Give three cheers for a
weekend in Oxford, Miss.
Muses — Greek mythology’s inspirational goddesses of literature, science, and the arts — seem to favor Oxford, Miss. Since its founding in 1837, Oxford has attracted artists, writers, and musicians, along with some of the South’s finest chefs. This artistic mix has created a cultural stew seasoned with traditions and peppered with contemporary charm. From the home of a Nobel Prize-winning author to a grove filled with happy football fans, Oxford continues to inspire.
William Faulkner wrote, “To understand the world you first must understand Mississippi,” an awakening that begins at Rowan Oak, the Nobel Prize winner’s antebellum home, located just south of Oxford’s downtown square.
The Greek-Revival mansion was built in 1844 on the edge of the 29-acre urban woodland that’s known today as Bailey’s Woods. Faulkner purchased the property in 1930 and immediately began renovations. He named the home Rowan Oak. According to the legend, the Rowan tree is believed to process mystical powers. Perhaps it does, for within these walls, Faulkner’s creative juices flowed. It was here that he penned As I Lay Dying; Absalom, Absalom!; and Light in August.
Touring Rowan Oak begins with a walk through the alley of cedars flanking the walkway leading to the two-story column-lined porch. Although visitors can simply stroll the grounds, opt to tour the home, for on display is a collection of Faulkner’s furnishings, memorabilia, and preserved writings. You’ll see penciled on the walls of his study the outline of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Fable.
Tours of Rowan Oak are operated by Faulkner’s alma mater, the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), which oversees the preservation and interpretation of the literary landmark and adjunct grounds.
Arrive in Oxford and it won’t be long before you hear “Hotty Toddy, Gosh Almighty; Who the Hell Are We? Hey! Flim Flam, Bim Bam; Ole Miss, By Damn.”
The “Hotty Toddy cheer” — the rallying call for Ole Miss Rebel fans and alums — is happily chanted any time or place as an expression of hometown pride. The cheer swells Ole Miss’ historical grounds that include the university’s legendary green space, The Grove. Located in the heart of University Circle, this 10-acre track becomes Mississippi’s No. 1 social event destination on football weekends when more than 28,000 fans flood The Grove for the ultimate tailgate party.
Near The Grove is the University of Mississippi Museum, which holds an impressive collection of Roman and Greek antiquities. Across the Grove is Ole Miss’ oldest building, the Lyceum, completed in 1848. Used as a hospital during the Civil War, the Lyceum’s exterior holds bullet marks from the 1962 violence during campus unrest when James Meredith enrolled as the university’s first African-American student. Commemorating the landmark event is a two-story Civil Rights Monument, situated in the courtyard behind the Lyceum. It depicts Meredith striding forward towards the university.
Food in the South is an art and a tradition, venerated and preserved by the Southern Foodways Alliance, a section of the university’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. Foodies come to research Southern Foodways Alliance’s extensive collections and videos documenting culinary stories on diverse topics.
Of course, eating remains the best way to research and discover Southern cooking, for according to local chefs, no one ever leaves Oxford hungry.
It’s a claim that John Currence, a James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of City Grocery, takes to heart. Housed on the square in what was a 19th-century livery stable, City Grocery’s claim to fame is its innovative take on Southern dishes. Its signature shrimp and grits is studded with mushrooms, scallions, and a goodly amount of what chef calls “big bad bacon.”
Quirky and cool, Canoodle by Oxford Canteen is wedged in the alley attached to the vintage Lyric Oxford Theater. Chef Corbin Evans takes orders through a window and cooks from a kitchen built in an old storage closet. Granted, it’s small but efficient with its pop-up concept compared to a food truck without the wheels.
Books and Buses
The historical square in downtown Oxford remains a cultural hub and center for shopping, dining, and book browsing, thanks to the independent bookstore, Square Books. Established in 1979, Square Books is comprised of three shops that are separated by only about 100 feet: Square Books, Square Books Junior, and Off Square Books. Embracing its bohemian spirit, Off Square Books each Thursday shoves its book tables aside and sets up folding chairs for the 6 p.m. live recording of The Thacker Mountain Radio Hour. Artists take the makeshift stage presenting music, conversation, and an occasional literary reading.
During the last weekend of April, the square becomes festival central for the Double Decker Arts Festival (April 28 and 29) that will feature a myriad of artists and musicians, plus food vendors. The festival was named in honor of the first double-decker bus the city imported from England.
Today, the two-story red beauties are a great choice for touring the city. Check the seasonal schedules, then hop on and climb the stairs to the top deck for a bird’s-eye view of Oxford’s attractions. Stops include Faulkner’s gravesite in Saint Peter’s Cemetery. Here, the Faulkner faithful take a swig and spill a little whiskey before leaving the bottle at the author’s grave.
First-time visitors often opt to sleep near Courthouse Square. The newly opened, lavishly appointed Chancellor’s House is a 31-room boutique hotel that redefines Southern elegance. Oxford also offers national hotels, including the AAA Three Diamond Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn Express.
Whether you’re a newcomer or a frequent visitor, spring is the perfect time to flock to Oxford.
Suzanne Corbett is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.
March/April 2017 Issue
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