"Mayberry" Remembers Andy Griffith

Jul 4, 2012

Fans are remembering Andy Griffith today. The television icon and North Carolina native died yesterday at his home in Manteo. But it’s in his boyhood home in the foothills that his passing takes on a special meaning. Mount Airy provided the basis for the fictional Mayberry of the Andy Griffith show.

Dave DeWitt: The sign near the cash register is clear: the Snappy Lunch will not take credit or debit cards. That’s just one indication that the 90-year-old Mount Airy landmark is a throwback to a simpler time – others include the signature pork chop sandwich and the friendly southern hospitality, as practiced by waitresses like Kathy Collins.

But Collins says the mood is not so upbeat on this day.

Kathy Collins: A lot of sad people. Gonna miss Andy because he was such a hero. People really did like him and really did look up to him.

It’s past the usual lunch rush, but the place is still packed. Some here are regulars, but most are tourists, like Justin and Nicole Richard from Canton, Ohio. They had made plans to come through before Griffith passed and didn’t find out about his death until they sat down for lunch.

Justin Richard: You know the best thing you can do is come here and see the essence of what he was and what he tried to share with the world. Is this what you thought it would be? Exactly what I thought it would be.

After downing a couple of pork chop sandwiches, the Richards stand outside Floyd’s barber shop for a picture.  Inside, 88-year old Russell Hiatt is holding court, telling stories about the times he cut Andy Griffith’s hair.

Russell Hiatt: What was he like? Well, he was just a regular guy but he was a nice guy. He’s done a lot for the community, for the town. He put Mount Airy on the map, no doubt about that.

Andy Griffith last lived in Mount Airy nearly 70 years ago, but his presence is everywhere in this small town. From the Snappy Lunch to Floyd’s Barber Shop to Opie’s Candy Store and the Mayberry Trading Post.

James Kemp is sitting in Russell’s barber chair. He was four years behind Griffith in high school and has seen the town grow as Griffith’s career took off.

James Kemp: He gave so much to this town. He contributed, his behavior, his talents, his shows, the stories that he presented. A good life, a clean life, a decent life, a worthwhile life. Peope from around the world come to Mount Airy North Carolina looking, in quotation marks, for Andy Griffith and/or Mayberry. He set an example for mankind.

Outside the window of Floyd’s barber shop, all the storefronts all full along Main Street a rare scene in a town hit as hard as anywhere else by the loss of furniture and textile jobs.

The sidewalks are teeming with tourists. They spin and snap pictures as a restored Ford Galaxie rolls down Main Street, painted to look like the same Mayberry sheriff’s car Andy, or his deputy Barney, might have driven.

The car turns the corner and heads up a hill, past the real police station, to the Andy Griffith Museum.

Outside, mourners are leaving flowers at a statue of the fictional Sheriff Andy Taylor and his son, Opie. They’re holding hands and fishing rods and flashing large smiles. About a half-mile down this same road is the real Andy’s small boyhood home, which is now a bed and breakfast.

Larry Key is a lifelong resident of Mount Airy and has passed by the museum and statue hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Still, he’s here on this brutally hot day, with his movie camera. He remembers a different Mount Airy.

Larry Key: We made sweaters, socks, t-shirts, and then it went offshore. We lost all the textile jobs, people were unemployed, and the town was going downhill.

And then, 22 years ago, the town held its first Mayberry Days festival. And that, says Key, changed everything.

Key: The idea of Mayberry really caught on from the TV show. People are coming now, there’s tens of thousands of people coming as tourists. It’s kept the town afloat. It’s brought in millions of dollars in tax revenue. So Andy has really been the centerpiece, the cornerstone, of our town.

Those who live in Mount Airy are spending the day as if they lost a loved one, even though most never met Andy Griffith. There will very likely be some tears at today’s Fourth of July parade, and more at September’s Mayberry Days festival.

Later, folks here will think more about what Griffith’s passing means for business. But Griffith’s final gift to his hometown is likely to be a continued bustling downtown economy, and, maybe more important, a lasting identity.