A Honeyed Slice of Americana: Visiting the Real Mayberry in Mount Airy, NC
For those of us who enjoy classic television, few shows hold such a warm place in our hearts as The Andy Griffith Show. Running for eight seasons between 1960 and 1968, the show about Sheriff Andy Taylor and the good people of Mayberry had something few other shows could match, the power to make us both laugh and cry.
As a setting, the town of Mayberry was an idealized version of small town America where decency and kindness prevailed. The townspeople were all thoughtful and good-hearted, even if they were a little wacky; and no problem was too thorny that it couldn’t be worked out with a little homespun wisdom by episode’s end.
Yet even as the show aired, its idealized vision of rural America was fading into the past, more reminiscent of the 1940’s than the 1960’s. But the nostalgia it embraced was a welcome balm for many Americans who found themselves navigating more fractious times.
As it was then, so it is now. Mayberry has remained a beloved archetype of small town America two decades into the 21st century. The show has been in continuous syndication for more than fifty years and has been viewed more than a million times. Its magic lives on. Wouldn’t it be nice if Mayberry was a real place?
As it turns out, it is.
Mount Airy, NC, the Real Mayberry
Reality never matches fiction, and the same is true of Mayberry. The first shock is that Aunt Bea, the sweetnatured matriarch of the fictional Taylor family was actually not so sweet in real live. Francis Bavier, who played Aunt Bea was thin-skinned and ornery. She didn’t get along with Andy Griffith, and she disliked playing opposite seven-year-old Ronny Howard, which she considered beneath her. When she died in 1989 no one from the Andy Griffith show attended her funeral.
However, after her death, a number of items from her estate showed up at auction, and fans of the show turned up to bid on them. Among those fans was Tanya Jones of the Surry County Arts Council.
Surry County, North Carolina is home to Mount Airy, the town where Andy Griffith grew up. For forty-six years after Andy’s departure in 1944, the town did little to honor him, a slight that didn’t go unnoticed by Andy Griffith, who was famously sensitive to slights and knew how to hold a grudge. He rarely returned there.
In 1990 Tanya Jones decided it was time Mount Airy claimed Andy as its native son. She organized the first annual Mayberry days, a festival that celebrates all things Mayberry and declares itself the real life model for the fictional town. Andy didn’t attend and downplayed the assertion, stating that Mayberry was created out of the imagination of the writers with only vague referents to any real towns. But that was just Andy holding a grudge. His memories of growing up in Mount Airy were not fond, and he didn’t want the town getting any credit.
What it was, was Football
Andy Griffith was an awkward boy. He failed at sports and was picked on by bullies. In high school he passed unnoticed. When he left Mount Airy to attend college in 1944, he was glad to be putting it behind him. In college he got involved in theater and did well. He eventually won a coveted role in The Lost Colony, a long-running outdoor theater drama that reenacts the founding of the Roanoke Colony. From there he began experimenting with vaudeville, building an act around the premise of a country bumpkin interpreting Hamlet. He toured the country, putting on shows at Rotary Clubs where he did his bit.
One night in 1953 he found himself short of material, so he invented a new monologue based on his country bumpkin character, this time attending a football game and describing what he sees. “And I looked down thar, and I seen five or six convicts a-runnin’ up and down and a-blowin’ whistles…And I seen thirty-five or forty men come a runnin’ out one end of a great big outhouse down there…And friends, I seen that evenin’ the awfulest fight that I have ever seen in my life.” The routine brought down the house, and opened the door to the next step in Andy’s career.
With the help of a friend, Andy made a record of the bit and called it, “What it was, was football.” The record was a hit. On the strength of the record Andy won the role of Will Stockdale in the Broadway production of No Time for Sergeants, a play about a country rube joining the army. Another cast member in the play was a skinny little guy from Morgantown, West Virginia named Don Knotts.
The Nervous Man
Don Knotts began his performing career in the army doing USO shows at overseas bases during World War II. After the war, he landed a job voicing the character of Windy Wales on the popular radio show Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders. In his off hours he worked the nightclub circuit doing comedy skits. It was at that time he developed the character of the Nervous Man. The Nervous Man coughs and splutters and clears his throat, hands shaking, brow knotted, eyes bugging out. It was a hit.
When the role of the sidekick for Will Stockdale in No Time for Sergeants came up, Don auditioned for it, but didn’t get it. Instead, he was offered a smaller role, which he took. In the course of things he met Andy Griffith. They bonded over their southern roots, and a lifelong friendship was born.
No Time for Sergeants was a smash hit, and Andy Griffith’s star was on the rise. In 1956 he was chosen to play the role of “Lonesome Rose” in Elia Kazan’s prescient tale of a small town radio preacher who rises to become a self-obsessed demagogue. A Face in the Crowd let Andy display his dramatic chops, and the film was a critical darling. Then in 1957 he was cast in the film version of No Time for Sergeants, another big hit. In the meantime, Don Knotts left the cast of the stage version of No Time for Sergeants to work as a comedian on The Steve Allen Show. Then in 1959 Andy’s manager suggested working up a television vehicle for Andy based on the country bumpkin character. Andy agreed. They approached producer Sheldon Leonard, and the world shifted on its axis.
A Hick of a Sheriff
Sheldon Leonard immediately saw that Andy’s bumpkin character would be easy to build a sitcom around but at first he wasn’t sure what direction to take it. After much thought, he hit on the idea of a small town sheriff. Andy liked the idea.
The pilot was launched on an episode of The Danny Thomas Show. In the pilot, Danny Thomas, a big city sophisticate, finds himself under arrest in the small town of Mayberry by a hick of a sheriff named Andy Taylor. In this proto-version of Mayberry, Sheriff Taylor comes off more like a hillbilly goofball than the calm southern sage we would come to know. Nevertheless, the pilot was well received, and the show was picked up by CBS.
As it happened, Don Knotts had been watching The Danny Thomas Show on the night the pilot aired. He had no idea Andy had been given his own show. He called him up and said, “Don’t you think Andy Taylor ought to have a deputy?” Andy agreed. A week later Don was on the lot preparing for his role as Barney Fife.
The Snappy Lunch and Wally’s Service Station
For many years, Andy Griffith stubbornly insisted Mayberry was not consciously modeled on Mount Airy. But Andy was a contributing writer and was responsible for much of the local flavor Mayberry was endowed it. As the show evolved many references to its location were made. It was near Mount Pilot, an obvious allusion to Pilot Mountain, which is twelve miles from Mount Airy. The largest nearby city was Raleigh, which, as it happens, is the largest nearby city to Mount Airy. And the name Mayberry rhymes suspiciously with Mount Airy.
Not only that, but the show references at least two Mount Airy businesses by name: Snappy Lunch, the diner Andy frequented in high school, and Wally’s Service Station, where Andy reportedly hung out as a boy. Both of these places have enjoyed a second life as Mount Airy tourist attractions, along with Walker’s Soda Fountain, where Andy worked as a boy, and Hiatt’s Barber Shop, rechristened Floyd’s Barber Shop in the 1990’s.
Of all these places, Wally’s Service Station has worked the hardest to mine the potential of its Mayberry connections. Today, behind its authentic 1940’s service station façade, it’s a gift shop offering squad car tours of the Mayberry sites, including Andy Griffith’s boyhood home, as well as a museum offering replicas of the courthouse set and the cabin where the Darling family played its country songs. But the centerpiece of any visit to Mount Airy is The Andy Griffith Museum.
The Andy Griffith Museum
At the Andy Griffith museum you can view clips from Andy’s most famous movies, and hear a recording of “What it was, was football”, the recording that launched Andy’s career. If you haven’t heard it before, you can hear it here. Just try not to laugh. You can also hear Andy singing the lyrics to the famous whistled theme song that opens the Andy Griffith show. Listen here.
The museum displays Andy’s sheriff uniform and Don Knott’s famous salt-and-pepper suit. There are props like the sheriff’s desk, the black candlestick rotary phone, Aunt Bea’s rocking chair and the keys to Otis’s jail cell. And out front there’s a bronze statue of Andy and Opie with their fishing poles. Taken altogether, it’s as charming as it is interesting, much like Mount Airy itself. But one thing you won’t find in Mount Airy is a statue of Barney Fife, and that’s because Andy didn’t want it there.
It seems Andy didn’t want to be upstaged in his own hometown, which is not as selfish as it seems when you consider the sacrifice Andy made to turn his show into a hit. The way the show was originally written Andy’s bumpkin persona was supposed to be the butt of all the jokes, much as Gomer Pyle was in the spinoff show that bore his name. But when Andy brought Don Knotts onto the show he instantly recognized a superior comedic talent and decided to play the straight man to his Barney Fife. The results were as magical as they were generous and kind.
Finishing at the Top
It has often been said that the comedy duo of Griffith and Knotts ranks right up there with Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Probably so. But unlike those duos, a genuine warmth and friendship existed between Andy and Don. When they weren’t in front of a camera, they still preferred each other’s company, and they still cracked each other up.
Don Knotts went on to win five Emmy awards. Andy Griffith won none. Don Knotts had a successful movie career after the show. Andy did not. Don Knotts got his own primetime television variety show. Andy did not. Yet in spite of all that, they remained friends, and when Don died in 2006, Andy was one of the last people at his bedside. For a reminder of their special comedic genius check out this clip of their delightful Gettysburg Address bit.
After five classic seasons, the Andy Griffith Show launched the career of Don Knotts to new heights. When Don left the show, Andy soldiered on, trying to rekindle the magic with less talented sidemen like Jack Burns who played Warren Ferguson, and Jack Dodson who played Howard Sprague. It didn’t work.
Yet even as the creative energy fizzled out, viewership soared. The Andy Griffith show enjoyed some of its highest ratings in its final years because by then the show had become an institution, and no one wanted to see it end. The Andy Griffith Show is only one of three shows in television history that ended its run at number one in the ratings. The other two are I Love Lucy and Seinfeld.
That kind of viewer loyalty is rare, no doubt explained, in part, by viewers’ love for the fictional town of Mayberry. It was a honeyed slice of Americana to be savored as long as possible, even as it melted away. And what was it about Mayberry that made it so appealing? Well, aside from the quirky characters who inhabited it, it was the sense of community. Ron Howard said it best when he observed that Andy was a widower, Barney a bachelor, Aunt Bea a spinster. Opie didn’t have a family in the traditional sense, but the lesson of the show was that “a community can be a family. The town of Mayberry is one big happy family,” something that has become even more precious and rare in America today.
Andy himself realized it, if somewhat belatedly. Later in life he returned to Mount Airy, which he had mostly shunned. In 2002 an eleven mile stretch of Hwy 52 was to be dedicated in his honor and he agreed to appear. For the first time he spoke to the residents. He told them he was proud to be from Mount Airy, and then he said the words they had been longing to hear, “People started saying that Mayberry was based on Mount Airy.” Then he paused and gave them his mischievous grin. “It sure sounds like it, doesn’t it?”
Check it out
The Andy Griffith Museum
218 Rockford St
Mt Airy, NC
Wally’s Service Station
625 South Main St.
Mount Airy, NC
The Snappy Lunch
301 North Main St.
Mount Airy, NC
Floyd’s Barber Shop
129 North Main St.
Mount Airy, NC
Walker’s Soda Fountain
175 North Main St.
Mount Airy, NC
Previous Stop on the Odyssey: Nashville, TN
Next Stop on the Odyssey: The Blue Ridge Parkway, VA
My American Odyssey Route Map
de Visé, Daniel. Andy & Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show. Simon and Schuster, 2015.
Andy & Opie from opening sequence, CBS archives
Andy & Opie, The Andy Griffith Museum
Downtown Mount Airy, Malcolm Logan
Andy Griffith’s Boyhood Home, Malcolm Logan
Andy Griffith as a boy, The Andy Griffith Museum
Andy Griffith in The Lost Colony, Hugh Morton, North Carolina, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Andy and Don in No Time for Sergeants, The Everett Collection
A Face in the Crowd movie poster, Warner Bros collection
Sheriff Andy Taylor, Public domain
The Snappy Lunch and Floyd’s Barber Shop, Malcolm Logan
Wally’s Service Station, Malcolm Logan
Replica Courthouse, Malcolm Logan
Don Knott’s suit, Malcolm Logan
Barney Fife, The Andy Griffith Museum
Andy helps Barney with his gun, Public domain
Statue of Andy and Opie, Malcolm Logan