The Coolest Little Arts Town that Could
Story & Photographs Carmen K. Sisson
Let’s get one thing straight right now: If you read that big story in that big city paper and you’re looking for the charmingly faded, “derelict” Southern town they described — the dying city where the only redeeming factor is the declining cost of dilapidated real estate — you’re going to be really disappointed when you land in Water Valley. You might want to go ahead and tear the “D” section out of your dictionary because most of those words will prove of little use here. While you’re at it, toss your travel guides in the trunk or give them to some deluded journalist. You’re not going to find a town like this in books like that.
Thank goodness, because if everyone knew Water Valley’s secret, the sidewalks would be clogged with tourists, and you wouldn’t be able to rob Peter or pay Paul to get a table at B.T.C Old-Fashioned Grocery. And that would be a real shame, because you’d miss one of the best breakfasts in Mississippi.
Take a tip from a local — whether you’re a biscuit eater or not, order a side of Ms. Dixie’s sausage gravy. It’s good enough to eat with a spoon (though we highly suggest slathering it on pretty much everything.) For true belly-busting extravagance, go for “The Amos” — a $6.99 conglomeration of eggs, sausage and bacon resting atop the aforementioned biscuits and gravy.
In many ways, this bright, spacious historic building is the nerve center of a cultural renaissance that’s spreading not just across Water Valley, but all over the South. The Mississippi Development Authority and Mississippi Arts Council like to call it the “creative economy,” a new-fangled phrase for something Southerners have been doing since before Robert Johnson struck his Faustian contract at the Crossroads, before William Faulkner dreamed up Yoknapatawpha County, before Mississippi seceded from the Union, before cotton covered the Delta.
The creative economy pays homage to Southerners’ ability to repurpose anything, drag inspiration from the soil, draw sustenance from the river, give birth to the new and baptize it in the holy conflagration of fearless experimentation and artistic expression.
“GOOD ALL THE TIME”
When husband-wife duo Kagan Coughlin and Alexe van Beuren rescued a 104-year-old building on Main Street and turned it into “a small-town grocery with big-city food,” they had a simple premise: “Local a lot. Organic a little bit. Good all the time.”
If you want to know where your milk comes from, they can take you to Brown Family Dairy and point out the cow. If you fall in love with their buttery yellow grits, they can sell you a bag or take you down to Delta Grind and introduce you to Becky Tatum, who local art gallery owner Coulter Fussell describes as “a one-woman-grits-making powerhouse.”
Fussell’s studio and art gallery, Yalo, is a good place to make your next stop, where odds are you’ll see something so crazy-cool you’ll whip out your wallet, smart phone or both. (B.T.C. has a fast, free wi-fi connection, which will be your best bet for a cell or Internet signal.)
On this particular day, Fussell is surrounded by a squadron of World War II crappie bombers. Fish. Warbirds. Weird. Wonderful.
While B.T.C. focuses on local wares, Fussell and business partner Megan Patton try to fill their beadboard walls with new artists doing new things in new ways. The fish drawings are the brainchild of Cleveland, Ohio-based artist Derek Hess, who is known for his album cover art and has work permanently displayed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Over at Julia Ray Designs, you might catch the Charleston, S.C., native designing the latest Southern-flaired haute couture — or an elaborate costume for a wrestler.
At Bozarts Gallery, every stereotype you have will be thrown out the transom window (if your mind hasn’t already been blown by this eclectic bedroom community of Oxford.)
A gorgeous chandelier hangs from the original tin ceiling. Set on a backdrop of brick are edgy, contemporary works by Southern artists, including the 15 who comprise the Bozarts Alliance.
While you’re there, look for New Orleans native Mickey Howley, who owns the gallery with his wife, Annette Trefzer, and serves as manager of the Water Valley Main Street Association.
A fount of local lore, he can tell you anything you want to know — the best time to visit (Friday night or Saturday afternoon), the best soup in town (B.T.C.’s curried cauliflower soup with hot mango chutney), the best place to find innovative, Cajun-influenced local cuisine (Doc’s Table), and the inspiration for the Hess crappie bombers (the annual crappie festival, which celebrates Water Valley’s claim to fame as the site where the world’s largest crappie — 5 pounds, 3 ounces — was caught).
But just as the vibrant little town was mischaracterized as “derelict,” it would be equally narrow-minded to see it as merely a haven for young creatives with a flair for business savvy, artistic experimentation and renovation.
GREEK REVIVAL TO QUEEN ANNE
Take the 35-minute driving tour, which begins and ends at the Casey Jones Railroad Museum on Main Street and leads you down narrow, winding streets shaded by magnolia trees and elms. With a mixture of architectural styles, from Greek Revival to Queen Anne, the houses are as varied as the secrets they hold.
At 311 Wood Street, the founder of Water Valley’s first hospital died in bed wearing his coat and tie. The town’s first stagecoach stop and livery was at 304 Railroad Street, where a local man was murdered in the front room by a disgruntled cotton mill worker. Ghosts are said to inhabit 118 Dupuy Street at midnight, when children playing marbles can be heard beneath the floors. At 305 Lincrest, Civil War-era owner Dr. John Young purportedly buried $50,000 in gold to protect it from Yankee invaders.
But perhaps the best way to end your day is with a chocolate malt or purple cow at Turnage Drugstore, more than a century-old and still going strong. Chat with local residents, who gather here each day for the latest news and gossip. Shop for fine china and crystal or old-fashioned candy, including an impressive array of flavored candy sticks and watermelon-themed suckers. Then wander back to the pharmacy, where Binnie Turnage and his son fill nearly 200 prescriptions each day.
Turnage will tell you about growing up in Water Valley, where he would light out on his bike and spend all day exploring. He’ll tell you how he started washing dishes and sweeping floors when he was 10 and the shop is still where he wants to be. He’ll tell you about the nights he is awakened by worried parents asking him to home-deliver medicine for sick children. He’ll tell you of a quiet, peaceful, simple life — one the newcomers appreciate just as much as the founding families.
“There are lots of great little things about this town,” Fussell says. “People don’t live here just because it’s cheap.”
It’s the little things, like Turnage’s midnight house calls and the way Fussell can sit in her gallery doorway and chat with van Beuren at B.T.C.
It’s the way there were 18 empty storefronts five years ago and now there are four.
It’s the way old and new blend into a cultural gumbo completely unexpected in this Yalobusha County town of just over 3,000 people.
It’s the World’s Largest Crappie Festival in May, the Watermelon Carnival in August, the Arts Crawl in October and a dozen other small events.
It’s the freedom.
“I feel like we can do whatever we want here,” Fussell says.
And the passing visitor just might feel the same after an afternoon in this little city of big ideas. In a world of naysayers and nattering nabobs, Water Valley is a refreshing change of pace.