Mount Airy – you’ve may have heard it mentioned on “The Andy Griffith Show,”... a huge TV favorite to this day, even though it ended in 1968. Where does the time go?
In Mount Airy, North Carolina, they seem to have captured the ability to make time stand still as a vacation to this charming town brings back memories of the kind, homespun characters and a slower pace of life characterized by Mount Airy's most famous native, Andy Griffith. Griffith based many of the places and characters in his television program on actual people and places of his hometown. Today, visitors can get a haircut at Floyd's, take a tour in a Mayberry patrol car, listen to music similar to that showcased on the program, and spend hours in the Andy Griffith Museum, admiring thousands of documents and memorabilia.
Nostalgia may frame the reason to visit for many, but today, there are numerous activities to draw visitors to the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina. There is an emerging wine culture, music festivals and even a renaissance of moonshine distillery. The outdoors offer spectacular fishing, hiking, golf, water sports and horseback riding.
Griffith, born in 1944 in Mount Airy, originally thought he would be a minister. Performance arts were a second calling, one that brought him lifelong acclaim after an agent heard a comedy routine, “What It Was, Was Football,” he wrote while teaching high school. Offered a large sum of money and a contract, well, the rest, as they say, is history. Griffith took his history with him to Hollywood and shined the spotlight back on his hometown where it has stayed shining brightly ever since.
Thousand of visitors come to Mount Airy annually, usually to see the town fictionalized in the TV program. Start at the visitor's center to get maps, advice and a friendly welcome. Then head out to the Andy Griffith Museum.
Filled top to bottom with photos, costumes, posters, and recreated sets, the museum is the highlight of the town. Located next to the Andy Griffith Playhouse and a half-mile from Andy’s boyhood home, the museum houses items collected by childhood friend Emmett Forrest. Not forgotten are photos and mementos from many cast members, such as Don Knotts, who played Deputy Barney Fife, actress Betty Lynn, who played Thelma Lou and George Lindsey, who played Goober. The Museum is open seven days a week year round, except Thanksgiving and Christmas, and includes admission to the Siamese Twins exhibit and the Old Time Music Heritage Hall.
Truly remarkable is the story of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins. The twins (1811-1874) came from Siam (now Thailand), married sisters and settled in Mount Airy. They had 21 children, many of whose descendants are still locals. Chang and Eng were the first Buddhists in the U.S. and the first Asians to become citizens. At the time, they were the longest living conjoined twins and the only ones to have children. The exhibit includes a documentary, photos, furniture and many posters on the fascinating life of Chang and Eng Bunker.
Devoted fans can stay at Andy's Homeplace, Griffith's boyhood home at 711 E. Haymore St. where Griffith lived until he graduated from high school. Now owned by the nearby Hampton Inn, the house has board games and tapes of "The Andy Griffith Show" for nostalgic entertainment. Andy’s home is available for nightly rentals and is within walking distance from downtown Mount Airy, including Snappy Lunch, Floyd’s Barbershop, Opie’s Candy Store, and the Mayberry Soda Fountain.
Floyd’s City Barber Shop is a popular attraction. While Russell Hiatt, owner, barber to Andy Griffith and inspiration for Floyd on the TV show, died a few months ago, his son is carrying on the shop. Drop in to admire the thousands of photos on the walls and to have a friendly chat with the locals who regularly stop by for a trim and shave.
True fans of the show know about Snappy Lunch, owned by Mary Dowell, the only business still in existence that was here during Griffith’s childhood. Open since 1923, The Snappy Lunch is famous for pork chop sandwiches, served with mustard, sweet chili, cole slaw, onions and tomato. On a busy day, they serve 400 pork chop sandwiches, the one sandwich that every North Carolinian (and everyone else) must eat.
“My husband started cooking pork chops on the grill, which was originally in the window,” Dowell, said. “And the smells went to those who walked down the street. The hood system vents to the street! If we were having a slow day, he'd throw onions on the grill. People would smell them as they walked downt he street and come in.”
“The only sausage I buy is Neese’s Sausage, a North Carolina company,” she added. “Breakfast plates are $3.50; you can add an egg for 40 cents. The menu is all homemade everything and it all comes with gravy,” she said.
They also serve breaded burgers, which is ground meat with bread mixed in, like meatloaf, then fried or grilled. Also on the menu is the ground steak sandwich, which is cooked ground beef with its own gravy and served on a hamburger bun. Don't be late as Snappy Lunch is open only until lunch is completed.
Remember Sheriff Taylor’s police car? The one you saw in every episode? In Mount Airy, you can tour all of the sites in a Mayberry squad car. The whole family can pile in and go up and down the streets, listening to loads of history about Griffith, the TV show and all the other sites in town. Each tour starts at Wally’s Service Station; call ahead to schedule a tour, especially during summer and fall seasons.
Wally’s Service Station was built in 1937 and operated as a Gulf Station and then later operated as an Esso. The Fruit Basket gift shop now operates inside of Wally’s. Also on site is the Mayberry Courthouse, Otis’ Jail Cell and The Mayberry Hotel replica.
Not part of the TV show, but a fun place to stop, is Miss Angel’s Heavenly Pies Bakery – owned by Angela Shur. Here is old time cooking, all homemade, with leftovers donated to the homeless shelter. One specialty is the “zonker,” which would be called cobbler elsewhere. Any leftover fruit, the riper the fruit the better, is used and typically there is no bottom crust. Miss Angel calls hers zonker because you get zonked by the moonshine she adds to her recipe. Sonker is the more typical spelling.
“Everyone has a different take on it – and we use our own fruit,” said Shur. “We also make moonshine ice cream to go with it.”
“We grow our own peaches, apples, plums, cherries – We have an orchard. We started using moonshine in cooking. We use moonshine spirits and in a few weeks, we will get moonshine mash, and will use that in our corn muffins,” Shur said.
Round-Peak Style of Old-Time Music
According to the local visitors center, fans of blue grass music and old time music congregate here in Mount Airy, which has a specific music style called the Round Peak Style, after the name of a nearby mountain.
Mount Airy is home of old-time music legends Tommy Jarrell and Benton Flippen, along with country singer Donna Fargo. Early settlers to the area were English and Scotch-Irishmen. The music they brought with them was slowly modified over the years to what is known as Round Peak music, which was one of several distinct regional styles of a genre called “old-time” music.
Live Bluegrass Music
Mount Airy’s WPAQ 740 AM radio station has been operating the nation’s second longest-running radio show, the Merry-Go-Round, (The Grand Ole Opry is the longest running show) since 1948. The live broadcast has featured bluegrass and old-time legends, such as Jarrell, Flippen, and the Carter family. The original radio station is a historic place where the past lives on. Looking through the glass at the DJ choosing an album from thousands of vinyl discs, seeing the lovely wooden doors that swing into one of two studios, admiring the photos on the walls – if only these walls could talk.
On this day, Bob King was working as DJ. He has been here for 17 years.
“We still air daily obituaries. School lunches are still read on air. Ministers come to preach and groups come by to play. Bill Monroe’s brother, Charlie, performed here, and Andy Griffith came in to preach. Mac Wiseman worked here,” said King.
The Earle Theatre is home of the Old Time Music Heritage Hall, which introduces the distinctive sounds of Surry County. Here you’ll get a sense of the intense fiddle driven style of instrumental music, and hear the names of Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, Paul Sutphin and others tossed around. Jarrell’s fiddle is now in the Smithsonian! Music runs deep in this town – many local, regional, and international stars got their start here – at a jam session held on WPAQ, at the Earle or just playing at a restaurant or gathering on many a front porch.
“In Mount Airy, every other person is a musician,” said Jenny Lowery, who owns the Olde Mill Music store, located in downtown Mount Airy. Lowery's dad, Jimmy, toured with famous songstress Donna Fargo.
“In the Earle, there are photos on the wall of famous locals Paul Sutphin, Earnest East, Fred Cocherham and Benton Flippen,” said Tanya Jones, president of the Arts Council.
“We converted the theater,” Jones said. “Now we show movies six nights a week and host free jam sessions at 7 p.m. several nights a week. We host “The Merry Go Round” on Saturdays, and host free music lessons for children on Thursdays and focus on fiddle and guitar. We watched a jam session and several patrons began dancing to the bluegrass, a Surrey County version of square dancing called “Flat Footin.” A bridge back to the past, for sure.
There is a LOT of moonshine being produced in this part of North Carolina. Once looked upon as a poor man's liquor, made in the woods out of sight of the law, moonshine has made quite a comeback. In fact, Wilkes County is called the Moonshine Capital of the World. One of the prominent moonshiners operating today is Call Family Liquor, which has a proud history to share at their distillery – particularly of the legendary Willie Clay Call, father of Brian Call, the master distiller. Willie was nicknamed “The Uncatchable” for his remarkable ability to escape the feds who chased him throughout the county. You can check out Call's 1961 New Yorker on display with a trunk full of white lightnin'. Call says the moonshiners loved the big trunks of the New Yorker and even had a kill switch on the dash that would shut off the brake lights instantly.
Legend has it that the Call family's moonshine making goes back to the Rev. Daniel Call who, forced to choose Godly pursuits or alcohol, sold his still to none other than whiskey maker Jack Daniel. “The Uncatchable is a true handcrafted moonshine made from hand selected malted barley, locally sourced corn meal, wheat, and cane sugar - a true Wilkes County shine, “Brian Call told me. “We distill it using direct steam injection to provide a smoothness that is unparalleled.”
An Emerging Wine Country
In the last few years, Surry County has become fertile ground for a booming vineyard and winery trade. This Yadkin Valley wine region has grown to over 40 wineries since 2002, with many wineries in close proximity to Mount Airy.
We had lunch at Old North State Winery, owned by Ben and Ellie Webb. They bottle a range of wines using vinifera, French hybrids and muscadines under the Fish Hippie label. There is also a Fish Hippie clothing line. The food is lovely, the style laid back and elegant at the same time. Don't miss having a meal here.
Mount Airy is known as the Granite City, and we saw white granite buildings everywhere. Not only do they have the largest, open-faced granite quarry in existence, the local granite is the whitest and lightest white granite in the world.
Special Events in Mount Airy
Mayberry Days is a 100 percent wholesome, affordable, relaxed festival where you can sip a soda pop, chat with stars from the show, play checkers, or enter the pie eating contest. Mayberry Days, which started in 1990, run Wednesday-Sunday during the last full weekend in September, which coincides with the anniversary date of The Andy Griffith Show. During Mayberry Days a dozen folks from the show come to mix with the fans. Traditional music concerts are showcased at the amphitheater. There are autograph sessions and many contests, including comedy, checkers, pie eating, BBQ competition, apple peeling competition, pork chop sandwich eating, a hay bale toss, which they call “Hey” because Goober said “Hey!” Also included is a golf tournament, 10K run and bowling tournament, to mention a few. People come dressed up as characters – and all walk in the parade. There could be 25 Opie’s out there! This year the festival is set for Sept 21-25, 2016. Special guests this year include Betty Lynn, the actress who played Thelma Lou, Clint Howard, who played “Leon” and Barbara Eden, who guest starred as Ellen Brown, a manicurist. Get all the information at www.surryarts.org/mayberrydays
Autumn Leaves Festival The Autumn Leaves Festival, October 14-16, 2016, is held in Mt. Airy each fall and showcases local music such as old-time, blue grass and gospel. More than 200 local craftsmen offer a vast array of items handmade while the food is spectacular. Enjoy ham biscuits, collards and cornbread, barbeque, hamburgers, ground steak and more. For complete information, go to autumnleavesfestival.com
We found Mount Airy to be a charming town with heritage pride, local cuisine and culinary innovation. Hope your journey is as memorable as ours!
Get all the information at visitmayberry.com.