A section of downtown Mount Airy which years ago became a popular gathering spot will get new life through a project to add statues of local icons to the space traditionally known as the “Whittling Wall.”
It is being made possible with a $94,340 downtown-revitalization grant recently awarded to the city by the N.C. Department of Commerce. The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners is scheduled to approve the grant agreement with the state agency during a meeting today at 7 p.m.
The plan, involving the installation of brick sculptures, is viewed as a further enhancement for what has become a focal point locally, the southern corner of West Oak and North Main streets. That’s where Carlos Jones Blue Ridge Park — a city-owned mini-park facility containing a gazebo — opened in September 2014.
When that project was being developed, there was a desire to continue renovation of the wall located at the corner down Oak Street west toward Market Street, but there were no funds to do so.
“This money came available for a good project to continue with that update,” city Community Development Coordinator Martin Collins said Tuesday regarding the state grant.
The statue plan will include upgrading the existing brick and stucco wall to match and tie in to Carlos Jones Blue Ridge Park. This is expected to not only improve the appearance of that area with the addition of artistic elements, but enhance marketing efforts due to the statues serving as a drawing card for tourists.
Local dignitaries who will be honored by the statue recreations are deemed to be individuals who called Mount Airy home and have helped shape it in unique ways.
Among them are actor Andy Griffith; Grammy-winning country and pop singer Donna Fargo; Ralph Epperson, founder of local radio station WPAQ, which has preserved an area tradition with its mountain music format; old-time fiddler Tommy Jarrell; and Eng and Chang Bunker, the original Siamese Twins who lived just outside Mount Airy during the 1800s.
One statue will be devoted to Mount Airy’s old-time music heritage itself.
Plans call for the statues to be created by Brad Spencer, a Reidsville artist who is one of the few sculptors in the world versed in brick sculpture, a medium that dates to ancient Babylon. It is a durable art form that blends in with other settings.
In addition to the aesthetic and other improvements, the Whittling Wall will link North Main Street to Market Street, where a major upgrade is planned, and the former Spencer’s Inc. site where redevelopment is under way — including a hotel/banquet center.
“It’s a very interesting vision,” Collins said of the concept for that area to be realized through the Whittling Wall project, “and apparently the North Carolina Department of Commerce agrees.”
The origins of the Whittling Wall hearken back to a time when pocketknives were standard equipment for the menfolk in this area. That culture also converged with something that never goes out of style, a desire to have a hangout for shooting the breeze.
“I guess while their wives shopped, they would whittle and trade knives,” Collins said of those who congregated along the wall.
“Where I grew up, most every farmer had at least one knife in his pocket,” he added in reference to Patrick County, Virginia.
Under the timetable for the project, the statues are to be in place by August 2017, along with landscaping and bronze plaques.
A grand opening and dedication ceremony for the Whittling Wall is set for Sept. 15 of next year.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.