The strength of individuals and the strength of community were recognized at the first Mount Airy Museum of Regional History’s Founder’s Day celebration held Thursday in the Woltz Clock Tower and Courtyard.
Mount Airy Mayor Deborah Cochran gave the opening speech at the gathering. She was accompanied by Vice Mayor Pro tem Steve Yokeley and City Commissioners Scott Graham and Dean Brown.
“Mount Airy represents the city of our dreams,” began Cochran. “We are a city of simple lifestyles and wholesome values. Mount Airy has produced entertainers from The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA, Donna Fargo, to Andy Griffith. We live in a city where dreams come true.”
Former Surry Community College President Dr. Swanson Richards was the next speaker at the ceremony.
“I can remember when this property looked so desolate,” said Richards. “I attribute the success of this area now to the museum. It’s now an excellent project and a good thing for the area.” He said the building was a disaster in those early days of the museum’s history. He thanked the founders for making the museum what it has become.
Richard Vaughn gave the group a history of the museum project reconstructed from notes taken by Barbara Summerlin.
“It is my opinion that the museum today would not be so far along without the persistence of Howard Woltz, John Woltz and Barbara Summerlin,” said Vaughn. He said Summerlin and Howard Woltz were the only two present at the first meeting of what later became the museum’s trustees.
He also told the group that for a short time the museum was located in the city public works department building and was even considered the basement level of the Earl Theatre for its home. Vaughn said early on the project was envisioned as a combination museum and civic center. He said general support for the project grew and lessened at times as the group struggled to find a home for the museum.
Vaughn said on Aug. 21, 1991, the museum steering committee reached a consensus to stick to the old Merritt Building. Early funds went to stabilize the building, replace windows and fix the leaking roof. The facility now boasts 30,000 feet of usable space for its exhibits.
“I hope that someone will start a history of the Mount Airy Regional Museum,” concluded Vaughn. “It would be a shame to not get interviews of those involved before they are gone.”
Robert Merritt spoke next to the group that filled the courtyard.
“She (Summerlin) found out what a museum should be before the rest of us knew,” said Merritt. “It is not just a tour of the attic, but it’s here to tell the story of our heritage. If you don’t know where you come from, it’s like walking halfway into a two-hour movie.”
He briefly recalled his childhood in a Mount Airy where many homes had chicken coops and pastures ran behind the homes.
“This is not ancestor worship,” added Merritt. “The life our ancestors led is important. The direction Barbara put us on is the line we need to follow. It was helped by Barbara and John’s persistence and the uncanny ability of Richard Vaughn to get people to contribute to worthy causes.”
Museum Executive Director Matt Edwards likened the museum’s progress to a person’s lifetime.
“We are here to recognize the contributions of the people who made this possible,” said Edwards. “The museum is like a person growing up. Since we have been operational for 18 years, we are poised to enter the next chapter like a child going to college.”
He predicted that the museum was not finished growing and would refine its character as an institution.
“We are committed to being an active community partner. We’re looking to improve and move forward by seeking accreditation through the American Alliance of Museums.” Edwards concluded by saying the museum would actively grow its endowment through fundraising, planned estate giving and grant opportunities.
“That’s the foundation of how the museum will continue its mission,” concluded Edwards.
A 600-pound granite permanent donor panel acknowledging the contributions of individuals and businesses was unveiled. Edwards recognized the work of Acme Stone and North Carolina Granite Corporation for the panel.
The event concluded with a BBQ meal with ice cream sundaes on the museum’s third floor. Members of the Jesse Franklin Chapter of the Tarheel Junior Historians Association were servers for the meal.
Reach David Broyles at email@example.com or 719-1952.