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A local love story for the ages

Jan 01, 2024

Our History

Henry's father, Ray, ran Wagoner's Grocery, on Bluemont Road, Mount Airy. Ray and his wife lived across the road from the store. After Ray's death in May 1946, Henry left National Furniture to run the store. He and Myrtle moved in with his mother to make it easier. Many of their customers were mill workers who walked to work and would stop on the way in or the way home to get a drink or a little something to eat.

Henry Wagoner, like many young men in Surry County at the time, found employment in one of the area's manufacturing facilities where hourly wages, and a set work schedule offered them the possibility of moving up. He worked at National Furniture Company, pictured here in the 1940s looking north along Factory Street. According to his wife's memoirs, he was paid $12 per week, Monday through Saturday morning, including the day they married. National merged with Mt. Airy Mantel and Table in 1974 to form National Mount Airy Furniture company. They were eventually bought by Bassett Furniture which then closed operations in 2005.

Surry County's many textile mills were a major part of the engine that drove the area's economy in the early 20th century. As the Great Depression and a prolonged bout of dry weather made it more difficult for local farmers to pay the bills, many got factory jobs, Myrtle Hill among them. She went every week to ask for a job at Renfro Mill on Willow Street Mount Airy until the manager gave in and hired her. She made $8 a week while training but once she learned to loop and operate the knitting machines she was paid a half cent per dozen pairs of socks. "I was making big money now!" she said in her family memoirs. This was the first time many women in the region entered the workforce. Their income became an important element in the improvement of the standard of living for many families. Pictured is the sock knitting room of a Mount Airy mill thought to be Renfro in the 1930s when Myrtle was hired.

Family members made a display of Henry's memorabilia from his WWII service, including one of his two Purple Hearts and a small soldier's Bible. They interviewed the couple and created simple memoirs that preserved their experiences and perspective on some of the most momentous events of the 20th century and some of the most mundane, but no less important, aspects of everyday life. Henry's recollections of being wounded and captured in Nazi Germany are harrowing while Myrtle's memories of more practical events of a couple's life are sweet and at times heartbreaking.

Myrtle received two telegrams from the US War Department. The first telling her that Henry was missing in action. The second, received Jan. 31, 1945, telling her he was a prisoner of war. Henry was captured in November 1944, and he wrote several post cards then and in December to tell her he was well and to ask for her prayers, but they didn't arrive in Mount Airy until February. She wrote back to him, but he was never given the letters. The post cards and telegrams are among the items the family allowed the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History to scan so this hometown love story and its unique perspective of life here will be preserved.

Pvt. Henry Wagoner advanced with his company across the German countryside near Aachen on a bitterly cold November day in 1944. "It rained and spit snow every day," he said in his memoirs.

Shrapnel hit his head and he was knocked to the ground unconscious. Hours later he came to. The battle had moved on and two German soldiers loomed over him with a rifle. "Don't move."

The next several days were a swirl of disjointed memories: the soldiers helped him to walk when he was conscious and carried him when he was not; he was loaded in an ambulance, then a train; taken to a hospital in Dusseldorf; his hair was shorn; the shrapnel removed; Allied planes bombed the city.

They gave him a pencil and a postcard to write home.

"November 26th, Dear Myrtle, Just a few lines to let you know that I am well. Hope you are well and OK. I have been captured. I will close with all my love. Henry"

He wrote again on Christmas Day. "Hope you are having a good Christmas. Keep praying and keep your chin up."

Little could he know but she did.

Myrtle Hill Wagoner lived in Mount Airy with her in-laws while Henry was deployed. She received a telegram from the War Department in November telling her Henry was missing but they didn't know if he was alive or dead.

It would be January 31, 1945, before she knew for sure and February before Henry's postcards reached her.

"God was with us all the time," she said in her family memoirs. "I never gave up of not seeing him any more."

The youngest of Everett and Siller (Beasley) Hill's 12 children, she grew up on a farm about seven miles from Mount Airy. When they weren't in school at Pine Ridge, the children helped raise the corn, tobacco, vegetables, hogs, cattle and chickens the family depended on.

In 1930, when she was 14, times got harder.

"Well, here comes the Depression and dry weather," she said. " We did not make anything on the farm, not even enough to pay bills." In time, her mother encouraged her to try for a job at one of the town's mills. She went every week for six weeks to ask for a job at the Renfro Mill on Willow Street and they finally said yes.

In 1936, at a ballgame with some friends, she "met this young and handsome boy" and they started to date on weekends and Wednesday nights. When, after three months "Henry asked me would I be his wife" she wasn't sure she wanted to get married so she didn't give him an answer that night. He had to wait until the next week.

But on Saturday, March 27, 1937, he worked his morning shift then borrowed his father's car. Dressed in his best clothes he picked up Myrtle and two friends and drove to Hillsville, Virginia, where they got a license and were married in a minister's house. Myrtle recalled they "stood on a sheepskin" and had a ring ceremony. Henry gave the minister $5, all the money he had.

The Wagoners attended a revival in 1937 when Myrtle responded to the minister's invitation. A few weeks later they began attending Calvary Baptist Church and she was baptized in the river at Laurel Bluff. The event and her faith were clearly important to her as she recalled the loss of two infants. "We did not know why God was so displeased with our lives that we could not have a family."

The hard-working couple lived frugally, paying $6 rent for a small house with no power or running water. They saved enough to buy two acres on Caudle Road for $300 in 1939. By September of the next year, they built a house for $1,000 with help from Federal Building and Loan. There was no power down that road at first, so they heated with wood and coal, and read by oil lamp. She did laundry with a washboard and tub and ironed with a flat iron heated by fire.

When power did reach them, she proudly recalls buying an electric iron and refrigerator.

Then Henry was drafted. She closed up the house and moved in with his parents.

Most of Henry's memoirs focus on his time in the stalag. As the Allies advanced, the Nazis moved the POWs further from the front. He talked of cutting wood in the forests around the camp, being sent to the fields to plant and tend potatoes, of sleeping on straw mattresses, but through it all he carried a picture of Myrtle in his wallet.

In May 1945 the prisoners were marched for three days, carrying boiled potatoes for food and sleeping in barns along the way. They were taken to a bridge where they were met by American troops and the Germans surrendered.

Though Henry experienced poor health for years following the war, he and Myrtle built a good life together. They ran the grocery his father started years earlier on Bluemont Road and were active in their church.

We know this level of detail about the Wagoner's love story because members of their family interviewed the couple and created two memoirs annotated with pictures from their 62 years together. The family recently shared scans of the memoirs and photos with the museum and donated a shadowbox of Henry's WWII service memorabilia.

Such records are incredibly important in giving us a lasting and well-rounded idea of life for people of all social levels in the region. Yes, the lives and experiences of political and business leaders are important but that is only part of the story for any community.

Theirs is a story of everyday people, not celebrities or financially wealthy. They were the sort of people who keep our society moving and they seem to have been wealthy in love and admiration. The museum is so glad to have that important story -their hometown love story – as part of our collection.

Kate Rauhauser-Smith is a volunteer for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with 22 years in journalism before joining the museum. She and her family moved to Mount Airy in 2005 from Pennsylvania where she was also involved with museums and history tours.