Before Andy Griffith. Before Junior Johnson. The Tri-Counties had an even bigger celebrity, someone even more famous.
Make that celebrities.
The most famous of us lived long ago, so long ago that they did not have the benefit of radio, television or the internet to tell their story, to spread their fame. Yet so great was their worldwide celebrity, they came here from far away to escape it.
They were Chang and Eng Bunker, the Siamese Twins of the 19th Century. They toured America and beyond, charging for personal appearances when showbiz was infantine. Still, the twins above all others among us present and past won “notoriety as falls to the lot of only one mortal in ten millions,” as a Philadelphia newspaper described it upon the Bunkers’ passing.
They lived most of their extraordinary lives right here in the hometown area, first in Traphill, then in White Plains this side of Mount Airy. They arrived in 1839 at the ages of 28 and in 1845 moved to Surry County, where they lived until their deaths in 1874.
Connected in the middle of their chests by a piece of cartilage some five inches long and seven inches around, and having fused livers, the twins blended into antebellum society here and won acceptance as storekeepers, farmers and neighbors.
For instance, they could stand at a tree, chop it with hand axes from two angles with perfect rhythm, and fell the tree quicker than any two other men.
The twins were pioneers here in growing brightleaf tobacco, which became universal among farmers. As able carpenters, they built their own houses as well as helped build White Plains Baptist Church on their farmland.
Meanwhile, folks here respected their privacy and strictly avoided the question that was on everyone’s minds: how did the conjoined twins father 21 children with wives who were sisters?
Much has been written and spoken about the Siamese Twins over the generations. I’ve seen their old Traphill home and their White Plains graves. I went to school with Bunker descendants. A well-publicized annual family reunion in Mount Airy draws hundreds from among some 1,500 descendants, and on occasion dignitaries from the twins’ native Thailand come and pay homage.
As well as I knew the story, I also knew that I just had to take one more close look at our biggest celebrities as described in a new book.
For the first time, the book “Inseparable” tells the story of the Siamese Twins from an Asian perspective. “The twins would always have to fight to be treated as humans,” wrote the author, Yunte Huang, a fellow Chinese and fellow immigrant. The twins had a Chinese father, a half-Chinese mother and grew up in an ethnic Chinese community.
The author was a student protester during the famous, failed 1989 Tiananmen Square revolt in Beijing against an authoritarian society. Huang managed to come to America, become a professor and now a writer.
He is haunted by why the twins came here to live after a decade of enriching showbiz and not return to their native country.
We know things are good here in the hometown area, but are they that good?
As described in “Inseparable,” famous Sauk Indian warrior Black Hawk, who starred in his own traveling show as well, one time famously toasted the twins in Cleveland on the Fourth of July. May the Great Spirit “be their guide and protector, should they go across the Great Waters,” Black Hawk said. But the twins never did.
“For me, as an immigrant,” Huang told National Public Radio last month,“nostalgia … tugs at your heart. …
“And so I’m very curious to know why they never went back at least for a visit.”
And as for the twins’ marital relations, Huang described in the radio interview how when one twin was in his home he was “master of the house.” And the other twin would “basically do this kind of mental blank-out.”
While Mount Airy-born and bred Andy Griffith portrayed Mayberry on TV as idyllic and winsome, the Siamese Twins took their odd and bizarre circumstance and turned it into idyllic and winsome Mayberry-style lives.
They came here, settled down, married, raised families and lived the commoner lifestyles that they desired.
“The twins appeared in the doorway,” wrote a journalist in 1850 after paying a visit, “dressed in rough cotton. Each had a quid of tobacco in his mouth, each was barefooted. They stood in the doorway a minute or so, then waved good naturedly.”
Just a couple of good ol’ hometown guys.
“Their story is an example of the triumphant human spirit,” Huang concluded.
Their story also is a part of our story. And it deserves our attention and honor.
“Inseparable”: In case you get the book, and it is available at the Elkin Library, Huang describes the twins arriving in Wilkesboro on a June day when “the dogwood rioted in bloom.” OK, so the English professor in Los Angeles doesn’t know the hometown area that well. But his insights and research on the twins is worthwhile. Check it out.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.