Just minutes from the Southern Virginia border lays Mount Airy, a community that exemplifies small-town America. The town was made famous by its hometown boy, Andy Griffith, who modeled most of the fictional town, Mayberry (the setting of his 1960’s television series “The Andy Griffith Show”), from his childhood home. Our recent visit to the town demonstrated that over the years the spirit of Mayberry has not diminished in Mount Airy. The charm of the community began to work its magic as we drove past the water tower decorated with the painted silhouette of Andy and Opie heading toward the fishing hole. I couldn’t help but whistle the theme song as I headed into town.
For those of you who may not know of Andy Griffith (you either are very young, very old, or have never seen a television show), he is an actor who is best known for his role as a small town sheriff Andy Taylor on the “Andy Griffith Show” which ran 249 episodes from 1960 to 1968 and numerous reruns ever since. Later he portrayed a simple detective in a series called “Matlock”, but to most of us he is forever the young, smiling, gentle arm of the law in Mayberry. In fact his character is so embedded in my mind that I was shocked to realize that the real Andy Griffith will actually be 80 years old in June of this year. However, I preferred to leave that little fact out of my imagination as I traversed through the town.
As familiar names like Wally’s Service Station, Floyd’s Barber Shop, and Snappy Lunch began to appear along Main Street, I felt like I was going home to a simpler time. I was almost expecting to find Aunt Bee heading toward the courthouse to bring lunch to frequent jail resident Otis Campbell, Goober the eternally happy mechanic waving “hey” to passersby, Deputy Barney Fife with his hand firmly on the holster of his trusty bullet-less “blue steel baby” (pistol), Floyd the barber waiting for his next customer, Ernest T. Bass hurling bricks through windows, the musical outlaw Darling Family driving through town in their overloaded truck and many other characters that helped bring Mayberry to life.
The real Mayberry (aka Mount Airy) isn’t that different from the fictional one, but to truly appreciate the experience, a quick trip to the Visitor Center, located in the Dr. Robert Smith House on 615 North Main Street is in order. Here we were greeted by someone literally running down the steps to welcome us. We were introduced to the town by a short video narrated by a Barney Fife look-alike that would even have “Ole Ange” (Andy Taylor’s nickname given by Barney) looking twice. I can honestly say that I have never felt more welcomed as a tourist in any other place that I have visited. This warm and friendly Mayberry-style hospitality would linger throughout our entire visit. We left with a carefully mapped out plan to hit all the Mayberry related sites and a copy of the musical score and words to the Andy Griffith theme song. Who could ask for anything more?
Our first stop was Floyd’s City Barber Shop, where Floyd (Russell Hiatt) has been cutting hair for close to 60 years. We timidly stuck our head in the door for a peek when he enthusiastically waved us in for a round of hugs and photographs. We were allowed to sit in the same chair Andy sat in to get his haircut. Numerous photographs of tourists line his “Wall of Fame”. If you look carefully enough you may find familiar faces such as Oprah Winfrey and Lou Ferrigno (the Incredible Hulk). Despite the fact that it appears that tourists are more interested in photos than haircuts, everyone inside seemed genuinely happy to see us.
Our next stop was next door at the Snappy Lunch where local Charles Dowell has been cooking for 50 years. The small diner where Andy ate as a small boy has been mentioned on “The Andy Griffith Show” and is a crowd pleasing favorite that seems to stay packed with customers. While there we tried the famous fried pork chop sandwich which was loaded with mustard, coleslaw, chili, onions and tomato. I have to admit this modestly priced tasty tidbit was almost too much to finish in one sitting. It is a definite “must have” for all Mount Airy visitors. Of course, don’t forget to pose for the photo opportunity with Mr. Dowell who like many of the locals is more than happy to stop for a few minutes to spend time with visitors.
There are many other stops within walking distance on Main Street. Andy Griffith show memorabilia can be bought at almost any shop. There is a self-guided courthouse tour of the town’s original jail. A trip to the third floor of The Main Oak Emporium offers a lot of Andy Griffith memorabilia and displays. Just a little further down the road on Rockford Street is a statue of Andy and Opie in front of the Andy Griffith Playhouse where Andy once went to elementary school. About a mile out of town on Haymore Street visitors can view the Andy Griffith Homeplace which is also now a bed and breakfast for tourists who wish to have an overnight Andy Griffith immersion experience.
Just a short drive away is Wally’s Service Station, complete with a replica of the famous squad car parked out front. In fact, if you are interested, they offer a squad car tour for a nominal fee. Inside the garage, visitors can find old time favorites such as RC Cola, Grape Nehi and Moon Pies. Next door is a recreation of the Mayberry Court House where you can call Sarah on the phone, see the bricks thrown by Ernest T Bass and if you listen carefully enough you can almost hear Otis “sleeping one off” in the jail cell. When we posed for picture with the squad car the owner actually stood in the middle of the road and stopped traffic. When I fretted that he might be hit by a car he said, “You are in Mayberry. You aren’t in Chicago”. Those few words summed up Mount Airy entirely.
It may surprise you to know that Mount Airy was also home to other celebrities. “The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA” country music singer/song writer Donna Fargo and old-time music legend Tommy Jarrell are also from the town. Eng and Chang, the famous Siamese twins of the mid 1800’s who traveled with PT Barnum, also found the charm of the town enough to entice them to move permanently to Surry County, where many of their descendants still live. The story of their unusual life is chronicled in a room dedicated to them at the Dr. Robert Smith house.
In addition to celebrities, Mount Airy is also home to a lot of great music. Every year they host the Annual Fiddlers Convention during the first weekend in June. Local radio station WPAQ hosts the third longest-running live radio music program in America every Saturday morning. Local jam sessions are held weekly giving both established and budding musicians the opportunity to share their music. For additional entertainment, the town even has one of the few remaining active drive-in movie theaters but what else would you expect in Mayberry, I mean Mount Airy?
Other points of interest include the only Main Street winery in North Carolina, a museum that traces the cultural history of the area and the largest open-faced granite quarry in the world. At 1 and 1/2 miles long and a 1/4 mile wide, astronauts even use the quarry as a landmark. Many examples of granite obtained from the quarry can be seen throughout the town.
It was hard to leave Mount Airy, but I know we will carry its spirit with us as we head back to the big city. I know that no matter what happens, we can always visit the town that “is like coming home again” where we will always be met with smiling faces and open arms. With so much to see and do, you don’t have to be a fan of the Andy Griffith Show to be a fan of Mount Airy.