Fresh Eyes: Aunt Bee’s Siler City cat house

Aunt Bee didn't take real kindly to life in North Carolina.

by Billy Ingram

Frances Bavier, Emmy-winning actress who gave life to Aunt Bee on “The Andy Griffith Show,” was by most accounts the polar opposite of her alter ego. Hardly the domesticated matriarch, Bavier was a sophisticated lady who resided in New York and Los Angeles her entire life, working alongside esteemed actors like Bette Davis and Henry Fonda. A Broadway and motion-picture performer turned small-screen superstar who, in 1970, abruptly decided to walk away from her Top 10 sitcom, “Mayberry RFD.”

After 15 years of the weekly television-series grind she’d had it with the Business of Show, one of the reasons why Bavier moved — alone at age 70 — all the way across the continent to Siler City, NC where her biggest fan operated a family furniture store. In this mythical shire mentioned so fondly in scripts produced for her by former writers from “Amos & Andy” and “Leave it To Beaver,” she hoped to discover the small-town goodness that she herself had come to represent in the minds of middle America.

Something she clearly had no concept of.

Naturally she was warmly received by Chatham County’s 3,700 aw-shucks-just-plain-folks. Grand Marshall in the parades, an honored guest at civic functions, the very flower of verisimilitude as she maneuvered the narrow streets of Siler City in the same pea-green, two-door 1966 Studebaker Daytona she drove on “Mayberry RFD” — now seen five days a week in syndication.

What began as an immersion into Americana quickly disintegrated into what can best be described as an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” On Saturday mornings, school buses pulled up in front of her split-level brick home on West Elk Street to unleash the Cub Scouts with instructions: “Go find your Aunt Bee!” There were neighbors peering through her windows at all hours of the day expecting her to be in character, a role she despised. The few townsfolk she grew close to insisted on calling her “Aunt Bee.” Irritating, but she had to have some friends.

In small Southern towns, particularly in that era, if people knew your family you were accepted; newcomers were kept at arm’s length. Sure, it’s all kissy-kissy, “Can I get you some more sweet tea, Hon?” on the surface but in most folk’s minds Miss Bavier would always be that person who moved to town in 1972… from California, no less.

A visit to the town center meant all eyes casting judgment, the ladies at the beauty parlor never forgave her for not joining one of their churches. There were unceasing invitations to Sunday services wherever she went. “Don’t forget, you went to church in Mayberry,” passers-by would say with a sickly-sweet, curt grin. That was one of Bavier’s signature moves on the show!

Week after week the same goobers would bump into her asking, “Was that Opie I saw mowin’ yer grass on Sadiddy?” She’d want to scream, “Why are you fixated on my yard?!?” Young couples followed her down the aisles of the Piggly-Wiggly, “Yer not makin’ pickles this summer are ya, Aint Bee?”

Small wonder that, by the 1980s, the former television star was living out of her back bedroom, curtains pulled tight, with 14 devoted kitties for company. She loved her feline companions so much she converted a 250-square-foot bathroom into a sprawling cat box with kitty litter inches deep. What few visitors she had in her final years, store clerks and deliverymen mostly, were overwhelmed by the peeling paint, filthy living conditions and an atmosphere steeped in soft-cream clouds of ammonia that hung over everything like a suffocating umbrella.

Even her “Smart New Look” Studebaker fell prey to the furry Borg; its immaculate vinyl interior shredded, the Chevy 355 cubic inch V-8 engine impossibly clogged with animal dander.

In 1986, three years after she’d stopped venturing out in public, Andy Griffith and Ron Howard made a surprise visit to Siler City’s reclusive cat lady. Bavier refused to allow her decade-long coworkers inside, speaking to them only momentarily through the closed front door. This was after declining repeatedly to be part of their Mayberry reunion movie. Why would she participate? She never liked Andy Griffith from the very beginning.

When she died in 1989, Frances Bavier funneled most of her $700,000 estate into an annuity that, to this day, pays out a yearly Christmas bonus to every Siler City police officer. But her true legacy began gestating not long after she was laid to rest at Oakwood Cemetery. When her home was donated to a local hospital, Bavier’s feral cats scampered for the countryside, causing one hell of a population explosion that is only now, a quarter century later, beginning to subside. Ask any Chatham County veterinarian. They are all too familiar with someone bringing in, “One of Aunt Bee’s cats.”

Excerpted from Reverend Buck Goes to College, Billy Ingram’s upcoming book.

  • She used to go to my grandmother’s hair salon, but only after hours when it was closed. They’d do her hair, and I’d sometimes sit nearby. She told me I’d either be a genius or a movie star! (I’m still working on both :/ )

  • Don

    If my comment was inaccurate and came across harsh I apologize. So often our town and its long time families have been so misconstrude that myself and others have felt the need to begin defending it and its citizens. Its small and not perfect, but it’s a wonderful place with great people.

    • Billy Ingram

      I’ve spent many Thanksgivings and Christmas’ – and Pig Pickins – in Siler City and nearby – and would never mean any disrespect. This was my take on what happened.

    • Billy Ingram

      I agree Don – I love that area. And the people. I’m the one who comes across harsh!

  • John Dykers

    Margaret Jourdan was a friend to Francis Bavier when Francis came to town and they drove out to my house one evening and caught me working in the yard. They were house shopping for Ms Bavier and she wanted to buy mine. I had to tell her it was not for sale before we ever got around to price! In retrospect I am glad she did not tempt this poor boy with a big number! I had made a low bid on the JB Earle house which the estate refused. Dr. Frank White lived there before he and Jerri moved near the Country Club.This is a big house; three stories and a huge finished basement. Larry Russell and his wife live there now and recently hosted a most gala affair for Habitat for Humanity.

    Ms Bavier’s story is one of the saddest I know. She moved here already lonely and nowhere else to go. If she had been happy playing Aunt Bea the town would have revolved around her as Billy Ingram so wistfully describes Respect for her privacy could have become established tradition, allowing her to move into ‘role’ when she wished.

    • Billy Ingram

      That’s what got to me about the story too, John – that she embraced a fantasy rather than her reality, which should have been pretty nice. She was the one of the biggest stars on CBS at the time, neither TAGS or Mayberry RFD dropped below the Top Ten until she left.

      • John Dykers

        Actors are sometimes acting to escape their reality.

  • Mark Stinson

    My daddy ran Marlins Upholstery in Bear Creek . I went with him to pick up furniture from Ms Baviers home several times . She had a man that took care of her yard , groceries , and took her places in her later years . She loved daddys reupholstery work . We refinished a few pieces and recovered them just to suit her and she had a couple rooms she didnt let the cats in . Daddy always called her Ms Bavier even though she said he could call her Francis . She called him Mr Marlin even though his last name was Stinson and when she called thats who she asked for . I dont necessarily agree with everything the article says about her . I do feel her trip to Siler City reflected her desire to get away from the emptiness of Hollywood . She was opinionated but those that looked at her as Francis not Aunt Bee did get to see the best in her . Her health and her desire to avoid Aunt Bee fanatics did make her reclusive but I got to see her smile and it was a content genuine smile . I just think she got a a point in life where she just wanted to retire and thats what she did . I wouldn’t necessarily say she was lonely either as I feel she just liked being alone for the most part . Those fortunate enough to know Francis really didn’t see her as Aunt Bee at all and thats why she associated with them . I know a lot of the folks from Siler City ,, she wasnt the only celebrity to hide out there and I don’t really care for how the article describes the people there either .

  • Sam Hicks

    Don said it well. This article was written by someone with very little knowledge of Francis and the town of Siler City. A simple example was his description of piggly wiggly..there was no piggly wiggly in Siler City during her time in Siler City. However that isn’t the real problem I have in reading this article. Having carried her groceries, helped around the yard, rode my bike around her yard and driveway (for which I sometimes was scolded for), she was still a kind lady… Just maybe not a big tipper. I realize she became more reclusive and alone. The town was gracious and I do not recall much of a disturbance but just polite hellos and admiration from the people in the community. But this article resembles the rumors and stereotyping I’ve heard sitting in Manhattan to San Diego speaking with business associates who probably can’t even whistle the tune!

    • Billy Ingram

      I greatly appreciate you sharing this Sam. I’m honored that you felt passionate enough about the subject to respond and we’re all privileged to be able to share your memories.

      You’re right, I did take a slight liberties, like naming the Piggly Wiggly, only because she may have shopped at the one in Burlington. I should have specified that this was an excerpt from a work of fiction, otherwise I would not have named that particular store. My bad.

      However, I didn’t make up a single instance in the story, I spent weeks researching it, alongside 2 decades of researching classic TV for a living.

      This was ‘A’ story of Frances Bavier but could never be ‘THE’ story. ‘THE’ story would take up a great deal more space than anyone could be allowed in print. I thank you for contributing to ‘THE’ story, I hope others do as well, no one article could ever convey the entire picture.

      So you know, my sister lives and works for a veterinarian in Chatham County, I’ve spent countless hours in Siler City and Snow Camp for holidays and pig pickins. I grew up in Greensboro in the 60s & 70s and live here now.

      Yeah you’re correct, the article does have that snarky ‘big city’ (not San Diego but LA where I lived for 15 years—you were close!) tone. Apparently it’s my style.

      And.. if you could tell me the grocery store where Miss Bavier did shop I’d be greatly appreciative. Thank you!

      • debbiehm

        Apparently, she shopped at Byrd’s Lo Mark, according to the cashier there-

  • John Dykers

    Mark Zeringue was doctor to Ms Bavier until they parted company; I suppose you could ask Mark. She then hired me for a while, and I made several house calls, unfortunately into the cat smelly bedroom. She did not like what I recommended, and after several visits we parted company too. Despite that, I hope I imparted some comfort in her loneliness if no great medical wisdom that she would adopt.

    I always felt that it was as much a part of my role as physician to be friend/confidant/advocate/teacher to my patients as much as scientific adviser.
    I tried and largely failed with Ms Bavier. And I didn’t sell her my house!

  • sandra

    Frankly I take this as an insult to some of the people in Siler City. I was employed at Byrd’s Lo Mark (were she shopped not Piggly Wiggly) as a cashier (who waited on her regularly) when Ms. Bavier first moved to town. I never once heard or saw anyone walk up to her and say “Yer not makin’ pickles this summer are ya, Aint Bee?” whoever you are that wrote this you should check you facts a little bette

    • debbiehm

      It’s been 2 years since this comment, but I have to say that just because YOU never once heard or saw anything does not mean it NEVER happened- Just like she could have gone into Piggly Wiggly without your knowledge as well- So you really don’t know that the writer of this article didn’t check the facts of the story- Something happened to make her a recluse- if you REALLY do know everything she did and everything ever said to her, would you please share with us why she was that way?

  • Tony Sharpe

    Thanks, Mr. Ingram. I enjoyed the article, though I find it quite sad. I grew up outside of Greensboro, but I haven’t lived in North Carolina in nearly twenty years. This stirred some nostalgia for me. In a good way. I still turn to the Andy Griffith Show from time to time when I want a taste of home. It’s not the real North Carolina, but it is the one I remember most fondly.

  • Teresa Phillips

    I’m not here to criticize the article. I enjoyed reading it. Everyone knew she was a recluse. But there was, in fact, a Piggly Wiggly in Siler City a long time ago – – probably early 1970’s when she first moved here. The store was located where the old A&P used to be (for those of us old enough to remember THAT store too!). My uncle was the manager at Piggly Wiggly then (Harold Willett) and my grandma had a picture of the Siler City Parade (4th of July?) and the pig mascot was standing in the back of a truck waving. Thanks for the article Mr. Ingram. And Dr. Dykers is right on, I think, when he said that actors sometimes get into acting to escape reality. Makes perfect sense to me!

  • bill

    I may have missed it, so forgive me if i did, but i didn’t see any mention of two brothers that cared for and worked for ” Aint Bee ” when she arrived here in our Mayberry. These two kids worked for her beginning as children and continued doing so well into manhood, it was well known in our community just how free hearted she was when it came to looking after these young children.

  • Me

    Ms. Bavier, Margaret Jourdan and Rema spent many afternoons visiting or going shopping with my mother. All were the charming, happy and laughing ladies. Ms. Bavier sent me birthday and Christmas cards as a child that I still treasure. I even have a beautiful sweater she gave to my mother . I do not understand why people choose to describe details about cat smells instead of the many positive qualities of Ms. Bavier’s life and career, and how she touched so many. Writing about a deceased person’s “dirty house” is in poor taste, petty, cowardly, and would never even be mentioned by a true southern gentleman or lady. I have such wonderful memories of her and the ladies of Siler City in the 60’s and 70’s. It’s really a shame that manners, character, and common decency have been replaced with a culture of bullying, hatred and people trying to look good or get attention by knocking others down.

    RIP Ms Bavier. Many of us remember you as the charming lady you were. I still miss Rema’s cheese straws and will always miss Margaret and her Chihuahuas.

    • Those of us who care understand how pets can get out of hand when an older lady is not well. There is no judgment here, only kind hearts and understanding. We who loved her for who she was do not condemn. Do not fret yourself that we will think badly about Ms Francis Bavier. We have only kind memories of her.

  • Kathleen Hammett

    I don’t understand why, if Miss Bavier’s cats weren’t spayed and neutered when she owned them, why didn’t her cat population explode before she died? I suppose they could have all been the same sex…

    I hope she had a better life than what this article suggests. I hope she knew how much people enjoyed watching her on TAGS. R.I.P., Miss Bavier.

    • The author of the article indicates above that it is partly fiction. Be comforted by that admission. I certainly have been.

  • Dees Whitley

    Let us all be thankful for the many,many wonderful memories we all have of Aunt Bea and Mayberry. Since we are all flawed human beings and none of us are perfect……..please let us let Aunt Bea rest in peace and let us know that all of our lives were made much FULLER by watching this little lady and the wonderful TV show she appeared in !! Long live Mayberry!!!!!!!!!!

  • Sherry

    I lived 2 blocks from Aunt Bea for a while. Don’t remember a Piggly Wiggly (only in Sanford). I do know she shopped at Byrd’s which was the closest grocery store to where we lived. I did know that she was not very social. Used to work with someone who cleaned her house and said she was a nice lady. I personally never met her, but I took my son trick-or-treating at her house one year and her maid came to the door and said that she was not giving out treats this year.

    I also heard that she & Andy Griffith did not get along, and that no one from the show came to visit her in the hospital during her final days.

    Rest in peace Aunt Bea.

  • Seems a lot of what was written in the article might be questioned to some extent. But one thing is for certain: Bavier was an incredible actress in her role as Aunt Bee. So convincing, perhaps too much for her own good as she tried to resume life after the show as someone other than Aunt Bee..

  • april smith

    Wow. What a huge fat waste of time this read was. Very ugly attitude, Mr. Billy. Didn’t your momma teach you if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all? ;)

  • Jim Clark

    I think all this is hilarious. I want to know if she wiped her ass like everyone else. Or did her cats lick it.

  • jstdazzlme

    Why is it with every single article I’ve ever seen about Frances Bavier, Aunt Bea is misspelled as Aunt Bee? She even spelled it Bea in some of her autographs. It’s short for Beatrice, which is what her neighbor, Clara, called her.

    • Monkey

      In the episode when she ran for council….and the one where she bought the Chinese Restaurant…..both times on the signs….it had “Aunt Bee.’

    • Michele Zimmer

      It is spelled “Bee”, not “Bea”.
      Being short for Beatrice means nothing. It is the same as “Bill” being short for William or “Bob” being short for Robert.
      Everything on TV shows the name “Bee”. Wikipedia, IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, FB, YouTube, and many internet sites list the name as “Bee”.