Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Personal Space

Story Slim Smith | Photograph Luisa Porter

When diners approach the cash register at Starkville Café to pay for their meals, they are sure to notice the collection of ducks that have taken up residence on the cluttered counter near the cash register. There are a couple of dozen ducks, most of them rubber or plastic, and most of them small — from the size of a thimble to the size of your hand.

The ducks, like many of the patrons of the restaurant, sort of showed up and made the place their home.

The Main Street restaurant dates back to the ’40s and has long been a local institution, not only providing wholesome fare but serving as a gathering place where regulars discuss the news of the day. “It’s the typical small town café,” said John Peeples, who took over the place about four years ago. “It’s not just breakfast or lunch. It’s politics. It’s football. It’s whatever is going on in town. That’s our clientele.”

The ducks are a nod to Peeples’ nickname. The lifelong Starkville resident acquired the nickname “Baby Duck” soon after he graduated from Mississippi State in 1994 when he was being introduced as a new employee at his first job as a regional director for Ducks Unlimited. “They said, here is one of our new baby ducks,” said Peeples, 46. “It sort of stuck.”

Five years ago, Peeples left his job with Ducks Unlimited. He didn’t know what he would do for a living at the time, but he did know he and his family had no interest in leaving Starkville.

“I started catering at first, then the Café became available and I took over,” he said.

When Peeples arrived, the ducks soon followed.

“They just started appearing,” Peeples said. “Now, sometimes little kids will come in and bring me their ducks so they can stay with my ducks.”

So the duck collection continues to grow, as does the business, which seems to have found a new energy under the guidance of the genial new owner.

“Oh, I don’t really own this place,” Peeples said, dismissively. “The customers own it. I’m just the caretaker.”