MOUNT AIRY JOURNAL
Inspiring Mayberry, and Then Becoming It
Russell Hiatt, 89, lays claim to being the real barber who gave rise to the fictional Floyd the barber on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
By KIM SEVERSON
June 21, 2013
MOUNT AIRY, N.C. — Marketing a small Southern town that has been repeatedly gut-punched by the economy requires the kind of drive and creativity that come only from desperation.
Mount Airy, a town of about 9,340 that hugs the Virginia border, has a history of economic agility. When the railroad came, it advertised itself as a healthy mountain retreat. When the tobacco barons put local growers out of business, the town started spinning cotton into clothes and socks. When the textile plants shut down, it turned to Andy Griffith.
In 1990, Mount Airy began to transform itself into Mayberry, recreating on its main street the fictional setting of “The Andy Griffith Show.” Mr. Griffith, who was born in Mount Airy, starred in the show as Sheriff Andy Taylor. During its run, from 1960 to 1968, it was among the most popular shows in America, and it has been seen in reruns ever since.
A playhouse and a museum are dedicated to Mr. Griffith. At the Mayberry Motor Inn, a woman who looks something like Aunt Bee will show you the room that holds memorabilia from the estate of Frances Bavier, the actress who played her.
Slide Show | A Town Reinvents Itself Mount Airy, N.C., has turned itself into Mayberry from “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Visitors can tour the town in a vintage police car and eat soggy fried pork chop sandwiches at the Snappy Lunch, a real-life place that was mentioned once in the show. The third Friday of the month the actress Betty Lynn, who played Thelma Lou on the show and moved to Mount Airy from Los Angeles in 2007, signs autographs.
In 2010, the 50th anniversary of the show drew 50,000 people to the annual Mayberry Days festival, held each September.
But hard times seem just around the corner for the Mayberry strategy.
This year, organizers hope the festival will at least reach the 30,000 it has in other years. But that might be optimistic. Shopkeepers report that the number of visitors who wander the streets whistling the show’s theme song, which is piped out from speakers, are definitely thinning.
It does not help that people connected to the show are dying. Last year, Mr. Griffith died. So did George Lindsey, who played Goober. In January, the town lost Emmett Forrest, 85, Mr. Griffith’s childhood friend and the force behind the town’s embrace of the Mayberry way of life.
Even Russell Hiatt, the elderly barber who says he was the inspiration for the character Floyd, is moving slower, giving fewer and fewer trims as the months pass.
The question, then, becomes, how much longer can one little town rely on the gimmick?
“I think it’s already coming to a halt,” said Amanda Richardson, 24, who works at a cafe called Barney’s on Main Street, not far from Opie’s Candy Store. “My daughter isn’t going to want to go somewhere to learn about Andy Griffith.”
Few will argue that the town is going to have to come up with something else eventually.
“Nobody knows how long we can hold onto the name,” said Becky Payne, 59, who was eating at Barney’s recently. “It’s wonderful we have Andy Griffith, but what else do we have here?”
Unemployment in Surry County has just dipped under 10 percent, but jobs remain hard to find. Spencer’s, a major employer that once made baby clothes in a light blue factory in the center of town, closed in 2007. The nearby granite quarry has had rounds of layoffs.
There are other problems in a town that, to all appearances, seems as nice as they come. The police report a stubborn problem with illegal OxyContin use. In May, a man claiming to be from a nonexistent winery ran a fake raffle promising a Fiat. Dozens of people bought the $100 tickets. The police are still looking for him.
But Mount Airy remains undeterred. One thought is to continue to capitalize on vineyards in the Yadkin Valley springing up on old tobacco fields. Nearby wineries have increased to 35 from only 5 in 2002. That led to a new, somewhat debated, slogan: From Mayberry to Merlot. At the Chamber of Commerce, they hand out promotional corkscrews.
There are other attractions to build on, among them the colorful fall leaves, the annual fiddlers’ festival and the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains.
Eng and Chang Bunker, the conjoined twins from Thailand whose plight brought about the term Siamese twins, settled in the area. They died in 1874 and are buried nearby. Between them they had 21 children, and their descendants hold an annual reunion in July that is open to the public.
But all in all, many people think the appeal of Mayberry is still the best bet.
“What is Mayberry?” asked the ever-buoyant Betty Ann Collins, president of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce. “It’s what’s in your mind. It’s that safe place you can come to so that you can escape. Who wouldn’t want some of that?”