The long hunt has had a short but enduring history
Surry County will officially celebrate its 250th anniversary on Thursday, the anniversary of the Legislative Act and Royal Decree that created the county from the vast Rowan County. North Carolina was still a British colony at the time, but the unrest that would break that tie was already in full swing.
People across the county had planned a one-year celebration for the half-fiftieth anniversary, but COVID-19 has delayed those plans until this summer, something to be hoped for.
But today I want to celebrate the impressive journey that has taken this region from a beautiful isolated piece of Piedmont to the communities, industries and, most importantly, the people who live here today.
Farms, roads and war – 1771 – 1821
1771 – After more than a year of petitions, Royal Governor William Tryon creates County Surry. It encompassed all of the current counties of Surry, Stokes, Forsyth and Yadkin, as well as parts of Wilkes, Ashe and Alleghany. Rich in raw materials such as lumber and iron ore, perhaps the area’s greatest value has been the trails connecting Greensboro and Salem to Cumberland Gap in Virginia.
At the same time, some farmers in Surry are joining groups of regulators, informal militias, to take charge of resolving grievances, real and perceived.
1776-1789 – Citizens of the region are deeply divided during the Revolution with material support and fighters go to loyalist and patriotic companies.
1789 – The County of Stokes is separated from the eastern part of the county; in 1849 it was again divided to form Forsyth County; 1790 – Surry is home to just over 7,000 souls
1801 – Congress established an official US Post Road from Salem to Mount Airy to Wythe County, Virginia, roughly parallel to US 52 and Mount Airy Main Street.
Catalan ironworks and flour mills operate along Big Elk Creek and the Fisher, Yadkin, and Ararat rivers; Stagecoach Stops Attract Other Businesses Laying Groundwork for the Towns of Mount Airy, Pilot Mountain and Elkin
Industry takes root – 1821-1871
1830 – The population of the county is 14,504
1840 – Brower Cotton Mill (one of only 25 in the state at the time) is established on Ararat in the community of Hamburg with a shoe factory and other businesses
1851 – Yadkin County is cut off from the southern half of Surry, leaving current boundaries; the county seat changes from Rockford to the new town of Dobson
1857 – Establishment of the Pilot Mountain post office
1860 – The county’s population was 10,380, down 44% after Yadkin’s formation. 1,200 other slaves live in the county; During the Civil War, 750 men from Surry fought, including more than 100 on the Union side.
The modern world – 1871-1921
1877 – Alexander Chatham opens a woolen mill which becomes Chatham Manufacturing and produces, among other things, blankets for the US military. From 1919 to 1955, Chatham was the largest blanket manufacturer in the world, employing more than 3,500 people. After the war, companies take off and stimulate the modernization and improvement of living conditions in the region.
1885 – Mount Airy incorporates
1888 – Cape Fear & Yadkin Valley Railroad arrives at Pilot Mountain and Mount Airy
1889 – The towns of Pilot Mountain and Elkin are incorporated; Mount Airy granite quarry begins operation
1899 – Chestnut Ridge Settlement. One of the county’s many predominantly African-American farming communities, residents founded a school and church within a decade. Farmers, black and white, work together to plant and harvest tobacco crops.
1890 – Northwestern North Carolina Railroad arrives at Elkin
1892-1895 – Electricity, telephone and public water service arrive in cities
1896-1920 – The Mount Airy Furniture Company, the National Furniture Company, the Mount Airy Mantel and Table, and the Mount Airy Chair Company are formed
1916 – The United States enters World War I; The Surry Rifles mobilize as part of the 30th Division of the United States Army
1920 – Surry County Health Department is created in direct response to the 1918 influenza pandemic; public schools open throughout the county
The county flourishes with industries – 1921 – 1971
1930s – Factories had a five-and-a-half, 10-hour workweek, paying $ 30 / week on average
1939 – Many textile factories open, including Amos & Smith Hosiery Mill built at Pilot Mountain; Armtex Manufacturing Company, 1945; and Pilot Hosiery Mill, 1949.
1948 – WPAQ begins broadcasting
1950s-60s – Opening of several manufacturing plants: Insteel Industries, 1955; Proctor Electric Company toaster factory, 1957
1963 – Mount Airy / Surry County Airport opens and Surry County Community College is founded in Dobson
1968 – Pilot Mountain becomes the 14th state park in the state
Hard Timesm Rising Up – 1971-2021
More recent history has been turbulent. Regional manufacturing was strong until the turn of the century, but longtime regional employers began to shut down in the mid-1990s: the Chatham family lost control of the business to a hostile takeover of a Danish company, 1995; Hamilton Beach / Procter Silex, 1998; Bassett Furniture Co., 2005; and Spencer’s Inc, 2007.
But Surry is still home to strong companies such as Insteel Industries, NCFI Polyurethanes, Leonards Buildings and Altec Industries. The county is home to a growing car shelter industry, a quirky tourist clientele, a thriving wine tradition and unique cultural treasures with a core of dedicated citizens who work to build the community. I hope you take the time this year to learn more about the history but, more importantly, to join these people who will work for the next 250 years.