Willie Byrd Williams was a schoolteacher and, like many people in Surry County, also a farmer. In 1913, he presented part of his corn harvest in a fair exhibition. It must have been nice corn because it won the award for best seed corn on the cob.
He brought this bounty directly to Dobson to purchase a marriage license.
He and his sweetheart, Cornelia Jane Bray, were married for 57 years and raised their daughters, Ola and Minnie, at their Zephyr home just north of Elkin. They have also been active supporters of the Zephyr Community Fair and the Surry County Fair all their lives.
Fairs and carnivals were a great excuse for people to gather and have fun. The Surry County Fair, since its inception in 1916, has scheduled hot air balloons, airplane stunts, side shows, amusement rides and fireworks to entertain.
But their main purpose at first was much more practical. In the days before the Internet, television, or radio, fairs allowed farmers and other businesses to promote their products to a much larger audience than they could otherwise reach. They also ensured the education of young and old.
“The man who… doesn’t show up misses a great opportunity to meet his neighbors and see what others are doing in the various occupations of life.” Mount Airy News, September 25, 1919.
Farmers and business owners were able to see new products that local stores were unable to carry or see how seeds or fertilizers from various companies performed in the local soil with reduced financial risk.
Companies such as the Chesapeake Guano Company of Baltimore, Maryland, which specializes in tobacco fertilizers in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, have been popular in this region for decades. In 1886, they announced in the Yadkin Valley News (predecessor to the Mount Airy News) that judges at the NC State Fair in Raleigh had awarded their product the highest award for manure.
I know it’s tempting to laugh at this, but for farmers it was no laughing matter. The right fertilizer combined with other progressive farming practices dramatically increased production around the turn of the last century. The yield of corn rose from 12 to 20 bushels per acre, that of wheat from 9.5 to 11.5. America’s population was growing at an unprecedented rate, and the nation, with thousands of acres under cultivation and isolated from direct war damage, quickly became a major exporter of grain to feed a starving world. Successful farmers were essential to global food management.
George Hinshaw opened a general store in Winston-Salem in 1868, specializing in seeds and fertilizers. He is credited with organizing the first three “Wheat and Cattle Fairs” at Forsyth.
Such events, if well organized, bring people and money to an area, an economic springboard for any community that hosts one. They were also an important tool for disseminating information on public health issues or better agricultural practices or for recruiting for military service or civic organizations. But they were expensive to organize and needed a competent organization to pull together local and state resources.
Not surprisingly, soon after the trains arrived in Surry County, calls from local newspapers began encouraging people to hold a fair. The first mention I found was in the Western Sentinel of Winston-Salem, November 21, 1889.
“The News is pushing for a Surry (sic) county fair next year. Winston wishes his Surry neighbors great success.
Although many communities in Surry, such as Zephyr and White Plains, held smaller fairs, it would take 27 years for the first county fair here.
Meanwhile, Surry residents took special rail trips to attend the Catawba, Cumberland, and Forsyth county fairs and the State Fair in Raleigh. Several locals went to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Year after year, the calls persisted.
“With all the progress, public spirit and wonderful achievements of the people of Surry, and especially the economy and growth of Mount Airy and Elkin, it seems odd to see a county as large as Surry without a fairground county. A well-run fair would do more to stimulate farmers and manufacturers than anything that has been tested. Winston-Salem Journal, September 25, 1907.
Finally, in 1916, the Charlotte Observer reported that “Surry County is to have a fair this fall” with a state charter and $50,000 pledged capital. A meeting at the opera house resulted in ‘more than a hundred businessmen (sic) and farmers’ from all over Surry and surrounding counties buying shares at $10 each ($271 cash today) to finance the fair.
Mount Airy, the largest town in the county, was chosen as the location for many reasons, not the least of which was “the magnificent system of clayey roads”. Business leaders and citizens such as Thomas Fawcett (founder of the First National Bank of Mount Airy), WG Sydnor (former mayor of Mount Airy and chairman of Workman’s Federal Savings and Loan) and JD Sargent (owner of the quarry of granite) organized the Surry County Fair Association in June 1916.
The directors and vice-presidents of each township in Surry and representatives of the counties of Carroll, Patrick and Stokes signed. They purchased land from Dr. WS Taylor northwest of the city. We’re not sure but it appears to be the same grounds where the fair is held today, Veterans Memorial Park. They listed a racetrack, constructed show buildings, and tirelessly promoted the new fair statewide.
The first fair was held in mid-November, the next two in mid-October, but in 1919 it moved to September where it would stay for a century before moving to August.
Each time it takes place, however, the fair remains exciting for children of all ages, bringing the community together in good times and bad. If you go to the fair this week, take advantage of it. If you entered an exhibition, good luck!
Kate Rauhauser-Smith is a volunteer for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with 22 years of journalism before joining the museum. She and her family moved to Mount Airy in 2005 from Pennsylvania, where she also participated in museum and history tours.