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Fri May 29 @ 7:00PM - 07:00PM
The Darker Side of Mayberry Tour
Fri May 29 @ 8:00PM - 08:30PM
Historic Mount Airy Ghost Tours
Mon Jun 01 @10:00AM - 04:00PM
Open on Mondays

Who We Are

 

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

Junior historians prepare for state convention Friday

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The Jesse Franklin Pioneers local chapter of the Tar Heel Junior Historian Association is making final preparations this week with an eye on capturing more state honors at the annual State History Conference in Raleigh on Friday.  “We are in our ninth year with the group officially staring during the calendar year of 2006,” said Mount Airy Museum of Regional History Executive Director Matthew Edwards. “We couldn’t have done it without local support. What a great example of broad community support Chick-fil-A has been.”  He pointed out the local historian group has previously earned two chapter of the year awards and was named to rookie chapter of the year honors its first year.  “This speaks well for the kids,” Edwards said. “We have expanded the chapter’s membership to include middle school age participants. We typically chose a theme yearly and build our projects around this.” He said last a recent program was presented by Laura A.W. Phillips, who did the Survey of Historic Architecture in Surry County for her work “Simple Treasures,” which chronicled the architectural heritage of the area.

Edwards said the group routinely meets on Thursday afternoons. Membership in the club is free. Phillips led the group in a discussion of bricks and brick making through the style of brick laying.  “We try to keep the kids stimulated intellectually and physically and mix things up with classroom study,” said Edwards. “We’re hoping to get them interested at a young age and excited about museums. We want them to be lifelong learners with a passion for history and museums where ever they go. We are building a future constituency. This year the number of members necessitated us having a group project.”

Edwards said he is hopeful the group’s unique entry will earn state recognition at the convention. The group has designed a board game based on “The Game of Life” with participants role playing 1920s tobacco farmers in Surry County.  “They get to see on the game board what life was like and challenges for tobacco farmers,” Edwards said. “It falls outside the normal guidelines for typical projects but I’m hopeful. We won’t know until the convention.” He said the Museum’s geo cache project and local cemetery history tour which later provided some material for the city’s ghost tour and “Darker Side of Mayberry” tour were first tested by the chapter.  The majority of the team is composed of veteran participants Edwards described as a “diverse group” in grades four through eight. He said the group plans on submitting projects in photography and artifact research. The latter project challenged chapter members to research heirloom objects found in their homes or their grandparents’ homes and relate it to North Carolina history.  “There are a lot of things lying around the house which have a great story to tell,” said Edwards. “We pepper the spectrum with projects they can do.” He said the state competition is slated to be held at the State History Museum and the entire chapter — 18 youths — gets to attend.  While the conference is organized like its adult counterparts, special sessions are geared toward the young participants. One popular session last year concerned representatives linking scenes shot for the film Iron Man III to North Carolina.

Power was at play with mill-town baseball

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Baseball usually is thought of as a simple, straightforward game that is, after all, America’s pastime.  However, a complex undercurrent of politics, social agendas and manipulation was at play among the teams that flourished in Mount Airy and other textile towns during the 1930s and 1940s, according to a baseball historian who spoke here Saturday.

“Mill-town baseball was much more than a game — it gave meaning to life,” Robert Billinger told an audience at Mount Airy Museum of Regional History during a presentation that included images and colorful stories from a long-ago chapter of the sport.

Baseball was vitally important not only to residents of a town, but the mill owners who used it as a source of control, added Billinger, a retired professor from Wingate University who is part of a “Road Scholar” program of the North Carolina Humanities Council. He was the final speaker in a six-part History Talks series hosted by the local museum.  Before the Great Depression, there were 26 different leagues around the country, Billinger said in described the prevalence of minor league baseball at that time.   But similar to a Louisville slugger, the sport wielded a huge clout in the so-called “Textile Belt,” an area encompassing Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Alabama where that industry was prevalent.  “Everybody had a dog in the fight,” Billinger said.

In Mount Airy’s case that was a team known as the Graniteers, which competed in the Bi-State League and was among numerous Class D squads dotting small towns at the time. The Graniteers played against clubs with other colorful names such as the Winston-Salem Twins, Danville Leafs, Reidsville Luckies and Tri-City Triplets (of Draper, North Carolina).  “Bigger places like Concord had numerous mill teams,” the speaker related.  Yet the same dynamics were prevalent regardless of venue. Those who owned the textile companies footed the entire bill for fielding a team, including paying players. The 1929 budget of the Concord Weavers, for example, was $350 per week for the total team salary, and no player could make more than $40 weekly.  While that is nowhere near the exorbitant salaries earned by baseball players today, Billinger said it must be remembered that the average textile worker made only about $10 per week in 1929.  Ostensibly, players came from within a mill’s employee base, but that didn’t keep “ringers” from joining teams at times when the price was right.  Billinger related one case in which a coveted player on a particular team secretly offered his services to another for $50. But when the management of his regular team found out about it, concern spread because that would interfere with a big game against the Kannapolis Towelers. So it upped the ante by paying the player $75.

Manipulative Owners

Those in charge of textile firms that sponsored teams didn’t do so for the betterment of the world, but had their own agendas, Billinger added, which involved more than just what occurred on the diamond. Mill owners not only sought enthusiastic workers, but loyal town residents as fans.  “Mill owners, of course, had an interest in getting people to support their mill team, or home team,” the historian said.  Baseball also influenced what went on in the workplace, Billinger said, with mill owners using it as a way to build unity, cohesion — and discipline — there.  “If you could train a country boy to do that,” Billinger said of mastering baseball skills, he also could be taught to rapidly remove and replace bobbins on machinery, or similar tasks.  And when strikes or other labor issues arose, owners would threaten to withdraw funding for teams as a bargaining chip.  The small-town fans also had their own special reasons for backing a team, the baseball historian said.  “During the Depression, it was fairly good enjoyment,” he said. “It was a diversion…people could be proud of.”  That sense of escapism was a huge factor especially for those who lived in company-owned neighborhoods sometimes resembling the worst kind of slums.  “You couldn’t go to Disney World,” Billinger said of one’s entertainment options at the time. “But to go to a baseball game is to kind of get out of the back yard.”  Collectively, a winning team allowed a community to achieve a sense of pride by beating other towns’ teams through a mindset not unlike warfare, according to Billinger.

The historian referred to a quote by Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian general and military theorist who lived from 1780-1831: ““War is the continuation of politics by other means.”  For the North Carolina mill towns, the message was that “baseball was the pursuit of power/empowerment by other means,” according to Billinger’s presentation.  “And there were a lot of winners,” he said, with baseball a game people often would play or watch to seek empowerment.  Fans pursued a sense of excitement or group identity, while the players sought self-esteem and personal glory, Billinger said.

Graniteers’ Glory

The Mount Airy Graniteers achieved a measure of success during their tenure, Billinger said.  This included capturing the Blue Ridge League championship in the late 1940s.  But the club also gained a bit of notoriety in 1948 in the form of a written reprimand from a national governing body for the sport.  A leader of that association fired off a letter to Dr. Otis Oliver, the president of the Mount Airy Baseball Club, complaining about the bad treatment of umpires by individuals involved with the Graniteers.  The local team also produced some interesting players, including Bobby Byrne Jr., Billinger said.  After signing his first pro contract with Knoxville of the Southern Association in 1939, Byrne was assigned to the Mount Airy Graniteers.  But just as his playing career was taking off, World War II broke out and Byrne found himself a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps, who built a distinguished military record that included shooting down German planes in Africa.  The Graniteers folded after the 1950 season.

TV Aided Demise

Mill-town baseball thrived in an era when many people didn’t even have radios in their homes for listening to Major League games, which motivated many to take in a live contest of their local team.  In turn, the advent of television in the 1950s would spell its demise, Billinger said.  For the first time, fans had something to compare their hometown teams to by being able to watch clubs such as the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals perform.  “Then the local teams sort of looked like amateurs,” Billinger said.  People also had more money in the post-World War II years and could drive to larger cities with big-league teams, he mentioned.  “Baseball was THE game.”

Moonshine was racing’s founding fuel

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NASCAR executives who wear expensive suits and occupy fancy corporate suites prefer to portray modern stock car racing as a sport inhabited by squeaky-clean role-models promoted by slickly produced TV coverage.

But that is a departure from racing’s hardscrabble early days, when moonshine was just as important as gasoline in fueling its growth, according to an event Saturday at Mount Airy Museum of History.

Rex White, a retired competitor who recently was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, was the guest of honor for the occasion — which included a racing roundtable discussion and other activities — but one could argue that moonshine had equal billing.

“I didn’t like the stuff — I never was a whiskey drinker,” said White, 85, who in 1960 won the points championship in a series that was the precursor to today’s Sprint Cup Series. He is now the oldest-living champion of NASCAR’s top division.

White said the influence of moonshine was hard to ignore in racing’s early days, which flowed like a river through drivers and other key figures in racing — and even spectators.

“The biggest fight I ever saw at a track was at North Wilkesboro,” he said of a venue that was part of the NASCAR circuit for years.

“There was probably a thousand or two (people) fighting in the grandstand,” White of the alcohol-fueled conflict.

The cars on the track kept running unencumbered as the drivers witnessed the melee in the stands — until someone threw a bottle through the windshield of Bob Welborn’s car.

Finally the crowd was brought under control. “But that was one heck of a fight,” White said.

This was part of a culture associated with racing’s beginnings, NASCAR expert Dr. Dan Pierce told the audience gathered Saturday at the museum. Pierce, a history professor at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and author of the book “The Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay and Big Bill France,” said those controlling the sport today can’t deny its moonshine heritage.

Pierce said drivers, track owners and others were part of that culture, to which White agreed.

“A lot of them were good honest people,” the retired champion said. He pointed out that those in the illegal liquor trade also had a lot of money, which gave them prominence during the hard times the country was going through.

“It was something people had to make a living,” Pierce, the author, said of moonshining.

Many fans are aware of how pioneering drivers such as Junior Johnson cut their teeth running moonshine on the back roads of North Carolina and transferred those skills to the track. But that was equally true of people who ran the sport, including track owners.

There is the question of why bootleggers would want to build a racetrack, Pierce said, and the answer was simple.

“People who make moonshine and make a lot of money have a problem,” the author and professor explained. “What do you do with the money?”

Depositing large sums of cash in a bank would draw the attention of the authorities, Pierce said, and keeping it stashed somewhere could invite trouble. He cited a long-ago incident in Wilkes County in which men with sub-machine guns infiltrated a place where a poker game took place and stole $17,000.

“It was a dangerous thing to have a lot of cash around.”

White recalled one establishment from those days where money was hidden in a jukebox. “You know what that building is now?” the racing legend said. “A church.”

Given the risk of such practices, some involved in moonshining saw having a track as a legitimate enterprise to funnel money through.

That included some of the sport’s founding fathers, Pierce said, including Clay Earles, who opened Martinsville Speedway in the late 1940s, and was known for having a framed set of brass knuckles on his office wall.

“They ought to name one of their races the Bootlegger 500,” Pierce said of the two Martinsville tour dates on the NASCAR schedule, because that activity enabled the track to be developed.

The late Enoch Staley, longtime owner of North Wilkesboro Speedway, also was in the illegal alcohol business, Pierce said.

Staley had a “day job” driving a truck for Coble Dairy, the NASCAR historian related. “But he would deliver liquor in his trucks as well.”

Even NASCAR co-founder Bill France Sr., himself a former driver, was linked to the liquor trade. “Bill France knew a lot of bootleggers,” Pierce said, and would have had to be aware of the side business many of those who he dealt with often were involved.

“You could actually make more money hauling liquor than you could racing,” said Pierce, who marvels at how NASCAR rose into a prominent sport from such humble beginnings.

“It’s amazing how a bunch of people not given much credit by society were able to do this.”

But Pierce says that those who run the sport today should be capitalizing on the present status of moonshine — including the emergence of a popular television show and the production and advertising of legalized moonshine, which is “going crazy.”

“If I could give NASCAR a piece of advice, I would say embrace this culture,” he said.

Veteran Recalls History

White participated in Saturday’s roundtable discussion with Jerry Hatcher, a longtime NASCAR official who was a flagger for races, and Steve Ramey, who heads the Richard Childress Racing Museum.

During his championship run in 1960, White won six races, and in his career scored 28 wins, took 36 poles and finished in the top five in nearly half of his 233 starts in NASCAR’s elite division.

The NASCAR pioneer, who responded to questions from audience members, said the youthful Kyle Larson is among his favorite racers today. “I think he’s going to be a good driver.”

He also commented about Danica Patrick.

“For a woman, she’s doing great,” White said with a smile, pointing out that she is now ahead of her team co-owner, Tony Stewart, in the point standings.

“She’s got good equipment,” he said, which allows Patrick to run well at times.

“You’ve got less chance of being in a wreck the closer to the front you can be,” White said.

He also relayed the story of his last days in racing, after one audience member asked White if he knew that the end was near.

This was in 1965 after White had built some Chevrolet Chevelles to race in Mexico.

White recalled Saturday how he went about 90 feet down the side of a cliff in a desolate area during one road-racing event, while riding with a Chevelle owner who swerved to miss two cows in the way.

“I had a broke back — I couldn’t move,” he said.

On that side of the road, no one came to help. “They just put a candle out where you went off,” the veteran remembered.

Two hunters finally came by and pulled him up the embankment, but this did not lead to visiting a treatment facility such as the infield care centers of today’s tracks.

“It was 24 hours later when I got to a hospital, in Mexico City,” White said.

But he was able to heal up and win Sportsmen races afterward, including one about 10 weeks later in North Carolina — while still wearing a brace.

NASCAR Hall of Famer to make stop here

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A recent inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame who also happens to be the oldest-living points champion of its top division is scheduled to make a stop in Mount Airy Saturday.

Rex White, a member of the Hall of Fame Class of 2015, will be at Mount Airy Museum of Regional History as part of a two-pronged sports program Saturday, initially devoted to NASCAR and which later in the day will focus on Mount Airy High School football.

All the activities are free and open to the public.

Museum Executive Director Matt Edwards, a longtime motor sports fan and auto enthusiast, said the museum is happy to be hosting one of stock car racing’s legendary figures who joined the Hall of Fame in January.

White will be part of a “NASCAR Racers Roundtable” discussion to begin at noon on the museum’s third floor. Edwards said others from the racing world also are expected to attend and he was working to finalize those appearances at last report.

The roundtable will be set up by two talks earlier Saturday at the museum, including one beginning at 10 a.m. to be led by NASCAR Hall of Fame historian Buz McKim. He will discuss the evolution of the sport from its beginnings in the South to the nationwide phenomenon NASCAR is today.

Then at 11 a.m., the racing theme will be continued with another program led by Dr. Dan Pierce, a history professor at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

Pierce, the author of the book “The Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay and Big Bill France,” will speak about early dirt track racing and NASCAR’s formation.

Saturday’s sports programs at the museum are part of a weekly series being held there in conjunction with a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution, “Hometown Teams: How Sports Shape America.” It is on loan here through April 11.

Activities dedicated to NASCAR originally were scheduled for Feb. 28 when that exhibit opened but were postponed, leaving museum officials scrambling to find a replacement date in a manner similar to pit crew members going over the wall.

“I didn’t want to lose the NASCAR program because it’s one of the fun parts of this exhibit,” Edwards said.

White Going Strong

Despite being 85 years old, White remains in a relative fast lane as far as public appearances and his willingness to discuss the sport he helped pioneer.

In addition to presently being the oldest-living points champ — having won the Grand National crown (the forerunner to today’s Sprint Cup Series title) in 1960, White is the smallest man ever to capture the championship at 5 feet, 4 inches tall.

Yet White, a product of Taylorsville, who was one of the drivers originally competing for the Ford racing team, is considered a giant in the sport.

During his championship run in 1960, he won six races, and in his career scored 28 wins, took 36 poles and finished in the top five in nearly half of his 233 starts in NASCAR’s elite division.

White had a reputation for running up front even if he did not win, as evidenced by White finishing in the top 10 in the points standings in six of the nine years he competed in that division.

He also captured most-popular-driver honors in 1960.

Football Program

After the NASCAR-related events at the museum Saturday, the program dedicated to Mount Airy High School football will gear up, beginning at 2 p.m.

Doug McDaniel will present “The History of Mount Airy Football from Roots to Present” as part of the museum’s sports “History Talks” series.

McDaniel lives in Missouri, but has a local link.

“He’s originally from Mount Airy,” Edwards said, and has maintained a keen interest in the storied history of Bears football. “He started compiling the history and statistics about the Mount Airy football team years ago.”

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association, which he has contributed statistics to, is among the beneficiaries of McDaniel’s knowledge of the Bears’ gridiron exploits. He also frequently is cited as a reference in newspaper articles.

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