Home Sweet Holly Springs

Story & Photographs Carmen K. Sisson

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

Water sheets down East Van Dorn, tracing the cracked pavement in rivulets of gray. R.L. Burnside is on the radio, his scratched, whisky-weary voice laying atop a melancholy, relentless, one-chord groove like a threadbare quilt on a no-poster bed. There’s not a soul in sight. And it’s perfect. Absolutely perfect.

Instantly, you understand — Holly Springs isn’t trying to be something it’s not. It’s not a dot on a map or a checkmark on an agenda or a liner note on a list of things every Southerner must do before he dies.

If you were raised in the South, Holly Springs is what you are, where you came from, what you know, why you stay. It is the creep of kudzu and the misty pink sunrise over a field of snow-white cotton. It is the lonely echo of church bells on Sunday morning, calling you to your knees. It is that thing you try to describe to people who “ain’t from ’round here” but can never quite touch.

It is getting lost and being found. It is homesickness and coming home.

You don’t need a map, because even if your feet have never traversed these streets, you know exactly where you are. You won’t want your cell phone, because in an age of ultra-connectivity, there is much to be said for going off-grid. You will want a little cash, because your first stop doesn’t deal in plastic.

The minute you walk into Phillips Grocery, you understand why every travel writer across the country has enshrined this saloon-turned-burger joint as culinary mecca. Ceiling fans lazily twirl alongside a hornet’s nest (long-abandoned by its former residents, thankfully) as a group of Chattanooga motorcyclists shake the rain from their jackets and settle in at one of the vinyl-draped tables.

A local man, wearing a John Deere hat, sidles up to the counter with his granddaughter and places his order without glancing at the chalkboard menu above the grill. A Phil-Up burger, double ham, double bacon, double beef. Corn nuggets. Glass-bottled Coca-Cola for him. An Orange Crush for the flaxen-haired tyke. Fried apple pie — make that two.

The tourists watch, enthralled. One wanders around the room, stopping intermittently to take photographs of the dusty shelves, where every inch of jumbled memorabilia offers a chance to rediscover a childhood favorite. To the right, a checkerboard, with metal Coke caps for checkers, sits invitingly. To the left, flour sacks, old movie posters (“Cookie’s Fortune” was filmed here), and tin tobacco advertisements fight for wall space.

A guest book dangles precariously on the edge of the counter, almost an afterthought. The pages tell a story of their own.

Keith and Donna, from London, wrote: “Here at last! Long, long way to come. But oh so worth it! A true pilgrimage.”

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

The Chattanooga tourists seem to agree. As they munch on burgers, they talk about how they were surfing the Internet, looking for something to do, when they read about Holly Springs and Phillips Grocery. They rode in the rain to Memphis and ate barbecue. Then, they headed South.

“We said, ‘Man, this better be worth it,’” one quips.

Well, was it?

“Oh yeah,” they say in unison. “Totally.”

Perched on the edge of a church pew which tips a bit when I get too close to the edge, I bite into the burger USA Today named in 1989 as one of the top three burgers in the nation. Crispy-charred on the outside, juicy on the inside, dripping with cheese. Oh yeah. Totally worth it.

When you’re finished eating, wander over to the 1890s train depot and remember a time when the railroad was king. This railroad put Holly Springs, population 7,957 at the last census, on a dubious map — the town became the headquarters for Union General Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War.

As Grant shuttled munitions and supplies up and down the Mississippi Central Railroad, Confederate General Earl Van Dorn hatched a daring plan. He led a 3,500-man cavalry into the once-sleepy city, and ambushed the Union encampment, capturing 1,500 troops and setting fire to both the depot and the railroad cars, which were packed with bacon and filled the air with the smell of breakfast and the streets with a slick of grease.

Grant moved on to Vicksburg; Van Dorn became a hero.

Holly Springs is like catnip for the history buff. A number of place markers detail every battle that was waged here in gripping detail. Take the time to read the plaques, and you’ll get an education unlike any you’ll find in a textbook.

Like all good Southern cities, Holly Springs has a town square — a little faded around the edges, but quaintly picturesque thanks to bright American flags which hang from nearly every post. There’s not a lot to do, but it’s easy to waste the better part of a day exploring.

In the window of Booker Hardware and Cutlery, old farm implements whisper of the proud heritage that was the backbone of a region. There is no order to the hodge-podge of curiosities, and yet, everything is where you expect it to be, and if you can’t find it here, chances are you don’t need it.

Inside Tyson’s Drug Store, people line up for an old-fashioned ice cream cone. But like much of Holly Springs, there’s more than meets the eye. Walk a bit farther, to the back corner. Slip inside the dark recess and suddenly you’re standing in the middle of the Funky Monkey boutique, trying to decide between earrings made by a local artisan and impossibly cute owls carved from what appear to be remnants of a tin roof.

Down the street, Connie’s Southern Blooms & Gifts and Jennie’s Flowers & Gifts offer more temptation, from the off-kilter “only in Mississippi” wares to the highly-sought like Skosh jewelry, troll beads, Turvis tumblers, Willow Tree angels, and Tab Boren, Fingerprint, and Peter’s Pottery.

Don’t spend too much time shopping, though. You’ll want to set aside an hour or two to explore the Marshall County Historical Museum. And don’t brush aside curator Lois Swaney-Shipp’s offer of a personal tour. For one thing, you won’t win. For another, this may be the best $5 you will ever spend.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

“Miss Lois” is part gossipy aunt, part benevolent grandmother, and this museum is her love. Let her tell you of the day when there wasn’t a penny in the coffers for a museum, and of how she blended Southern charm and old-fashioned ingenuity to amass more than 100,000 items that defy description, from an impressive collection of war memorabilia to a taxidermy collection which includes a giant Mississippi honeybear named “Monroe.”

She’ll tell you how she convinced billionaire Warren Buffett to provide the bricks to make the elevator. She’ll tell you how she wrote to Holly Springs native and Fox News favorite Shepherd Smith and asked for a million dollars. He never responded, but he will, she’s sure of it, and by the time you leave, you’ll believe her.

Buy a tuft of cotton from the gift shop. Pick up a few books, including Jan Karon’s Home to Holly Springs. Declare Christmas shopping finished.

Wander over to Akei Pro’s Record Shop and sift through the old records, absorbing the blues legacy that saturates this town with quiet understatement. R.L. Burnside grew up here. So did Junior Kimbrough. It has inspired modern hill country blues artists The Black Keys and the North Mississippi All-Stars. This isn’t the Delta, and these aren’t the Delta blues. This is a style all its own, and if you visit on a Sunday in the spring or summer, you can partake of the Foxfire Experience, a weekly outdoor music festival in nearby Waterford.

Before you leave, wander through Strawberry Plains Audubon Center — 2,500 acres of pure peace. From guided hikes to self-driven meanderings to the annual hummingbird festival which draws thousands of people to Holly Springs every year, there is almost always something happening here.

And that’s the beauty of Holly Springs. It is a destination without even trying to be. It is an afternoon with nothing to do and nowhere to go, just an itch to get lost and find your roots. It’s slow and quiet and comfortable, kicked back and open to anything. It’s “hello” from a stranger and a phone call from an old friend you didn’t even know you missed. Some have called Holly Springs an “encyclopedia of the South.”

But if you’re not careful, you might just call it home.