Main Street, Durant, Okla., down on its luck.
The tributes to the late Andy Griffith have been lavish. Did anybody compare his Sheriff Taylor to Joe Arpaio? I'm sure they did. Then there was Mayberry, the fictional setting of The Andy Griffith Show. As Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts wrote, "Mayberry was real, too — as real as the desire sometimes to escape the tyranny of What Is. It sat just outside of time, at a crossroads of nostalgia and need. There was a dirt path in the woods near town that led to a fishing hole. Sheriff Andy used to go there often with his little boy, to the whistling of a bucolic tune lifting above the North Carolina pines."
As I was preparing this column Monday, I noticed one big difference between today's reality and Mayberry: The Internet, or lack thereof. My connections were down most of the day, so no new Rogue post (much of Arizona rejoices). My jobs require me to me unusually wired, but the "tubes" of the 'Net — developed initially with federal money — are the big change in our lives. We didn't get moon colonies or manned exploration of Mars and beyond, but we got PCs, Macs and the Internet. It makes for an interesting thought experiment: Your work and personal life in even 1980 vs. today. Back then people wrote letters, typed on typewriters, filed in filing cabinets (and many more clerical workers were needed), and got their messages on those pink "While You Were Out" slips. Now I've got a Mac and an iPad for almost all of that.
One of the most ubiquitous comments about Mayberry (based on Griffith's real hometown of Mount Airy, N.C.) was the lack of African-Americans in a Southern town. That was actually possible. I lived in such a place for a few years, Durant, Oklahoma, in the "Little Dixie" southeastern region of the state. Durant had been a "Sundown Town." Blacks could work as domestics or laborers during the day, but they had to clear out to other towns at night. Old-timers told of signs at the city limits that said, "Darkie," or the N-word, "don't let the sun go down on your back."
Sundown or not, Mayberry represented something close to a real small American town in its downtown of local businesses, walkability and compactness. This was when towns were centered on the railroad station and before the destabilization of Interstate highways, mass-produced subdivisions, ubiquitous car ownership, sprawl and white flight. The races and classes lived much closer together, even if separate, in 1940 compared with today. This was even true in the small city of Phoenix.
In 1979, Durant was still largely such a town. Main Street was lined with retail businesses, banks and professional offices, mostly in buildings constructed in the early 20th century. These were almost all locally owned. While there was a Sonic and a chain taco fast-food outlet (Taco Tico?), most of the restaurants were local. Among them was George's, a hamburger joint in a run-down building that opened when George felt like it. Although, Phoenician that I was, I longed for a McDonald's as a sign of civilization, I soon realized George made the best burger I had even tasted. I was so conditioned by malls, chains and cars that at first I had little appreciation for the miracle of small-town America I got to witness before it was gone.
A handsome railroad station with white and "colored" waiting rooms had once seen 24 passenger trains a day where the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (Katy), Missouri Pacific (the old KO&G) and Frisco railroads came together. The last passenger train stopped in the 1960s. Decades before, this was where William Jennings Bryan had thrilled the crowd so much that the county was named after him. A fading multistory building that held a fabric store was actually the old opera house. The Hotel Bryan, the tallest building in town and near the railroad, was sadly closed. But much of downtown was full of life, especially on Saturdays, when the farmers came into town. This was big peanut-farming country — "the world's largest peanut" was a statue at city hall.
Durant was prosperous compared with the rest of Little Dixie, but poor compared with, say, an idyllic New England or Midwestern small town. Somehow a city library was lovingly maintained. The county courthouse was much as it had been in the 1930s. Prominent on the lawn was the statue of the Confederate Soldier. The one movie house in town, which probably dated from the 1920s, showed films a year after they came out. Leafy neighborhoods of wood-frame houses rolled up to the college and out to the headquarters of the Choctaw Nation (this had been part of Indian Territory) on the campus of the old Oklahoma Presbyterian College. Newer neighborhoods had been built contiguous to older ones. I lost a huge amount of weight just walking around town every day. The streets were almost uniformly narrow. There were plenty of front porches on which to sit and strum a guitar.
But probably not with a real-life Sheriff Taylor. The small city police and smaller sheriff's office kept to themselves. The local lore held that there wasn't much difference between the cops and the bootleggers. The old stills out in the countryside, where the snake-handling preachers held sway and outhouses were still common, had been replaced by pot growing. Law enforcement was not militarized; the sheriff's cars looked barely in running order. OHP, the Highway Patrol, was another matter: The officers were highly professional, but you didn't get too close.
Durant was represented by Carl Albert ("Ol' Carl), the Speaker of the House. This had been Democratic territory forever. The New Deal had electrified the countryside, built Lake Texoma, lifted up suffering farmers. But it was conservative Democrat. So the quick switch to red-state country was easy.
It was a big church town. First Baptist was a block from First Methodist. The Southern Baptists wouldn't play softball with the Methodists because the latter were going to hell. But the Four Square and Primitive Baptists thought the Southern Baptists were going to hell. And the Pentacostals were sure everybody else was bound there. But Durant being large by Southeast Oklahoma standards — about 12,000 — it even had a Catholic church. Speaking of spirits, Oklahoma had crazy liquor laws. Restaurants could only sell "set ups" — glasses — so patrons brought their own bottles. I've never seen more drunks per-capita. Beer was 3.2, further encouraging more guzzling to get a buzz. A few miles south, along the Red River, were the remains of storied honky tonks where Texans could cross over to party. If the Oklahoma law intervened, everybody could head south to Texas.
Sprawl, such as there was, had extended a bit on Main to encompass a shopping center with a TG&Y and, across the street, a Safeway. There was the highway bypass at the west end of town where a K-Mart, small Holiday Inn and a few squat newer businesses had been established. A little ways north was a newer subdivision and apartments. But there was a distinct break between the town and the rural. Durant seemed very isolated and timeless, in good and bad ways. For the most part, the town was intact, compact and in many ways charming. If you wanted the new-new, you could drive across the Red River to Denison and Sherman, Texas. And although Durant had few blacks, it was divided by class. The gentry mostly lived in stately houses west of downtown, including a few blocks along Main. The poorer whites and white trash lived east and south of the railroad tracks. Townies were separate from rural folk. And town and gown mixed only with discomfort. Durant was a microcosm of society, with its peculiar twists. The old boy who acted as if he had never been out of the county might have been all over the world. By the time I left, all the merchants on Main, who had once been stand-offish, knew me and I had learned to sit a spell and talk. When I left, with a new McDonald's sitting ominously on the edge of town, I actually missed this real Mayberry.
I visited Durant a few years ago. Now it has, as Kunstler would put it, an "asteroid belt" of ugly, stand-alone chains out by the overpass, anchored by a Super Wal-Mart and spilling out into what was once a lovely, empty meadow that floated into the horizon. Although the stately houses still line Main, the business district is dead despite efforts to hang banners and make it a historic destination. The prime local businesses are virtually all gone. A new bank building is at least occupied, but the architecture is brutal compared with its surroundings. The railroad station had been demolished, an arresting act of civic vandalism. At least much of the old downtown is still standing, in some cases with beautiful bones, but most buildings are empty and some — some of the best — falling apart. As with Globe (Ariz.), these priceless buildings are sadly just awaiting a fire that will leave an empty lot.
The isolation has been shattered by a divided highway running from I-35, where once there was only a two-lane road; by Dallas' creeping northward spawl along U.S. 69/75, and by retirees moving into more sprawl around nearby Lake Texoma. A huge Choctaw casino and "resort" sprawls out several miles south on the highway to Dallas. But what little of the Creative Class lives here is largely confined to Southeastern Oklahoma State University and the Oklahoma Shakespeare Festival. The talent and capital to make downtown worth caring about and something sustainable for the future — it's just not there, as in thousands of American Mayberrys.