Phil Marsh has a strong appreciation for downtown Mount Airy dating to his childhood, when many fond memories were made there.
“I’d come about every Saturday when I could,” Marsh recalled of the days growing up on his family’s farm in the Beulah community, where a trip to town was a welcome diversion from the tobacco fields.
Marsh, now 73, says his father would drive him into Mount Airy and set him out in front of the Earle Theater, where the venerable downtown movie house typically screened three feature films on a Saturday.
The weekend jaunt also usually included a stopover at another popular establishment of that era.
“I used to hang out at The Canteen when I was young,” Marsh said of a diner/malt shop specializing in ice cream and milkshakes.
Overall, he spent so much time in the downtown area that it got into his blood. “It just sort of stays with you,” he said of collective experiences there which have kept such feelings strong to this day.
“I guess I just love downtown.”
His early excursions there would lead to Marsh actually living in the city’s central business district later in life, and becoming involved with the Downtown Business Association (DBA), an organization he now heads.
Marsh’s service with that group includes playing a key role in coordinating various events, including holiday parades, cruise-ins and Mayberry Farm Fest, among others.
While he has a reputation for serving quietly behind the scenes without fanfare, Marsh has attracted the attention of downtown observers and the state Main Street Program. It named him the 2018 Main Street Champion for Mount Airy Downtown Inc.
Local Main Street Coordinator Lizzie Morrison called Marsh “the epitome” of that designation when the award was announced.
“I can’t thank him enough for his dedication and service to our community,” Morrison commented. “He is one of the most hardworking and humble people that I know, and I don’t know where we would be without him.”
In addition to his service with the DBA, Marsh owns two older buildings on North Main Street, including one housing an office for his electrical contracting business, which has further entrenched him in downtown Mount Airy.
Marsh was born in 1947 a few blocks from the city’s main drag at Martin Memorial Hospital, which would be destroyed by a fire several years later.
Lessons of hard work
Phil Marsh’s youth was filled with more than kicking back at the theater on leisurely Saturdays, however.
“When I was growing up, I had to work every day,” he observed during an interview last Monday.
“My parents, both of them, worked in textiles,” Marsh said of Herman and Carolyn Lankford Marsh, “and we also were tobacco farmers.”
That was true of many people in Surry County in those days, which also included his grandparents on both sides and other family members. “Everybody was tobacco farmers.”
Being an only child meant Phil Marsh probably spent more time in the fields than youths from larger families, whether it included priming tobacco, topping the plants or other tasks.
He also somehow found time to help on the farms of neighbors, along with mowing yards — “whatever I could to make extra money.”
When the work day was done, neighborhood youths were not above engaging in pranks from time to time. One night Marsh and other boys donned sheets and pretended to be ghosts, concealing themselves in a church cemetery at Pine Ridge and jumping out as vehicles passed.
One woman was so terrified she ran her car into a ditch. It turned out she was the sister of a local law enforcement official who was not pleased about that event.
Yet the lessons of hard work learned early in life have helped define Phil Marsh as a person who continues to put in many hours with his electrical business and community endeavors.
“I guess that’s the way I was brought up — I mean, I have to stay busy doing something,” he said, instead of just sitting around as some in his generation might do.
“If you know Phil, you know that he is always on the move, and he’s usually on his way to go help someone else,” Morrison, the Main Street coordinator, agreed.
“He stops in my office almost daily to ask if there is anything he can do to help. It has been such a wonderful blessing to have Phil as a downtown leader, a mentor and a friend.”
Energized by electricity
Marsh attended the now-defunct Beulah School during his elementary years before advancing to North Surry High School en route to the electrical field.
“After I left high school, I went to work for Duke Power in Winston-Salem and I worked on a line crew,” Marsh said, explaining that he actually was contracted to Duke through another company employing his cousin, Jerry Southern.
Southern had encouraged Marsh to also try to get on there.
“He said if you can learn to climb poles, you can make more money,” Marsh said, which included becoming well-versed in the use of equipment for that job.
“So he brought his hooks and belts home and we practiced in a cow pasture.”
Marsh says his reason for pursuing a career in electricity stemmed from the fact it is a skilled trade offering rewards. “That was the type of work you could go into and make money.”
In addition to Duke Power (now Duke Energy), the local man held jobs with such companies as Reynolds Tobacco, in its electrical department, and Inman Electric in Mount Airy.
While those positions paid well, the electrical profession also offered its share of risks. “It is dangerous work,” Marsh emphasized.
Along with being around high-voltage lines posing electrocution hazards, there are other ways a person can get hurt, he said in relating a couple of close calls during his lengthy career.
On one occasion, while working with a crew unloading light poles, one gave way and clipped the top of Marsh’s head. “If it wasn’t for the hard hat it would have probably hurt me good,” he said of the standard protective gear.
Another time Marsh was trying to scale a utility pole, in which the unexpected presence of a hole made by a woodpecker caused him to fall.
“And I slid down the pole — my arms were burnt up,” he said, prompting some first aid by co-workers.
“That was when I was 18 and I’m still doing it,” he said of electrical work.
Though it might appear he jumped from job to job, Marsh explained that the positions tended to be temporary or part-time which filled in around a farming operation he also maintained in Beulah.
Marsh later went into business for himself, which he said was at least 35 years ago.
The Phil Marsh Electrical Co. handles both residential and commercial jobs, about 75 percent of which are in the latter category. He works with his son John, 50, and grandson Eli in the business, along with wife Peggy, a retired nurse. Marsh also has a daughter, Suzette.
Marsh continued to farm after launching his electrical business.
He grew 35 to 40 acres of hay, some of which was used on his spread that included a horse farm, with the rest sold to other farmers. “And at one time I had strawberries,” said Marsh, who also maintained an apple orchard containing about 500 trees.
The horse operation — which involved raising, training and showing quarter horses — became a major source of enjoyment for him.
“My wife, she got interested in it, too, and we started going to horse shows,” he said of his first wife Chris. The horse farm, which might have stabled as many as 12 purebred mounts at a given time, served as both a successful business and competitive outlet for the couple.
Tragedy would strike, however, in the form of one of life’s challenges Marsh has had to overcome.
“My first wife passed away of cancer,” he said of Chris Marsh, who died in 1999.
“That was quite a challenge, to work and look out for her,” Marsh added. “She got in real bad shape and I had to sit up with her all night.”
Other family members also helped out, including the couple’s son and daughter and Chris’ sister who took a leave of absence from an airline job to care for the patient at home.
“I slept in a chair for six months — that’s how bad it got,” Marsh said.
His wife eventually succumbed to the disease, dying at age 51 on her birthday.
Undying love for downtown
Marsh, who later remarried, decided to quit farming around 2004 and moved to Renfro Lofts downtown. While there, he became involved with the Downtown Business Association, which coordinates events and other promotional activities to keep the central business district thriving.
“There were a lot of good merchants and people involved with downtown and everybody wanted to see the downtown do good,” Marsh said of his reasons for joining the DBA. That involvement has spanned 16 years, including serving multiple terms as the organization’s president.
Marsh’s foray into downtown Mount Airy soon became more than residential in nature. After moving there, he turned an eye toward the business Something Different on Main, located in the historic Banner Building.
“We bought the business and started running that, too,” Marsh said in addition to other pursuits.
The DBA official resided at Renfro Lofts for 12 years before relocating to the Pine Ridge area, to the old homeplace of his wife’s grandparents. While that mirrors his love for the countryside, it is also a better place for storing electrical equipment, Marsh says.
He now owns both the Banner structure and the old Merle Norman Building downtown, which Marsh has worked on as part of his busy schedule.
While he no longer resides in downtown Mount Airy, Phil Marsh’s heart and soul remains as entrenched there as ever, including playing a key role in organizing the various events held there by the DBA.
The advent of COVID-19 spelled “disaster” for those activities during 2020, Marsh said in condensing all the cancellation-related frustrations into a single word.
“It seems like as far into the year it got, the worse it got,” he said of the coronavirus impact that routinely led to the scrapping of events boosting the local economy.
“I mean we planned and talked about it,” Marsh added of trying to work in events around the pandemic, which always seemed to boil down to “maybe next month.”
People constantly stopped him on the street to ask when the next cruise-in would be held, he said of one example of the uncertainties faced with public gathering restrictions. The annual cruise-ins from June through October are heavily attended affairs boasting car owners and fans from near and far.
“It just hasn’t worked out for us,” the Downtown Business Association president said.
He is hoping for a better 2020, including the fate of the next big event planned downtown, Mayberry Farm Fest this spring.
Marsh considers that his favorite, due to his agricultural background, but gives credit to fellow DBA member Gail Hull for being the ramrod behind that festival showcasing the area’s farming culture.
It includes such attractions as live animals, displays of antique equipment and a tractor parade that might have 60 or more entries, including many older ones that have been lovingly restored.
“It’s good for families, kids — it’s good for farmers,” Marsh said of Mayberry Farm Fest.
“They love it,” he mentioned regarding the latter, especially those desiring to show off their prized tractors.
Marsh also is fond of the Mayberry Cool Cars and Rods Cruise-In series presented by the Downtown Business Association.
That’s coming from the vantage point of someone who has loved rebuilding and restoring old cars and hot rods and drag-racing them — which he admits engaging in along local roadways at times during his younger days.
Marsh says the success of the central business district over the years has been due to a team effort. It’s one including not only the Downtown Business Association, but the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, Mount Airy Visitors Center and Mount Airy Downtown Inc.
“We all work together and help each other.”