As Jamie Sullivan, a lanky teenager, lopes along the tree-shaded sidewalk, occasional rays of sunlight setting his orange hair ablaze, it's easy to understand why folks here have been calling him Opie since he was a young whippersnapper.
Dressed in an oversized plaid shirt, rolled-up jeans and canvas sneakers, he looks as though he's about to amble down the main drag, passing Snappy Lunch and Floyd's Barber Shop, to ask his pa if he can quit sheriffin' long enough to go fishin'.
Alas, Sheriff Taylor, a.k.a. Andy Griffith, is nowhere to be found, which confuses some visitors. After all, the actor grew up in a bungalow over on Haymore Street, just a few blocks from where Opie's drawing a crowd beside a bronze statue of Andy and his son headed for the fishin' hole. Seemingly on cue, the old Mayberry squad car — a 1963 Ford Galaxie — cruises past, delighting onlookers with a short growl from the siren.
Planning your trip
Mount Airy Visitors Center is the best starting point; 200 N. Main St., (800) 948-0949, www.visitmayberry.com.
Mike Cockerham's Squad Car Tours are available year-round: www.tourmayberry.com.
The annual Mayberry Days festival will be Sept. 23-26. The Surry Arts Council organizes a wealth of activities. www.mayberrydays.org.
It's no wonder some visitors are drawn to the northwest corner of North Carolina, not for the stunning scenery of the Blue Ridge Parkway but for the time warp Mount Airy offers and the opportunity to step onto a living set of the '60s sitcom, "The Andy Griffith Show." So it's really no surprise when the recently retired police chief, Roger McCreary, finds himself using Mount Airy and Mayberry as if they're interchangeable.
"Mount Airy. Mayberry. I guess you grow up in this atmosphere, it's easy to kind of confuse where the fictional show stops and the real town starts," he says. "I guess Mayberry epitomizes small-town U.S.A. and good wholesome boys."
That wholesomeness is seemingly everywhere. Tourists and locals alike get a fix while setting a spell inside the City Barber Shop.
The name "Floyd's," a reference to the sitcom's fictional barber, is a relatively recent addition to the front window. Owner Russell Hiatt says some folks from the local Chamber of Commerce talked him into it a few years ago.
" ‘C'mon, Russ, let's go to lunch,' " Hiatt recalls some civic leaders telling him. "They just about dragged me out the door. When I come back, it [Floyd's] was on the window."
Hiatt, who has been cutting hair here for more than 60 years, finds all the chairs filled the last weekend each September, when tens of thousands of fans descend on Mount Airy for the Mayberry Days festival and its heaping helping of nostalgia.
Each year, the festival attracts a handful of actors from the TV show, along with tribute artists including high school senior Jamie Sullivan, who's been portraying Opie at festivals and fairs since he was in the second grade.
"Jamie has grown up in Mayberry," his father, Ken Sullivan, says from their home in Cowan, Tenn. When they're not on the road, Ken says the family regularly gathers to watch reruns of "The Andy Griffith Show."
"His dream in life since first grade was to meet Ron Howard," Ken Sullivan says of the actor-turned-director who, as a child, played Opie. "He keeps hoping that, one day, that will happen."
The festival is what first brought actress Betty Lynn to town. Lynn played Barney Fife's girlfriend, Thelma Lou, on the sitcom, and fans love chatting with her and getting her autograph.
Upon returning to Los Angeles from the 2006 festivities, she discovered her home of more than 50 years had been broken into — for the second time. For Lynn, it was time to say goodbye to Westwood and hello to her new hometown, Mount Airy.
"I never dreamed I'd [live] here. It never occurred to me," she says.
"It's a lovely little town," Lynn adds, looking out a window at the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. "God was the artist here and did a beautiful job."
The actress-in-residence adds still more credibility to Mount Airy's claim to the nickname Mayberry. Andy Griffith's Home Place, the house in which he grew up, is now a bed-and-breakfast. Weaver's Department Store offers a bevy of memorabilia in its free museum. For a bite to eat, there are several themed restaurants, including the Bluebird Diner and Aunt Bee's Barbeque.
Most of the sights can be navigated on foot but without the tales and trivia that Mike Cockerham offers as he drives visitors around town in an old police cruiser. The tours leave from outside Wally's Filling Station, another throwback to the 1960s TV show, complete with an old-fashioned cooler that still dispenses soda pop in bottles.
"A lot of people who grew up watching the show are the ones [now] doing the traveling," Cockerham says.
"We get a lot of comments from tourists about how friendly people are," he adds. "It's not a put-on for tourists. It's a way of life here."
Of course, the real Mount Airy isn't crime-free. The town of about 9,000 people was shocked last fall by the gunning down of four men in the parking lot of a local appliance store. A convicted felon was charged with the slayings, which authorities said were not random.
In Mayberry, Sheriff Taylor and Deputy Fife dealt more with jaywalkers than with real criminals.
"I don't think any place could be that perfect," says Russell Hiatt, the barber, adding that most of the residents really do seem to practice what the TV show preached.
"Some people locally are offended by us being called Mayberry. But I think it's the ultimate compliment," says Roger McCreary, the former police chief.
"I got seven grandkids, and I ain't afraid for my grandkids to get out and walk on the streets at night," he adds. "That's a small town sense of security, and that we still have."