The longtime director of the extension is retiring on Friday
Alma Venable made an impact here in Mount Airy and beyond as one of Mayberry’s most well known ambassadors and owner of the Mayberry Motor Inn. She worked to preserve the rich legacy of Mount Airy’s fictional alter ego and to welcome guests to the community year-round.
Venable died on September 4 at her home in Mount Airy at the age of 84.
Donna Hiatt called her dear friend an “icon for Mayberry,” while others who knew her called her grandma despite not a drop of family blood. “People loved her and stayed with her from all over the country. She was an angel on earth and is an angel in heaven now,” Hiatt said of her 32-year-old friend.
Like Hiatt, Tanya Jones of the Surry Arts Council was an old friend of Venable’s: “Ever since the ’70s when we were talking to hotels about the occupancy tax. Alma and her husband, LP, owned the Mayberry Motor Inn before many things in Mount Airy had Mayberry in their names.”
This idea may have been prophetic, and over the years would outstrip an unknown number of other companies nicknamed Mayberry, now almost interchangeable with Mount Airy.
Jones continued, “They were highlighted in the 1990 Washington Post article on Mayberry Days, which was picked up by the AP, and Mayberry Days was born as an annual event. Her purchases at Frances Bavier’s estate auction became a tourist attraction before the others arose.”
The heritage and legend of The Aunt Bee Room at the inn is well known. After the 1990 sale of Frances Bavier, Aunt Bee, a reporter asked Venable what she planned to do with the artifacts she had bought from the late actress. The collection is a collection of memorabilia belonging to Bavier, with certificates of authenticity, including hats, accessories and an ashtray made by fan favorite George “Goober” Lindsey.
Jones and The Surry Arts Council coordinate the Mayberry Days Festival, and she recalls that Venable was always up for anything that was asked. “Alma and LP – and later grandchildren, Mikel, Josh and Jeremy Snow, were always involved in Mayberry Days – the parade, Colonel Tim’s Talent Time and whatever it took for the Surry Arts Council to make it work for the fans.”
Visitors to Mount Airy have memories of Venable that date back decades. David Browning, often seen locally as Deputy Barney Fife, first traveled to Mayberry Days in 1991 and the next year, at Jones’ suggestion, took up long-term temporary residence at the Mayberry Motor Inn for the first time. From 1992 to 2017, Browning said he was a regular at Venable’s at the Inn.
Speaking of his first visit, he said: “I arrived at night and when I woke up the next morning Mikel was dressed in an MP’s outfit and he had a foot on my bumper. He wrote me a ticket because I was over the line,” he said, recalling just one of the memories of good times over the past few days. “Years later, I bought him a deputy hat that fitted properly.”
He said he made Venable feel like family. “I sat with her and talked to her, and after her husband passed the LP, we became even closer.” Venable and his husband put a lot of hard work into the inn, he said, but they also had fun. “She loved the visitors, just loved them and treated them like family.”
She had a plaque made to commemorate his visits, which he felt was not necessary. On later visits, to their continued amusement, he and his wife looked at the wall and saw the plaque. “She didn’t have to do that,” he said of the honor, “Mount Airy is just such a place.”
“We weren’t related, but our relationship, friendship, grew and grew. I know this as a place not only to lay down but also as someone to have a conversation with,” he recalled.
We will miss their hospitality and refinement, but they have not yet been lost to the winds of time. The traditions she started at the Mayberry Motor Inn are even now being delivered during this week’s Mayberry Days repeat.
A simple plan for success will be to “keep doing it the way Grandma used to do it,” Mikel said. This includes honoring long-standing traditions such as giving first refusal to guests who have attended Mayberry Days since its inception.
Some of those returning guests, Snow said, have been coming long enough that his twin brothers, Josh and Jeremy, have known them almost since birth.
He will continue to run the inn with Jeremy and hopes to keep it in the family for generations to come. “As long as there is tourism, we’ll be there.”
Tim White, the host of Song of the Mountain on PBS, told Venable, “Was just the cutest.” Tim White & Troublesome Hollow’s “Salute to Mayberry” show will feature many Mayberry songs and a tribute to Venable himself tomorrow , Friday September 23 at 9:30pm will correspond with Mayberry Days at the Historic Earle Theatre. Tickets cost $15.
White was a fan of The Andy Griffith Show long before he first came to Mayberry Days. “I came to Mount Airy as a fan of the show before I ever came here to work,” he said, and he has a deep fondness for Mayberry and Mount Airy. A visit to Mount Airy is on the agenda for him and his wife several times a year – not just during Mayberry Days.
Having performed at Mount Airy for many years, White will miss his friend’s intimacy. “Granny, I would call her Granny — I know others didn’t, but I got it from the boys,” White recalled. “I called sometimes and just asked to speak to Grandma. It made her smile when I called her grandma.”
White laughed and said there weren’t any suites or rooms named after him, but he didn’t care: “I think all the rooms were named back then. Also, I don’t know who you would take off the wall. There are a lot of great people up there.”
He said that Venable was ill in the last years of her life and people didn’t see her that much. “When she dressed up and came out and chatted with people, it really meant something.”
“I was at the Mayberry Motor Inn when she died and her grandson John came to the pavilion to tell me. Just like him, my phone rang and Mikel called to let me know.” It seemed to him that he was almost simultaneously where he was supposed to be to get the message from two of their grandchildren.
White, Hiatt and the others hope the memory and spirit of Mount Airy’s Aunt Bee will live on. The legacy of the Mount Airy Motor Inn continues right now with visitors for Mayberry Days and reservations for the Autumn Leaves Festival.
Friday at The Earle, White and Troublesome Hollow will perform the music as another vivid tribute to Venable, of whom White said: “Loved the music. I never saw her play an instrument, but she loved to sing.”
“A few months ago, Piedmont Triad International Airport contacted the Surry Arts Council with a request for a photo to be placed on the terminal wall for consideration. There’s a giant screen from a past Mayberry Days parade — Alma is seated front and center in a car with Aunt Bee’s license plate,” Jones said.
Mount Airy is already represented by their unofficial ambassador and brand representative. Alma Venable works hard for Mount Airy even during her eternal rest.
“We all loved her – I loved her and LP and appreciated her trust, her loyalty, her friendship – and her love. We will miss her, but I’m so grateful that Mikel is continuing the Mayberry Motor Inn tradition,” said Jones.