SILER CITY — The circuitous route that delivered Kathy Nail from the windswept plains of her birthplace in Wichita, Kansas, to her new home on West Elk Street in Siler City didn’t pass within a country mile of Mayberry.
Nail’s actual stops — Cairo, Bangkok, London, the Isle of Man, and most recently, Los Angeles — were far more exotic than the fictional hometown of a folksy North Carolina sheriff, his precocious, freckled son, and a dowdy housekeeper known to everyone in town, even her elders, as “Aunt Bee.”
In the sitting room of the regal three-story brick house where actor Frances Bavier, Mayberry’s real Aunt Bee, lived and died, though, Nail makes an admission: she’s as interested as anyone else in all things Mayberry.
But she adores — absolutely adores — the Aunt Bee house.
And for the record, it wasn’t the legacy of Frances Bavier or Aunt Bee that drew her to Siler City. It was the home itself.
“I didn’t really care who lived there,” says Nail. “I just loved the house.”
Nail’s home, at 503 West Elk, has for years attracted the curious. “Andy Griffith Show” fans who flock to Mount Airy as “Mayberry” tourists sometimes make the 90-minute jaunt to Siler City to see Bavier’s gravesite at Oakwood Cemetery, off U.S. Hwy. 64. Some of those know about Bavier’s house, just minutes away, and drive by.
And some of those, of course, think: Why not? After shooting some obligatory pictures from the street or front yard, they knock on the door.
Can we come inside, they ask? Maybe take a look around?
Nail, who’s 68, gets it. She became an Egyptologist after her rearing in Kansas, and ultimately worked in Cairo for two decades. She knows a thing or two about antiquities, and her life’s journey has given her a refined sense of nostalgia.
Proof can be found throughout her new home, which she first learned was for sale exactly a year ago this week: among the tractor-trailer and a half full of personal belongings she shipped to Siler City from her triplex in L.A. after acquiring the house was a massive collection of vintage toys and games and ephemera of all kinds — among them, for example, the world’s second-largest collection of books of matches and memorabilia from “Big Boy” restaurants, some of it dating back more than 60 years, as well as collections of water pistols and a marshmallow shooters.
Nail is also familiar with the impact and draw “TV homes” can have on fans. She once lived not five minutes from the property known as the Brady Bunch house, always shown in long exterior shots on the ‘70s sitcom of the same name. And a relatively new discovery: Nail’s former home near North Hollywood was also a scant five minutes from the home Bavier lived in before she made her move to Siler City in 1972.
So as its new owner and occupant, Nail is mulling, as she works on renovation plans for the home, about opening it as a bed & breakfast — or, alternatively, as an official tourist destination — for fans of “The Andy Griffith” show who remember, and love, Aunt Bee.
First, it’ll need work. As that begins in earnest, though, this summer’s ongoing focus has been mostly on the yard — a labor of love, but still, labor: Nail says she’s lost 35 pounds in the last few months working by hand to clear the property of brush, tree stumps, unsightly boxwoods and saplings, and in unearthing hidden flagstone walkways and generally sprucing and clearing up the yard. Together with her right-hand-man, Robert Jones of Pittsboro, they’ve toiled in the heat to take down about 250 trees, she estimates; new friends Joyce and Earle Stout are frequent guests and help out, too.
“It was a mess,” Nail said. “At least now the grass in the back yard gets some sunlight.”
As for the house: “It needs a lot of Band-Aids,” she says.
And a bit of surgery, too. Some of it major.
In addition to the cost of the acquisition, Nail estimates she’ll need to spend about $250,000 on improvements and fixes, the list of which is lengthy. High on that list: new wiring, gutting the kitchen and her master bathroom and extensive renovations to the basement, once the site of exquisite parties thrown by the home’s original owners and occupants, Dr. J.B. Earle and his horticulturalist wife, whose long-ago commitment to beauty Nail is trying to resurrect in the yard.
The dual focus of the effort: first, bringing the home back more in line with its original appearance, when the Earles built it — though modernized (for example, to accommodate Nail’s Italian gas stove in the kitchen). And second, adding Nail’s own unique touches — a penchant for the idiosyncratic that her California friends took to describe as “Kathyland.” Among them are plans for an old-fashioned sitting room, creating space (possibly in the attic) for a toy museum and perhaps even adding a putting course on one part of the exposed roof. (Not to mention restoring the outdoor bench Bavier was known to sit on and uncovering a large mural that’s been painted over in a dining area. Nail is also working to find brass door hardware to match what was once there; she says a previous owner thought brass “looked dirty.”)
The price tag seems not to faze her. Selling Nail’s triplex in exorbitantly pricey L.A., now under contract, will make it palatable.
The timeline: about a year.
It’s a lot of work for this landmark of Siler City. Construction on the massive home — including the basement and porches, it’s about 9,000 square feet — began in 1951. It was designed by a Greensboro architect named J.J. Croft Jr., who designed a few others along the same street in that tony section of Siler City. Dr. Earle was a much-beloved doctor in town, and it was the home’s New Orleans-style architecture that first caught Nail’s attention.
While watching a trivia show on television, no less.
Nail seems to keep running into history. After spending those 20 years in Cairo, she shifted careers to teach English as a second language and train English teachers in Thailand, where she spent another five years.
While there, she earned a good bit of her own notoriety after playing a major role in apprehending one of the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” fugitives: Eric Rosser, at one time a keyboardist in rocker John Cougar Mellencamp’s band. Rosser, a child predator sought for his involvement in the production and distribution of child pornography, was in one of her classes; with help from her intervention, he was arrested in Bangkok in August 2001 and is now imprisoned in Colorado. (“He wanted to be an English teacher so he could have more access to children,” said Nail, who’s written about 400 pages of a manuscript about the experience she plans to publish.)
Language, another artifact of life, became important to her. From Thailand, Nail moved to London after being offered a position operating an English school there. She also ran a B&B. Always curious, she’d occasionally drop in on film sets throughout London and Great Britain in her spare time, watching movies being made. On one of those sojourns, she noticed a paltry craft service table — the place where food and drinks were set out for actors and crew members.
“And I thought, ‘Oh, no — just a big 10-gallon thing of tea and some cookies?’” she remembered. “I thought, I can do better than that.”
So she did, eventually starting a craft service business on the Isle of Man — a highly successful venture, she says, that fell apart after she discovered her business partner was making off with the company’s cash.
That’s when she decided to move back stateside, to Los Angeles, and start a craft service business there — and L.A. is also where she met her late husband, Walter.
He’d been a soldier in Vietnam before embarking on a career as an HVAC engineer for AT&T. Nail helped care for his ailing mother, then did the same for Walter when his health began to decline. At the time of his death, in 2015, the couple lived in one unit of a triplex they’d bought, renting out the other two for income. (He made the trip to Siler City, too — his ashes rest in an urn in a place of honor in Nail’s office, along with mementos from his career and their life together.)
She eventually occupied all three units of the place in Los Angeles, tiring of making repairs after tenants trashed the places. And finally, one night, a year ago this week, Nail’s exposure to the Bavier house came via a segment on a television quiz program after a commentator’s remark about a chance to “own a piece of history.”
That history was 503 West Elk, where Aunt Bee retired.
“I just fell in love with it,” Nail said. “I found a real estate agent and had him come over and make an offer. And there you go.”
She didn’t spend her first night until December, and it wasn’t long before she began to experience what previous owners have.
“You know, people wanting to come over … driving by to take a picture of the house,” Nail said. “And some people ask if they can see it. Of course they can — I don’t mind.”
She grew up watching The Andy Griffith Show, and she knew about Bavier — that she was from New York City [see sidebar story] and that her fame came from her portrayal of the fictional Mayberry housekeeper. After moving in, Nail subsequently learned more, particularly from neighbors and friends like Joe and Jane McEvoy, Bennie and Trudy Walters, and long-time resident Ed Spence.
The endlessly-curious Nail is also actively researching Siler City, the Earle family and the home, building a knowledge bank that comes in handy, particularly when the curious inevitably stop by.
Steve and Wanda Cape passed through a week or two ago with their daughter, Heather, vacationing from their home in Chattanooga. Steve, a pastor, said the trio got curious after visiting Bavier’s gravesite and searched online to see whether they could find the Aunt Bee house.
“To our surprise, we were only about a mile and a half away,” he said. “We put the address in GPS, and were there within minutes. Kathy was outside doing yard work and graciously invited us in to see her home.”
The Capes toured the house, learning from the ebullient Nail about its history, a little about Bavier, and about some of the pre-Bavier history of the place as well (as well as the fact that the Earles, the home’s original owners, are interred not far from Bavier at Oakwood Cemetery).
“Every room had a story to tell,” Cape said. “The lovely house is themed very nostalgically. We were thrilled to visit the home of a famous and beloved actress, but more appealing was the history. Kathy has these great plans to turn it into a beautifully preserved B&B for others to enjoy.”
Accompanying Nail on a tour gives you an opportunity to drink in some of what she’s discovered. The 11-foot ceilings, the crystal chandeliers, and the fact that each room has two entrances, meaning you can tour the entire structure without having to turn around, are just part of its allure. She’s also carefully placed evidence of Bavier’s — and Aunt Bee’s — lives here and there inside the house, along with artifacts and mementos from her own world travels. Everywhere you look, there’s something to fascinate.
Visitors also hear rebuttal to some of the more unflattering stories about Bavier and her fussy eccentricities.
“Some of the things people say about her are unbelievable,” Nail said. “Like that she had 75 cats … No, she didn’t. The neighbors around here all knew her. Some people said she was mean. No, she wasn’t. She was very nice to everyone. It’s people who came up to bother her that made her cranky. There were times she just didn’t like to be bothered.”
Nail says there are the “nice” curious who come by, and the “weird.” She engages them all, using her gift of discernment to determine who’s tour-worthy and who’s not. The Capes were. They’d made the trip from Tennessee to Mount Airy, and were polite.
“And Wanda said, ‘Can we take a picture of the house?’ And I go, ‘Sure you can.’ And she said, ‘Can we come in and look?’ And I go, ‘Sure you can.’ And she asked, ‘How much does it cost?’ And I said, ‘Nothing.’”
Nail’s compensation came from the joy her visitors experienced from being in Aunt Bee’s home; why not spread it?
She’s not fully settled on what’s next for the house on West Elk Street. But Nail has been there, and in Siler City, long enough to figure out one thing — something Bavier learned, too.
“I love Siler City,” she said. “It’s the best place I’ve ever lived.”
Bill Horner III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @billthethird.