Every weekend downtown Mount Airy; N.C., comes alive with tourists from all over the country, often from different parts of the world. Most travelers are searching for a utopia called Mayberry, a fictional town made popular by "The Andy Griffith Show." The show aired original episodes from 1960 until 1968 and continues in syndication throughout the world. Mayberry is commonly associated with Mount Airy, the hometown of Andy Griffith. Mount Airy certainly shares many similarities with its show business counterpart, including its location in North Carolina similar street names, many of the same businesses and even some of the same residents. Can Mayberry however, truly be found, or is it pure illusion like "Gilligan's Island" or "Petticoat Junction"? What about Mount Airy attracts larger and larger crowds every year? To uncover this treasure, I traveled first back to Mayberry in my imagination and then to Mount Airy in my car.
A Stroll Through Mayberry
Two annual festivals in Mount Airy draw thousands of people into town every year. On festival draws on the continuing popularity of "The Andy Griffith Show," and the other draws simply upon the beauty of the small town.
Mayberry Days are held the last weekend in September. This event is sponsored by the Surry Arts Council and includes a parade, a bowling tournament, a golf tournament, banjo performances, lectures on the show and big-screen showings of reruns. Look-a-likes of characters from the show roam the streets, and occasionally an original cast member will drop in on the festivities. (Call Surry Arts Council for specific dates and times are -786-7998 or  286-6193.)
Nestled among the hills of North Carolina, Mount Airy is prettier when the leaves begin to change than any Hollywood set. In celebration of the season, downtown Mount Airy is annual host to The Autumn Leaves Festival the second weekend in October. (Call the Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce for more information  786-6116.)
I can stroll down the streets of Mayberry in my imagination almost as easily as I can walk down the streets of my own hometown. I see the sheriff's office with Andy's squad car parked outside and Opie running in just to say hello to his "pa." I walk by Floyd's Barbershop, where Floyd is either sitting on a bench outside talking to his neighbors passing by or inside giving haircuts to the town locals while passing along community gossip. I stop by Snappy Lunch for a bite to eat and then go to Walker's Drug Store for an ice cream cone.
Walling away from the downtown area, I wave to Goober at the filling station. Clara Edwards stops me for a chat On ha way to practice the organ for Sunday services. There's always time to be neighborly in Mayberry. Most of the homes are modestly built, but all have a front porch where neighbors sit to enjoy after-dinner coffee, gospel sing-a-longs or to simply take in fresh air.
Suddenly, I hear my name called. You see, in Mayberry everybody knows your name. Aunt Bee waves from her porch and invites me to have supper with the family.
Andy soon arrives and informs Aunt Bee that he has invited Deputy Barney Fife for supper. That concerns me. Barney is a nice enough guy, but the only time I feel unsafe in Mayberry is when I'm around Barney, his gun and his one bullet.
After supper, we gather on the porch for coffee and dessert; after that Aunt Bee and I decide to walk into town to see the Cary Grant movie playing at the Mayberry Grand. Two women are perfectly safe on the streets at night in Mayberry. The worst thing we might encounter would be the harmless town drunk, Otis.
Walking back to the house our conversation centers around the movie. When we arrive at the house Andy teases us about our infatuation with a movie star. Barney sniffs and says that he doesn't understand what women see in that "sissy boy" any-way. I laugh, say good night and end my day in Mayberry
Can Mayberry possibly exist outside of our televisions and imaginations as we approach the 21st century, or does neighborliness belong to another era? On my trip to Mount Airy, I found people who believe that Mayberry is not fantasy but their daily reality. They love to share their town and themselves with anyone who pays them a visit.
I arrive in Mount Airy on a Friday around lunchtime and set out to find the Snappy Lunch. As I walk down Main Street, several little shops selling everything from hardware to homemade fudge distract me. My stomach, however, forces me to continue walking toward the terribly fattening smell of fired pork chops at the Snappy Lunch.
I sit down at on of the few empty tables and, despite my better judgement, order the Snappy special, a fried pork chop sandwich. This sandwich is an artery-clogging staple in Mount Airy, much like Aunt Bee’s fried chicken in Mayberry.
After finishing my sandwich, I ask to speak to the owner. A waitress directs me to a man cleaning the grill in preparation for a new batch of chops. I introduce myself to Charles Dowell, who upon learning that I want to talk with him immediately stops what he is doing, sits down and talks about his hometown for over an hour.
Many of Mayberry’s fictional people and places have real-life counterparts in Mount Airy, N.C. All of the following were mentioned on "The Andy Griffith Show" and actually exist in or around Mount Airy:
Dowell, a native of Mount Airy, started working at Snappy Lunch in 1943 at the age of 14. Dowell remembers that in 1960, when "The Andy Griffith Show" began, Mount Airy and Mayberry were nearly identical. "In the 1960s if you wanted gas, you came to Main Street; if you wanted groceries, you came to Main Street; if you wanted to go out to eat, you came to Main Street; if you wanted to get your hair done, you came to Main Street." As the city grew, some businesses moved away from the downtown area, but it still looks much the same as it did when Andy Griffith walked the street as a child.
Snappy Lunch gained fame due to its mention on "The Andy Griffith Show." Its been written about in magazines throughout the United States. The world has come to Snappy Lunch, and Dowell is content to stay there to greet them. After a recent visit to Washington D.C., Dowell observed that it was a beautiful city but complained that "you can't find anything good to eat, and there is nowhere to park a car."
While the allure of Mayberry brings many first-time visitors to Mount Airy; the neighborliness of residents like Dowell brings them back again and again. Dowell recalls a couple from Chicago who visited Snappy Lunch several times. As an anniversary surprise, she wanted to serve her husband fried pork chop sandwiches back in Chicago. After racking up charges of $13 for packing and dry ice and $40 for shipping Dowell's famous ingredients, she received her chops. When she called Dowell to settle her bill, he refused to accept any money from her. The next day a flower arrangement was delivered to Dowell and his wife. They had made yet another friend.
Floyd’s Barber Shop
After leaving Snappy Lunch, I walk next door to Floyd's Barber Shop and talk with Russell Hiatt, Mount Airy's version of Floyd the barber. Russell is still using the chair that Andy Griffith sat in to get a haircut before leaving for college. Hiatt, like Dowell, realizes the value of neighborliness over profit. He talks with me at length about his hometown, then has me sit down in his barber chair to take my picture. One picture was for me and the other was for his "Wall of Fame," a collection of pictures on his wall of over 14,000 people from all over the country who have visited his shop. Many visitors are surprised that he takes time for people who are not paying customers, but he insists that "I gain much more reward in getting to know people than I lose in money."
Hiatt says that "the spirit of Mount Airy is hard to put into words," so instead he puts it into action. He sells T-shirts in his shop but ends up giving many of them away. I walk away from his shop with T-shirt, the picture he made for me, a framed picture of the shop and, most importantly, a feeling that I have been among old friends.
A Return to Neighbors
Eng and Chang
While Andy Griffith is certainly Mount Airy’s most celebrated resident, many people are not aware of a famous set of twins that took up residence in the area. Eng and Chang Bunker, the conjoined twins born in Siam (today’s Thailand), settled in Mount Airy in the early part of the 19th century.
The pair, who in the travels with P.T. Barnum made famous the phrase "Siamese twins," bought a large tract of land in White Plains, right outside of Mount Airy, married sisters in the area and became gentlemen farmers. The pair lived until 1874 when, at age 63, Change died in his sleep from bronchitis and Eng died the next morning.
The two had 21 children between them, and many of their descendants still reside in the Mount Airy area. Eng and Chang are buried there at White Plains Baptist church. They had donated land to the church and helped in its construction.
Later that evening, I walk again through the safe streets of Mount Airy. I try to pin point the allure of the experience that keep folks tuning in to a 30-year old television show and traveling hundreds of miles to visit small-town America.
Then I realize that while the global village of the 1990’s allows its residents to communicate with people all over the world in an instant, communication rarely lasts longer than an instant. Quick e-mails have taken the place of long chats on the porch or letters written to dear friends. The global village Includes billions of people, but none of the them are neighbors. Mount Airy has a population of approximately 10,000 people and - just like in Mayberry - they are all neighbors, not only to each other, but also to any stranger who wanders into town.
Sheri Paris is a freelance writer who lives in Greensboro, NC
This story reprinted with permission granted from
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