Small-Town Escapes: Water Valley, MS

A historic railroad town with a strong artsy streak

Photo: Stephen DeVries

An old-fashioned Coke float at Turnage Drug Store.

Population: 3,350
Drive Time: Twenty-five minutes south of Oxford; eighty minutes southeast of Memphis

Water Valley, situated in the North Mississippi hills south of Oxford, has attracted loads of academics and artists in recent years—and the newcomers fit in just fine. “Professors are friends with musicians who are friends with farmers,” says Alexe van Beuren, a thirty-two-year-old from Virginia who opened the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery on Main Street five years ago. Walk into her café at lunchtime and you’ll see the merging of new Water Valley with old: men in work boots at one table, a painter at the next.

B.T.C Grocery, open for business.

Photo: Stephen DeVries

B.T.C Grocery, open for business.

Most young residents came for the bargain real estate—Victorians go for less than $100,000—and stayed to open businesses in once-empty buildings along Main Street. These days the community has both a refined and a rural appeal. Galleries might show avant-garde New York artists, but kids can still walk alone at dusk to buy dollar ice cream cones from Turnage Drug Store, an institution since 1905.

The 24-Hour Agenda: Roam the neighborhoods west of Main Street for a glimpse of Water Valley’s history as a flourishing railroad hub. The

grandest homes, built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, line Panola, Kimmons, and Leland Streets.

Grab lunch at the B.T.C., where chef Dixie Grimes cooks classic recipes learned from her Mississippi grandmother. Locals crave the LOLA Burger, made with Angus beef and topped with white cheddar, lettuce, tomato, pickled red onions, and Dixie’s top-secret sauce. Specials might include roasted pear and zucchini soup or fork-tender pot roast. Check out the tiny Amelia booth inside B.T.C., the Water Valley outpost of shopkeeper Erin Austen Abbott’s nationally acclaimed Oxford store, for stylish stationery and whimsical gifts.

At Yalo Studio, owner Coulter Fussell showcases quirky painters, photographers, and mixed-media artists. Each summer, Fussell hosts a guest artist in Water Valley for a month-long residency and gallery installation. Nearby Bozarts Gallery is a collective of seventeen Mississippi artists, such as landscape painter Tommy Goodman.

For an afternoon pint, visit Yalobusha Brewing Company, situated inside an atmospheric nineteenth-century foundry that’s all exposed brick and high ceilings. Tours and tastings include brewery favorites, such as the straw-colored River Ale pale ale, and seasonal experiments, such as Calamity, a saison with hints of lemon zest and white pepper. The building also houses the extensive record store Valley Vinyl. If you’re looking for rare-edition blues or a classic Beatles album, they can help.

Valley Vinyl stocks an impressive collection.

Photo: Stephen DeVries

The Right Track

Valley Vinyl stocks an impressive collection.

For dinner, the laid-back Crawdad Hole serves crawfish (in season), shrimp, and oysters at picnic tables inside a former gas station. There’s not much nightlife—residents still socialize on their front porches—so retire for the evening in one of four high-ceilinged rooms and enjoy a relaxing soak in a claw-foot tub at the Blu-Buck Mercantile, a one-time hardware store turned homey hotel.

Meet the Locals: You can usually find eighty-three-year-old Snooky Williams, who moved to town in 1955, and his mutt, Pedro, cruising Main Street in a black Chevy pickup. “He’s the man,” says Yalobusha Brewing Company owner Andy O’Bryan, who describes the retired entrepreneur as booster, philanthropist, and business adviser to pretty much everyone in town. Williams and his wife, Mary Lou, also throw Water Valley’s biggest party each year after the staid Chamber of Commerce banquet.

If he’s not on tour, you might spot Drive-By Truckers bassist Matt Patton strolling to the market with his wife, Megan. The pair fell in love in Oxford but then fell for the big old homes and the throwback vibe of  Water Valley. “It’s my ideal situation,” Patton says. “I love coming out of the hustle and bustle back to a small place.”

Melissa Ondrovcik left academia to grow cucumbers and tomatoes at Mudline Farms, a three-acre plot where she runs a community-supported agriculture program. “I know everyone just raves about Water Valley, but it’s pretty awesome,” she says. “People get behind their entrepreneurs. My best customers are my neighbors.”