Music city? | Mt. Airy News


The Woodroffe Brothers, three bachelor sons of the founder of the Mount Airy Granite Quarry, were well known for their musical talents. Many of Surry’s business leaders played music. It was seen as both an enjoyable hobby and a way to improve oneself. The family hosted many of the area’s society parties in the home’ music room. They were the principal organizers of the Mount Airy Choral Society in September 1909, a full five-years before Winston’s society formed. Pictured in the family home circa 1920 are Thomas Woodroffe Jr., George Woodroffe, Frank Woodroffe, and Jim McCargo. –


This group of young men, playing at the old fairgrounds, look to be in their late teens through their 30s and likely played a more ruckus type of music than the Woodroffes. Music that the Mount Airy News described as “Foot-moving, Soul Stirring pieces that will get it into your feet – you just can’t help it.” The only person we know in the photo from about 1931 is Locke Webb, the boy with the saxophone at the left. He would have been about 17 at the time. –


Dances were all the rage in the early 20th century. Groups who played swing and big band were in high demand. The Mount Airy Dance Orchestra called the Carolinians, shown here about 1933, played across the region at hotels, fairs, and other venues. Pictured are an unknown trombonist, James Marion (bass), Frances “Joe” Agee (trumpet), Ken Cooke (drums), Howard Monto (saxophone and father of Nancy Davis the museum’s long-time guest services manager), Virginia Moore (piano), and Garnet Warren (banjo). –


On the museum’s second floor, musical instruments are showcased as an important element in Victorian life. Many of the items in the Victorian parlor came from the Woodroffe family where musical entertainments were a regular part of their lives. The phonograph would have been considered cutting-edge technology in its day and a highly prized addition to a home. An ad for the Reich-Walsh Furniture Company in the Elkin Tribune in 1918 said, “No home is complete without music. No home enjoys the fullest of life’s pleasures without some kind of music!” They offered their Victrolas “as low as $20” up to $400 with “terms easy as easy can be!” – –


The Mount Airy Cornet Band consisted of some of the city’s leading businessmen. They played at auctions, fairs, and in parades. The band created strong bonds between the men that carried into the business world where the men regularly supported each other in various endeavors. Pictured in this circa 1900s photo are, from left, seated, Wade C. Moody and Henry Leach, and, standing, Thomas J. Lowry Jr, M.C. McIntosh, Rome Hardy, Sant Ausburne, John R. Lowery, Ola Harris (leader), and Robert W. Ausburne. Tradition has it that the band was invited to “try out” John Philip Sousa’s Band. – –

Our History is a regular column submitted by Kate Rauhauser-Smith, visitor services manager at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, examining the region’s history and some related displays at the museum.

The frigid January air in the ancient town of Tunbridge was filled with the soaring sound of a small orchestra and jubilant voices of the local choral society as they presented Handel’s ‘Oratorio’ in 1865. The market town, 30 miles southeast of London, was home to Thomas Woodroffe and his growing family.

The Master Builder owned a construction company but made time for the society where he was an officer and accomplished violinist and vocalist. The family moved to Virginia in 1872 where he established himself in the construction world again. They moved to Mount Airy where he developed the great ‘flat rock’ into a commercially viable source for the finest white granite in the country.

But he never stepped away from music. It was a passion he passed on to his eight children.

In 1909, three of his sons, George, Thomas, and Frank, well-known for their musical talents, found the program from their father’s 1865 performance tucked away in some boxes. They were forming the Mount Airy Choral Society with 16 others and they were looking for pieces the group might perform.

“Their object is self-improvement and to be prepared to assist in giving entertainments when ever (sic) they are called upon,” reported the Mount Airy News on Sept. 9 that year.

Music has been important in this region from the earliest days when settlers made room on the journey to the backcountry for violins or other musical instruments.

In a day long before recorded or broadcast entertainment, the ability to create music was not only relaxing for the musician but made them popular with the neighbors. We often think of the get-togethers in this region when fiddlers and banjo players played for dances or corn shuckings. I’ve written in this column about the rich traditions of the Round Peak style of Old Time music here.

But residents in this area have never held to only one style of music. Just like today, there seems to have always been a wide range of musical tastes. The Woodroffes, as with many of their station, performed and listened to classical music. Thomas Sr. was one of the founders of what would become the Greensboro Symphony while living in that city in the late 1880s.

Ladies, particularly of the middle- and upper-class, were expected to play at least one musical instrument and to sing. Finishing schools and “female academies” stressed the quality of their music departments.

Men were avid musicians as well, often forming into bands. The Mount Airy Cornet Band was one of the first to create a formal association but other groups were often pulled together for a season or a few years and played at fairs, dances, and sporting events.

Having some understanding of music was considered an essential trait of a well-rounded person. Today we have science to back that up.

A 1996 study at UNC-Greensboro concluded that, “Students who participate in formal music education have higher academic achievement scores than students who do not participate in formal music education.” That study followed students for two years and showed a significant improvement in grades, especially in math, for under-achieving students who were given music and visual arts curriculum.

Families who could afford to, sent their children to special schools, such as the Music Normal School run by a Prof. James Ruebush. He traveled western North Carolina and Virginia, operating the school for a few weeks in various locations. He set up in Siloam for 12 days in October of 1909 at a cost of $2 a week for lessons and board.

Music is and has always been vital to humans, I think, but, perhaps my favorite quote regarding music as I’ve researched this week’s column appeared in the Yadkin Valley News in May 1893. It was written by Thomas Talmage, an internationally renowned minister who penned a regular column carried by many papers in the US and England.

“I should not wander if in the day of judgment it should be found out that more souls have been saved by music than by preaching.”

The Woodroffe Brothers, three bachelor sons of the founder of the Mount Airy Granite Quarry, were well known for their musical talents. Many of Surry’s business leaders played music. It was seen as both an enjoyable hobby and a way to improve oneself. The family hosted many of the area’s society parties in the home’ music room. They were the principal organizers of the Mount Airy Choral Society in September 1909, a full five-years before Winston’s society formed. Pictured in the family home circa 1920 are Thomas Woodroffe Jr., George Woodroffe, Frank Woodroffe, and Jim McCargo.

This group of young men, playing at the old fairgrounds, look to be in their late teens through their 30s and likely played a more ruckus type of music than the Woodroffes. Music that the Mount Airy News described as “Foot-moving, Soul Stirring pieces that will get it into your feet – you just can’t help it.” The only person we know in the photo from about 1931 is Locke Webb, the boy with the saxophone at the left. He would have been about 17 at the time.

Dances were all the rage in the early 20th century. Groups who played swing and big band were in high demand. The Mount Airy Dance Orchestra called the Carolinians, shown here about 1933, played across the region at hotels, fairs, and other venues. Pictured are an unknown trombonist, James Marion (bass), Frances “Joe” Agee (trumpet), Ken Cooke (drums), Howard Monto (saxophone and father of Nancy Davis the museum’s long-time guest services manager), Virginia Moore (piano), and Garnet Warren (banjo).

On the museum’s second floor, musical instruments are showcased as an important element in Victorian life. Many of the items in the Victorian parlor came from the Woodroffe family where musical entertainments were a regular part of their lives. The phonograph would have been considered cutting-edge technology in its day and a highly prized addition to a home. An ad for the Reich-Walsh Furniture Company in the Elkin Tribune in 1918 said, “No home is complete without music. No home enjoys the fullest of life’s pleasures without some kind of music!” They offered their Victrolas “as low as $20” up to $400 with “terms easy as easy can be!”

The Mount Airy Cornet Band consisted of some of the city’s leading businessmen. They played at auctions, fairs, and in parades. The band created strong bonds between the men that carried into the business world where the men regularly supported each other in various endeavors. Pictured in this circa 1900s photo are, from left, seated, Wade C. Moody and Henry Leach, and, standing, Thomas J. Lowry Jr, M.C. McIntosh, Rome Hardy, Sant Ausburne, John R. Lowery, Ola Harris (leader), and Robert W. Ausburne. Tradition has it that the band was invited to “try out” John Philip Sousa’s Band.

Mount Airy residents loved all sorts of music

Kate Rauhauser-Smith is the visitor services manager for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with 22 years in journalism before joining the museum staff. She and her family moved to Mount Airy in 2005 from Pennsylvania where she was also involved with museums and history tours. She can be reached at [email protected] or by calling 336-786-4478 x228

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