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The Oxford Square thrives as it changes through the decades

 

If you wanted to drive across Mississippi and stop in all the small towns to see the history, change and preservation, chances are, they’d all look and feel the same.

“Oxford in many ways is similar, even identical, to a dozen other towns of like size in Northern Mississippi,” John Sobatka Jr. said in his book the “A History of Lafayette County.”

What seems to separate Oxford from the rest, is its thriving Square stacked with restaurants, shops, art galleries and infamous bookstores.

Most of the towns across the South have grown accustom to empty storefronts and abandoned homes. The small towns, which used to drive commerce, lost gumption as railroads were replaced as the major means of trade.

Water Valley, only 25 minutes away from Oxford, was one of those towns. It recently tried to transform it’s version of the Square – or Main Street – into a renewed, booming place of business.

Four Water Valley women were featured in a New York Times article this month for their fresh ideas to improve Water Valley’s Main Street and century-old homes.

The small town feel of Water Valley is what drew these women in, and kept them there. They worked together to renovate three houses and one storefront.

Alexe van Beuren, owner of B.T.C. Grocery, Erin Austen Abbot, photographer, shop owner, art show curator and travel nanny, Megan Patton, an artist and waitress, and Coulter Fussell, who co-owns and operates Yalo Studios.

Oxford’s Square has a different story than that of Water Valley. Some could say the new Water Valley is more like Oxford 50 years ago. Gone are the drug and hardware stores, and in their places are boutiques, bars and galleries.

“You used to do all business on the Square,” said Abbot, who was raised in Oxford and opened Amelia Presents on the Square in August 2009. “On Main Street there are restaurants, a park, a locally-owned grocery store, a hardware store; you can walk along Main Street and get everything done there.”

While the Square has become the focal point of Oxford, high-end restaurants such as City Grocery, Ajax and 208 have replaced the mom and pop grocery stores.

Square Books, which opened in 1979, has become an Oxford staple, carrying on the tradition of local heroes William Faulkner, Barry Hannah, John Grisham, Larry Brown and many others.

“There were three drugstores on the Square,” said Will Lewis, J.E. Neilson Department Store owner. “All of the stores on the Square had local owners and delivered. It was a different atmosphere, but everybody likes to go back to the old days.”

J.E. Neilsons Department Store opened its doors in 1839, less than two years after Oxford was founded in 1837, making it one of the oldest buildings in the South still in operation.

Lewis, who has worked at Neilsons for 44 years, said the Square was all commerce back in the 50’s.

“I was practicing law in town, and my father, who was running the business, had an opportunity to buy it,” he said.

Property owners on the Square wanted to preserve the history and organized as Oxford Square Ltd. In 1976, they commissioned a design team from the Department of Urban and Regional planning at Ole Miss to do sustain the unique and original architecture of the Square.

The group of property owners pushed to remove the commercial, neon signs and make them both functional and aesthetically pleasing. They also created guidelines that would keep the atmosphere alive, while still preserving the sense of history that the Square would become known for.

Abbot said she misses the days when people could take care of all their household business on the Square. Having everything you need in one place without needing Wal-Mart or strip mall is something Abbot said she finds special about Water Valley.

“I would like to see growth with more businesses that aid to that,” she said. “I think it builds a community to have one central space.

“Right off main street I can pay my electric bill, I can go to my P.O. box. I can do it all.”

Van Buren said she thinks it’s possible for other areas across the South to take the initiative to reestablish their towns.

“I think that aside from maybe the art gallery openings, which bring in people from all over, that it is possible,” she said. “Like my grocery store, my customers are people who live in Water Valley. As long as you are fulfilling the needs of your community, I think it is possible.”

Oxford itself was not an exception to renovations. During the Civil War, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant set up camp at the courthouse, and Union Major General Andrew Jackson “Whiskey” Smith burned down the Square in 1864, only to be rebuilt in 1873. The Federal Court House and Post Office were renovated in 1975 and 1976, and later became Oxford City hall.

The Square’s growth has consistently been propelled by the rapid population increase that the town has seen, thanks to its history, culture and Ole Miss.

Patton, an Oxford native, said the Square was completely different when she was growing up on 34th Street.

“There were more grocery stores, drug stores and hardware stores; now it’s all bars and shops,” she said. “I guess it’s just gotten so big – more people have moved in.”

While many town square across the state are struggling to maintain integrity, Oxford and Water Valley are fighting to keep their towns historic and functioning.

“The Oxford Square always had a charm, a significant literary history, and not just Faulkner,” Lewis said.