When you think of small-town America of the twentieth century, what do you think of? Where do you think of? The 1880’s to the 1950’s saw a shift in America from most citizens’ having a rural experience in life to more and more coming to major cities and having an urban experience, yet the stereotype of American life more than ever remained small towns, family farms, and a sense of community very different from bustling cities like New York or Chicago.
In television, many sit-coms of the 1950’s and1960’s reflected rural life—Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and, most successful of all perhaps, The Andy Griffith Show. With some such shows the differences between rural and urban life were core to the plot (Green Acres certainly comes to mind here), but The Andy Griffith Show’s main premise was that in small-town America, noble values still thrive and a richness of character can be found. Thus, the setting—a fictional town called Mayberry—became as important as the lead characters in defining the show. Mayberry itself became a catchphrase for small-town life for decades to come, as well.
Andy Griffith the actor grew up in a quiet rural town in North Carolina near the Virginia state line called Mount Airy, and without a doubt many early experiences there shaped him as a man and actor, but it is furthermore commonly believed that Mayberry is in fact a thinly-disguised clone of Mount Airy.
Mount Airy was a fitting place for Griffith to find inspiration for the American Everytown he presented on television and that would become beloved by generations of Americans. Mount Airy is nestled in the midst of scenic mountains and has a long tradition of folkways, with bluegrass and gospel music playing a vital role in the local sense of community—a role not lost at all to Griffith who was first drawn to music and drama as a high-schooler and then studied music in college and taught music as a schoolteacher before his acting career took off. Combined with nearby Galax, Virginia, Mount Airy is today one of the leading national locations for bluegrass music concerts.
Much of the city’s charm is physical, however, with a well-maintained downtown core that certainly looks every bit the part of Main Street USA. Due to the popularity of The Andy Griffith Show, the town has turned to Mayberry as a source of tourism, and numerous restaurants and other businesses incorporate the name into their identity and try to retain the sense of mid-century Americana fitting of the years in which the television program was set. Mount Airy also has a museum dedicated to the program, Mayberry, and Griffith: founded in 2009 the Andy Griffith Museum expectedly has the largest collection of items germane to the show and Griffith in the world, while the surrounding buildings provide a sense of the setting of the show itself.
Walking around Mount Airy, you really can imagine being in Mayberry. People are seriously as nice and as sincere as portrayed in the show, stopping to greet visitors despite the fact there are often quite a few folks in town as tourists: the aforementioned museum attracts around 200 visitors per day. Some buildings have murals pertaining to Mayberry painted on their sides or other clues to the relationship with Griffith; however, the real focus should be on their innate architecture and streetscape of the town itself, which has retained a wealth of authentic mid-twentieth-century touches and suggests how a small Southern city functioned in the post-war years.
What’s more, most of the downtown storefronts are occupied, and with businesses that are engaged in the same types of retail trade or services you could have found fifty years ago. A sewing machine store, local lawyers, cafés, and a hardware store all speak of the necessary pleasure of coming downtown—or into town for nearby farm families—to purchase goods or see the dentist or an insurance salesman or do other business. It’s the retail backbone on which the American way of small-town life so crucial to the South was built and is really a tradition going back to days prior to even our nation’s founding, when in the original colonies wealthy planters and humble homesteaders alike would travel to the nearest town for provisions.
Ducking into Pandowdy’s Restaurant, a long-standing local institution, I was greeted with a warm welcome you’d expect to be reserved for the local judge or high school football coach—not a random stranger. The menu of American classics leans Southern but has some regional and even German influences with sausages being a favorite treat here. With an interior blazed with the pennants of college sports teams, it had the feel of Mayberry beyond any doubt. Sadly, I learned only a few weeks after my visit that Pandowdy’s had closed down for good after years—probably decades—of operation, indicating that just like The Andy Griffith Show, all good things must someday come to an end.
However, just across the street is Walker’s Soda Fountain which is in fine form and every bit an authentic mid-century soda fountain experience from the homemade milkshakes down to the (also homemade) cakes, which vary by the day and seemingly at the whims of their baker but encompass a variety of regional favorites, including some seldom seen today. There is nothing commercial or seemingly store-bought in this experience, nothing corporate from the family-run Pandowdy’s which up to its end continued in proud service to a tight-knit community nor in the humble but delicious offerings of sweet treats at Walker’s. Nearby, McArthur’s on Main is another local favorite and has remained in business, with a façade and menu that appear fairly unchanged over time but still are as inviting as ever.
Culture and history alone are not the only attractions to Mount Airy and surrounding Surrey County, though. Just to the southeast of Mount Airy is Pilot Mountain State Park, one of the most exceptional and enchanting state parks in North Carolina and also the locus of some of the finest rock climbing in the East. The mount known as Pilot Mountain or Big Pinnacle itself is a rounded knob that stands out from a great distance, and while climbing is not allowed on the Big Pinnacle since its surface is rather fragile, rock climbing is allowed on Little Pinnacle, which affords amazing vistas of Big Pinnacle as well as the Sauratown Mountains in the distance.
I climbed two routes at Little Pinnacle during my visit and found them to afford unique challenges and stunning views of the surrounding countryside, a region where the geography transitions from rolling hills to the introduction of powerful mountains which define the areas northward into Virginia as well as those westward in North Carolina. Yet Pilot Mountain State Park offers far more than just first-rate rock climbing: it’s a beautiful, scenic park affording wildlife viewing and the general enjoyment of nature to hikers.
The whole area from Winston-Salem—the nearest large city and to the southeast—through Pilot Mountain and Mount Airy to the north then on into the pastoral lands of green fields and small family farms of Virginia offers a sense of history and rural Americana certain to delight anyone, just as it inspired Andy Griffith decades ago.
See More Mike Walker Photos of Mount Airy and Pilot Mountain Here