Oxford, MS, is a charming town, filled with boutique shops, a charming historic downtown square, exciting nightlife and incredible restaurants. But one of its biggest attractions is Ole Miss—the University of Mississippi—which covers approximately 2,300 acres in the center of the city.
Opened in 1848, the university boasted enrollment of 80 students—79 from Mississippi, and one from Tennessee. Today, the sprawling campus is home to about 20,000 students who welcome each other and guests with “Hotty Toddy”—a greeting, cheer and secret handshake all rolled into one.
Known for its Southern hospitality and passion for entertaining, the university’s tailgating events in The Grove are legendary. So much so, in fact, that the university becomes the third largest city in Mississippi one day a year when the town grows from 28,000 people to more than 100,000 people for the SEC tournament.
Driving along the campus, it’s easy to imagine you’re being transported back in time. Massive Greek Revival-style mansions are home to 10 sororities and 15 fraternities that make up the university’s hugely popular Greek system, and the school’s first chapel, now home to the Croft Institute for International Studies, was once used as a hospital for Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.
More modern-day reminders of the area’s struggles are memorialized as well; a statue of James Meredith, the first Black American to try to enroll in the university in 1962, stands outside the Lyceum in the Circle Historic District on campus. After serving in the Air Force, Meredith felt that he should be able to attend whatever school he wanted; the Ku Klux Klan did not agree, and President John F. Kennedy had to send in the National Guard to break up rioting in the area. Despite this inauspicious beginning, Meredith did go on to get his degree, and went onto Cambridge where he earned a law degree as well.
Meredith’s papers, which includes hate mail as well as a letter of support from Rosa Parks, are kept in the Department of Archives and Special Collections at the university, which houses Mississippi-related materials. In 1984, the Blues Archives, a unit of these special collections, was opened to the public, who can stop in and see BB King’s personal record collection of more than 10,000 albums, as well as Sonny Boy Williamson’s first recording contract and Percy Mayfield’s handwritten letters on Delta Airlines’ napkins. The archive holds the largest collection of blues recordings, photographs, memorabilia and publications in the world.
Another well-known figure from the area is William Faulkner, who is immortalized in a statue on a park bench outside City Hall, which was built in 1885. The author, who it is said “smelled of pipe tobacco and bourbon,” said that he got a lot of his ideas for novels just talking to people in town. A framed letter from Faulkner still hangs in Neilson’s, the South’s oldest department store located on the Square, refusing to pay his bill to the store during the Depression.
Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, is located a short drive from the city center. Walking under the massive red cedar trees, it is easy to see why the author loved the antebellum home where he wrote his books about the fictional Yoknapatawpha County that earned him a Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. Visitors can tour the inside of the stately home, where he lived from 1930 until his death in 1962.
A walking trail from the home leads to the University of Mississippi Museum, where guests can take in world-class art collections from Greek and Roman antiquity to 20th century masters like Georgia O’Keeffe. Bailey’s Woods Trail, which is approximately three-fifths of a mile long, is an enjoyable 20-minute walk and is also a popular place for geocaching.
For those still in a literary mood, a stop into Square Books—which includes four stores in three buildings—is a must. Local author John Grisham has been known to stop in for book signings, and bibliophiles will be in heaven checking out the vintage and first edition collectibles that make up part of the impressive inventory.
To truly become immersed in all of this academia, visitors can opt to stay at The Graduate, which features upscale “college” rooms. In addition to a lobby full of studying students, bedside tables resembling foot lockers and room keys resembling student identification cards pay homage to some of Ole Miss’ famous graduates, including football standouts Eli and Archie Manning.
When leaving the area, it’s wise to make a stop at Mississippi’s first gin distillery, Wonderbird Spirits, where you can taste the true flavor of the Mississippi Delta in every bottle of gin. A grain-to-glass distillery, Wonderbird ferments its own grain, using a jasmine variety of rice provided from Two Brooks Farm in Sumner, MS to make the only North American gin with a rice base. They then add 10 different botanicals, including red clover flowers and loblolly pine needles from their own property to the mix.
To learn more about all that Oxford, MS has to offer, visit www.visitoxfordms.com.