Caught in a slipstream of semis and fast cars north of Charlotte, NC, we had to find an abrupt escape from the interstate to avoid a construction zone pileup. As we wound through the leafy streets and winding country roads between Mooresville and Statesville, our hearts sank. For around every bend was yet another subdivision under construction where there had once been a farm, the toehold of suburbia, the future sprawl from Charlotte to Winston-Salem. Here we’d thought this was a Florida problem. It is not. It’s an American one.
Children of the baby boom, we grew up in a Mayberry world of tiny downtowns with stores owned by your neighbors, places where everyone knew your name. The farther north we went, we found a few of these, surrounded by the farms of the Yadkin Valley. Tiny hamlets inbetween hummocks of foothills below the towering Blue Ridge.
I checked the map. “We’re headed straight towards Mt. Airy. Let’s go to downtown.” The hometown of actor Andy Griffith, Mt. Airy was the model for Mayberry, our idyllic childhood town.As we topped the ridge to drop into town, we surveyed modern American commercial sprawl. Walmart and Auto Zone and dozens of other chains. It was a disheartening first look.
We ignored the bypass route and went straight into town, discovering a more genteel feel of old homes tucked beneath older trees. And a sign for the Andy Griffith Museum. Of course we had to stop. “We’re the youngest ones in this parking lot,” John noted.
The auditorium of Andy’s childhood school, where he acted in plays, is now a county center for the arts. The museum is an integral part of the complex.
Most of the contents are photos, posters, and paper ephemera, along with some pretty cool artifacts like the gas pumps from the filling station, Goober’s dress clothes, the motorcycle sidecar, and a mockup of Andy’s desk inside the courthouse.
His many record albums are on the walls – his career started with a comedy album about football in the South – and in cases along one wall are products he endorsed, from breakfast cereal to beans and even a restaurant bearing his name.While visiting the Outer Banks last year we’d found out Andy was a regular in the lobby of the Orville & Wilbur, one of the first Days Inns, playing cards there with friends. On these walls we saw he had a home at Manteo, on Roanoke Island, and played in The Lost Colony, the drama that debuted there in 1937, written to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the birth of Virginia Dare on these shores.
In an adjoining studio, we discovered three other famous residents of Mt. Airy – the 70s singer Donna Fargo (“Funny Face”) and the conjoined twins for whom the term “Siamese twins” was coined: Chang and Eng, who raised extensive families here.
While small, the museum left us with smiles on our faces. Nostalgia for the past, for simpler times, colors the lens through which we view the world. I guess that’s a part of getting older. I didn’t want to see a Walmart in Andy’s Mayberry, but there it was. As we left, John looked at me and said, “do you think, in another generation, anyone will remember who Andy Griffith was?”
The town of Mt. Airy will.