Alma Venable made an impact here in Mount Airy and beyond as one of the most recognizable ambassadors of Mayberry and the proprietor of the Mayberry Motor Inn. She was an advocate for preserving the rich legacy of Mount Airy’s fictitious alter ego while welcoming guests into the community all year round.
Venable passed away Sept. 4 at her home in Mount Airy, she was 84 years old.
Donna Hiatt called her dear friend an “icon for Mayberry” while others who knew her called her granny despite no presence of a drop of familial blood. “People loved her and stayed from all over the country with her. She was an angel on Earth, and is now an angel in Heaven,” Hiatt said of her friend of 32 years.
Like Hiatt, Tanya Jones of the Surry Arts Council was an old friend of Venable’s, “Since the 70s when we were talking to hotels about the occupancy tax. Alma and her husband LP had the Mayberry Motor Inn before many things in Mount Airy had Mayberry in their names.”
That idea may have been prophetic and would predate unknown numbers of additional businesses over the years with the Mayberry moniker that is now almost interchangeable with Mount Airy.
Jones went on, “They were highlighted in the 1990 Washington Post article on Mayberry Days that was picked up by the AP and Mayberry Days was born as an annual event. Their purchases at the Frances Bavier estate auction became a tourist attraction before the others came about.”
The legacy and legend of The Aunt Bee room at the inn are well-known. After the 1990 estate sale of Frances Bavier, TV’s Aunt Bee, a reporter asked Venable what she planned to do with the artifacts she bought from the late actress to which she said, “I told him I was going to start an Aunt Bee Room. ” The collection is an assortment 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 Venable was always game for whatever was asked. “Alma and LP – and later the grandkids, Mikel, Josh, and Jeremy Snow, were always involved in Mayberry Days – the parade, Colonel Tim’s Talent Time and whatever the Surry Arts Council needed to make it work for the fans.”
Mount Airy’s visitors have memories of Venable that go back decades. David Browning, seen locally often as Deputy Barney Fife, made his first trip to Mayberry Days in 1991 and it was the next year he first took up a longstanding intermittent residence at the Mayberry Motor Inn at the suggestion of Jones. From 1992 – 2017 Browning said he was a regular guest of Venable’s at the Inn.
Of his first visit he said, “I arrived at night and when I woke up the next morning, Mikel was dressed in a deputy outfit, and he had one foot up on my bumper. He was writing me a ticket for being over the line,” he said recalling just one of the memories of good times in days passed. “Years later, I bought him a properly fitting deputy’s cap.”
He said he was made to feel like a member of the family by Venable. “I would sit and chat with her and after her husband LP passed, we got even closer.” Venable and husband poured 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 up to commemorate his visits, something he said was not necessary. On subsequent stays he and his wife would look to the wall and see the plaque much to their continued amusement. “She didn’t have to do that,” he said of the honor, “Mount Airy is just that kind of place.”
“We were not related but our relationship, friendship, grew and grew. I know that as a place not just to lay your head — but also someone to chat with,” he recalled.
Her hospitality and gentility will be missed however they have not yet been lost to the winds of time. The traditions she launched at the Mayberry Motor Inn are being delivered even now during this week’s iteration of Mayberry Days.
An easy plan for success will be to “continue doing it the way Granny did it,” Mikel said. That includes honoring such long-standing traditions as the right of first refusal for guests who have been attending Mayberry Days since the beginning.
Some of those repeat guests, Snow said, have been coming long enough that his twin brothers Josh and Jeremy have known them nearly since birth.
Along with Jeremy, he will continue to operate the inn and hopes to keep it in the family for generations to come. “As long as there is tourism, we’ll be here.”
Tim White, the host of Song of the Mountain on PBS said Venable, “Was just the sweetest.” Tim White & Troublesome Hollow’s “Salute to Mayberry” show will have lots of Mayberry songs and a tribute to Venable herself that will correspond with Mayberry Days at The Historic Earle Theater tomorrow, Friday, Sept. 23, at 9:30 pm Tickets are $15.
White was a fan of “The Andy Griffith Show” long before he first came for 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 great fondness for both Mayberry and Mount Airy. A visit to Mount Airy several times a year remains on the docket for he and his wife – not just during Mayberry Days.
After many years of coming to perform in Mount Airy, White will miss the familiarity of his friend. “Granny, I would call her Granny – I know others didn’t, but I got it from the boys,” White reminisced. “I would call up sometimes and just ask to speak to Granny. It made her smile when I called her Granny.”
White laughed and said there was no suite or room named after him, but that was of no concern to him, “I think all the rooms were named by then. Besides, I don’t know who you would take off the wall. There’s a lot of great people up there.”
He recounted that Venable has been sick over the last few years of her life and people had not seen as much of her. “So, when she got dolled up and would come out and chat with folks, it really meant something.”
“I was at the Mayberry Motor Inn when she passed away and her grandson John came out to the gazebo to tell me. Just as he did, my phone rang, and it was Mikel calling to let me know.” To him, it seemed as though he was where he was meant to be to receive the news from two of her grandsons at nearly the same time.
White, Hiatt, and the rest are hopeful that the memory and spirit of Mount Airy’s Aunt Bee will live on. The legacy of the Mount Airy Motor Inn is continuing at this moment with visitors in for Mayberry Days and reservations lined up for the Autumn Leaves Festival.
Friday at The Earle, White and Troublesome Hollow will offer up the music as another living tribute to Venable whom White said, “Loved the music. I never saw her play an instrument, but she loved to sing.”
“A few months ago, the Surry Arts Council was contacted by the Piedmont Triad International Airport – requesting a photo for consideration on the wall in the terminal. A huge canvas is hanging in there of a past Mayberry Days Parade – Alma is front and center in a car with an Aunt Bee license plate,” Jones said.
Even now, Mount Airy is being represented by its unofficial ambassador and brand representative. Alma Venable is still working hard for Mount Airy even during her eternal rest.
“We all loved her – I loved her and LP, and valued their trust, loyalty, friendship – and love. We will miss them, but I am so grateful that Mikel is carrying on the Mayberry Motor Inn tradition,” Jones said.