On Thursday Surry County officially turns 250 years old being the anniversary of the legislative act and royal decree that created the county from the widespread Rowan county. North Carolina was still a British colony then, but the riots that would break that tie were already in full swing.
People from all over the county had planned a one-year semester celebration, but COVID-19 delayed those plans until this summer, something we can hardly wait for.
But today I want to celebrate the impressive journey that has taken this region from a beautiful, isolated part 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 establishes Surry County. It included all of what are today Surry, Stokes, Forsyth and Yadkin counties, as well as parts of Wilkes, Ashe and Alleghany. Rich in raw materials such as timber and iron ore, the region’s greatest value may have been the trails to reach from Greensboro and Salem to the Cumberland Gap in Virginia.
At the same time some of the Surry farmers join groups of regulators, the informal militia, to get the resolution of complaints, real and perceived, into their own hands.
1776-1789-The citizens of the area are deeply divided during the Revolution with material support and the fighters go to both the Loyal and Patriot companies.
1789 – Stokes County is separated from the eastern part of the county; in 1849 it split again to form Forsyth County; 1790 – Surry is home to more than 7,000 souls
1801 – Congress establishes an official U.S. Postal Road from Salem to Mount Airy in Wythe County, Virginia, roughly parallel to U.S. 52, and Mount Airy Main Road.
Catalan forgeries and hand mills operate along the Big Elk creek, and the Fisher, Yadkin and Ararat rivers; Stagecoach bans attract other businesses laying foundations for Mount Airy, Pilot Mountain and Elkin cities
Industry takes root-1821-1871
1830 – The county has a population of 14,504
1840 – Brower Cotton Mill (one of only 25 states at the time) is established in Ararat in the Hamburg community with a shoe factory and other businesses.
1851 – Yadkin County is cut off from the southern half of Surry, leaving today’s borders; the county site moves from Rockford to Dobson New Town
1857 – The Pilot Mountain Post Office is established
1860 – The county’s population was 10,380, down 44% after Yadkin was formed. An additional 1,200 enslaved people live in the county; During the Civil War 750 Surry men fight, more than 100 of them on the Union side.
1877 – Alexander Chatham opens the Chatham Manufacturing Wool Factory, which produces, among other things, blankets for the US Army. From 1919 to 1955, Chatham was the largest blanket manufacturer in the world, employing more than 3,500. After the war, businesses started and promoted the modernization and improvement of living conditions in the region.
1885 – Mount Airy is incorporated
1888 – Cape Fear & Yadkin Valley Railroads reach Pilot Mountain and Mount Airy
1889 – The towns of Pilot Mountain and Elkin are included; Mount Airy Granite Quarry starts operating
1899 – The Chestnut Ridge is created. One of the few predominantly African-American farming communities in the county, residents set up a school and church within a decade. Farmers, Black and White, work together to plant and harvest tobacco crops.
1890 – North Carolina Northwest Railroad arrives in Elkin
1892-1895- Electricity, telephone and public water service come to the cities
1896-1920-Mount Airy Furniture Company, National Furniture Company, Mont Airy Mantel and Table and Mount Airy Chair Company formed
1916 – US enters World War I; Surry Rifles are mobilized as part of the US Army 30th Division
1920 – The Surry County Department of Health is established in direct response to the 1918 Influenza Pandemic; public schools are opened throughout the county
The county flourishes with industry – 1921 – 1971
1930s Factories run a five-and-a-half-hour, 10-hour-a-week workday, averaging $ 30 / week
1939 – Many textile factories open, including the Amos & Smith Hosiery Mill, built on Mount Pilot; Armtex Manufacturing Company, 1945; and Pipe Hose Mill, 1949.
1948 – WPAQ begins broadcasting
1950s-’60s Numerous manufacturing plants opened: Insteel Industries, 1955; The factory toaster Proctor Electric Company, 1957
1963 – Mount Airy / Surry Airport opens and Surry County Community College is established in Dobson.
1968 – Pilot Mountain becomes the state’s 14th state park
Difficult times on the rise-1971-2021
The latest story has been turbulent. Regional production was strong until the end of the century, but long-standing regional employers began to close in the mid-1990s: The Chatham family loses control of the company from a hostile acquisition by 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 businesses like Insteel Industries, NCFI Polyurethanes, Leonards Buildings and Altec Industries. The county is home to a growing car industry, an eccentric tourist, a thriving wine tradition and unique cultural treasures with a core of dedicated citizens working to build the community. I hope you take some time this year to learn about history, but most importantly, to join those people who work in the next 250 years.