Reporter's Note: President Obama has been traveling a bit lately, and so have I. Still if he can keep up with reading my letters, I can keep writing them.
Dear Mr. President,
I can’t recall if I told you that I am on a Building Up America trip this week, but this is as good a time as any because I have just spent a wonderful day in beautiful Mt. Airy, North Carolina.
The great actor and humorist Andy Griffith (a personal favorite to be sure) grew up here, and he based many of the characters and places in his hit TV show on his home town. For years Mt. Airy enjoyed that notoriety in a quiet way, but then some time back the local arts council decided to do something more. They began a Mayberry Days festival each fall, tourists started pouring in, and the rest as they say is history.
The main street is crowded with shops selling all things Mayberry. Stores evoke the names of beloved characters like Aunt Bea, Floyd, Emmett, Gomer and Goober. Betty Lynn, the actress who played Barney’s girlfriend Thelma Lou, even lives here now. She is charming, kind, funny, and more than willing to talk with visitors about being there for the creation of a legendary TV series. Visitors tour around in old fashioned squad cars. A new museum is jammed with memorabilia from Griffith’s life, his shows, movies, and music career. His original home is even out on the edge of town.
All of this taken together has turned this town of ten thousand souls into a destination for a great many more tourists. Only a few years back, the whole area was staggering over the loss of textile, furniture making, and tobacco farming jobs; today, tourism brings more than $80 million into the county annually, and Mt. Airy is the centerpiece. And it’s not just American baby boomers. People have come from more than 40 countries, and many are far too young to have seen the show when it hit the air 50 years ago; they have become fans through cable TV and DVDs.
The point is this town figured out that it had a natural way to promote business, the arts, and a cultural identity, and that has launched a whole new age of success.
Andy Griffith still lives in North Carolina, and a few very lucky tourists see him once in a great while when he visits Mt. Airy. But the character he created walks these streets every day in the memories of so many dedicated fans, who have found the fictional town they love in a very real place that loves them back.
So if you ever get a chance to head down that way, you really should not miss the chance. Mt. Airy, for my money, is a stop worthy of a president.
I hope all is well with you and yours. Call if you can. I think I’ll go down to Floyd’s and get a trim!
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