Last updated: April 29. 2014 5:55PM - 3286 Views
By - tjoyce@civitasmedia.com

Erica Hicks, left, and Kate Griffin, students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, pause at the Andy and Opie statue on Rockford Street during a recent visit to Mount Airy as part of a UNC research project on Mayberry Days.
Erica Hicks, left, and Kate Griffin, students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, pause at the Andy and Opie statue on Rockford Street during a recent visit to Mount Airy as part of a UNC research project on Mayberry Days.
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A further sign that the “Mayberry” phenomenon continues to thrive has surfaced in the form of a research project involving two students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

The effort by senior Erica Hicks and Kate Griffin, a junior, is focusing on the Mayberry Days event held here each September and its role in Mount Airy’s tourism. It arose through a history class at UNC that W. Fitzhugh Brundage, the chairman of the school’s Department of History, described as “an intensive research seminar.”

As opposed to being assigned by a professor, “we chose it,” Hicks said of her and Griffin’s selection of the Mayberry topic from among other possibilities.

Their interest stemmed from a familiarity with “The Andy Griffith Show,” and included a desire to explore how the long-term national exposure from such a program can allow a town to build a unique identity. This has occurred with Griffith’s hometown and its Mayberry Days celebration, with that association also contributing to Mount Airy’s tourism year-round.

“It’s going to be eventually published on a website,” Hicks, a history and political science major from King’s Mountain, said of the research essay resulting from the pair’s project.

It will be part of a “Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina” site, a digital archive created and maintained by the university library at the http://docsouth.unc.edu/commland/ address.

“We are confident that their project will be an interesting and important contribution to this digital archive that attracts roughly 2,000 visitors a month from around the world,” added Brundage, the history department chairman.

“Small-Town Feel”

The two students initially accessed various articles written about Mayberry Days to gain an understanding of the festival, before visiting Mount Airy earlier this month.

While here, they interviewed various local residents including Tanya Jones, the executive director of the Surry Arts Council, which sponsors Mayberry Days, now in its 25th year; the owner of the Squad Car Tours business that operates a fleet of Mayberry patrol car replicas; and representatives of the Andy Griffith Museum. Hicks and Griffin also spent time in downtown Mount Airy, where some stores incorporate a Mayberry theme.

“We both thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Mount Airy,” Hicks reported afterward. “I can definitely see aspects of Mount Airy in Mayberry, where everyone seems to know each other and get along. I could see this just walking down Main Street in the way everyone interacted with each other, shouting hellos and just stopping to chat.”

Griffin offered similar comments about the visit, saying it coincided with her research indicating that Mayberry Days fans are driven by “a sense of nostalgia for the small-town feel — to escape the busy pace of the modern age and to return back to a kind of simpler life.”

The UNC junior added that she experienced this personally. “For me, visiting Mount Airy had a similar effect,” Griffin explained. “It truly felt like an escape to just a simpler time and I really enjoyed my time there.”

Copied By Others

Jones, the arts council official, said the research project by the UNC students illustrates the fact that the Mayberry phenomenon continues to spawn new generations of followers.

“This is what people don’t realize about this town,” Jones said in pointing out how its Mayberry-like appeal seems timeless.

Hicks and Griffin aren’t the only students who’ve come calling — they’re just the latest choosing to research the Mayberry mystique. “They pick Mount Airy to do their papers on,” Jones said.

She even went so far as to say that Mayberry Days has, in a sense, eclipsed Andy Griffith, who died in July 2012. While the festival was accelerated by “The Andy Griffith Show,” and many people have come here because it is his hometown, “it’s not just Andy,” the arts council official said.

“What it’s become is a reunion of fans — they come back and back and they love it here,” Jones added of the annual gathering. “People want to come to Mount Airy — it is a small town and the intimacy is welcome.”

It’s a formula other communities around the country have sought to emulate, according to Jones, who supplied a cross-section of examples, including:

• The Mayberry in the Midwest Festival scheduled on May 17-18 in Danville, Ind., to feature some of the Mayberry Days participants;

• A Squad Car Nationals event held in Fayette, Ala.;

• A Mayberry gathering in Hornell, N.Y., which has sought to have “Andy Griffith Show” actress Betty Lynn, a local resident, as a special guest;

• “Mayberry Nights” in Troy, N.C., scheduled the month before Mayberry Days;

• Plans for an observance in Morgantown, W.Va., birthplace of Don Knotts, who played Barney Fife.

“They’ve called us a number of times for information,” Jones said of officials there, whose inquiries aren’t isolated.

“It’s endless.”

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

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