And yet even as this city of about 10,000 nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains fills its coffers by selling nostalgia, many of its residents would agree with the now-popular saying “We’re not in Mayberry anymore.”
If only the real Mount Airy, which has experienced decades of economic and social decline, were like the Mayberry facade, muses Mayor David Rowe. If only his city and the rest of America could return to the 1950s again.
“Now it’s about secular progressivism, not the values you get out of this book,” such as honesty and hard work, said Rowe, 72, jabbing his finger at the leather Bible on his office desk.
But as Donald Trump prepares to move into the White House, Rowe and many of his constituents are hoping for a return to the past.
“We’re going to hold him to it,” said Brad Thomas, 42, who used to work as an engineer building turbine blades for power plants before his job was moved to Mexico.
Seventy-four percent of white evangelicals believe American culture has mostly changed for the worse since the 1950s — more than any other group of Americans — compared with 56 percent of all whites, according to a 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. In sharp contrast, 62 percent of African Americans and 57 percent of Hispanic Americans think the culture has changed for the better, the survey said.
With his promise to “Make America Great Again,” Trump appealed directly to this sense of dispossession, and 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for him, according to exit polls.
“You think back to the 1990s, and conservative Christians could throw around the phrase ‘moral majority,’ and there was a kernel of truth to that,” said Robert P. Jones, chief executive at PRRI and author of “The End of White Christian America.” “Even in 2008, they could say the country is on our side on [same-sex marriage], and that’s changed so quickly in this last decade. The election hit on fundamental questions about what America is and should be.”
Tourism isn't enough
Scissors the size of gardening shears hang from a coat rack in the mayor’s office. They are reserved for Rowe’s primary job of cutting ribbons, he said, and have been used a lot downtown, where just a few empty storefronts remain on Main Street. An old-fashioned sheriff’s squad car drives tourists for $35, stopping at local favorites and ending at Andy Griffith’s childhood home.
Visitors to Surry County spent $116.62 million in 2015, compared with $66 million 12 years ago, according to Jessica Icenhour Roberts, who heads tourism partnerships for the county, whose largest city is Mount Airy.
But Mount Airy cannot live on tourism alone, the mayor said.
“We try to live the good old days, but it’s hard,” Rowe said. Just down the street from a bronze statue of Griffith and a museum dedicated to his memory, out of sight of the boutiques selling Norman Rockwell and Thomas Kinkade artwork, sit many dilapidated textile mills that have closed in the past decade. From early 2000 to about 2010, about 9,000 private-sector jobs were lost when factories that made clothes went overseas.
Three of the economic pillars symbolized on the city seal — tobacco leaves, a chair representing furniture makers, a spool of yarn for the textile mills — are largely relics of the past. Now, granite is really the only thing left, the mayor said. The city is home to the world’s largest open-face granite quarry, which continues to provide a boost to the economy and has earned Mount Airy the moniker of “The Granite City.”
Despite the steady stream of tourists, business owners are still struggling to create new jobs that will attract a younger generation, said Lizzie Morrison, 30, who runs an art studio and is the Main Street coordinator with Mount Airy Downtown.
Morrison said the city’s younger residents tend to be socially liberal, while most in the older generations look to the past. That tension makes it harder for someone like her to push for new ideas, she said.
“You deal with a lot of white, middle-aged men who might call you ‘Sweetie’ and belittle you a little bit,” she said. “It’s interesting to navigate that in a small community in trying to create jobs and be taken seriously.”
A group of developers has been working on a project to redevelop an old mill, Morrison said, but the proposal has moved slowly because of resistance from residents. Similarly, Vann McCoy, who runs a whiskey shop called Mayberry Spirits, said that residents recently opposed a traffic roundabout because there is no traffic circle visible on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Meanwhile, some residents said they are having a hard time finding the kind of skilled manufacturing jobs available in the past.
Thomas, who blames the loss of his $75,000-a-year factory job on Obama, now makes $18,000 working in his friend’s gun store and pawnshop. He is hopeful Trump will bring jobs back.
His colleague, Dreama Staples, 53, said people are bringing in their prized possessions to sell so they can buy groceries and gas. At 4.8 percent, the unemployment rate in Surry County is similar to the national figure, but Staples said that finding full-time work with benefits is difficult. She said she has grown angry over what she considers government overreach.
“We’re losing control of our freedoms,” Staples said. “The government was taking away our rights. Taxes are higher, our jobs are gone, and it just feels less Christian.”
Memories at odds with facts
Many Mount Airy residents applauded the president-elect’s promise to revoke the Johnson Amendment, which effectively bars pastors from endorsing a candidate from the pulpit, Rowe said. They were heartened by his suggestion that Christians will be able to once again see “Merry Christmas” signs in department stores.
But the mayor acknowledges that the 1950s and ’60s were not idyllic for all Americans. He wouldn’t, for example, want to go back to the days when there were separate water fountains at the local Sears for whites and blacks. At the same time, he said, African Americans often bring hardship on themselves. Asked to explain what he meant, he amended the statement to mean young blacks.
“When you’re my age and you see an African American boy with pants at their knees, you can’t appreciate them,” he said, noting that he would never employ someone who dressed that way. “I’m worried about when a person chooses to dresses like that, what kind of effect will that person have on society.” He noted that the Hispanics he has hired to work at his construction company are hard workers. He doesn’t encounter people who aren’t white in social settings much because folks tend to self-segregate, he said. Mount Airy is 84 percent white, 8.2 percent black and 6.7 percent Hispanic, according to 2010 census data.
Not everyone is nostalgic for the 1950s.
Ron Jessup, 68, who grew up in Mount Airy during that era, found the place generally friendly then, he said — as long as he and other blacks obeyed the racist laws and social mores of the time.
If African Americans went to the theater, they sat upstairs, he said. If they went to the restaurants, they avoided the counter. “We understood what was considered our place,” said Jessup, who is retired from his job as a high school principal in nearby Winston-Salem. Even now, all five Surry County commissioners are white.
Fictional Mayberry only represented part of the Mount Airy story because it only portrayed a white America, Jessup said.
White residents tend to view the city’s history through rose-colored glasses, he said. Even Andy Griffith said the show wasn’t based on his home town, Jessup noted. Indeed, in a 1998 television interview, Griffith said the idea of Mayberry came from the producers. “I’ve argued about this too long. I don’t care,” he said of people in Mount Airy. “Let them think what they want to think.” Andy Griffith never returned to live in his home town either, dying in 2012 at his coastal home in Dare County.
Ironically, when the show first aired in 1960, the intent was to hark back to an even earlier era — the 1930s, Griffith has said.
As for Trump, Jessup believes his “Make America Great Again” slogan was code for “take America back again,” and a reaction to President Obama’s election.
“Sometimes we use Christianity when it’s convenient for what we want,” Jessup said. “You can’t allow someone to have racist remarks and then go to church and talk about Jesus as the center of your life.”
God and country
When she travels with her pastor husband, Thresa Tucker hands out an evangelistic tract that uses “The Andy Griffith Show” as an entry point for talking about Jesus. When they return home to Mount Airy, she said, she is reminded of how good they have it, pointing out the red barns that dot views of the Blue Ridge.
Tucker and her husband, David, said they voted for Trump because they want a more limited federal government. They mentioned social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and school prayer.
The Tuckers were also dismayed when their health insurance bill skyrocketed. Before Obamacare, they had no health insurance and paid out of pocket. Their monthly bill will rise from $115 a month now to $435 next year, Thresa Tucker said.
Many of those who have lost jobs seek help at White Plains Baptist Church, where her husband is preacher. But not all who seek help are worthy of it, she said. The church has to be a good steward of its money, so there are criteria for assistance, and she asks whether people attend church regularly. African Americans who have voiced concerns over what Trump will do for the poor would have a different perspective if they tried harder to help themselves, she said.
“I think black people think they’re owed something,” she said. “I think if they acted differently, people would be apt to help them.” She later added that some white people expect handouts, too.
“I believe Trump will get people back to working,” she said.
David Tucker said people resent it when the government tries to supplant the role of local ministries in helping those in need. “Don’t try to change us into something like New York,” he said. “All we really want is for the government to leave us alone and to worship the way we want to.”
Nostalgia for Christian America
After settling into a bright blue booth at Olympia Family Restaurant, Rowe said he has a lot to be thankful for. He has a good job, a wife, two kids, one grandchild and another on the way. He has a beautiful home near the country club with a view of the mountains.
But he notes that while his home town looks picturesque from the outside, it has faced some of the same issues as urban areas, including drugs and divorce. Things might have turned out differently if religion had maintained its role in the culture, he suggested.
People just aren’t committed to church, anymore, he said. The church he attends used to attract up to 600 people on a Sunday in the 1960s, but is lucky to get a third of that now. Young people leave for college and come back with more progressive, secular values, he said.
Even so, as the man he voted for is about to take office, Rowe is a bit wary. For one thing, he said, he does not want to have to defend Trump for the next four years.
“If I’ve learned anything while being a mayor,” he said, “you have to think before you speak. I’m not sure Donald Trump has learned that.”
If Trump does manage to “make America great again,” Rowe said it will involve preventing the government from encroaching on religion.
Christianity has come under attack in America, he said. “It’s subtle, not in your face, but that’s the way Satan works,” he said.
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During the 2016 election, 74% of white evangelicals believe American culture has gotten worse since the 1950s, while most people of color think the opposite.