Southern towns are imbued with a special kind of charm, and Southern college towns even more so. Oxford, Mississippi, is a perfect example.
15-Jul-22 – Home to the University of Mississippi, affectionately nicknamed Ole Miss, Oxford brims with cultural arts, culinary excellence, and Division I athletics. On the impressive roster of hometown notables are Nobel Prize-winning William Faulkner, author of legal thrillers John Grisham, two James Beard Award winners, and venerable football quarterbacks Archie Manning and Eli Manning.
Often, the legacy triad intersects, as you’ll see while exploring this small northern Mississippi city about 75 miles southeast of Memphis.
The Courthouse Square
The city’s hub is the Square, where people-watching is a recommended pastime and the historic Lafayette County Courthouse fills an entire block. Built in 1872, the Italianate-style structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is surrounded by locally owned shops, boutiques, and eateries.
An iconic emporium is Square Books, an independent bookstore with national recognition by bibliophiles. Square Books carries a strong selection of literary fiction, particularly books on the American South and books by Southern writers. Its offshoots are Off Square Books, which focuses on lifestyle topics; Square Books Jr. for children’s literature; and Rare Square Books for collectibles.
Trends meet tradition at Neilson’s, which was founded in 1839 as a trading post and is today the oldest independent department store in the South.
Thacker Mountain Radio Hour
In spring and fall, the hottest event in town is the weekly Thacker Mountain Radio Hour. It’s a live variety show featuring prominent and rising literary and musical talent. Count on the house band, the Yalobushwhackers, to play a few rousing tunes.
The show is often compared to A Prairie Home Companion, created by author and humorist Garrison Keillor, that aired from 1974 to 2020. You can be in the audience for free.
Thacker Mountain Radio Hour traditionally has been produced inside Off Square Books, but moved to the open-air Old Armory Pavilion as a pandemic precaution. Check their website for up-to-date scheduling and locations.
On campus at Ole Miss
Founded in 1848, Ole Miss is the state’s flagship university and often touted as the most beautiful campus in the country. Indeed, it is gorgeous, starting with The Grove, a lush 10-acre greenspace canopied by mature oak, elm, and magnolia trees.
During the Civil War, when Oxford was burned nearly to the ground by Yankee troopers, it served as a hospital for wounded confederate and union soldiers. In 1962, the Lyceum was the site of a major civil rights event when, after a riotous night, James Meredith was enrolled as the university’s first African American student.
The Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts is a 1,250-seat auditorium with a slate of Broadway touring shows, opera, symphony, and more. The first presidential debate in 2008 between then-candidate and former President Barack Obama and the late Senator John McCain was held at the Center.
Other not-to-miss campus sites are the 36-bell carillon in the tower that crowns Paris-Yates Chapel; the magnificent retinue of sorority and fraternity houses on Fraternity Row; and Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, which has a capacity of 66,000, more than the population of both Oxford and the university combined. (Oxford’s population is about 28,000, and the student body numbers about 24,000.)
Fun Fact: On campus or anywhere else, for that matter, you’re bound to hear enthusiastic shouts of “Hotty Toddy!” It’s a nonsensical cheer and greeting of Rebels fans.
William Faulkner, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, found inspiration in Oxford for the county seat of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, the setting for many of his novels and short stories. Much of his adult life was spent at Rowan Oak, his 33-acre estate and home from 1930 until his death in 1962 at age 64. The name comes from the rowan oak tree, a symbol of security and peace.
It is a designated National Historic Landmark.
In his study, a manual Underwood typewriter sits on a small table while the plot outline of A Fable is scrawled on the wall with graphite and red grease pencils. The 1954 book, set in France during a Holy Week in World War I, was awarded both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.
Faulkner, reputed for his fondness of distilled spirits, is buried in nearby St. Peter’s Cemetery, where it is customary to lay a bottle of Jack Daniels at his headstone.
“My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey,” he famously said.
University of Mississippi Museum
From Rowan Oak, you can walk the gentle pedestrian trail through scenic Bailey’s Woods to the University of Mississippi Museum. The trail is about three-fifths of a mile and will take about 20 minutes.
On display is an 1854 orrery, a rare mechanical model that shows the movements of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and the moon around the sun for any given day and year.
Dining and imbibing
Down-home Southern cooking is a specialty at casual and upscale restaurants alike, but international flavors and creative flourishes abound.
The city claims two James Beard Award winners, Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar for Best Chef: South in 2019, and John Currence, owner and founder of City Grocery Restaurant Group for the same award in 2009. Currence’s growing portfolio includes Snackbar, Big Bad Breakfast, Bouré, City Grocery, and others.
Snackbar, despite the deceptive name, is a fine dining establishment with a fresh raw oyster habit.
McEwen’s Oxford elevates Southern dishes with an emphasis on seafood. My sesame encrusted tuna was a work of art and sumptuous, too.
A fine reckoning for casual fare is Proud Larry’s, a laid-back eatery with delectable pizzas, hearty pub grub, and live entertainment. You just know college towns will have great pizza.
Big Bad Breakfast, with a dozen locations and growing, greets each day with fluffy buttermilk biscuits, house-smoked meats, and freshly squeezed juices. I ordered Redneck Benny, a take on eggs Benedict that came with two poached eggs, thin-sliced country ham, and choice of hollandaise sauce or sausage gravy atop a biscuit. I’ve also dined at Big Bad Breakfast in Florence, Alabama, so I’d consider myself a diehard.
Note to John Currence: Could you please bring your extraordinary breakfast fixings to Chicago?
Honorable mention goes to the cheese fries, which are heaped with Velveeta cheese and Ro-Tel diced tomatoes with green chiles. Alcohol isn’t served, but you can bring wine in a paper bag and beer in cups. Go ahead and write on the walls – everyone else does.
You’ll feel like you’ve been initiated into the coolest fraternity on campus when you stay at the 136-room Graduate Oxford. The collegiate-themed hotel is awash in preppy decor and accessorized with references to Oxford’s legendary sports and literary figures. Grab light bites at two onsite eateries: a coffee cafe with an old-timey ambiance on the lobby level, and a rooftop lounge with great views of the Square.
Consider also the Chancellor’s House, a 38-room luxury boutique hotel on the Square. The lobby is richly appointed with crystal chandeliers, marble floor, and a grand piano, setting the mood for an elegant stay.
When booking accommodations, pay attention to the Rebels’ football schedule. Rooms are hard to come by on game weekends, and you could end up miles away or simply out of luck. Many out-of-town fans buy condos or small homes to guarantee they have lodging, a real estate phenomenon known as the “football house.” Hotty Toddy!
More info: Visit Oxford MS
Photos provided by Visit Oxford MS except where noted otherwise.