I am a fan of museums, and throw in the word history in the name and I’ve just got to pay a visit. On a recent trip to a flea market, we made a stop in Mount Airy, North Carolina. I’ve written about Mount Airy in the past. It is a thriving little town in the northern North Carolina foothills; thriving because of its association with the 1960s television series, The Andy Griffith Show. But there’s more to Mount Airy than Andy, and the Mount Airy Regional History Museum was there to educate us.
One never knows what to expect when visiting a small regional history museum. There’s the very good, and unfortunately, the very, very bad. I suppose a lot of the difference is due to the amount of money available to each museum. I suspect that history museums are not terribly high on the county budget priority list.
Local museums are also often a victim of donations. Several years ago I had a long and insightful discussion with the director of a small history museum in another NC town. That museum had, in the past, had such a liberal policy concerning donations that almost anything was accepted into the collection. As a result, the museum had six large spinning wheels, a dozen treadle sewing machines and nineteen vintage typewriters.
So many small museums end up being old stuff warehouses. Over the years I’ve been in many museums that are pretty much the same, with the usual assortment of old tools, spinning wheels, and taxidermied wildlife. But this was not (thankfully) what we found in Mount Airy.
Instead, the museum truly tells the story of the town and the surrounding area, All the exhibits are place specific. Of couse I was mainly interested in the textiles and clothing, but I also enjoyed learning about the Native inhabitants of the region and the very important granite industry.
There were actually two exhibits on textile manufacture, one of home manufacture of the early settlement, and the other on the cotton knit manufacturing that was formed in the region in the early twentieth century. Part of the home manufacture exhibit is above, and it uses period photographs and artifacts to explain how people made their textiles and clothing at home.
And, yes, there was a spinning wheel in the exhibit, but it was used within the proper context. They also had this giant loom set up in the middle of the room. These are sometimes referred to as “barn looms” as they certainly did not fit into the small pioneer homes. I’m betting there are still dozens of these in barns scattered across the eastern US.
At one time Mount Airy had several factories that made socks, underwear, and other cotton knit items. That green machine made socks, and actually, some small makers across the South still use similar machines.
The long underwear in the background had a label that sort of rang a bell. It was not until we left the museum that I remembered where I’d just seen the name.
In the next block down the street was the old Spencer’s factory. In business for over 100 years, Spencers closed in 2007, and it looks like the buildings are being converted to condos.
There were also quite a bit of clothing on display as well. Another celebrity from Mount Airy is country singer Donna Fargo. This fringed mini dress was worn by her for performances at Disneyland in 1973.
This dress was described as an “… an antique lace top and skirt worn by Donna Fargo, was featured on her 1981 album, Brotherly Love.” To be honest, it looks more like an assemblage of old lace pieces made into an ensemble, a practice not unknown at the time.
There were some actual antique clothes, all worn by residents of the town. The 1890s suit above was a wedding dress worn by a member of a prominent Mount Airy family.
This dress was made by an unidentified bride, who also made the lace.
The wearer of this (1905ish?) dress was not identified either, but I thought the presentation was quite nice.
Another resident of Mount Airy who went on to fortune (if not actual fame) was Katherine Smith Reynolds. I’ve written about her before, as she was the owner of Reynolda House, and her husband was the founder and owner of RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company.
But if I had to pick a favorite, it would be this girl’s basketball uniform from JJ Jones High, which was a segregated Black high school. The museum has a great display of artifacts from the school, along with an explanation of how Jim Crow laws affected the educational system.
Outside the museum is a tribute wall of sorts, that honors people who were important in making Mount Airy what it is today. It warmed my heart to see the textile mill factory worker included in the tribute.
And here’s a close up view just to make sure you could see that the statue is made from bricks.