Surry County (1771)

Written By Jonathan Martin

Surry County, established in 1771 from part of Rowan County, borders Virginia and is also located in the Piedmont and mountain divide in North Carolina. Surry may have received its name from two sources — a county in England or the Indians who lived in the region. The birthplace of William Tryon, the oppressive royal governor of the North Carolina colony, was known as Surrey County in England. Another possibility could be that Surry is a derivative of the Saura; the Saura were the first Native Americans to inhabit present-day Surry. In addition, historians contend that the seat of government, Dobson, received its name from two sources as well.  Some believe that Dobson was either named in honor of William P. Dobson, a representative who served in the General Assembly in the 1810s, or William Dobson, a justice of the peace who served during the Revolutionary Era. Although Dobson is the county seat, other communities are located in Surry, including Elkin, Ararat, Bottom, Level Cross, Mount Airy, and Toast.

Mount Airy, however, is the most well-known Surry community, for it is home to Andy Griffith and the site of the largest granite quarry in the world. In 1889, the mine began full-scale production and Mount Airy was soon referred to as the “Granite City.” Not only was Andy Griffith born in Mount Airy but the city also served as the inspiration for Mayberry, the setting for the hit 1960s The Andy Griffith Show. Aired on the CBS network from October 1960 to September 1968, the series was known for its catchy intro whistle, Southern charm and community, and talented actors: Andy Griffith (Sheriff Andy Taylor), Ron Howard (Andy’s son Opie), and Don Knotts (Deputy Barney Fife). In all, 249 episodes were filmed, and several buildings such as the Old City Hall, the Andy Griffith Playhouse, Snappy Lunch, and Floyd’s City Barber Shop still exist in Surry County. According to historian William S. Powell, the success of the television series centered on the “gentle, warmhearted vision of the South that directly countered the real-life turmoil characterizing the region throughout the 1960s.”  Several spin-off series, including The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., were based on themes evident in The Andy Griffith Show.

Several key natural attractions are found within Surry County.  These characteristics include rivers, creeks, and one of the most distinguishable mountains in the eastern North Carolina. The Mitchell, Ararat, and Yakin Rivers all pass through the county. Some creeks and smaller estuaries include the Toms, Beaver, Red Hill, and Johnson Creeks. The notable Pilot Mountain, one of the state’s most touted natural palisades, rests in Surry County. Reaching to a height over 1,400 feet, Pilot Mountain is well-known due to its Big Pinnacle, a round, tree-covered top that is separated by quartz rock walls. The lower section of the mountain, the Little Pinnacle, consists of metamorphic rock, rarely found in that section of North Carolina. Pilot Mountain received its name because it has long served as a guide to Native Americans, settlers, and modern-day outdoorsmen. The Saura named the peak Jomeokee, “great guide” or “pilot”, and the northern immigrants who traveled the Great Wagon Road witnessed the mountain as they traveled into the North Carolina colony. In 1753, a Moravian settler from Pennsylvania remarked in his journal that as his group “saw the Pilot Mountain, [they] rejoiced to think that we would soon see the boundary of Carolina, and set foot in our own dear land.” Pilot Mountain, since the arrival of the first settlers, has been a vital part of the welcoming spirit of Surry County.

The Saura were the first natives to live and reside in present-day Surry County. In addition to the Saura, the mountain dwelling Cherokee had claims in the region, and consequently wars and skirmishes were a constant issue because of the tribal rivalry. Many of the paths and trails made by Indian hunters served as a rough outline for the present railways and highways in Surry. Virginian settlers were the first white men to inhabit the area, and subsequent immigrants from England and Germany came to the region. The beginning of white settlement annoyed many of the residing Native Americans and several battles occurred throughout the mountain region of early North Carolina during the mid-1700s. Yet, European settlers were not dismayed and they continued to flock to present-day Surry County. Attracted by the natural beauty and resources of the region, most built houses and farms along the Yadkin River while others resided on the edge of the Dan River. As more families and frontiersmen colonized the region, a petition was filed by several Rowan County residents with the hope to establish a new courthouse. Despite the efforts of the early citizens the legislature focused on the overwhelming tax burden imposed on the colony by Parliament. However, in 1771 the proposal was adopted and Surry County was finally established.

Surry County has been the birthplace of a well-known humorist and the residence of a North Carolina governor, and the first ever recorded siamese twins. Jesse Franklin (1760-1823), a distinguished soldier, senator, representative, and state governor, was raised in Surry County. After his service in the vital battles of Guilford Courthouse and Kings Mountain, Franklin entered state politics, and he served as governor for one year from 1820 to 1821. Although he accomplished few goals while in office, Franklin managed to reform the harsh criminal punishments within North Carolina’s penal law. Born in Siam in 1811, Eng and Chang, the first siamese (conjoined) twins of international acclaim, made their home in Surry County.  P.T. Barnum discovered the twins and persuaded them to tour throughout America and Europe as part of his circus show; however, the two soon toured in an independent show. The brothers married sisters, Adelaide and Sarah Yates, in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, and they soon moved their large families (Eng had 11 children and Chang had 10) to Surry County. Hardin Taliaferro (1811-1875) was born near Little Fisher’s River, and he grew up working in the grist mills of the area; it was in these mills that Taliaferro developed his knack for both telling and writing stories. After becoming a pastor in Alabama, Taliaferro began to travel and write sketches and stories that detailed the life and culture in the South before the Civil War.  Later, the famous American author and satirist Mark Twain imitated Taliaferro’s use of local dialects and writing style.

Surry County hosts several annual cultural events. Some of these festivals include the Autumn Leaves Festival, the Yadkin Valley Pumpkin Festival, Mayberry Days (commemoration of the Andy Griffith Show), and an annual mid-summer tennis tournament. In addition to the numerous events within Surry County, three distinguished cultural institutions are located in the region. The Charles H. Stone Memorial Library, the Foothills Theatre, and the Horne Creek Living Historical Farm are all important attractions in Surry County.