How many cities were aspirationally founded to become a college town? That’s the story of Oxford, Mississippi, chartered 184 years ago and named after the British university city in hopes that the state of Mississippi would locate its first university there. Today, Oxford is home to around 28,000 people, and roughly 24,000 temporary residents who attend the University of Mississippi. That’s a dynamic present in many small college towns, but most similarly situated burgs get subsumed by their university.
Twenty years ago, my wife, Caroline, lived in Oxford for a summer and remembers the folks she ran with at the time describing the city as a bubble from which no one escaped. Oxonians have since improved the metaphor (or her memory is bad). Locals now call it the velvet ditch, a place you fall into and get comfortable.
On a Thursday and Friday in May, a week after graduation and just before freshman orientation, the allure was easy to recognize. The city is small and largely walkable. The downtown square, oriented around the county courthouse, remains the center of commerce. It’s perhaps the smallest city in the country with a celebrity chef — John Currence, a James Beard Award winner, cookbook author and owner of City Grocery, Bouré, Big Bad Breakfast and Snackbar. There’s a vibrant music scene with longtime venue Proud Larry’s bringing in club acts and The Lyric theater and annual Double Decker Arts Festival attracting big names. Fat Possum Records, founded in Oxford in 1992, helped bring North Mississippi blues legends R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough to wide prominence. It’s since expanded its reach into indie rock, while local label Big Legal Mess now focuses on Southern music of all stripes.
Then there’s the literary draw. Of course, Oxford was famously the home of William Faulkner. Also, the late greats Willie Morris and Larry Brown. John Grisham lives there part time. Kiese Laymon, Beth Ann Fennelly, Tom Franklin and Chris Offutt all teach in the Ole Miss English Department. Jesmyn Ward used to.
All those people have written for the Oxford American magazine, which was founded in Oxford in 1992 and lasted there for almost 10 years until Grisham got tired of pumping money into it and it found new life in Little Rock and now in Conway. My first job after college was at the reborn magazine in Little Rock. Caroline accepted a position at the magazine while it was on its way out but still in Oxford. It’s where we met and the reason I’ve spent my professional life in journalism.
Until our recent trip, my memories of spending time in Oxford were old and booze colored, but I’d often thought of it dreamily and vaguely as the setting of the prologue to my adult life in which I played no part. Putting some meat on those bones was one motivation to visit. Also, it seemed like an ideal place to ease back into travel slowly: short drive, good food, easy pace.
The first thing we did was drive by the home, just off the square, where Caroline had rented a room from two biddies who were so old they declined to shop at one grocery store in town because it was a place “that weirdo” William Faulkner, dead since 1962, had frequented. The house was gone, replaced by new construction.
Oxford’s population has grown by at least 50% in the last decade and that’s led to the same sort of affordable housing crisis Fayetteville is grappling with. But as a tourist, wandering around the square and downtown neighborhoods, it was easy to be seduced by it all. There are many palatial Italianate and Victorian mansions on lots that could accommodate several football games at once. It’s common even in smaller homes to spot that wavy window pane glass that suggests 19th century construction. There’s been a lot of infill in the square and nearby, but the new buildings, heavy on bricks and balconies, resemble the old.
We stayed in some of that new brick construction: the Graduate Oxford, a 136-room hotel just north of the square that opened in 2015. The decor is funky Southern school spirit. Silhouettes of famous football parents Archie Manning, beloved Ole Miss quarterback of yore, and his wife, Olivia, a former homecoming queen, decorated our room, along with a portrait of R.L. Burnside and Kenny Brown. You can borrow a cruiser bike from the front desk and must, regardless of where you’re staying, have a drink at The Coop, the rooftop bar that looks out onto the square.
Union troops burned much of downtown in 1864, but plenty of antebellum trees survive. After driving from Little Rock through flat Delta farmland, Oxford was a sylvan oasis. On nearly every block is a majestic willow oak or modest skyscraper-sized magnolia. That’s not by happenstance. Oxford has a tree master plan, tree-related ordinances and even a city tree board. On the city’s website, you can find a map to identify every species of tree along the municipal right of way.
The Grove, the setting for the most celebrated campus tailgate party in the country, is probably the most well-known spot in town. It’s named for a 10-acre clump of elm, walnut, oak, maple, magnolia and Southern catalpa trees that line the university lawn. Its rival, in terms of public recognition, is Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s former homeplace. The rowan is a mythical tree, which Faulkner chose for a name because it symbolizes security and peace. But real trees also star in the 4 landscaped acres surrounding the Greek Revival mansion. The walkway is lined with 100-year-old eastern red cedars, planted after a yellow fever epidemic because they were believed to cleanse the air. The house was closed to tours because of the pandemic, but shuffling around the grounds and the ancient outbuildings on a cloudless day was a dream. Our only company were birds and a pair of young women picnicking with fresh cut flowers and champagne.
Currence, the local culinary star, owns perhaps the most in-demand balconies in town. His fine-dining restaurant City Grocery anchors one end of the square with a casual bar upstairs that has a separate entrance and is the longtime local hangout. Opposite sits Bouré, a more casual restaurant and bar that serves Creole-flavored bar food downstairs and beer and cocktails on the balcony. We got an early dinner at Bouré that started with cocktails. I sipped on a Lane Train (Four Roses bourbon, Cointreau, lemon and bitters) while I overheard a middle-aged man who looked like an off-brand Lane Kiffin successfully playing the name game with a server. “That’s what’s so great about Mississippi,” he said. “I mean aside from the obvious problems.”
(Laymon, a member of the UM English faculty with several acclaimed books, has written about his grandmother declining to visit him in Oxford, the memory of violence that accompanied James Meredith’s desegregation of Ole Miss in 1962 still fresh on her mind. You can still find bullet holes from white rioters on the outside of The Lyceum, the Greek Revival centerpiece of campus constructed just before the Civil War. Also, until very recently the university’s mascot was Colonel Reb, an old white guy in Confederate garb who looked like a caricature of a plantation owner. Etc.)
Back at dinner, we got the special: pecan-coated catfish on rice topped with chunks of perfectly cured bacon and a slightly creamy Cajun red sauce, and crab cakes with sweet potato fries and coleslaw. It looked like the same upscale bar slop that’s fairly ubiquitous, but it was all perfectly executed and delicious. Afterward, we got beers upstairs at City Grocery, where we saw one of the girls from the Rowan Oak picnic, still in her swimsuit, and a childhood friend of mine who’d attended Ole Miss and then returned to live. It’s a small town.
If you are in the market for a monogrammed Ole Miss polo shirt, many retail shops in downtown Oxford have you covered, including J.E. Neilson Co., a department store that opened in 1839 and bills itself as the oldest documented store in the South. There are also many, many places to buy short party dresses. For my shopping interests, Square Books is reason enough for a visit. Located in a historic two-story brick building on the square (natch), it’s surely the nicest bookstore in the South and so popular that it has three additional outposts downtown: Square Books Jr., a delightful and well-stocked children’s bookstore; Rare Square books, home of vintage collectibles and located above Square Books Jr.; and Off Square Books, seller of bargain and used books and the venue where, at least in normal times, Square Books hosts frequent author readings and events and produces Thacker Mountain Radio, a public radio show. The End of All Music, a second-floor record store on the square, is also a required stop for vinyl collectors.
The highlight of the trip, for me at least, came on our way out of town at Big Bad Breakfast, another Currence joint, this one located in a strip mall a short walk from downtown. It appears to be standard high-end decadent breakfast fare, but like our experience at Bouré, the ingredients and execution were just about flawless. I got the Creole omelette, impossibly fluffy and filled with “all of the chef’s favorite ingredients”: shrimp, andouille sausage, onions, tomatoes and cheddar and topped with tomato gravy and green onions. I got it with a perfect biscuit, a hashbrown cake, strong coffee and a Bloody Mary made from scratch. It carried me all the way through to dinnertime.
Louisiana Purchase State Park
I like poking along under the big sky of the Delta and watching the cropdusters and combines and emptiness roll by. But it’s easy to forget that land wasn’t always tamed. Or it was for us until we stopped at Louisiana Purchase State Park, about halfway between Clarendon and Marvell. The entirety of the park is a 950-foot-long boardwalk that snakes through a swamp as far as you can see of water tupelo, cypress, frogs, turtles and birdsong. It ends at a stone marker commemorating the point from which the Louisiana Purchase survey began. Getting lost in the vastness of an inhospitable swamp and contemplating the charting of our wild, wild country is a necessary diversion to any road trip that takes you nearby.
Water Valley, Mississippi
The housing shortage in Oxford has led many former residents to decamp to Water Valley, a former railroad depot that’s now home to some 3,300 people, where sprawling Victorian homes can be had far cheaper than in Oxford. The B.T.C. Old Fashioned Grocery is the central hub. You can find fresh vegetables, meats and locally ground grits there, along with an adjoining cafe that sells fancy sandwiches at reasonable prices and down-home lunch specials. We stopped by after the cafe had closed, but happened to be there as Clarksdale’s Big River Bagels was dropping off a shipment. We ate everything bagels and a tub of B.T.C.’s homemade egg and olive salad in a nearby pocket park and watched Water Valley slowly pass by.