Much has been written about Mayberry, North Carolina, since the death last week of Andy Griffith — about his show’s “false cornpone nostalgia,” about the star’s indifference toward his Blue Ridge Mountain hometown of Mount Airy. But no writer to my knowledge has tried to imagine a contemporary Mayberry, a Mayberry that would have endured the calamitous “progress” of the past forty years. If America’s favorite fictional hamlet had — Pinocchio-like — suddenly become a real town, it would have undergone many changes since the show’s 1968 finale. And few of those changes would have been for the better.
Mayberry’s downtown most likely would resemble a ghost town where even the ghosts had departed in search of better opportunities. Sadly, most rural North Carolina manufacturing and tobacco towns are steadily losing both jobs and population as — in a paradox worthy of a Joseph Heller story — high school graduates move away, while would-be employers seek a vibrant, well-trained workforce.
A wistful stroll downtown would yield little in the way of nostalgia and much in the way of melancholia. The visitor stopping at Floyd’s Barber Shop would find an empty storefront with a flyspecked “for rent” sign in the window. Mayberry residents who need a trim now drive out to the Great Clips in the Blue Ridge Shopping Center, a strip mall that is home to a Dollar General store, a Rent-A-Center, and a generic Mexican restaurant. Wally’s Filling Station, unable to compete with the corporate-owned Quik-Pik Food Mart out on the new Interstate, would be the site of a used car lot, or quite possibly a Harley Davidson Super Center. Main Street’s other longtime businesses — the hardware store, Walker’s Pharmacy, the grocery, Emmett’s Fix-It Shop, the Blue Bird Café — would likewise sit empty, done in by the Walmart, Walgreens and fast food chains that roared into town in the 1980s, and set up shop along what is now called Hamburger Row. Likewise, the Mayberry Hotel, which stands catty-corner from the courthouse, would have lost out to the new Holiday Inn Express. One may come across a few antiquey shops on the square, like the ubiquitous Civil War surplus store or the obligatory tattoo parlor, but the business district would have relocated long ago from downtown to some former farmer’s erstwhile tobacco fields.
Mayberry’s iconic courthouse would have been knocked down decades ago, replaced by a Brutalist lump of “creative concrete.” Why would a struggling city need a new courthouse, you ask? Like many other hard-hit rural towns, Mayberry would have seen incarceration rates skyrocket since the 1960s, and two jail cells would not be nearly enough to house all its wantons. Back in the 1960s, you may recall, the only detainees were rock-throwing Ernest T. Bass and Otis Campbell, the loveable town drunk. However, by the early 90s, Mayberry’s cells would have been crowded with meth cookers, trailer park wife-beaters, pot-smugglers, drunk-drivers, and shoplifters. (Needless to say, the sheriff and his deputies would now carry firearms and pack more than one bullet.) No doubt, the new courthouse and jail would have been sold to the taxpayers as a sign of progress.
Meanwhile, Mayberry Union High would sit idle and shuttered, a victim of the school consolidation fever that ravaged the state back in the ’70s. Mayberry’s children, who once walked to and from school, would be bused thirty miles away to TriCo High School, located in the next county over. This was considered progress too.
SEVERAL FACTORS WOULD have contributed to Mayberry’s decline. The loss of manufacturing jobs, the waning of the tobacco industry, the spread of higher education through federal government programs for the poor, the encouragement of the best and brightest to decamp for better opportunities in the cities, and the completion of the four-lane Interstates that stretch (seemingly one way) to Raleigh or Charlotte. Those young Mayberryites who did not run off to college would have joined the military. Some returned in body bags, others did not return at all, finding life more hospitable elsewhere. The Federal Government would have had a hand in all these factors, from the building of Interstates to changes in U.S. trade policies.
TVLand’s Mayberry was in reality a set on the old RKO Path back lot in Culver City, Calif., where many 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s movies and television shows, from Star Trek to Superman, were filmed. In 1976, the fictional Mayberry was razed for re-development. The spot is known today as the Hayden Industrial Tract. Perhaps a quick end by bulldozer was better than the slow sad death a real Mayberry would have endured.