MOUNT AIRY — Before The Andy Griffith Show, before nearby Pilot Mountain became the nucleus of a popular state park, Mount Airy had the Rock.
Granite, to be precise. Mount Airy is home to the largest open-face granite quarry in the world. Stretching over 60 acres on the surface and thousands of feet below is a mass of stone so pure and desirable that it can be found in such varied sites as the World War II Memorial in Washington, the gold depository at Fort Knox, the Wright Brothers National Memorial, and street curbing in frigid climes where the brine used to clear snow and ice can destroy any concrete.
Mining began here in 1889. But Mount Airy was already a thriving town — and had even achieved some notoriety in the mid-19th century as the home of the original Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng Bunker. Its broader fame began in 1960 when local boy Andy Griffith, already a star of stage and screen, launched his eponymous sitcom on CBS.
Mount Airy is a real place. Mayberry is fictional. But in the minds of its many millions of fans, Mayberry is a real place, too — not a physical location but a moral one. A place where mistakes earn people second chances, not everlasting scorn. A place where parents teach their children the virtues of honesty, responsibility, and compassion — and sometimes get schooled themselves in those same virtues by those same children.
Desperate to find such a place, if even just for a weekend, fans began visiting Mount Airy in droves. The Granite City proved supple enough to welcome them. You can get into a vintage squad car at Wally’s Filling Station and be carried to Floyd’s Barber Shop for a trim, Barney’s Cafe for a smile, and the Snappy Lunch for its famous pork-chop sandwich.
I was in Mount Airy recently for the Mayberry Days festival. My new Revolutionary War-themed novel Mountain Folk is partly set on the distinctive High Pinnacle of nearby Pilot Mountain, so it was a natural for me to do a downtown book signing. But that was just an excuse. My wife and I wanted a weekend getaway. We got that, and much more, thanks to Ted Koppel.
No, the famous newsman wasn’t in Mount Airy when we were there. But he’d come a short time before, producing a segment that aired on CBS Sunday Morning just as Mayberry Days was about to begin.
It was, alas, largely a hit piece. Looking more discombobulated than discerning, Koppel sought to depict Andy Griffith fans as bigoted fools wallowing in nostalgia about a racially segregated past. He reacted with mock dismay at the idea that a couple from Ohio would let their son watch the show for hours at a time. “Aren’t you afraid,” he asked disdainfully, that “you’re going to turn his little brain to mush?”
There was also a lengthy interview with some tourists who believe the election was stolen from Donald Trump, think the January 6 riot was staged by antifa, and see journalists as “enemies of the people.” Of course, there are quite a few Trump supporters who believe such rubbish. They’ve been lied to, yes. But they’ve also alienated by years of watching sneering schoolmarms like Koppel.
The folks I talked to in Mount Airy were enraged by his hit piece. Few television shows on the air half a century ago were racially integrated. Why did CBS choose this much-beloved program, and the proud community that celebrates it, as battlefields in someone else’s culture war? If you think The Andy Griffith Show continues to brighten the days of its many fans because of some misbegotten yearning for white supremacy, you are deeply confused — and entirely untrustworthy as an observer of the human condition.
People long for Mayberry because of the timeless and universal truths found there. Like folks have done for more than a century, they come to Mount Airy looking for solid rock.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.