Surry County keeps the spirit of Mayberry alive while fostering an exciting and prosperous future
By Ned Cline
can stand upon the summit of the lofty mountain and view the
grandeur of surrounding scenery and not be impressed with the wisdom
and power of nature’s God?”
The preacher got it right
almost 150 years ago. Marquis
Lafayette Wood, a circuit-riding Methodist minister, was so struck by
the serenity and beauty of Surry County while standing on the pinnacle
of Pilot Mountain on a balmy spring day in 1858, that he penned the
quote above in his diary. His assessment has since been lifted from
his written records and carved in stone — Surry County white
granite, no less — and put on permanent public display on the foyer
wall of the county’s history museum.
Since the preacher’s
utterances 143 year ago, if any people in the neighborhood have felt
like challenging his acclaim they have kept it quiet. Certainly, there
is much about Surry County that is different from what the minister
saw in the decade before the Civil War. But there is also much that is
pretty much like it was when the man with the clerical collar rode
into town on horseback.
Mount Airy still proudly
depicts artwork of its three industrial foundations of textiles,
tobacco and furniture on the town seal. Tranquility is still the
traditional trademark in the county seat of Dobson where ample
markings are easy to spot of the way rural counties used to be. The
nearby town of Elkin still boasts of its history as much as its modern
health facilities, a place where an afternoon pitcher of sweet tea
shared among friends is considered a fine thing to do. And Pilot
Mountain is still the place with the view that on a clear day can make
the world’s problems seem far away.
None of this, however, means
that the past is prologue. The goal of local leaders is to blend the
best of the past with the economic essentials of the future. Signs of
success abound. The area seems primed for progress.
Photo at right: Downtown Mount Airy
Sharing Surry's simple living with a national TV audience
volunteers enrich the schools
Yes to Needs
Surry County, nestled in the
cradle of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the northwestern section of
North Carolina, offers an abundance of what many communities can only
dream of attaining. Throughout the county in addition to scenic views
seldom seen elsewhere is the omnipresent atmosphere of wholesome
lifestyles thriving on multiple small town advantages, clean water and
air, a quality education system, and steady — albeit changing —
industrial and economic expansion.
“If you can’t do it here, you are not far from where you
can do it,” says Tanya Rees, Mount Airy’s enthusiastic arts
That’s a theme visitors
hear often, and not just from those whose jobs is to promote the area.
“People (in the county)
practice fiscal responsibility, environmental stewardship and
community involvement,” says Wanda Urbanska, who tossed California
life in the Pacific Ocean 15 years ago and moved to the area. “This
is a community where people just say yes to needs. The community pulls
together for the kind of quality of life that sells the area. I came
here unsure of how I would react, but I have become a shameless
booster for this community.”
“We’re in a transition
in our economy and we’ve lost some things, but there are lots of
small successes that most folks don’t know about,” says downtown
Mount Airy merchant Gene Rees Jr., a second-generation clothier who
owns F. Rees Co. “We are doing the right things the right way.”
Surry economic advocates
grin at and grasp onto such unsolicited endorsements that frequently
flow from all sections of the county.
“We are holding on even
with downturns in some areas and are doing fine as we diversify from
textiles to small businesses, computer networking and expanded health
services,” says Theresa Osborne, president of the Elkin Chamber of
Commerce. “It has been a rather natural transition; for example,
from tobacco to grapes and vineyards. We are proud of what is
“Environmentally, we would
be hard pressed to pick a more beautiful or appealing place to live
and work,” says David Bradley, president of the Mount Airy Chamber
of Commerce. “So many communities whose foundations, like ours, are
based on textiles and tobacco have glasses that are half empty with a
crack in them. With our natural resources, we feel our glass is half
full and it is up to us to determine how to turn the spigot.
“We have ample and clean
supply of water. We are 15 minutes from the Blue Ridge Parkway, 45
minutes from Winston-Salem, 90 minutes from Greensboro and an hour
from Charlotte. Sometimes we don’t see our many blessings and our
potential until we go somewhere else and then realize the unbelievable
treasure we have in this county.
“What we must do now is
not jeopardize what we have as we move forward. We have lost a lot of
jobs in our traditional industries, and while that’s not pleasant to
watch, without the demise of textiles and tobacco, we would have been
reticent to move toward other industries. We’re not high tech yet,
but we’re becoming mid tech and can move up to high tech. We are
working to tear down walls that have separated us. We can succeed
cooperatively, but not competitively.”
That’s the same banner the
Surry Economic Development Partnership is waving. The partnership was
created six years ago with offices in Dobson to help the county shift
economic paradigms. The result is that territorial turf wars are being
replaced with regional realities. Countywide zoning and land use
planning are now in place. Water lines have been extended from Mount
Airy to other parts of the county. Local government leaders that once
shunned colleagues in other towns are now aggressively working to
complement each other, convinced that what is good for one is
beneficial to all economically and geographically. While Surry is
still considered a rural county, towns within the borders are all
within roughly 20 minutes of each other.
“The answer to economic
needs lies in the region, not any single area,” says Crystal Morphis,
president of the Surry Partnership. “This office was created because
the private business people saw the need for area cooperation. They
wanted to maintain our character and our social capital even as we
changed and grew.”
Cooperation in words has
also been backed up in deeds. Corporate dollars pay for 65 percent of
the EDP costs as the staff concentrates both on assisting established
businesses and bringing in new economic opportunities.
This new allegiance to
regional cooperation, while considered important and essential as the
county emerges from the grip of dependence on old economy industries,
is not part of the area’s generational history. On the contrary, the
county was formed out of a series of fiercely independent actions
where personal self-sufficiency and individual actions were admired
and, at times, promoted.
The county’s historical
records predate the formation of what are now North Carolina’s
boundaries. Surry County originally was part of the land owned by the
Lord Proprietors of England before the newly formed state took it from
England’s Lord Granville heirs in 1777. While there has been some
dispute among the county’s historians on exactly how the county got
its name, the general consensus is that the name was chosen to honor
Lord Surrey, a prominent member of the British Parliament who
protested the burdensome taxes imposed on the colonies by England. The
county was formed from what was once Rowan County in 1770, although
current boundaries of 538 square miles and more than 342,000 acres
were not established until 1850 when what is now Yadkin County was
The county was settled
primarily by second-generation Americans of English, Scotch-Irish and
German descent, most from nearby Virginia, who came to this country
before the Revolutionary War. Most were Protestant. The Quakers were
the first to formally organize a church in 1772.
The county’s earliest settlers first showed their
independent streak during the Revolution as residents split their
loyalties, some fighting for the Tories and others for the Patriots.
Historians, perhaps displaying their own loyalties, have written that
the Tories displayed acts of lawlessness and harassment while the
Patriots practiced deeds of bravery on the battlefields.
The first settlers in the
county located in a section called the Hollows, near what is now Mount
Airy. The first attempt at public education, albeit limited, was
started in the 1790s when two schools were opened in the Hollows. From
there, settlers moved to other remote areas of the county and created
a local government structure as they forged livelihoods from the
forests, tanneries and what has since become the world’s largest
white granite mine. Cotton didn’t become a stable crop until the
1830s near Mount Airy and Elkin, leading to the evolvement of textiles
as a major industry.
Dobson became the seat of
government, because it was in the geographic center of the county, in
1850 after temporary local government headquarters in two other
sections of the county. The new county seat was named for a prominent
citizen, William Polk Dobson.
The Civil War again produced
divided loyalties in Surry where neighbor fought against neighbor.
While most of the county’s men joined with the losing Southern
armies, some chose the other side and fought with the victorious
It was after the war that a
new money crop — tobacco — began to flourish and joined cotton as
a source of employment and income. Railroads came to the county in
1888. The growing agriculture economy helped finance expanding public
education that spread across the county in the late 1880s.
Mount Airy was incorporated
in 1885. Elkin was incorporated in 1889, 60 years after the first
cotton mill was opened there.
The Spirit of Mayberry
From those early struggles,
Surry grew slowly but steadily over most of the last century with the
bedrock industries supplying the livelihoods of most residents and
those who came in from surrounding counties to find jobs. Tourism
became a significant industry during the last few decades, thanks
primarily to the popularity of small town icon and Surry native Andy
Griffith, whose mythical Mayberry spawned a television show and an
admiring legion of fans across the United States.
While Mayberry does not and
has never existed, the spirit of that fictional town is very much
alive in the county. Tourism in Surry last year generated $58 million
and brought some 50,000 visitors to the area. The Mayberry craze gets
most of the credit.
The Mount Airy Arts Council,
while not limited to Mayberry mania, uses The Andy Griffith Show as a
foundation for much of its efforts. The council offices are in the
basement of the old Rockford School, where Griffith once studied, and
the building is now named the Andy Griffith Playhouse. The council has
an annual budget of $900,000 and is a major player in the county’s
tourist industry. Elkin has a separate arts council to promote that
part of the county.
The county’s population
has remained steady, with growth of about one percent a year since the
demise of old-time industries began. The county a decade ago imported
up to 10,000 workers a day from nearby counties as production workers
in local factories. That rate has dropped, but there is still an
abundant supply of workers, many of them going through retraining at
Surry Community College in Dobson where new courses have opened up new
opportunities for workers and brought on a new vitality in the
Surry now has a population
of 71,200, ranging from a high of 8,500 in Mount Airy to a low of
1,300 in Pilot Mountain. The county’s labor force stands at 38,000.
The average weekly wage in 2000 was $429, per capita income was
$23,465 and the median family income was $37,500. The county tax rate
is $0.57 cents.
The fastest growing industry
in the county is now the service sector, with special emphasis on
health care. In Elkin the name Chatham is still a household word, but
the focus is shifting from textiles to health services. The Hugh
Chatham HealthCare Services, privately owned and nonprofit, is now the
second-largest employer in Elkin (behind the textile plants). The
hospital provides 221 beds and offers services ranging from maternity
to Alzheimer’s care. A recent addition is an oncology unit.
Northern Hospital of Surry,
in Mount Airy, recently has expanded and has state-of-the-art
facilities designed to help prevent as well as treat illnesses. Surry
leaders say few counties the size of theirs offer the health care
opportunities that are available here.
Surry Community College is
directly aiding the health care industry by offering programs to
retrain those who have lost jobs in the declining textile industry.
One of the most exciting and
vibrant new industries in Surry is Shelton Vineyards, a winery opened
in the summer of 2000 by brothers Ed and Charlie Shelton. The Sheltons,
who grew up in the county, have established themselves first in Surry,
then Winston-Salem and now Charlotte as masters of development and
progress in residential and commercial construction, as well as
behind-the-scenes political influences.
Shelton Vineyards near
Dobson has become a tourist stop as well as a growing industry where
eight varieties of wines are produced from 14 different grapes grown
on 200 acres. Shelton Vineyards is the largest and best-known winery
in the county, but not the only one. Land across the county that once
grew tobacco now grows grapes as vineyards become increasingly popular
and profitable, particularly in the Elkin area.
Development of vineyards has also spawned a new academic
program at Surry Community College where the Southeast’s only
viticulture course, with 40 current students, is offered in the
school’s continuing education program. The Shelton brothers provided
$50,000 to get the viticulture courses started.
Surry industrial recruiters
estimate that more than a third of the county’s former textile,
tobacco and furniture workers are now engaged in retraining programs
at the community college, which offers a free course for any students
who complete work for a GED as part of their studies.
The county still supports
three separate public school systems, a fact that some point to as
administratively expensive, but the schools continue to maintain high
marks in academic standings in the state tests. Surry students scored
above the state average last year when SAT scores climbed 17 points.
Elkin school students produced achievements of exemplary and
distinction on state scores, as have schools in the Mount Airy system.
Community support for schools is high.
Excellent Highway Access
From this solid educational
foundation in public schools and the community college, even in the
slipping old economy industries, has come significant advancements
with new companies in recent years. Among the industrial growth are
these examples: Candle Corp. of America invested $19 million, Sara Lee
Socks $10 million, Chatham Borgstena $14 million, Ferguson Enterprises
$3.5 million, ASMO Appalachian Corp. $5 million, L.S. Starrett $3.5
million, and Chatham Inc. $9 million. These and other economic
enhancements have added approximately 1,000 jobs and millions to the
county tax base.
Much of the business
expansion has come in carefully selected and newly created industrial
parks, leaving much of the county’s open land in its pristine
habitat. Driving along most of the county’s roads, including
Interstates 74 and 77, and you are still able to see mountain ranges
and gently rolling farmland instead of cluttered intersections and
“This is what helps make
us so ideal,” says Bradley, the Mount Airy chamber president.
“This is what we are all about. Our only trepidation in telling our
story is that if we tell it too loudly or often we risk losing some of
Surry residents like to brag
about their climate and culture as much as their work ethic and desire
to adapt to changing economies.
And with good reason, too.
Average temperature in the county hovers on 61 degrees, from an
average low of 41 in winter to a high of 76 in summer. The elevation
of most of the county provides comfortable days and nights and
although the cities are located on the edge of the Blue Ridge,
snowfall is no higher than in counties at lower levels. The mountains
provide moderate climate, but shield the county from heavy snows.
There is no shortage of
things to do and places to see in the county, starting with the scenic
views, and stretching from the spirit of Mayberry in Mount Airy, to
the historic granite mine nearby. Granite from that mine helped build
the Wright Brothers monument at Kitty Hawk and Arlington Memorial
Bridge in Washington, D.C.
There are historic villages
restored from Elkin to Rockford, once the county seat. There is the
downtown history museum in Mount Airy, which among its complete
coverage of the county’s history gives the story of world-famous
Siamese twins Eng and Chang Bunker, who lived and died here.
There is the aging
courthouse in Dobson and the living historical farm and restored
historic homes in rural areas. Pilot Mountain sits 1,500 feet above
the Piedmont plateau. Pilot Mountain and Stone Mountain parks provide
hiking trails that are as prevalent as walking boots.
While Surry residents can
embrace their wholesome quality of life out of the fast lanes of major
cities, the county is served by two interstates and two other
interstate highways are less than 30 minutes away.
From that traveling
preacher’s pronouncement a century and a half ago to the summation
of the returning native son, Surry then had and still has a lot of
what makes communities thrive.
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