We are both Ole Miss alums. Granted, we graduated a while ago, but once you’ve spent time there it’s difficult to break the tie. It’s also unnecessary to break that tie, so we go back to Oxford whenever we can and revisit our youth. This trip, however, our youth was all we revisited. Everywhere else we went was virgin territory because it seems that we’ve missed a few things over the years.
We started our campus tour with one of our favorite buildings, Ventress Hall, although it wasn’t called that in our day – it was either “the art building” or “the geology building” in those days. Nobody bothered naming the building until 1993, and it’s more than a little surprising that the name Ventress was still available, given that James Alexander Ventress was the legislator responsible for there being a University of Mississippi in the first place! A dark-red, castle-like brick building with gables and a bright red roof, Ventress sits on the Circle, the grassy, park-like expanse at the heart of the original Ole Miss campus. Despite our affinity for Ventress’s charming, fairy tale looks, it had never occurred to either of us to actually go inside, never dawned on us to wonder what that little turret looked like from the other side.
The building began life in 1889 as the library – there’s still an “L” over the front doors. Then it was the law building for a while; after that it was used by the State Geological Survey for over thirty years, and then became the geology building before it became the art building. Now it’s home to the College of Liberal Arts and those folks are lucky indeed. It’s a beautiful place to work, all the more so because of the incredible stained glass window on the landing of the staircase in the elegant foyer – a Tiffany stained glass window right on the Ole Miss campus. Hiding in plain sight. It cost $500 in 1891, a gift from Delta Gamma sorority girls and generous alumni to honor the University Greys, a company of the 11th Mississippi Infantry in the Civil War – almost all of whom were students at the university when war began. Ole Miss had to close for the duration of the war, by the way; all the students were male and only four showed up that first year. The fact that most of the donations that paid for the window probably came from the children, grandchildren, and friends of the men of the 11th makes it even more meaningful. It’s exquisite, a truly magnificent work of art that must be seen to be appreciated…which is why we are posting all these pictures. (Also, we feel some obligation to make up for having lived on campus all those years without knowing it existed. We feel badly about that.)
|Getting a picture of the entire window was quite a feat -- it spans most of the stairwell and is over a story high.|
|The faces were so well detailed -- painted on the glass.|
It seems we have several things to feel badly about. We had never quite found the time to drop by the library and see Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature either. So, we went into the library and inquired of the young (very young) woman at the front desk as to how to find Archives. “They’re on the second floor,” she said with a smile. And then, with what can only be called a “concerned” expression, she asked, “Can you manage the stairs?”
She asked if we could manage the stairs! We were speechless. Well, we were speechless until we started up those stairs, and then, believe me, we had plenty to say.
Incredibly, by the time we reached the second floor we had pretty much forgotten that sweet young thing's inadvertent affront. After all, we’ll never know what possessed her to ask such a bizarre question, so there’s no point in worrying about it. There’s obviously something wrong with her. It’s sad.
|The medal, approximately 2.5" in diameter, 23 carat gold - really quite pretty!|
Anyway, Faulkner’s Nobel Prize, which looks like a rather large gold coin, is right there in the Ole Miss Archives, in a case with first editions of all his books and many honorary medals bestowed on him by various countries. There are portraits of him on the walls, and manuscripts of some of his books tucked away.
From the library we went to check out the Lyceum, which has received much sprucing up since we were students. The oldest building on campus, it is the only building that remains from the original campus. A Greek Revival structure built between 1846-48, this iconic building presides over the Circle and the entrance to campus. It served as a Confederate hospital during the Civil War, and then as a Union hospital when the area changed hands. The building has been added on to over the years and was beautifully renovated in the 1990s. It’s gorgeous, with wall coverings, carpets, window treatments, etc. reminiscent of a fine antebellum home.
Like the columns of many antebellum mansions, the Lyceum’s massive Ionic columns still bear nicks from bullets. Oddly, those bullets didn’t come from Civil War muskets. They date to 1962, when Federal Marshals surrounded the Lyceum to protect James Meredith as he registered as the university’s first black student. A riot ensued, complete with burning cars, tear gas, and the gunfire that left the above mentioned marks. And, while we’re on the subject, there is a beautiful plaza behind the Lyceum, between it and the library, dedicated (in 2006) to this dark period in the university’s history. It’s a beautiful plaza, with a statue of Meredith walking toward a series of arches labeled: courage, perseverance, opportunity, and knowledge. The James Meredith Memorial is also the source of the beautiful quote we borrowed for our home page.
By now we were starving, so we drove into town and visited Bottletree Bakery, just off the square, where we ordered a couple pastries to hold us till dinner. We had a superb raspberry brioche and a Humble Pie, a delicious shortbread/blueberry pastry, and we recommend both. Then, refreshed, we set out for the Made in Mississippi store that apparently no longer exists. So…we amused ourselves with a visit to Neilson’s, the oldest continually operating department store in Mississippi. It’s a great place, a wonderful old store. After that we drove around town admiring the gorgeous new houses/condos and the old homes that have been refurbished so beautifully now that everyone we went to school with is buying a second home in Oxford in preparation for retirement. They really are. Seriously, it’s beginning to look like Parents’ Weekend 1972 around there.
We still had a couple hours to pass before Taylor Grocery opened, so we went antiquing, a great way to unwind before dinner. Eating at Taylor’s has been high on our bucket list for years, but it has proved easier said than done, given that it’s only open Thursday-Sunday nights. We have been to Taylor, a cute, artsy community nine miles out of Oxford, several times, but the timing had never been right to eat at the Grocery. There are no groceries at Taylor Grocery by the way, it’s just a restaurant.
Generally, places everyone says you have to try tend to be disappointments, so our primary interest in eating at Taylor Grocery was to be done with it and not have to think about it anymore. As it turns out, we’re still thinking about it. It was wonderful. We had catfish – we love catfish – and we want to go back and have more catfish. Soon.
|The front door of the Taylor Grocery shows some of the graffiti that decorates almost every flat surface.|
The Grocery opens at 5:00 p.m., but people start lining up on the porch around 4:30. Despite the fact that the nine-mile drive from Oxford to Taylor is the longest nine miles in the entire world – seriously, it just goes on and on and you’re sure you’ve somehow gotten on the wrong road – we made it there early and sat on the porch to await the opening. As we sat there, we noticed a gallon-sized Jim Beam bottle tied to a rope. The rope ran from the bottle, which hung from the edge of the porch roof, near the stairs, up and across the ceiling and down the wall to the door. When the place opened, and, consequently, the front door opened, we saw the bottle and rope for what they are…a door weight. Seriously, it closes the door behind people.
|This bottle works well for a door-closer -- and is a great example of living green in the country.|
We went in to find an old country store with writing covering the walls and tablecloths and a profusion of license plates and old senior class pictures hanging on the wall. Historically, Taylor High School has not been the sort of massive institution a child could get lost in. The class of 1965, for instance, had only seventeen students, and only four of them were boys. At least one – maybe two – classes were smaller.
We ordered two-piece catfish filet dinners, which came with hushpuppies and a choice of two sides. We figured that would be plenty, but we were somewhat disappointed to get the smallest catfish filets we have ever seen. Thank goodness we’d ordered that extra side of fried okra! As it turned out, there was plenty of food – their hush puppies are small, but they put five or six on your plate – but next time we might order more catfish just because it was sooooo good. Really. It was delicious, some of the best we have ever had. Perfectly seasoned and not a bit greasy. They advertise that they have the “best catfish in Mississippi” – just like every other place that serves catfish – but they may be right!
We topped off the meal with chocolate cobbler, which the waitress described as a small serving. It came in the same little bowl that school cafeterias used to use, but looks are deceptive – that tiny bowl held a lot of cobbler, which tasted more like a gooey brownie made with really fine chocolate. It was incredible, the best…and it was topped off with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Taylor Grocery surpassed our expectations. The waitress was wonderful, the food delicious. It’s no wonder the wait for a table is long long long if you don’t arrive by 4:30 or so. The fact that it’s a totally unpretentious place is yet another reason to like it. It is what it is. No more. No less. The building itself looks like every country store in the South looked pre-1960s. The floor is wood, not “hardwood.” The doorknob on the women’s bathroom is original – porcelain. And, of course, the “automatic door” is controlled by an old booze bottle. The menu states outright, “Tipping is not a city in Taiwan,” and there is a sign on the front door, scrawled on a piece of a brown paper sack, that states, “We will be closed Sunday nite to watch Eli beat the Patriots.” We wondered why it was still up until we got close enough to see that Eli had autographed it! But, our very favorite thing (after the catfish and the chocolate cobbler) is the restaurant’s motto: “Eat or we both starve.” You have to admire that kind of honesty.
|Brown paper sack -- worth a thousand smiles..|
|Eli "10" Manning autograph makes it even more valuable.|