Old and New Converge
by Deborah Fagan Carpenter
Once a thriving town on the Illinois Central Railroad line, when the train repair shops relocated in 1930 and mechanization took over farming, Water Valley, Mississippi, like so many small towns, was frozen in time. The population of under 3,000 remained static, and in the ensuing years post railroad, Water Valley yielded to the status quo, and indeed, nothing in the small town evolved except the deterioration of its structures.
Change doesn’t always come from within, and that has never been truer than in Water Valley. In the early 2000s, fresh, new eyes fell on the little southern city, and thus began a slow, but significant, resurrection of Main Street, which spilled over to the rest of the town, including the residential areas.
The charming, but decaying, community held one noteworthy draw — inexpensive, mainly unaltered-since-construction, real-estate. The outside innovators, who hail from nearby Oxford, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and other parts of the South and the country, saw the value in the beautiful, old buildings, and began buying, and in most cases, reinventing them. Not only were the downtown and residential properties reasonable, but by doing much, if not all, of the renovation themselves, the investment risks for the buyers would be potentially less catastrophic, should the ventures not pan out.
Nobody’s making a fortune here, mind you, but the owners of the businesses in downtown Water Valley — new and old owners alike — have rearranged their priorities so that they are doing what they love. Main Street is a blossoming business center that has once again become the nucleus of the town — in no small part because the citizens vetoed the erection of a Super Wal-Mart in the area — but also due to the level of energy and enthusiasm the restorations have launched. The retail operations in this small town are supporting each other and putting most of their money back into the pockets of the residents. There’s a real sense of community in the town, and the old businesses are operating happily alongside the new ones.
The reimagined buildings have sparked new vitality into the town. Mickey Howley and his wife, Annette Trefzer, a professor at the University of Mississippi in nearby Oxford, turned an old drugstore into Bozart’s Gallery, an art gallery that features the work of regional artists. A barbershop is now another art studio, Yalo, short for Yalobusha, the county in which Water Valley resides. A building that was once Hendricks Foundry & Machine Shop, now on the National Registry of Historic Places, is today Yalobusha Brewing Company, who brew — what else — Yalo Beer. (The company offers four year-round beers and several seasonal offerings.) Crawdad Hole, a popular restaurant that offers Cajun and Creole food, was once a gas/service station.
The business that regularly draws, not only Water Valley residents and people from the surrounding area, but often tourists as well, is the B.T.C. Old Fashioned Grocery. The operation sells locally sourced vegetables, Billy Ray Brown’s Pasteurized milk, and ice cream made from the milk, locally made desserts, casseroles, and a variety of spices, teas, coffees and some staples that aren’t carried by the local grocery.
B.T.C. owner, Alexe van Beuren, says, “I’m not a big shopper, and yet food strikes me as one of the few things worth spending money on. I adore selling food, which I discovered nine years ago when I had an heirloom tomato and baguette stand at our local farmers’ market.” Dixie Grimes, once a chef at an upscale Oxford restaurant, came on board and built the café side of the business, called appropriately, The Dixie Belle Café, and according to van Beuren, “The cafe has proved to be essential to keeping our doors open.”
The Dixie Belle Cafe Menu
The Gandhi quote, “You must be the change you want to see in the world” was the inspiration for the operation’s name, a code that Alexe and husband, Kagan Coughlin, exemplify in their day-to-day pursuits. When they bought the once stately department store building that now houses B.T.C., it was in such disrepair that a developer was about to level it in order to salvage the bricks. Coughlin, while working full time at a lucrative job, gutted and did all the renovation of the huge space himself — upstairs and down — at night after he finished his “day job.” He has recently thrown his entire energy into buying and restoring other buildings on the street, including one, The Blu-Buck Mercantile Hotel that has several small apartments that overlook a ready-made mural . In one of his efforts to give back to the community, Coughlin collaborated with Glen Evans to establish the Base Camp Coding Academy, which offers free computer training to local kids.
The Blu-Buck Mercantile Hotel balcony overlooks the storefront ruins-turned mural
Some businesses survived the many lean years in Water Valley to provide the backbone upon which new businesses have been created. The Mechanics Bank has been in operation for 124 years, the North Mississippi Herald has been publishing for over a 100 years, and Turnage Drug Store is currently run by the fourth generation and has been operational for 111 years. It’s a wonderful old drug store, complete with a beautiful, functional soda fountain, as well as a pharmacy and the usual “drug store stuff.”
The National Main Street Association, which has approximately 1,500 towns nationwide in its membership, has been instrumental in the revitalization of the town. Mickey Howley, director of the Water Valley Main Street Association, says that people in the little town are excited about what’s happening and they want to participate in its growth.
Everyone recognizes that it is in the best interest of all for the businesses to succeed, so they collectively strive to help and promote one another. The town now has a new identity and a “sense of place” as a result of the ingenuity, spirit, and cooperation of old and new residents. Farmers and College Professors alike are working and playing alongside each other in a community that has embraced change. Southern unity at its finest.
B.T.C. Old Fashioned Grocery: https://btcgrocery.com
Yalobusha Brewing Company: http://www.yalobrew.com
Bozarts Gallery: www.bozartsgallery.com/
Yalo Studio and Gallery: http://www.visitmississippi.org/events-and-points-of-interest/yalo-studio-and-gallery-27257
Blu-Buck Mercantile: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Blu-Buck-Mercantile/1647602432194326
Crawdad Hole: https://www.facebook.com/crawdadholewatervalley/
Turnage Drug Store: https://www.facebook.com/TurnageDrugStore/
Base Camp Coding Academy: https://basecampcodingacademy.org
Photos: Deborah Fagan Carpenter