Looking for Mayberry? Try Roanoke Island

I’m catching up on a few books that slipped through the cracks last year when the newspaper I’d been writing freelance reviews for no longer was able to pay for such things. It’s sad what’s happening to regional newspapers as they are bought by distant enterprises that strip them of staff and resources; it’s a real loss for communities. Fortunately, I have this blog, so I’ll be posting more of my own reviews here, along with those by a few other reviewers.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

ANDY GRIFFITH’S MANTEO: His Real Mayberry. By John Railey. History Press. 158 pages. $21.99, paperback.

Everybody knows that the Mayberry of the beloved Andy Griffith Show fame is really Mount Airy, north of Winston-Salem, N.C., on U.S. 52, and not far from Pilot Mountain (aka Mount Pilot). It’s the place where Andy Griffith was born and grew up.  Right?

Mount Airy certainly capitalizes on that connection and the fame of its native son. Visit Mount Airy and you can eat a pork chop sandwich at the Snappy Lunch diner; see Floyd’s City Barbershop, now a tourist attraction; stop by the Andy Griffith Museum; see Andy’s homeplace…

But in his book Andy Griffith’s Manteo, John Railey, a longtime newspaperman, makes a strong case that for Andy, the real Mayberry of the heart was Manteo, his longtime home on Roanoke Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Using interesting stories and reminiscences from Griffith’s friends in Manteo and elsewhere, Railey explores that relationship, how it grew and what it meant, for the man and for his adopted hometown.

Railey himself has ties to and insights into both areas that were so important in Griffith’s life. As an adult, he worked as a reporter, editorial writer and editorial page editor for newspapers not far from Mount Airy, including many years at the Winston-Salem Journal, which considered Mount Airy part of its territory. (Full disclosure: I was Railey’s boss for a time when I was the Journal’s editorial page editor.) But Railey grew up in Southeastern Virginia spending a lot of time on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and now that he’s not bound by a newspaper’s schedule, the Outer Banks are more or less his second home.

Railey uses his familiarity with Manteo and its people to good advantage. The Manteo locals knew that Andy Griffith, though a celebrity, fiercely cherished his privacy, and they often loyally helped shield him from curious eyes. Railey, however, has been able to get many of them, including some of Griffith’s close friends, to open up and share memories and insights. Some also shared old photos, and their inclusion in the book helps bring the stories and the people to life.

This is Railey’s second nonfiction book set on Roanoke Island and published by The History Press in Charleston, S.C. The first, The Lost Colony Murder on the Outer Banks: Seeking Justice for Brenda Joyce Holland, has been a top seller on the Outer Banks, and this one should also have a wide audience. Railey has a winning blend of investigative reporting skills and a downhome manner that puts people at ease.

He makes a compelling case that Griffith’s life was changed when, as an undergrad at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he got a bit part in The Lost Colony outdoor drama at Manteo in the summer of 1947.  By his third summer in the drama, he had a major role – Sir Walter Raleigh – and the confidence that propelled him into his career in entertainment.

This book is interesting and fun to read for those who love Manteo and for fans of Andy Griffith, his iconic Andy Griffith Show and Griffith’s other TV and movie roles. It offers rich insights into a man far more complex than the drawling, smiling Sheriff Taylor.

Many of us knew that Andy Griffith had a home on Manteo, but Railey shows how important that home was. It’s not just that Andy loved the coastal life, the pontoon boating, the easy camaraderie with local people, the good times (occasionally a little too good, perhaps)…. It’s that Manteo was where he felt truly at home, the way the fictional sheriff did in Mayberry.

And, Railey also makes clear, Griffith did not feel accepted in that way while growing up in Mount Airy.  Griffith had loving parents, but they struggled to make ends meet. Railey tells how, despite his eventual stardom, Griffith never forgot the sting of being called “white trash” by a girl in his fourth-grade class.

The book shows us Andy Griffith, the real man, not Sheriff Taylor or Lawyer Matlock or any of the other roles he played. We learn about his complexities and his demons, his marriages and family life, his ups and downs and occasional tantrums. We see how he enjoyed Manteo as a place where he could be himself, feel at ease with friends and have fun. And we see how he found many ways to give back to the community, eventually even becoming politically active. He led efforts to prevent urban sprawl on the island and to resist efforts of the Food Lion grocery chain to build a supermarket there, to the likely detriment of local stores.

As the subtitle of his book and the last words in his epilogue – and a few points in between – make evident, Railey is on a mission to convince us that Manteo was Griffith’s “Real Mayberry.” It’s not a completely new notion, and Railey, an experienced reporter, gives credit to writers and others who have quoted Griffith to that effect.

But probably more than anyone, Railey, in this slim book brimming with stories, focuses on how Manteo became Griffith’s home emotionally as well as physically, and what that meant for the man and his life.

Readers who are fans of Andy Griffith or of Manteo or both should ‘preciate it, as Sheriff Andy would have said.

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