You can talk to just about anybody who grew up in a small Southern town in the 1950s, ’60s, or ’70s, and they’re likely to tell you that their hometown was “just like Mayberry.”
Mayberry, of course, is the fictional North Carolina town that was the setting for “The Andy Griffith Show,” which was an enormous hit for CBS from 1960 to 1968. The show has always fascinated me. It was already running when I was born, in 1961, and I don’t remember any other television show from my childhood as vividly as I remember “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Many years ago, a colleague of mine from Louisiana, the now-famous political operative James Carville, told me he believed there was nothing you needed to know about living life that you could not learn by watching “The Andy Griffith Show.” And I think he was right. Sheriff Andy resolved problems through reason and friendliness, not force. He respected everyone in his community, from the oddballs like Briscoe Darling to the drunks like Otis Campbell. For those of us who grew up in towns like Mayberry, the voice of Sheriff Andy still conjures up the voices of parents or neighbors who could set us straight if we got out of line.
I’m not sure that it’s possible, in the 21st century, to grow up in a place like Mayberry. (But if you live in a town you think is still like Mayberry, I’d love to know about it. Heck, I’d love to visit it. Just leave a comment at the bottom of this story.) Still, I believe that for millions of Americans, Mayberry feels like a representation of what is good about our country. Was Mayberry representative of the diversity of Southerners in the 1960s? Of course not. In the entire history of the show, there was only one Black character with a speaking part.
But the experience of community represented by the show crossed racial barriers. When Griffith died in 2012, Rochelle Riley, a prominent Black columnist for the Detroit Free Press, made that case forcefully. Riley grew up watching the show in her hometown of Tarboro, North Carolina.
"My family didn't watch 'The Andy Griffith Show' to count black people," Riley wrote. "We watched to see our way of life, one that included spending hours picking plums in the plum orchard, then sitting under a chinaberry tree eating them, or walking along ponds to collect cattails. I lived in Mayberry.”
I lived in Mayberry, too. In fact, I was Opie. Andy was a widow. My father, Clarence, was a widow, too. Opie was an only child. I was, too. Opie had free rein to wander the streets of Mayberry. I had free rein to wander anywhere I wanted to go in my hometown of Ellijay, Georgia. The only difference was that we didn’t have a live-in housekeeper — an Aunt Bee — in our home.
Not too long ago, I watched several episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” on the TV Land channel. My fond memories of the show itself did not come rushing back. Instead, it was my memories of my hometown. I remembered how I’d head to my father’s insurance office every day after school, my base for an afternoon of roaming.
One typical stop was Starnes’ Drug Store on the town square. They had a soda fountain, and my standard afternoon snack was a hot dog and a Sprite. I’d wander from there up North Main Street, back toward my dad’s office, and stop at a camera shop owned by a fellow named Walter (if memory serves me correctly). It spurred a lifelong interest in photography. I bought my first serious camera there: a used 35-millimeter Petri 7S. After the camera shop closed, the space was occupied by Willie’s Ellijay Record Shop, where I fed my music habit and spent hours combing through the racks. After a while, I even talked myself into a part-time job there.
Sheriff Andy Taylor and Clarence Reece shared a common problem: the challenge of raising, on their own, young boys. As I watched those episodes of the show and let my memories of growing up in Ellijay flood my soul, it occurred to me that Andy and Clarence didn’t raise Opie and me by themselves. They both had an entire town to help them with the job.
If there are any Mayberrys still out there, the kids who grow up there should count their blessings. They are fortunate indeed.