MOUNT AIRY, N.C. – On “The Andy Griffith Show,” the characters of Mayberry have modest wants on any given day. Aunt Bee wants to be appreciated; Barney asks for respect; Andy wants his son, Opie, to understand the consequences of his actions.
But when you go to Mount Airy, North Carolina, the birthplace of Andy Griffith and a town that has taken great strides to replicate the experience – and essence – of Mayberry, you are, perhaps, looking for something a little more tangible. On the show, the outsiders passing through Mayberry usually are, too.
Mike Hill was the first guide on my search. Mike, a driver on the Squad Car Tours, escorted me around in a ’62 Ford Galaxie, a replica of the car Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife drove in the TV series. He let the siren moan as we pulled out of Wally’s Service Station. Mike is a retired law-enforcement agent, and because he has loved the show his whole life, driving tourists around the town of Mount Airy felt as natural as Otis, Mayberry’s town drunk, locking himself up after another night of tying one on.
Mike had just motored past the Andy Griffith Museum, where, out front, there’s a statue of Andy Taylor and Opie off to go fishing, just like in the show’s opening credits. Then he leaned out his window and shouted to a man on the road, “Hooty-hoo!”
That line, as diehard fans know, is from Gomer Pyle in the episode “Andy’s Vacation,” when Barney and Gomer are looking for an escaped convict in the woods, and Gomer, worried about getting separated, suggests making animal noises as a way to make contact. “I could be an owl and go ‘Hoo-hoo.’ ” (Barney replies, “You just yell, ‘Hey, Barn,’ and I’ll yell, ‘Hey, Gomer.’ OK?”)
“We do the hooty-hoo every time I go by,” Mike offered as an explanation. “I don’t know who the guy is.”
Apparently, there are a lot of people who want to experience this kind of Mayberry nirvana. The registry at Wally’s showed visitors that day from Texas, Ohio, Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky, California, New York and Florida.
The tour covers about half Andy Griffith sites and stories, the other half town history. Mike pointed out the numerous stately buildings made from the famous Mount Airy white granite, which is also part of Arlington Memorial Bridge and the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., and drove me to the world’s largest open-face granite quarry.
He told me about the famous “Siamese twins,” Eng and Chang Bunker, born in Siam in 1811 but settled in Mount Airy in 1845, how they traveled the globe as a sideshow act and were also successful farmers here. “They married two sisters – the Yates girls over there in Wilkes County,” Mike said. “And between the two, they had 22 children.”
A long pause hung between us before I could say, still dazed, “You really have to think about that, don’t you?” Mike said, “What you’s thinking is probably right, too.”
Andy Griffith was born in Mount Airy in 1926, but he was picked on as a kid, didn’t always feel properly appreciated as his career developed, and mostly he stayed gone. (Mike, who was born and raised here, said that the Andy sightings were rare, but that every blue moon “Somebody’d come by the barbershop and say, ‘Well, I saw Andy a while ago. He went by in an old jeep wearing a big hat and sunglasses, but it was him.’ “)
It wasn’t until the late ’80s that Mount Airy began to see the commercial promise in not only playing up its ties to its famous native son but in re-creating Mayberry itself. In time there was a replica courthouse, the squad cars, the museum, themed restaurants, the impersonators and, eventually, a yearly festival called Mayberry Days.
As a lifetime devotee, I had soaked all this in quite eagerly, but I was still trying to understand what it all added up to. Jon Cawley, who is the town’s high school baseball coach, an interim pastor, mayor pro tem and a city commissioner, had some ideas about that.
Jon thought the show “was a great study in psychology and how to live life,” he said with the gentle delivery of a man used to weighing his words. “I think people miss, or desire if they’ve never known it, a simpler life. Not a simple life, but a simpler life.”
Ultimately it was daily life in Mount Airy that Jon thought best reflected the show’s spirit. “I think they’re looking for that wholesome hometown,” he said of the visitors who came from all across the country plus another 12 or 13 countries, as far as he knew.
America’s hometown. “Is it mythical?” he asked. That question bathed over us like cool air as we sat in the mayor’s office. “They come here and they stay a day or two, and when they leave there’s something a little different with them. I think it’s hope. I think it’s the hope that when the lights go out tonight, everything will be all right. Because that’s what the show taught.”
On the way home, I thought about what Jon had said, and also about the outsiders who ended up in Mayberry. I remembered that they didn’t always find what they were looking for, but they found what they needed.
IF YOU GO
You can purchase tickets for Mayberry Days events, Sept. 21-24, at the Andy Griffith Playhouse by calling 336-786-7998. mayberrydays.org.