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Agricultural Society helped spur growth, prosperity

Jul 03, 2023

Our History

The Surry County Agricultural Society Journal from 1819-1823 edited by Nannie May Tilley and published in the October 1947 issue of the North Carolina Historical Review. This journal was found among the papers of David S. Reid, governor of North Carolina from 1851-1854 and is now preserved in the library of Duke University. The journal was written during the time of poor economic, social and education conditions of Surry County.

Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

Established in 1819, the Surry Agricultural Society played a vital role in supporting farmers in rural Surry County. This society aimed to foster agricultural knowledge and encourage community support among local farmers. Through their collective efforts, the society members contributed to the growth and development of the agricultural community in the region.

The areas in and around Surry County have for the most part always been considered rural. As such, the people living on these lands have largely been farmers, homesteaders, and others who rely on the land to support their livelihoods. Even in later times when furniture and textile industries came to the area, many people still relied on farming the land.

A major driving force in the creation of the group was the War of 1812. The war, which spanned 1812-1815, was fought between the U.S and Great Britain. Largely fought over land rights, Native American policy, and trade, North Carolina did not see much fighting, apart from a few battles along the coast. However, many North Carolinians served in regiments during the war and returned to areas like Surry County.

One such man was John Whitlock, the first president of the Surry Agricultural Society. He had previously served as a private in a Surry County regiment during the War of 1812, along with a handful of other founding members: James Martin, the first treasurer, Mordecai Fleming, Matthew Davis, John Martin, and William McCraw.

When they returned from the war, small landowners had little money, trouble growing anything in their soil, and nowhere to turn for help except to each other.

The Surry Agricultural Society's purpose, as its constitution declares, was "for the promotion of useful knowledge." In their meetings, society members in attendance discussed various matters relevant to farmers and agricultural work; such as contour farming (the practice of farming along the elevation or slope of land), crop rotation, which grains they had the most success with, tobacco as a money crop, etc.

This shows the foresight that members of the society had, as at the time tobacco was not the lucrative crop in Surry County that it would later become. It would not be until a few decades later that the tobacco industry would take over a large segment of the local economy with the introduction of Brightleaf tobacco.

While not the president of the society, Meshack Franklin was largely considered to be at the helm of the group. Franklin had previously served as a representative in the North Carolina legislature, as well as in the U.S. House of Representatives. Later in life and after his involvement with the Surry County Agricultural Society, he would serve in the state senate. Meshack Franklin was also the brother of Jesse Franklin, who would become North Carolina governor in 1820.

As to his involvement in the society, Franklin often put forth motions on which topics should be discussed during meetings and moved to have members purchase copies of publications that discussed the agricultural issues pertaining to members. Meeting notes from Oct. 30, 1819, show that Meshack Franklin put forward that during the society's next meeting the following topics should be discussed: "What season of the Year is most advantageous for the fallowing of our lands for a Corn Crop and which the most economical animal for such purpose."

Another member of the society was Solomon Graves. Graves was the first trained lawyer to settle in Mount Airy, having arrived from Caswell County in 1816. He purchased a farm in the area, and built a house on South Main Street, which has since been demolished.

Surry County was not the only section of the state to organize an agricultural society in the same time period. At least 17 other societies were in existence. There was also the large State Agricultural Society, which like the Surry Agricultural Society, was organized in 1819.

The Agricultural Society of North Carolina was organized in December 1818 in Raleigh with Gov. John Branch as its president, but only existed for a few years. It was followed by the North Carolina Agricultural Society in 1852 which lasted until the late 1920s. The NC Agricultural Society was the creator of the first North Carolina State Fair in 1853, which was the society's push for the promotion of both scientific agriculture and industry.

The foresight the Surry Agricultural Society had in its discussions demonstrated the members’ understanding of the changing agricultural landscape. The establishment of the Surry Agricultural Society not only cultivated crops but also sowed the seeds of agricultural innovation across the state, blossoming into a fruitful harvest of scientific progress and economic growth.

The Journal of the Surry County Agricultural Society can be read through the Surry Digital Heritage website at:

Katherine "Kat" Jackson is an employee at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History. Originally from Australia she lives in King and can be reached at the museum at 336-786-4478.