By Gretchen McKay

Mt. Airy takes visitors back to Mayberry

Categories : Travel

MOUNT AIRY, N.C. — Product placement is so ubiquitous today that most television viewers don’t even notice it. Back when sponsor Ford Motor Co. decided to showcase its Ford Galaxie 500 sedan on CBS’s “The Andy Griffith Show,” though, it was still a novel idea. It quickly caught on.

Squad Car Tours of Mt. Airy, N.C. hits all of "Mayberry's" famous landmarks, including the Snappy Lunch and Wally's Service Station.

“There was a new police car every season it was on the air,” tour guide Roger Sickmiller tells me. We’re parked in front of Barney’s Cafe on North Main Street, getting ready to take a 45-minute “Squad Car” tour ($30/car) of this quaint little town that inspired the equally quaint, but completely fictional, town of Mayberry. “So if you want to know what year it is, you just have to identify the year of the car.”

Not realizing the cultural phenomenon the show would become (reruns still air on TV Land and the show is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year — 1960-68), the black-and-white autos were stripped and eventually sold, which is why we’re sitting in the bright-red front seat of a replica Mayberry squad car from 1962. Like the bologna-and-eggs platter on Barney’s menu, Mr. Sickmiller also is a colorful blast from the past, clad in a tan sheriff’s uniform that makes the part-time pastor-turned-innkeeper-turned-part-time tour guide look like a copy-cat Griffith. (He runs the Maxwell House Bed & Breakfast in downtown.)

But that’s what people love about Mt. Airy: the chance to dip their toes in the folksy, nostalgic, make-believe waters of Mayberry.

It’s easy for Pittsburghers traveling Interstate 77 south en route to Carolina beaches or Florida to whiz past the ramp toward town (exit 100). But it’s just an eight-mile drive to Main Street, where many of the sites Mr. Griffith’s TV scripts famously referenced still stand, seemingly frozen in time.

There’s the Snappy Lunch, where Mr. Griffith ate as a youngster (opened in 1923, it’s Mt. Airy’s oldest restaurant), and the nearly-as-famous Blue Bird Diner, where a “super” grilled cheese with bacon and tomato sets you back just $3.50. A few more steps takes you into Floyd’s City Barber Shop.

Russell Hiatt, 86, aka "Floyd the Barber," has been cutting hair on North Main Street in Mt. Airy for more than 60 years.

Russell Hiatt, 86, who inspired the show’s fictional hair-snipping character Floyd Lawson, has been taming men’s manes five days a week for more than 60 years. (A cut will cost you $8, but the 35,000 pictures that paper the shop’s “Wall of Fame” are free for the viewing.)

The shop is so popular that a half-million tourists, from every state and six foreign countries, have signed Mr. Hiatt’s guest book (Oprah included.) But while granddaughter Emily now lends a hand, he has no thoughts of retiring.

“I wouldn’t have it no other way,” he tells me when I catch up with him after my tour, during his lunch break at Barney’s.

A Squad Car tour also squires you past the relatively new Andy Griffith Museum and Playhouse (www.AndyGriffithMuseum.com), where a large bronze statue of Andy Taylor and son Opie, walking hand in hand, immortalizes the classic TV series. TV Land unveiled it in 2004, during the city’s annual Mayberry Days celebration. That was the last time Mr. Griffith, who turns 84 on June 1 and lives on Roanoke Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, was in town.

One of the most popular tourist sites in Andy Griffith's "Mayberry" is Floyd's City Barber Shop in downtown Mt. Airy. A half-million tourists have signed owner Russell Hiatt's guestbook.

The museum ($3) is the cat’s meow for Griffith fans: Dedicated last September, it holds the largest collection of Griffith memorabilia anywhere, most of it collected by his childhood friend Emmett Forrest. There’s the expected movie posters and playbills, of course, along with copies of the singer’s 78 rpm records and CDs in glass cases. (Did you know he toured the country with Elvis in 1955?) Also displayed is one of Don Knotts’ salt-and-pepper suits, one of Mr. Griffith’s trademark gray suits from the TV show “Matlock” and the pair of signs that hung outside the courthouse on the Mayberry soundstage before being retired to Mr. Griffith’s garage.

Fun, but my eye was drawn to the more personal items from the actor’s childhood — his boyhood slingshot, kept under glass, and the baby rocker his father, Carl, made in 1927.

Next door is one of the more curious tourist attractions. Conjoined twins Eng and Chang Bunker, originally of Siam (today’s Thailand), settled near Mt. Airy in 1837, married local sisters and between them had 21 children. An exhibit in the basement of the playhouse recounts their lives.

Mr. Sickmiller also drives me past the modest frame home on East Haymore Street where Mr. Griffith was raised and is now a place for tourists to rest their heads ($175/night). The final stop is Wally’s Service Station (built in 1937 as a Gulf station) which adjoins a local re-creation of the courthouse seen in the TV series, complete with jail cells and Sheriff Andy’s desk. By then, you’ll feel like you watched all 249 episodes back to back of “The Andy Griffith Show,” which was No. 1 in the ratings during its final year, 1968.

But what if you’re not mad about Mayberry? Turns out, Mr. Griffith isn’t its only claim to fame. Just a few blocks from Main Street lies the world’s largest open face granite quarry, a sprawling mass of solid rock that stretches 60 square acres and is a mile and a half deep. It’s so large, Mr. Sickmiller tells me, that it can be seen from outer space.

Outer space!

As my kids would say, “Bor-ing.” Mt. Airians, though, are pretty proud that stone quarried here helped build some of the nation’s most venerated buildings and monuments, including the Smithsonian museums and World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. So I ooh and ahh, too.

The city also has deep ties to North American folk music. Fiddler Tommy Jerrell grew up here. So did country singer Donna Fargo, who has a highway named after her. And one of the country’s handful of remaining bluegrass and old-time radio stations, WPAC 740 AM, still airs the live radio show it started in 1948, Merry-Go-Round, from the Downtown Cinema (11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Saturdays.)

Mt. Airy also is a good jumping off point for North Carolina’s emerging wine industry. The Yadkin Valley (www.yadkinwines.com) counts more than two dozen wineries — many within a 15- or 20-minute drive of one another. And don’t forget about the Mt. Airy Museum of Regional History, which educates visitors about the area and offers a panoramic view from a observation tower of the surrounding mountains.

If you go

Mount Airy, N.C.

Getting there: Mt. Airy is about 360 miles south of Pittsburgh, or an easy six-hour drive on interstate roads. Alternatively, you can fly into Greensboro/High Point (about 65 miles away, and a center for furniture shopping) and rent a car. Airfare starts at about $250.

Where to stay: Lodging depends on taste and budget, with everything from chain motels and camping to rustic cabins in the woods. It’s also possible to rent Andy Griffith’s childhood home within walking distance of Main Street (it’s owned by Hampton Inn and is decorated in ’40s style, $175/night). I stayed at the Sobatto Manor Bed & Breakfast ($129-$149), a beautifully restored Tudor Revival house on West Pine Street. My luxury room on the first floor came with a gourmet breakfast the next morning and a gorgeous garden in which to drink coffee.

What to do: Mt. Airy is a mecca for fans of Andy Griffith and his movie and television work. But pork chop sandwiches at The Snappy Lunch and getting your picture taken with Floyd the Barber (86-year-old Russell Hiatt) aren’t the only joys of “Mayberry.” The Andy Griffith Playhouse offers local theater for $10 a ticket and free jam sessions on Thursday evening, and Main Street has some terrific boutique shopping. Outdoor types will enjoy fishing for trout and channel catfish in local creeks and rivers; there’s also canoeing on the Yadkin River and camping, rock-climbing, hiking and birdwatching at nearby Pilot Mountain State Park (14 miles south of town off Highway Route 52). And North Carolina’s Yadkin Wine Trail boasts more than two dozen boutique and big-business wineries/tasting rooms. And if you can’t make it this summer, consider checking out Mt. Airy for the 21st annual Mayberry Days, a fun weekend of pie-eating contests, checkers games, bluegrass music and more, Sept. 23-26. This year, the town is celebrating the 50th anniversary of “The Andy Griffith Show,” 1960-2010.

Info: www.visitmayberry.com; 1-800-948-0949.