Small Town Revival

From ruin to renaissance, Eupora offers visitors unique arts and eats

Story Slim Smith | Photographs Luisa Porter

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

In 2001, Eupora’s days seemed numbered. The last of the furniture factories, long the lifeblood of the city, had closed. Along Dunn Avenue, the main street of Eupora’s small downtown, 21 of 25 storefronts were vacant. Some had fallen into ruin.

For Belinda Stewart, the real indicator of the city’s perilous state was the people themselves.

“You could just see it in their eyes; their pride was hurt,” says Stewart, who had made the unconventional move back “home” in 1990 to establish her architectural firm after five highly successful years in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. “Losing those factories, it just shook everyone. It was so sad.”

Twelve years, a span that included the worst economic recession in the U.S. since the Great Depression, has passed since then.

Given Eupora’s grim condition in 2001, you might expect the only reason anyone would go there these days would be to “see the ruins.”

But you will find no ruins in Eupora. It is not a ghost-town populated by a handful of people too stubborn to leave.

No, when you visit Eupora these days, you are struck by a surprising vibrancy, a town where every corner seems to be occupied by an entrepreneur or an artist or just regular folks whose eyes convey no sense of despair.

Eupora didn’t simply survive — which would have been a notable feat in and of itself — it thrived.

Today, 22 of those 25 storefronts are occupied. Two others are being refurbished and will open soon. Established businesses are not content to “hang on.” More often than not, they are expanding. Even the old Texaco gas station downtown has caught the fever. The station is closed, but not because of a lack of business. A sign at the entrance explains: “We plan to open in a few weeks with a great selection of pizzas, chicken, riblets and a host of other items you’ll like.”

As it was in 2001, the storefronts are one indicator of Eupora’s current state of health, but not the best: The best barometer is the people themselves.

Talk to a few people in Eupora and you quickly realize that Belinda Stewart is to Eupora what George Bailey was to the mythical town of Bedford Falls.

In Eupora’s surprising renaissance, her influence is everywhere. At every point along the way, she always seemed to be in the middle of things, encouraging, innovating, planning, putting people together, getting things done. In this respect, she was not content to erect a building; she built a whole town.

Stewart grew up in nearby Walthall, the county seat for Webster County. After studying architecture at Mississippi State, she left for North Carolina to fulfill what seemed certain to be a step toward becoming a nationally-acclaimed architect.

After five years, Stewart began to feel the call of home. It seemed an awfully big gamble. Small towns like Eupora aren’t exactly a mecca for architectural firms.

“All I knew is that I wanted to be (home),” she says. She drew encouragement from some advice she had once received from her mentor, renowned Columbus architect Robert Ivy.

“His advice was ‘don’t try to be everything to everybody; find your niche, then be the best you can be. Do that and it won’t matter where you are.’”

So Stewart put that advice to the test.

“He was right,” she says, happily.

Stewart’s specialty is renovating historic buildings or building new buildings in a style to match an historical era. Business is thriving. She now has 12 full-time and two part-time employees. And best of all, she is “home.”

“One of the best things about a town the size of Eupora is that there’s not a lot of bureaucracy,” she says. “If you can come up with an idea, you can get the permission you need and see it through.”

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Dean Hall, 80, was one of those people who “came up with an idea.”

It was 2005, and he had just retired from the insurance business he had operated in town and finished his fourth term as county supervisor. He needed something to do. He had always “fooled around” with wood-working in the shop at the home near downtown that his family had lived in since it was built in 1912. His idea was to make wooden spoons. The only permission he needed was from his wife, Sue. It wasn’t a hard sell. The Halls have been on a 61-year honeymoon, after all. They get along pretty well. The spoon business was quickly put into operation. Dean’s job is to make the spoons. Sue’s job is to collect the money from the sales and complain, unconvincingly, about the sawdust Dean is always tracking into the house.

Although he made no claim of being an artist, Dean’s spoons have one trait that quickly distinguished them from the wooden spoons that are a staple of most kitchens: the intentional “crooked handle.” That unique twist has elevated his spoons from utility to art.

Eight years later, Hall’s “Crooked Handle Spoons” have turned out to be enormously popular. He uses 22 varieties of wood, most of it collected from some of the bottom land he owns in the county.

“I just love the spoons,” Stewart says. “I give them to my clients for Christmas. They’re just so unique, and my clients just love them.”

Although Hall does no advertising, the popularity continues to grow. He has shipped spoons as far away as Africa and Australia, in fact.

Most of his sales come from area art festivals, though, mainly the Prairie Arts Festival in West Point, the Cotton District Arts Festival in Starkville and the Market Street Festival in Columbus.

When he first arrived at the festivals, Hall says he was grouped in the flea-market section, which would have been an insult to anyone less humble than the sweet-natured, ever-smiling Dean Hall.

“But about four years ago, they moved me. Now they put me right there in the art gallery,” he says,  laughing at the thought that he would be placed among the “real artists.”

“I always try to take 200 spoons to a festival, and we never bring any back,” Hall says. “I’m way behind right now. I’ve got about 60 made, so I have to get busy.”

For longer than anyone can remember, the large brick building tucked away just off Highway 9 near town stood vacant. It had once been a “dry kiln” lumber building, where rough-hewn logs were cured before being sent off to one of the many furniture factories that used to be common in this part of the state.

It did not escape the attention of Sheryl Collins, who wondered if the building could be re-purposed. She had already opened a small gift shop in town, but she loved the old brick building. She convinced her husband, Rickey, who had recently retired and was eager to find something to do with his time, that the old lumber building would be a perfect location for a restaurant and gift shop.

Three years and a considerable amount of money later, the Collinses opened The Sandwich Shop restaurant. Another part of the 5,000-square-foot building houses her gift shop. They also lease part of the building to a physical therapy clinic.

The Collinses opened for business in January, serving lunch Monday through Saturday.

“It’s been successful far beyond what we could ever have imagined,” says Rickey Collins, who had no previous experience in the restaurant business.

Indeed, the Collinses have added dinner service, Thursday through Saturday.

Will the restaurant succeed to the point where dinner service is offered six nights a week?

“Boy, I hope not,” Rickey Collins says, laughing a little. “This isn’t what I had in mind when I retired.”

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Like Collins, Paul Reeves did not plan to become an restaurateur, either. His calling was in the ministry: He moved to Eupora from Monroe County in 2004 to help plant a church. That was the same year he returned to Peru on a mission trip and came back with a bride, a Peruvian lady named Luz. In 2007, Paul and Luz switched gears, buying the Central Service Grill on the corner or East Roane and North Dunn. The building originally opened as a Ford dealership in 1947.

The Reeves specialize in the standard fare one would expect to see in a diner — sandwiches, salads, steaks. But it also features the Luz’s Special, a traditional Peruvian chicken dish with tomatoes and onions.

“I can’t say I had any real restaurant experience,” Reeves says. “When I was in bible college in Oklahoma, I worked at a restaurant. Sometimes I’d be in charge one or two nights when the manager was out, but that’s about it. I guess I’ve just learned on the fly.”

He has learned well, apparently.

Soon, he will open a banquet room that can accommodate 75 guests. Back when Central Service Grill was a car dealership, the attached building that will become the banquet room was a transmission shop.

“We’re doing pretty good,” Reeves says. “I think the whole town is doing pretty good. It sure seems that way.”