using fake money for a number of years prior, museum staff opted to make a last-minute change to the night’s entertainment. “I was really impressed with the band,” said Edwards of the Durham-based cover band Risse. “They drew a lot of compliments from the crowd, and I’m glad they were able to put together such a quality show on such short notice.”

When the gaming aspect of the event was scrapped, Edwards said he was concerned some supporters might be driven away. “It potentially could have been disastrous. We were very fortunate it went well,” explained Edwards. “We had very few people ask for refunds, and we also sold a few tickets as a result of the change.” Edwards noted attendance dropped from about 150 people in past years to 95 this year. Still, ticket sales for the draw-down were at an all-time high, and the silent auction proceeds were only $100 shy of the 2015 event. The $10,000 draw-down prize was split by five winners, said Edwards. “A few of them were generous enough to make full or partial donations of their winnings back to the museum,” explained Edwards. “We don’t budget for that, but it’s always nice when it happens.” Edwards said the $40,500 raised is a “sizable hunk” of the museum’s $300,000 operating budget for the year.

Looking forward

Now that the dust has settled from the debacle over the evening’s events, Edwards and others are left to ponder what sort of unique entertainment the museum may offer at future fundraisers. The casino part of Casino Royale appears to be scrapped for good, pending a change in state law. “I’ve already started working with talent-booking agencies to explore other options,” said Edwards. “We lost our hook – the thing that made us unique and different.” Edwards said he’s not sure in what direction the event will go in. At whatever conclusion he arrives, he hopes to offer something unique and different again next year.

Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.

Ghost tours continue to be major draw at museum

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Having attempted a wide assortment of downtown tour options, the downtown ghost tours offered by the Mount Airy Regional Museum of History still remain the most popular. According to Matt Edwards, executive director, the museum has tried several different types of downtown tours over the years, but none of the tours have received the fanfare and attendance as the original ghost tours that Mark Brown was instrumental in putting together. “Mark was really the perfect person to take charge of the program,” Edwards said.  Brown comes from a theatrical background and did the majority of the research and scripting of the tours to ensure local historical accuracy. “We were pleasantly surprised, there was a lot of success right when we started,” Brown said. Terri Ingalls served as the tour guide on the Friday night ghost tour, having started as a tour guide during the second year of the program. Throughout the tour, Ingalls carried a lantern and regaled the group with stories of Mount Airy’s past. Ingalls doesn’t refer to ghosts as ghosts, rather “permanent residents.” Two of the permanent residents that she spoke of were Edgard and Mary, both of which reside in the building that houses the Mount Airy Regional Museum of History. The Friday night tour attracted people from Ohio and Charlotte, with the people from Charlotte driving up specifically for the tour. Ingalls stressed the fact that the permanent residents of downtown Mount Airy are benevolent and have no ill will about them.

Edwards explained that the tours draw in roughly 1,000 participants during its season, which typically runs from Memorial day to the end of October, however this year the museum has decided to lengthen its season to the end of November due to the regular demand for the tours, as well as the generally mild November temperatures.  The museum offers a Downtown History and Architecture Walking Tour and the more popular Historic Downtown Mount Airy Ghost Tours on Fridays and Saturdays. Edwards explained that the Downtown History and Architecture Walking Tours are in fact “good tours,” but have failed to capture as wide of an interest base as the Historic Downtown Mount Airy Ghost Tours have. “We’ve been fortunate over the success of the ghost tour concept,” Edwards said. “Everyone that has been on them have loved them, but they haven’t had as large of turn outs as the ghost tours have,” Edwards said of the history and architecture tours. Edwards explained that the addition of the Downtown History and Architecture Walking Tours was made following urging from the tourism center to add such a event, and the museum wanted to duplicate the success of the ghost tours. The history and architecture tours can be customized to either focus on the residential or business districts. “The downtown walking tours is a great way to delve into the history of the town,” Edwards said. A tour that the museum tried out for a period of time, but ultimately decided to cease operation were guided tours by costume clad period characters.  “It was a great theory, but it just didn’t materialize,” Edwards said of the period character tours.

A new concept that the museum is working on and hopes to have up and running in the next six weeks are the addition of guided tour bus tours, in which a guide will step onto the bus and provide a tour of the town as the bus drives along.  “In addition to serving the tourism facet, we’re also a great resource to the local community,” Edwards said of the tours that the museum provides to local school groups.  When the tours initially launched, there was a core group of 13 stories that the guides would tell, but now offerings consist of 20 stories. Edwards explained that each tour is different and allows a lot of flexibility in terms of what stories the six tour guides that work for the museum tell.  The tours last for 90 minutes and spans roughly 0.3 miles.  The Historic Downtown Mount Airy Ghost Tours cost $13, whereas the Downtown History and Architecture Walking Tours cost $11.

Aila Boyd may be reached at 336-415-2210.

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