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Tale of the Tents

Since the 1950s, Rebel fans have packed the Grove to tailgate in style. Hear from a few regulars about how they started.

Written by Mary Kate Hale

The tradition of tailgating in the Grove began in the 1950s as merely a collection of parked cars. In the years since, it has turned into an ocean of red and blue canopies every Saturday home game. And over the years, the Grove experience has grown with tailgate tents spreading into the Circle and even around the stadium.

Bobby Abraham, a Vicksburg native and longtime Ole Miss fan, began hosting his own tailgate with Bobby Bailess in 1982. While many fans were still tailgating with trucks in the Grove, they set up a 26-foot-long mini motorhome and powder blue tent in front of Barnard Observatory.

“The motorhome just had a look, you know, with disco lights down the middle on the inside. It was a good place to hang out, and we had a restroom before they set up port-a-potties,” Abraham said. “The tent also gave us a little shade and designated where we were.”

Abraham recalls starting to see more and more tents every season after that, but he thinks he was the first person to bring a tent to the tailgate.

Stewart Rutledge, a University of Mississippi graduate who never left Oxford, also began tailgating in the ‘80s when he was dragged to the Grove full of trucks. One of his earliest tailgate memories was of Herbert Rogers, a family friend of Rutledge’s grandfather’s, bringing a butler to serve food and drinks out of the back of a Chevy Astro van in the Grove.

The tailgate Rutledge attended began in the ‘80s by three Rankin County families. As Rutledge and the families’ children grew up, they decided that “perhaps it was time that the kids got out of the nest and carried on the tradition of the tent in their own way.”

The tailgate’s founders donated their tents to the new hosts, and “Powe’s Catfish Shack” was born. Jerrell Powe, a friend of Rutledge’s and a catfish lover, is the best example of what the group hopes to exemplify as a tent.

In typical Grove fashion, Powe’s Catfish Shack is extravagant, but not in the way most people would expect. There are no chandeliers, floral arrangements, seersucker suits or ascots.

“We are known for our very respectful use of smoke machines because we found it’s a really effective way to meet our tent neighbors. We are also known for playing music at a very reasonable volume,” Rutledge said. “I don’t think we were the first tent to bring music to the Grove, but I do think we were the first ones to bring a public address system.”

Powe’s Catfish Shack’s mission is to be fun, welcoming and, most importantly, supportive of the football team.

“We firmly reject the idea that Ole Miss has to be stuffy and pretentious,” Rutledge said. “It all goes back to recognizing that the football players don’t get to have fun, so that’s why we have fun for them.”

While throwing a party to support a football team is not unique to Ole Miss, no one can deny there’s something special about Saturdays in the Grove.

Camaraderie and community are what Elizabeth Hamm loves the most about the Grove. She began tailgating with Tupelo families when her children, now in their 30s, were young.

“It’s so much fun to see everybody, even if it’s only for seven games,” Hamm said. “There are some families we only get to see in the Grove. We’re all in different stages of our lives, so it’s the tailgate that brings us together.”

The passion of Ole Miss fans has made the Grove the tailgating capital of the South, luring visitors from across the nation and even the world.

Next to Hamm’s Tupelo tent, there is usually a “one-game tent.” These one-game tents are hosted by many different people fascinated by the Grove and experiencing it for the first time.

“Once we had a group of bankers from New York, and they insisted on wearing their seersucker suits. I also remember meeting a group of firefighters from Chicago and a group from Canada,” Hamm said. “We’ve met these people from all over the continent because the Grove is a bucket list experience.”

Despite the growth in popularity and change brought about over the last 50 years, the Grove has retained its original dedicated fans.

“We still host after all these years to escape the monotony of our day-to-day lives. Oxford’s not a big city, and we don’t have a lot to do, so we should make the most of it,” Rutledge said. “It also legitimately helps the university and its athletics.”

To Abraham, one thing that won’t change about the Grove is that it brings the community together.

“Mississippians like to get together and visit. We don’t just stay at our tailgate; we go out and visit everyone else’s too. This is a Grove tradition,” he said.

To Ole Miss fans, the Grove is more than just a place to tailgate.

“You feel like you’re home when you’re in the Grove with your friends and family,” Hamm said.

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