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Mount Airy, North Carolina
JUNE 2006
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Mount Airy, North Carolina @ National Geographic Magazine
By Cathy Newman
Photographs by Penny de los Santos
Chang and Eng gave the world "Siamese twins"—and brought a small town an enduring legacy.

You never know what's sitting in the family tree. Take the Bunkers of Mount Airy, North Carolina. The clan, which has more branches than a loblolly pine, is descended from twin brothers, Chang and Eng, who settled near Mount Airy in 1839. The brothers married sisters from a local family and had 21 children. So far, unexceptional. But Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, connected at the chest by a six-inch-long tube of flesh, were totally exceptional. Born in Siam (today's Thailand), they gave their name to the anomaly known as conjoined twins.

Their descendants—some 1,500—have scattered across the country, but many still live in Mount Airy, a town of 8,000 north of Winston-Salem, where the slow roll of the Piedmont plateau lifts to the Blue Ridge Mountains. In Mount Airy, a common form of address is "Honey," the soft drink of choice is Cheerwine, spiritual tastes run to Baptist and fundamentalist, and the day starts with radio obituaries on WPAQ ("Brought to you by Moody's Funeral Home").

Here, events have encouraged enterprise. Because textiles have lost their status as economic mainstays, Mount Airy has latched on to new opportunities, such as growing grapes for wine and—because it's the birthplace of TV star Andy Griffith—promoting its Mayberry connection.

Chang and Eng, who could move gracefully in tandem, do gymnastic feats, and play chess, understood enterprise. As the "Double Boys" they packed theaters and made a fortune—mostly for their promoters. At 21 they broke loose to manage their own careers. When a doctor who attended their show in New York invited them to visit the Mount Airy region, they took up the offer, bought land, and settled in as farmers.

The twins loved fine cigars, literature, and smart clothes. Eng, the calm one, liked late-night poker. Chang drank and had a temper. Today, when someone like Sherry Blackmon says, "That's just the way the Bunkers are," she's referring to that temper. "Of course, I can talk about the Bunkers because I married one," says Blackmon, whose husband, Zack, is a great-great-grandson of Eng. Bunkers can turn reticent, too. "They might talk to you. Then again, they might not." They are noted for honesty, for being loving parents, and, sometimes, for holding grudges. "They don't argue; they just might not talk to you for 20 years," another relative explains. The twins, you see, produced a perfectly normal family.

Chang and Eng Bunker, extraordinary by being on the wrong side of genetic odds, longed for the ordinary. When they met the Yates sisters, who lived down the road, Chang decided it was time to marry. "We are not responsible for our physical condition, and we should not have to die childless on that account," he told his brother. Chang successfully courted Adelaide; Eng followed suit with sister Sarah. "May the connection be as happy as it will be close," observed the Carolina Watchman on the occasion of the double-double wedding.

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