01:55 - Source: CNN
2011: Town where Andy Griffith grew up

Story highlights

Mount Airy may have inspired Mayberry, a fictional town where "The Andy Griffith Show" was set

The North Carolina town is the birthplace of Andy Griffith, who died Tuesday

Mount Airy -- with a population of about 10,000 -- is also home to the Andy Griffith Museum

The building is filled with memorabilia collected by the actor's friend, Emmett Forrest

CNN  — 

Just a few miles south of the Virginia state line, Mount Airy, North Carolina – a former stagecoach stop along the Ararat River – is thought to have inspired Mayberry, the fictional town where “The Andy Griffith Show” was supposedly set.

By no coincidence, Mount Airy is also the birthplace of Andy Griffith, the actor who played Sheriff Andy Taylor in the series.

Griffith died Tuesday at the age of 86 on North Carolina’s Roanoke Island, his family said.

But the actor’s legacy in this small community, once propped up by a local economy fixed on textiles and tobacco, seems ever-present.

“We’re the quintessential small town that lost all those things. Tourism has really saved us,” said Tanya Jones, the executive director of the Surry Arts Council, a group that supports the region’s local arts.

“Andy is the hook. He is the reason people come to Mount Airy,” she said. “We are devastated.”

Officials, stars and fans react to the death of Andy Griffith

The region is also packed with many of the same landmarks that filled the actor’s television story-lines.

Mount Pilot, the fictional nearby town often referred to in “The Andy Griffith Show,” was likely a reference to Pilot Mountain, a state park and neighboring town of Mount Airy.

Growing up in Mount Airy, Andy is part of your world

“This is where he grew up,” said Ronda Nunn, a waitress at Snappy Lunch, a restaurant built in 1923 that was also mentioned in the show. “He put Mount Airy on the map.”

The landmark eatery – a favorite of fictional characters like Andy, Aunt Bee and Opie – was filled Tuesday with local residents, arriving to talk about the news of Griffith’s death and to pay their respects.

“We have a line as we speak out the front,” said Diane Doss, 59, a Snappy Lunch employee for more than two decades.

“People would come visit here from everywhere,” she said, adding that Griffith’s star power also drew in big name celebrities like Oprah Winfrey.

“I once served eggs to Lou Ferrigno,” Doss added, speaking of the actor who played The Incredible Hulk. “Andy just really has meant a lot to this town” and to those who came to it because of him, she said.

Mount Airy – with a population of about 10,000 – is also home to the Andy Griffith Museum, a 1,500-square-foot building filled with memorabilia collected by the actor’s friend, Emmett Forrest, whose name may have been used for Mayberry’s handyman, Emmett Clark.

The museum drew nearly 55,000 visitors in its first year after opening in 2009.

Lifelong dream to visit Mayberry comes true

Best known for his role as the small town sheriff of Mayberry, Griffith later starred as a folksy southern attorney in the television legal drama, “Matlock.” He also had roles on Broadway, in movies and was as a Grammy Award-winning gospel singer.

Authorities say the former actor died on Roanoke Island, where he lived with his wife, Cindi.

“Andy was a person of incredibly strong Christian faith and was prepared for the day he would be called Home to his Lord,” Cindi Griffith said in a statement Tuesday. “He is the love of my life, my constant companion, my partner, and my best friend. I cannot imagine life without Andy, but I take comfort and strength in God’s grace and in the knowledge that Andy is at peace and with God.”

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