Willie Byrd Williams was a schoolteacher and, like many people in Surry County, also a farmer. In 1913 he contributed part of his grain harvest to a fair exhibition. It must have been a nice corn, because it won for the best ear of corn.
He took that bounty money directly to Dobson to buy a marriage license.
He and his lover, Cornelia Jane Bray, were married for 57 years and raised their daughters, Ola and Minnie, in their Zephyr home just north of Elkin. They were also active supporters of the Zephyr Community Fair and the Surry County Fair throughout their lives.
Fairs and carnivals were a great excuse for people to get together and have fun. The Surry County Fair, since its inception in 1916, has planned hot air balloons, airplane stunts, sideshow acts, rides, and fireworks to entertain.
But their primary purpose was much more practical in the beginning. In the days before the Internet, television or radio, farmers and other businesses at trade shows were able to promote their products to a much wider audience than they could otherwise reach. They also provided education for young and old.
“The man who… is not present is missing a great opportunity to meet his neighbors and see what other people are doing in the various pursuits of life.” Mount Airy News, Sept. 25, 1919.
Farmers and entrepreneurs were shown new products that local stores couldn’t carry or how seeds or fertilizers from different companies behaved in local soil with reduced financial risk.
Companies such as Chesapeake Guano Company of Baltimore, Maryland, specializing in tobacco fertilizer in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, were popular in this region for decades. In 1886, they advertised in the Yadkin Valley News (predecessor to the Mount Airy News) that the judges at the NC State Fair in Raleigh awarded their product the highest award for manure.
I know it’s tempting to chuckle at that, but for farmers it was no laughing matter. The right fertilizer combined with other progressive agricultural practices dramatically increased production at the turn of the last century. Corn yields went from 12 to 20 bushels per acre, wheat from 9.5-11.5. The American population grew at an unprecedented rate and the nation, with thousands of acres cultivated and isolated from the direct damage of war, quickly became a major exporter of grain to feed a starving world. Successful farmers have been vital to world food management.
George Hinshaw opened a shop in Winston-Salem in 1868, specializing in seeds and fertilizers. He is credited with organizing the first three “Wheat and Cattle Fairs” in Forsyth.
Such events, when properly executed, brought people and money to a region, an economic boost for any community that organized one. They were also an important tool to disseminate information on public health issues or better agricultural practices, or to recruit for military service or civil society organisations. But they were expensive to organize and needed a competent organization to bring together local and state resources.
It’s no surprise that shortly after the trains arrived in Surry County, calls from local newspapers began urging people to host a funfair. The first mention I have found is in the Western Sentinel of Winston-Salem, November 21, 1889.
“The news is pushing for a Surry County (sic) Fair next year. Winston wishes his Surry neighbors every success.”
While many communities in Surry, such as Zephyr and White Plains, held smaller fairs, it would take 27 years for the first fair to take place here.
Meanwhile, the residents of Surry took special train excursions to attend the Catawba, Cumberland, and Forsyth carnivals and the State Fair in Raleigh. Several local residents traveled to Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. With each passing year, the calls continued.
“With all the advancement and public spirit and great achievements of Surry people and especially the thrift and growth of Mount Airy and Elkin, it looks strange to see such a grand county like Surry without a funfair. A well-run show would incentivize farmers and manufacturers more than anything else that has been tested.” Winston Salem Journal, Sept. 25, 1907.
Finally, in 1916, the Charlotte Observer reported, “Surry County to get a scholarship this fall” with a state charter and $50,000 in committed 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 in today’s money) to fund the exchange.
Mount Airy, the largest city in the province, was chosen as the site for many reasons, not least “the beautiful system of sandy loam roads”. Business and community leaders such as Thomas Fawcett (founder of the First National Bank of Mount Airy), WG Sydnor (immediately former mayor of Mount Airy and chairman of the Workman’s Federal Savings and Loan), and JD Sargent (owner of the granite quarry) organized the Surry County Fair Association in June 1916.
Directors and vice presidents from each borough in Surry and representatives from Carroll, Patrick and Stokes counties signed up. They bought land from Dr. WS Taylor northwest of town. We don’t know for sure, but it seems to be the same country where the fair is held today, the Veterans Memorial Park. They rated a racetrack, built exhibit buildings, and relentlessly promoted the new fair across the state.
The first fair was held in mid-November, the next two were in mid-October, but in 1919 it settled in September, where it would remain for a century before moving to August.
When held, however, the funfair remains exciting for children of all ages, bringing the community together in good times and bad. If you’re going to the fair this week, have fun. 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 from Pennsylvania in 2005, where she was also involved in museums and history tours.