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Oxford

Driven by a growing population and a thriving university, the city of oxford is a true blend of the past and the present.

Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem | Illustrated by Sarah Godwin


There are some places so well-known (and so well-loved) they can be described in a single word. In Oxford, that place is the Square, and it’s been at the center of commerce, community and culinary creativity for decades. Though it has grown and changed through the years, the Square has been a busy and beloved part of Oxford since the city was incorporated in 1837.

In the center is the historic Lafayette County Courthouse, where plenty of business takes place inside while the issues of the day are discussed by bench sitters outside. The courthouse was built in 1872.


Other treasures on the busy Square include Square Books, one of the most revered bookstores in the country, as well as Off Square Books and Square Books, Jr. Situated in between the two iterations of Square Books is iconic retailer Neilson’s. Founded in 1839, it’s the oldest department store in the South and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Shortly after Oxford was incorporated, the state legislature chartered the University of Mississippi in 1844. As history has it, the isolated rural site in the town of Oxford was selected as it was a “sylvan exile” that would encourage academic studies. By 1848, the Lyceum, two dormitories and faculty homes were completed, and the first class of 80 students entered the university. It was the first public institution of higher education in the state.

In 1854, Ole Miss added the law school and offered an engineering degree. During the War Between the States, the campus became a Confederate hospital, but reopened its doors as the university in 1865.


The Greek Revival-style Lyceum is the only one of the five original buildings still in existence and is the oldest building on campus.


Perhaps one of the most iconic buildings on campus is Barnard Observatory. Completed in 1859, the building was originally designed as home to the world’s largest telescope as well as the Department of Physics and Astronomy. The Civil War prevented the delivery of the telescope, which ultimately became part of Northwestern University in Chicago. Barnard Observatory has for years been home to the Center for the Study of Southern Culture.

A much more recent addition to the Ole Miss campus is the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts. Opening in 2002, the Ford Center boasts a main auditorium with approximately 1,500 seats and a large rehearsal hall. The six-story, 88,000-square-foot building hosts a multitude of cultural and creative events each year, including concerts, lectures, Broadway shows and more.


Just a block or so from the University Avenue entrance onto the Ole Miss campus is a treasure worthy of visitors — the University of Mississippi Museum. It’s been around quite a while, opening as Oxford Art Center on Aug. 24, 1939, thanks to the vision of the late artist Mary Skipwith Buie. When she died in 1937, her will requested a museum be built in Oxford. She left $30,000, her own art collection and her property on which the museum was to be built to fulfill the wish.



A Writer’s Haven

Famous for his novels and short stories that were set in Yoknapatawpha County (based on Lafayette County), William Cuthbert Faulkner literally set the scene for generations of north Mississippi writers to come. Faulkner was born in New Albany but spent most of his life in Oxford. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949 for his contributions to the American novel. He also received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction twice, for “A Fable” in 1954 and “The Reivers” in 1962. Like many Mississippi writers, he was greatly influenced by a sense of place and by the importance of story. Fun Fact: Faulkner once wrote a letter of encouragement to Eudora Welty, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize herself.

A sampling of modern writers who call Oxford home include novelist Ace Atkins, sportswriter Wright Thompson and Southern food expert John T. Edge.

 

Oxford Foodies

Good food abounds in and around Oxford. Here are a few to check out:

CITY GROCERY is known for its famous shrimp and grits, and also for its owner and chef John Currence.

SNACKBAR is led by award-winning chef Vishwesh Bhatt.

AJAX DINER has been known for its Southern comfort food since it opened more than 25 years ago.

SAINT LEO Owner Emily Blount offers creative Italian cuisine and more.

TAYLOR GROCERY is a family-owned favorite best known for its catfish and live music.

THE BEACON is a true throwback for breakfast or lunch.

Oxford is also home to Elizabeth Heiskell who, for eight years, was head chef at Viking Range Corporation, has been a food contributor on the “Today” show, appeared on “Chopped” as a judge, and is the author of several bestselling cookbooks.

 

How To Roundabout

Anyone who has driven in Oxford won’t be surprised to learn the town has more roundabouts than any other city in the state.

According to driversed.com, a roundabout is a type of intersection that features a central island. There are no traffic lights. Drivers enter the circle, drive counterclockwise and exit at the appropriate lane.

The Mississippi Department of Trans-portation offers statistics about the safety of roundabouts: Roundabouts can reduce overall crashes by as much as 68%; injury crashes can be reduced by up to 88%; and studies show that converting traditional intersections to roundabouts reduces delays by up to 20% and vehicle stops by 56%.

First-time users of roundabouts might find them a bit confusing, but there are some simple roundabout rules that will make the traffic circles (as they are sometimes called) fear-free for the drivers while also helping lessen traffic congestion:

-Drivers should enter and exit the roundabout by traveling to the right.

-They must yield to any traffic that’s already inside the roundabout and merge into the circle when it is safe to do so.

-Drivers should continue moving around the circle until the intended exit is reached. At that time, drivers will exit to the right.

 

ART

Creativity abounds in the region, which is home to the likes of painter Glennray Tutor, sculptor Bill Beckwith and artist Charlie Buckley. Here are a few places to see work by today’s local artists.

SOUTHSIDE GALLERY

is situated comfortably on the Square in Oxford, right next to City Grocery. Southside hosts around 12 exhibits a year, complete with a reception open to the public. Visit Southside Gallery 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday, and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday.

GUMTREE MUSEUM OF ART

In Tupelo, Gumtree Museum of Art has been a visual arts gallery open to the public since 1985. Museum hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday.

CARON GALLERY

Also in Tupelo, Caron Gallery is all about Mississippi, representing about 50 artists from the state. It is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday.

 

Gameday

Football weekends in Oxford bring thousands of people into the community for the game and the tailgate traditions in the Grove which boosts the local economy. The numbers speak for themselves: In 2022, the population of Oxford was 26,437. On home football weekends, that number often jumps to more than 200,000.

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