Text by Nicole Huguley
If you’re from the Mid South, you know that Mississippi is home to hundreds of small rural towns, one of which has received a great deal of local and national attention in the past decade, and for good reason. Just under 20 miles away from Oxford lies the blossoming borough of Water Valley, Mississippi. Thanks to the efforts of dedicated community leaders, proud residents, local artists and visionary entrepreneurs, Water Valley has been transformed from a sleepy whistlestop to a vibrant, interactive hot spot.
Described by Preservation magazine as “teeming with life,” Water Valley’s 4,000 residents are absolutely committed to preserving its history as it progresses forward. Like many small Southern towns, Water Valley began as a railroad hub and regional center of agriculture. Its economy still relies heavily on manufacturing and farming today, though in recent years, local entrepreneurs have opened 20 new businesses, providing 65 new jobs. This development is most obviously showcased on Main Street.
Since his move to Water Valley in 2008, local artist and New Orleans transplant Bill Warren took it upon himself to hand paint storefront signs along Main Street to create a unified, cohesive look. Warren, who also serves as the co-chair of the Water Valley Arts Council, created these signs in order to humanize the town with the handmade touch. He wanted to give Water Valley a unique visual identity through signs that mimic the classic lettering of the early 1900s.
For the food lover, The B.T.C. Old Fashioned Grocery offers more than just farm-fresh, organic produce and grass-fed meat. The refurbished 140-year-old structure represents the culture of creative economy that characterizes the spirit of Water Valley. Owners Alexe van Beuren and her husband, Kagan Coughlin, spent three years restoring one of the largest abandoned buildings in town, and the B.T.C. now serves as a gathering place for residents and visitors alike. Mickey Howley, Director of the Water Valley Main Street Association, calls the B.T.C. “the ‘third place’ in Water Valley—the place like ‘Cheers’—where everyone knows your name.” The store serves breakfast (ask for for the sausage gravy and grits plate), lunch (refreshing salads, sandwiches, burgers, soups and more), and stocks deli salads and take-home casseroles. The B.T.C.’s dedication to the local food movement is reflected in its name; the letters stand for the first three initials of the Ghandi quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Turnage Drug Store has been selling its famous sweets (and, of course, medicine and other pharmaceutical products) since 1905. Make sure to drop in and indulge in Turnage’s delicious milkshakes or check out its ever-popular soda fountain. The drug store is currently in its fourth generation of family ownership.
Art lovers should mark their calendars for the Annual Art Crawl hosted by the Water Valley Arts Council on September 20. You can enjoy wine and hors d’oeuvres as you stroll through Water Valley’s three art galleries that will showcase as many as 14 artists. From April 4 to May 17, Bozart’s Gallery presents a new art show called “Things To Come,” which features several local and guest artists who seek to portray the way the future has been imagined by popular culture. According to Bozart’s website, this new exhibition “takes the viewer back to the future.”
If you’re more of a beer person, head over to Yalobusha Brewing Company, Water Valley’s own local microbrewery. Owner Andy O’Bryan, along with his team of master brewers, Tony Balzola and Amos Harvey, started Yalobusha in October 2013. Every Friday in the early evening Yalobusha offers tours and beer tasting. Like so many other entrepreneurs in the area, O’Bryan transformed a huge, empty warehouse into a modern marvel. The building was home to Hendricks Machine Shop and Foundry in the late 1800s, and pedestrians can still see the manholes manufactured by Hendricks around the town today.
Families will kids will surely enjoy the Casey Jones Railroad Museum or the Fiddlin’ Rooster Farm. The Railroad Museum, open Thursdays-Saturdays from 2 to 4 p.m., gives visitors a chance to cool off while exploring the railroad history of Water Valley and reading about all of the details of the haunting story of Casey Jones. The Fiddlin’ Rooster Farm is currently open only for private events and classes such as “Bread Baking 101” and “Kids Can Cook!” taught by farm employees. To reserve a cooking class spot call 662.473.5005 or visit www.fiddlinroosterfarm.com/take-a-class.
When asked about the restaurant scene in Water Valley, Howley explains, “There aren’t many white table cloth restaurants.” Instead, several niche eateries are dotted about town. In fact, Food & Wine magazine recently included Water Valley on a list of remarkable “little food towns” across the country. Mentioned in the magazine is Crawdad Hole Jr., a roadside seafood shack that, in classic Water-Valley style, was built in an abandoned gas station. Their fingers covered in juice and spices, patrons gather around folding tables with red checkered tablecloths to enjoy the casual atmosphere. There is one catch, though: Crawdad Hole is only open Thursdays through Sundays, until they run out of crawfish!
Barbecue fans should check out D and D House of BBQ, located on the corner of Main Street and Panola. Food & Wine calls it a “busy barbecue trailer,” but now the House of BBQ also has a brick-and-mortar establishment. Chef DeMarc White serves the area’s best-selling pulled pork and has become well-known for his smoked chicken wings.
If you visit Water Valley on the weekend, be sure to stop by the Farmer’s Market, open every Saturday morning in the summer from 8 to 11 a.m. Under the shade of tents and trees along Main Street, the Farmer’s Market hosts local growers, coffee brewers and artisans. Vendors sell fresh vegetables, eggs, sweet pickles, jellies, peppers, relishes, garlic butter, wooden art pieces, frames, furniture and so much more.
Clearly, there’s too much to do in one day in Water Valley. It’s best to visit on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, because in typical Southern fashion, businesses generally close on Sunday and Monday. After a stay in Water Valley, you’re sure to fall in love with the character of the charming town, which Howley compares to Magazine Street in New Orleans. “It’s a little bit of funk with an art to it,” he says with pride. “Folks know it is a small town, but it is a place that matters.”