Andy Griffith was born in Mt. Airy, N.C., a town near the Virginia line. For much of his life, he denied that Mayberry was based on the place where he grew up. However, near the end of his years, he relented in his denial.
The town of Mt. Airy, though, has never wavered in its devotion to Andy with such evidence as: It hosts an annual fall festival called Mayberry Days where folks connected to the show attend while tens of thousands of visitors crowd the town; the road leading in is called the Andy Griffith Parkway (he was there when it opened in 2002); Main Street is scattered with stores such as Floyd’s Barber Shop, the Blue Bird Dinner, Snappy Lunch, Walker’s Soda Fountain and Wally’s Service which supplies squad car tours of the historic spots pertaining to the show — in a Ford Galaxie 500 just like Sheriff Taylor’s car. The tour, which sells out regularly, includes a drive-by of Andy Griffith’s childhood home, a simple white-clapboard house on a quiet street just a stone’s throw from downtown.
There’s also the astoundingly well done Andy Griffith Museum (but we’ll talk about that in next week’s column).
When I visited, I turned my car from Andy Griffith Parkway onto Rockford, heading toward my hotel. I had passed Pilot Mountain a few miles back, obviously the inspiration for the town of Mt. Pilot. Near the hotel, an oversized billboard featuring Sheriff Taylor, Barney, and Opie loomed advertising the show’s daily appearance on the MEtv Network proclaiming: ANDY’S HOME.
The lobby of the Hampton Inn, the town’s best hotel, features a shaky Andy Griffith signature framed from his elderly years as well as other Mayberry framings and a rack of sketches of the various show actors — and Elvis — for sale at $20 each. This is common. In the windows of downtown shops are photographs, particularly of beloved Barney Fife and merchandise galore. The town proudly refers to itself as both Mt. Airy and Mayberry. It has become a cottage industry that supports many people and, to all its citizen, is an association of which they are rightfully very proud.
Who wouldn’t want to live in the town that inspired Mayberry?
After I checked into the hotel (Tink, to his regret, had to miss the adventure because of a business trip to Los Angeles) I went downtown and wandered about, feeling fully that I was back in the 1960s, living in black and white.
I discovered a music store owned by gospel great James Easter. The Easter Brothers, I didn’t know, are from Mt. Airy. They co-wrote the standard, “Thank you, Lord, For Your Blessings On Me”.
In a small courtyard on the Thursday evening, a dozen men with guitars, mandolins, fiddles and banjos gathered and played bluegrass and gospel as the sun dropped. I stopped to enjoy the music. A young man with thick blonde hair and bright blue eyes was walking a giant dog or, rather, the dog was walking him.
I laughed. “Every one in town has BIG dogs,” I had already seen five or six the size of a half-grown calf.
“This isn’t my dog,” he said, drawing to a stop. “I’m walkin’ him for a girl.”
“It must be a girl that you’re interested in.”
He grinned. “Yeah. I thought this’d get me in good.”
“Did you grow up here?” I asked, after explaining that I’m a writer.
He nodded. “I did. And it was a great place to grow up. I couldn’t wait to get out, though, and experience the big city. When I got out of school, I went to Raleigh and then I moved to Tampa for a time.”
Thoughtfully, he looked around at the musicians and around the shops on Main Street. “Then, I couldn’t wait to get back.” He smiled. “Who wouldn’t want to live here?”
(This is the second in a four part series on the legendary Andy Griffith Show. Next week, we visit the museum that honors Andy and his show.)