Many people might be unaware that Mount Airy is home to a paupers’ cemetery where persons who died without funds are buried — much less that the city government once picked up the tab for their funerals.
“It’s in the middle of Oakdale Cemetery,” said Dean Brown, a member of the modern-day Mount Airy Board of Commissioners who uncovered that and other tidbits while authoring his second book on city government history.
Brown’s research for what he hopes will be a continuing series of volumes requires sifting through and transcribing minutes and other records of long-ago commissioner meetings, with the latest book covering the 1896-1903 period. These old documents contain interesting historical nuggets, often when listing the various uses of municipal funds at that time.
“I was surprised by the fact that they paid for the funerals and caskets and burials of paupers,” Brown said of one expense that routinely shows up during the time frame covered in his latest book on the history of local government.
Indeed, an entry for a May 5, 1896, meeting shows Mount Airy officials approving a $4.50 allocation to a man named W.W. Lowery, presumably a local undertaker, for a coffin. A later listing for March 1897 shows Lowery being paid $1.50 for the burial of a pauper, denoting a price structure well under that of funerals today.
“I don’t know when that stopped,” Brown said of the practice of city government paying for funerals of the poor.
He expects the answer will come as he continues transcribing other meeting records for the years after 1903. This is a painstaking process that often involves deciphering handwritten records that were the norm at the time. Older minutes were written in large ledger books and filed away.
“It’s getting better” as the years progress, Brown said of how legibility improved from 1896-1903 compared to the period addressed in his first book. It reflected Mount Airy’s infancy, stretching from its incorporation in 1885 to 1895, where his new one picks up the events.
An Evolving City
Besides funeral costs, other expenses detailed in Brown’s recently released “A History of Mount Airy, N.C. Commissioners Meetings — 1896-1903” illustrate a town just getting started.
For example, officials of the fledgling municipality apparently hadn’t gotten around to building a jail. A meeting record from 1896 shows $36.27 being paid to a man named John Bullen for “prisoner boarding,” with a listing for 1897 indicating that $1.25 was tendered to him for the same reason.
Other money was approved for such products and services as mule boarding, working with garbage, horses’ oil and liniment from a business known as Taylor & Banner and blacksmithing.
As did his first book on city government, Brown’s second details the continuing evolution of Mount Airy to become what it is today.
An 1898 listing refers to an agreement with T.B. McCargo to survey and plat Needmore Street and locate Rockford Street, with the latter now serving as one of the city’s key routes.
“One of the big things was street-lighting issues with them,” Brown said of the group of officials involved with city business in the second volume. They were led by a series of mayors including W.F. Carter, Lucius Tilley, J.A. Hadley, Sam G. Pace and R.L. Haymore, one of the founders of National Furniture Co.
Efforts to provide street lighting in those early days involved working with a Chicago-based company, which proved problematic — apparently due to the distance factor. At any rate, local leaders ultimately decided to contract with entities closer to home, Brown found.
In addition to installing lamps, the book details the organization of city schools and the fire department in addition to the laying of Mount Airy’s first water lines.
“Now you can see the results of some of the things they did,” the author said of infrastructure work spearheaded by Mount Airy officials more than a century ago.
Their busy slate apparently required more frequent meetings then, about four per month in some cases, compared to the present schedule of two council meetings monthly.
Brown, who is in his second four-year term as a North Ward commissioner, also has noted an improvement in the behavior of city officials as time passed. In the earliest days of the municipality, records showed that board members routinely would walk out of meetings or simply resign altogether if something didn’t go to suit them.
“The behavior is much more formal now,” Brown said.
His newest book also contains public notices, advertisements and other documents from the city’s early days along with photographs of homes, businesses and some of the personalities mentioned in its pages.
“Cameras were more prevalent,” Brown said of the circa 1900 period covered in that book. His first came out in 2010.
The most recent work is available at area bookstores, with the author noting that the Mount Airy Public Library was targeted to receive a copy as well.
“I’m looking forward to the next volume,” Brown said, mentioning that each one requires a long, painstaking process of going through the old records.
“It takes about a year and a half or two years.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.