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Changing Exhibits

September 1 - December 20, 2018

America's Wolves: From Tragedy to Triumph


Upcoming Events

Fri Sep 21 @ 8:00pm - 09:30pm
Historic Downtown Mount Airy Ghost Tours
Wed Sep 26 @ 8:00pm - 09:30pm
Special added Ghost Tours in September!
Thu Sep 27 @ 3:30pm - 04:30pm
Tar Heel Junior Historians Introductory Meeting

Who We Are


Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

IMG_8201_-_Copy_606x640 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

Community members, youth honored at MLK tribute

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Near the beginning of a ceremony honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Saturday night, event organizer Cheryl Yellow Fawn Scott asked each half of the audience to stand and thank the people in the other half.  The crowd of more than 100, filling the third floor of the Mount Airy Museum of Modern History and divided only by the center aisle, happily complied.  The gesture set the tone for the evening, a lesson in brotherhood and a reminder of how the civil rights icon changed lives in big ways and small. Now in its 12th year, the program titled, “In The Spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Surry Countians Continuing the Dream,” serves as a bridge between past, present and future.

Through musical performances, poetry, storytelling and speakers sharing excerpts from some of King’s most poigniant speeches and writings, the civil rights icon and other influential figures were honored and remembered. Chrissie Watkins’ dynamic reading of the poem “Go Down, Death (A Funeral Sermon)” by James Weldon Johnson drew one of many standing ovations.  Other performances at the gathering included Marie Nicholson’s creative interpretation of “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou, “His Eye is on the Sparrow” sung by soloist Revetta King, and storyteller Terri Ingalls’ story of Robert Small’s “pivotal moment.”  A rendition of Jesus, My Rock by the Triumphant Pentecostal Church Choir had most people’s hands clapping and feet stomping. 

With an eye toward the present, several individuals were recognized at intervals throughout the program for their work embodying different aspects of King’s teaching: E.J. Spencer, self-reliance, Karl Allen, leadership; Edward Spencer, perseverance; and Donnie Nicholson, service.  “I love people,” Spencer said to the audience, noting a simple philosophy that drove him: “Treat people like you want to be treated.”  Many responded to that with an emphatic “Amen.”  The program culminated with the presentation of the annual Martin Luther King Dreamer’s Award — named for King’s most famous speech — which was given to Jimmy Stockton.  Scott said that the most important group highlighted in the program is that who represent the future.  Four young people were recognized for their activism and contributions to church and community: Cheyenne Allen, Iyana Hughes, Shapell Hughes and Braxton Easter.  “We look at the youth who are in different ways embodying the life and ways of Dr. King,” Scott said. “We honor and recognize them for the work that they do.” 

Matthew Edwards, museum director, said the event is one he looks forward to bringing his children to every year.  “This is always one of our best attended programs,” he said. “We’re just the host venue, and we’re grateful to be beneficiaries to this event.”  “It’s like old home week here,” Edwards told the crowd of more than 100. “A lot of the folks have been coming here for years. It’s great to have them here at the museum.”

Museum to host MLK tribute

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Martin Luther King Day will be celebrated nationwide Monday, but local residents will get a head start on that Saturday night with an annual program honoring the iconic civil rights leader. Mount Airy Museum of Regional History once again is hosting the event, now in its 12th year, which will begin at 7 p.m. on the museum’s third floor. The program that is free and open to the public typically is heavily attended — even on a cold January night.

“It’s always a big one — standing room only last year,” museum Executive Director Matt Edwards commented regarding the gathering that has been known to draw up to 125 people. Saturday night’s event will include music, recitations of works by authors such as Maya Angelou and special recognitions of local citizens.  Its focus not only will honor the life of King and the lessons he espoused, but how those citizens are carrying on his dream nearly 50 years after King’s death.  This will include an emphasis on local young people who are setting a good example for others.  “We did that last year for the first time, specifically recognizing youths,” said Cheryl Yellow Fawn Scott, one of the organizers of the event.  Four young people are scheduled to be highlighted as part of the program’s 2016 Youth of Excellence theme — Iyana Hughes, Cheyenne Allen, Shapell Hughes and Braxton Easter.  These youths will be recognized for making a collective difference through academic achievements, community activities, church involvement and other areas, Scott said. 

Five adults who have distinguished themselves in the community also will be part of Saturday’s program, to include E.J. Spencer, Karl Allen, Donnie Nicholson, Jimmy Stockton and Edward Spencer.  The lives and work of each will be highlighted, Scott said, and one of the five will be named this year’s recipient of the Martin Luther King Dreamer’s Award. It basically is named for the “I Have a Dream” speech King delivered in 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  Its focus on the fine examples set by local residents is one reason why the annual MLK program at the museum is so popular, according to LaDonna McCarther, another of its organizers. Attendees are able to see living embodiments of King’s teachings and concern for the betterment of mankind.  “I think it’s because, number one, it recognizes individuals in Surry County and Mount Airy city that have contributed to the area, who have started in unlikely situations and become productive citizens,” McCarther said of the annual program’s importance.  She mentioned how some have overcome various obstacles and succeeded via the struggle for equality that Dr. King championed.  “They’re role models.”

Program highlights

Among other activities or individuals slated to be part of Saturday night’s program are:

• Terri Ingalls, the president-elect of the North Carolina Storytelling Guild, who will render a relevant story based on true events;

• A poetic presentation by Marie Nicholson from Maya Angelou’s “And Still I Rise;”

• Singer and songwriter Evelyn Gentry Howie;

• Excerpts from poet James Weldon Johnson’s “God’s Trombones”/”Go Down Death,” presented by Chrissie Watkins;

• Soloists Dennis France and Eric Strickland;

• The singing of the national anthem by Tracy Greenwood;

• An appearance by the City of Mount Airy Honor Guard;

• A reading by Jonathan Lightfoot;

• “The Lord’s Prayer,” featuring a delivery of the prayer in American sign language by Janice Thompson.

Other participants could be added before the program is finalized, according to McCarther, who added that refreshments will be served afterward.  “We couldn’t do it without the staff there at the museum,” she said of the help it gives in organizing the event.  Refreshments will be served after the program.

Prison Talk Captivates Audience

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Those who have visited Salisbury might recall it as a pleasant community that is the home of Cheerwine and the Food Lion supermarket chain.  But there is also a much darker side to the city located about 75 miles from Mount Airy, which was brought to light during a free, well-attended program here Saturday led by a husband-and-wife historical team.

“To be honest with you, I had no idea there was a 15,000-person Confederate prison in Salisbury just down the road from us,” Executive Director Matt Edwards of Mount Airy Museum of Regional History said when introducing Ed and Sue Curtis.  They appeared as part of the final installment in a History Talks series at the museum.  The two proceeded to tell the story of the prison, one of the darkest chapters of a war known for its brutality and human misery.

Penal institutions have never been wonderful places even in the best of times. And conditions at Salisbury Confederate Prison were as harsh and deplorable as any during a period that produced such infamous locales as Andersonville, Georgia, and Elmira, New York.  “There’s plenty of room for blame on both sides,” Ed Curtis said of facilities housing prisoners of war in the 1860s.

Little Traces Today

Ed and Sue Curtis were in Mount Airy through their roles as heads of the Salisbury Confederate Prison Association, which is seeking to preserve the colorful history surrounding the facility and those who spent time there.  “The prison no longer stands — Yankees burned it,” Sue Curtis told the museum audience, explaining that this occurred during Union Gen. George Stoneman’s infamous raid through North Carolina in early 1865. Only one structure is believed to remain today which was part of the prison complex; it houses an antique store.  “There is no picture of that prison,” Mrs. Curtis added, with its appearance preserved only by artwork and drawings from people who were there including former inmates.  Finding such a photograph probably would make one rich, according to the historians, who at times mixed in humor to made the prison’s legacy less stark.

At first, Salisbury Confederate Prison was not that bad a place to be, according to their presentation.  As battles between the Blue and Gray unfolded after the war broke out in 1861, the Southern government sought locations for prisons to house captured soldiers.  Salisbury was not the first choice of Confederate leaders. “But it was the first one to say yes,” Sue Curtis said.  Sixteen acres were acquired from Davidson College for $15,000, not far from the present-day Interstate 85. The prison utilized facilities of a former cotton mill that had been vacant since the 1840s, with the old machinery removed and bars placed on windows.  Many new arrivals were glad to be there after the prison received its first captives in December 1861, including some transferred from other locations that were less inviting.  “They had been in prisons where there was no daylight,” Mrs. Curtis explained.

Along with open air, the prison had a source of good water, and there was only a 2-percent death rate. Prisoners could sign an oath and venture into town to shop, freely going back and forth simply by giving their word they would return.  Sometimes they played baseball, and Sue Curtis said a re-enactment of one notable game has occurred in recent years. Players used crude bats and other equipment reminiscent of the Civil War era, with the players promising to not to cause problems.  But a local church got hit twice by balls and a little girl was struck in the head. “Scared us to death,” recalled Sue Curtis, who added that the child was unhurt.  The prison housed not only Union prisoners, but Confederate soldiers who had been court-martialed and Southern civilians working against the Rebel cause.

Darker years

Conditions worsened at the Salisbury facility after Gen. U.S. Grant became commander of the Northern army and ended a prisoner-exchange program that had keep the population relatively low.  The prison was designed to hold no more than 2,500 prisoners, but by November 1864 that had ballooned to 10,000 due to exchanges ending and captured troops pouring in from Virginia battlefields.  About 15,000 men were incarcerated there from 1861-65, with an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 deaths occurring among them.  At the height of its miseries, the death rate was 28 percent. Prison officials ran out of space to house the men.

“They were digging holes in the ground and living two or three (at a time) in a hole in the ground,” Sue Curtis said of the conditions faced.  “The Union knew what was going on,” the visiting historian continued. “They didn’t allow any supplies to come in.”  Even those sent to the hospital didn’t fare much better, having no beds but only pallets of straw on a floor, with little in the way of medicine available.  Sanitary conditions were horrible, with one observer noting that “the smell would make a dead man heave.”  Prisoners who died were buried in mass graves along trenches, with an old cornfield that served as burial place eventually becoming the Salisbury National Cemetery. The numbers of unknown soldiers buried there rival those of any similar prison of the time, Sue Curtis said.  Prisoners were desperate to survive and would do anything to escape, including mounting a bloody riot in November 1864.

By the time Gen. Stoneman arrived in Salisbury around the time of the Southern surrender at Appomattox, the prisoner-exchange program had been revived. Although history suggests that the Union raider would have loved to be the liberator of thousands of captives at the time he torched the prison, that was not the case.  “There were very few prisoners left in Salisbury,” Ed Curtis told the museum audience.  Yet someone still saw fit to paint a mural of a heroic-looking Stoneman against a background of flames which now hangs in a Salisbury shopping mall as a reminder of the city’s history.  “He also killed the business at that mall,” Sue Curtis joked regarding the effect of Stoneman’s image on shoppers.

Preservation efforts

Among the work of the Salisbury Confederate Prison Association headed by Ed and Sue Curtis is seeking to establish a repository of names of all those housed there as well as the several thousand guards who served.  Some notable prisoners spent time at the facility, including the brother of poet Walt Whitman and the son of Dr. David Livingstone, the missionary and explorer.  An ancestor of Garry Moore, a popular television game-show host in the 1950s and 1960s, served as a quartermaster there, Ed Curtis related.  The Salisbury prison also has a local tie, Thomas Lenoir Gwyn, who was a guard in Salisbury before becoming a prominent industrialist and town official in Elkin.  A $14,000 project to excavate the prison grounds as part of the research of its history was undertaken in 2005 through Wake Forest University.  “We’re working on a new one for the future,” Sue Curtis said.

Salisbury Confederate Prison the topic for Mount Airy Museum history talk

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A old Confederacy-era prison will be the topic of the final history talk of the season for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History on Saturday. The Salisbury Confederate Prison Association will be be giving a slide presentation about the confederate prison that once stood there.  “We felt this was a great way to close out the season,” said Matt Edwards, the museum executive director.

The goal of the association is the preservation of the prison and the site in Salisbury.  Together, Sue and Ed Curtis, heads of the prison association, promote the archaeological exploration of the historic site for educational purposes. At this event, the two also will share history of the prison and the known experiences between the Confederate guards and Union prisoners of war.

The history talk will be held on the third floor of the museum at 2 p.m. Saturday.  The idea for this lecture originated when a sword was loaned to the museum to use in a display. The sword belonged to a prison guard, Thomas Lenoir Gwyn.  Gwyn was a student at Jonesville Academy and enlisted in 1862 to a North Carolina infantry battalion, eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant. After being wounded in the Battle of Cansbys Creek in Tennessee, he was reassigned to Company A, 5th Senior Reserves at the Prison.  Later in 1877 he co-founded the Elkin Woolen Mills and in 1899 served as a commissioner in Elkin. His image and Kenansville sword is on display at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.

Saturday’s event is free to the public.


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