Enjoy our “Reflections” post — one of many vignettes and stories featuring memories of days gone by. This installment is from J.W. “Jay” Mitchell of Coldwater, Mississippi, as seen in “The Oxford So & So.”
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Square: “A rectangle of equal sides.” No, I’m not talking about “A” Square. I’m talking about THE Square.: The Oxford, Mississippi square. City and town squares are found all over the world. For centuries it was the basic layout of many new communities. Some people think that the Italians made it popular but Southerners know that the American Indians gave us the idea. As usual I’m getting off the point.
The entire world now knows that Faulkner’s town of Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha’s county seat, is actually Oxford, county seat of Lafayette. Oxford is known as one of the top cities in America for retirees and a great place to live. Actually, it is not a city; it is still a small town. Yes – but very unique in many ways. I grew up there and I hope that I don’t sound cynical. I don’t mean to, in many ways just growing up there is the best thing that ever happened to me. So if I say something that does sounds like criticism just stay with me for a while.
When my family moved to Oxford back in 1945 the population was about 2,000. The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) joins the city limits and has grown, over the years, at the same proportion as the town. I never understood this.
MOVING FROM THE DELTA AND OBSERVING THE SQUARE:
We moved from Crowder in the Mississippi Delta and I had never seen a building that was more than a single story! The Lafayette County Courthouse was the biggest edifice that I had ever seen. It sat in the very center of the town square and was surrounded on all four sides by two-story buildings. To a young country kid, it was like the redneck that went to the big city and almost broke his neck, looking up at the tall buildings.
The Federal Building and Post Office were just as big. On the east side of the Square, just behind the front row of two-story buildings was two cotton gins – Brown’s Gin and Avent’s Gin. In the fall of the year when they were ginning, the cotton lint made the square look like it was snowing.
The right of way on all roads leading to the Square in the fall of the year was covered with cotton that had blown off the trucks and wagons. I used to wonder if you could get rich just picking up all of this lost cotton.
The Square in Oxford had everything that a person could ever want to buy, and a choice of at least two stores of each kind to pick from, and four different drug-stores, really. New’s Drug Store was like a veterinarian clinic as well as a drug-store. We had two banks, three hardware stores, grocery, clothing, furniture, appliances, school supplies, bakery, restaurants, hotels, jewelry, barbershops, cleaners, and best of all: Morgan and Lindsey’s 10-Cent Store. I know that this doesn’t sound much different from other Southern towns at this time but this is through the eyes of a kid that had never been to town!
The Square had, and still has, six streets entering. Anything that wasn’t on the Square was only one block away. Entering from the North was the First National Bank, Colonial Hotel, Huggins Grocery, two car dealerships, a feed store and a dairy. Across the street was a flower shop, Dr. Bramlett’s clinic, the County Jail, a roofing company and a barbershop. (More about all of these later.)
Down the South was more of the same, except the jail.
Down one street to the West was our weekly (now a daily) newspaper, Oxford Eagle, with Editor “Moon” Mullins. They had the two best reporters of all time: Jesse Phillips and Nina Goolsby. Also on the street were two movie houses, plus two fine clothing stores, pool hall, a taxi stand and the bus station.
Churches weren’t on the Square but there were several only a block away. On another street coming from the West was our elementary school, a photography shop, our finest restaurant, the Henry Hotel, Phil Stone’s law offices, shoe shop and at the end, our fire station.
On the Square, all of these businesses were on the ground floor. Above, was a dance studio, the Masonic Lodge and VFW Hall and law offices. Oxford had more lawyers back then than any place on earth, and still does.
NOT LIKE “JUST ANY OTHER TOWN SQUARE:”
This may sound to you like any other small town. WRONG! Oxford was special. Some very special people came to the Square. You might run into some great world academics and statesmen. (Maybe William Faulkner, Stark Young and later Willie Morris or John Grisham.) At an earlier time you might have seen General Grant burning our precious Square, and in 1962 the Yankee troops returned – to enroll James Meredith at Ole Miss.
When I was growing up in the 1950s (and later) you might have seen some of America’s great All-American football players, like Charley Connelly, Archie and Eli Manning or Jake Gibbs. Or future major league baseball star Donnie Kessinger. I saw movies made on the Square, like “Intruder In The Dust” and “Home From The Hills”. Movie stars mixing with us home folks! The center of it all was the Square.
On the South side of the Square is the great Confederate Statue, where in 1960, I ran with a box of cigars, that I couldn’t afford, looking for a few friends to help celebrate my first born. To my chagrin, I saw Art Doty, a running back on the Ole Miss football team and a good friend, sitting there on the base of the Confederate Statue. In my excitement I offered Art a celebratory cigar, not noticing that there were about a dozen more foot players. Hell, they were not allowed to smoke, but they took all of my cigars. I know that doesn’t sound like much but that box of cigars, back then, was about a day’s pay.
There is something special about growing up around special people. It makes you feel special.
I don’t know why I have such a good memory, but I do. It was verified at our Fiftieth University High School Reunion (class of 1959). Not only did my classmates look older than me but they were so old they couldn’t remember anything about our childhood. The only thing that I can figure is that they were all busy studying, while I was making memories.
The Oxford Square would just be four equal sides if not for the Courthouse. It is majestic and makes it all special. It had the longest staircase, with banisters as long as a football field, well almost. On Saturdays when the Courthouse was full of people and the janitor was busy, we kids and a few grown people would slide down the banisters. It was as good as a carnival ride, even better. Best part was the long sweeping curve that’d throw you down the last twenty steps if you didn’t know how to lean correctly.
The worst part of our Courthouse was the men’s bathroom. I will never forget the smell, not that it wasn’t clean, it was all of those white tablets that the janitor put in the 30-foot long urinal. There was a sign over the urinal that said, “Don’t throw your butts in the urinal.” But people did anyway (cigarette butts.) Mississippi was a dry state back then but you would always see men passing a bottle. I couldn’t wait until I got grown and join them.
FOND MEMORIES OF THE LAFAYETTE COUNTY JAIL:
Another great thing to do on Saturdays was to go to the County Jail, about a short block north of the Courthouse and watch the Sheriff and his deputies destroy a whiskey still and pour out gallons of corn whiskey. It would make some of the grown men cry.
One of the saddest things I ever witnessed was when they tore down the County Jail to make room for a new one. The old jail was special to me because back then the Sheriff and his family lived on the ground floor. One of my life’s heroes was a Sheriff named Boyce Bratton. My dad owned a barbershop next to the jail and I’d shine shoes there from age eight until I was a young teenager. Sheriff Bratton was my favorite customer and he made me feel important. He would invite me over to the jail, eat with his family and take me upstairs to see the inmates! Many of the inmates were people that I knew and liked, it was always very informal, never was mean or cruel. We really didn’t have any real crime.
When they were demolishing the old jail they took three layers of bricks off the sides of the jail, they uncovered a huge log building, not just logs. I mean there were tree trunks, maybe three feet thick. The building should have been on the National Register, but it is gone now.
AND SAD MEMORIES OF THE JAIL:
Sheriff Bratton let me go into a cell one time and visit a black friend of mine that was being held for murder. His name was Big John Price. He had confessed to killing a man who had tried to rape his wife, Dolly. The man had tried to kill John by giving him some corn whiskey with battery acid in it. Big John told me that he was in horrible pain from the battery acid in his stomach. God, I loved that man!
He was the kindest man I ever knew (true story). John committed suicide before the trial. There was an old Army cot in his cell that had metal head and foot rails. John managed to get his head through the foot rail and flip over and broke his neck.
Okay, let’s get back to more pleasant memories.
ELECTION NIGHT ON THE SQUARE!
One of the most fun times on the Square was election year. Every four years we elected new governmental officials from State Governor down to the lowest county office. Just before Election Day everybody in the county came down to the Square to hear the candidates beg for our votes. Now the big shots that were running for state office could really make a speech. They all could talk and tell you what you wanted to hear. They were well educated and professional. The fun was when the local people, running for Justice of Peace, Constable, Supervisor, Coroner, maybe Animal Controller and even Sheriff, got up to speak. Many of these candidates had very little education and maybe had never spoken in public before.
A flatbed trailer was set up on the Square, with a microphone and with plenty of flood lights and the candidates were on their own before God and everybody else. I shouldn’t make fun of these people because it took guts and most were very sincere in what they wanted to do, but it was funny. They didn’t have speech writers or diction coaches. They were on their own.
Some were so scared that they couldn’t even get their names right, and some would just sit down. Some would get so fired up that they said too much! It was fun and it was America at it’s best.
NOW, IT’S GETTING EVEN BETTER:
One year a bunch of us young voters, for a joke, wrote in the Courthouse janitor for Justice of the Peace and he won – because the other candidate died just before Election Day. (True story.) The JP showed up for janitor work with a pistol strapped to his side and the Sheriff made him take it off. Another time he was trying a man for some minor offense and sentenced him to the electric chair!
The County Attorney told him he couldn’t do that, so he said, “I know what that I CAN do, I can turn the S.O.B. loose!” And he did (True story, again.) God, we had fun. But the best part was on election night. We didn’t have T.V. and very little radio coverage of the incoming votes, so the Town Fathers had a great board set up on the Square to record the election returns. All of the precincts were hand counted and came in very slowly. As totals came in, they would put the count on the board and the crowd would erupt. This went on all night. America at its best!
OUR OLE MISS “REBELS” GOT INTO THE ACT ON THE SQUARE!
In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Ole Miss Football team was a perennial top five in the nation. You would have to have grown up there to understand how special it made us feel to know that everybody in America knew who and where Oxford, Mississippi was. For over twenty years we held the record for consecutive Bowl Games. Our Rebels were special but we couldn’t pick up out of town games on radio. SO, the town fathers got a phone line hookup and broadcast the out of town games on the Square. EVERYBODY came to the Square to listen to the games. Man, that was great. 1,500 to 2,000 people sitting on their car hoods and screaming with every 1st down and score!
“WELCOME BACK REBELS!” PARTY ON THE SQUARE:
Best of all was the “Welcome Back Rebels Party” on the Square. Every year when the students came back to school, the town held a big party on the Square.
Everybody was there and it started when the incoming freshmen ran from the campus to the Square, with their freshly shaved heads and their new Ole Miss Beanie, many wore their pajamas. Then came the Ole Miss Band, with their world class majorettes and cheerleaders. People, that was almost more than a country boy could stand, you had to be there. You can’t imagine the thrill unless you were one of us. Until you hear a one hundred piece marching playing the “Rebel March” and “Dixie” on the Oxford Square, followed by “Hotty-Toddy” (sorry you missed it) and it will never happen again. (Thank you, God, for let-
ting me be there.) Even today the Urban Dictionary says that “Hotty-Toddy” is the greatest college fight song in the entire nation.
When things finally settled down a bit, the dignitaries got the formalities out of the way. The Oxford Mayor would make his welcome speech, followed by the Chancellor of the University accepting and then Coach Johnny Vaught ! would kick it up a notch. Then the most respected Rebel of them all would be led up to the microphone. His name was “BLIND JIM” – a MOST beloved black man that most of us still think of as the original “Colonel Rebel.” The party wouldn’t start until “Blind Jim” said his most famous line: “I have never seen the Rebels lose a game – and we ain’t gonna start this year!” I have tears in my eyes right now remembering those great days. That was followed up with a street dance and a big time band.
UNIVERSITY HIGH FOOTBALL TEAM ALSO PARTIED ON THE SQUARE:
Some will remember the Friday afternoons before a home University High football game. We would decorate our cars, put the cheerleaders in a convertible and drive to the Square for a Pep Rally. Everybody would be there. (This was America at its best!)
A FEW PERSONAL THOUGHTS:
I maybe shouldn’t get into this in “The Oxford SO & SO” but I have never been accused of having good sense, especially when my emotions get stirred up and I am very emotional, right now. (Editor’s Note: Write on Jay! “SO & SO” strives to give everyone freedom of speech – you don’t receive it everywhere.)
My story is about my youthful experience with the Oxford Square and I should not stray, but I ain’t dead yet. I still occasionally experience the Square and things have changed. A big part of my life has been spent in the study of Anthropology. In my view, it is the study of man adjusting to his changing environment. I am not an academic, I am self-taught, very little formal education. I am not an expert on anything except my life’s existence. You may argue my opinions but you can not argue my experiences.
My Square has changed and not all of it is bad. I remember back when about five “Big Shots” ran everything in the county and town. They didn’t want to change. They wouldn’t let a factory move into Oxford because it might bring in “undesirables” or foreigners, plus a four dollar a day worker on the Square might leave and go to work at the new factory, for five dollars a day. and when movies were made there, they wouldn’t let the movie companies pay their normal wages. (As I remember it was $8.00 a day, for “extras.”) – Because some locals might leave their jobs for a bigger paycheck. We had the University and that was all we needed. That made us “Special.”
Is Oxford and the Square better off today than then, Hell, I don’t know. But I do know that it ain’t the town that I grew up in, maybe that isn’t so bad. I do believe that the good life that I experienced is because I had the privilege of growing up there, as it was then.
I don’t live in Oxford anymore and all our family that lived there are now gone.
I still go back several times a year and remember. There was a time when I could walk around the Square and call everybody that I met by name, even Mr. William Faulkner – course he wouldn’t answer as he was weird. When I go back now, it is so different. I don’t know anybody, they are happy strangers and they do not remember me.
As a child shining shoes and working as a bell hop at the Colonial Hotel, I did aspire to be County Sheriff, like Boyce Bratton. But I made a few mistakes growing up and Oxford citizens don’t put up with skeletons in the closets. So I moved off and got on with my life. I don’t know who the Big Shots in Oxford are now, but somebody is doing a good job promoting my hometown. It is not the Square that I remember but it is probably more famous now than back then. BUT, they will never know what I know. They won’t see the pickups loaded with the home grown vegetables parked around the Square. They won’t see old men sitting on the park benches, playing checkers or whittling on a stick. They won’t remember seeing the great Chinaberry trees that were on the Square or the “Black” or “White” watering fountains. Even a few horses tied to a rail and in the summer when Mr. Avent sent a pickup from his dairy, full of free ice cream and popsicles to be handed out on Saturday.
They won’t remember another big event of the year – when the new cars were unveiled at the auto dealers and I do mean unveiled. The dealerships had their windows covered with paper until the big day. Maybe it didn’t take much to turn us on, but we got turned on.
Do people in Oxford know each other today like we did?? Is there a “Shine Morgan”, a “Sam Friedman”, a “Ben Jack Hilburn” or a “Boots Posey”? This is for the few old timers that might remember: “Tom Mistilis”, “Phil Stone”, “Barney Bramlett”, “Moon Mullins”, “Turk Walker”, “Sultan Quick” or “Ben O. Pettis”. What about “Clyde Huggins”, “Foxy McCarty” and “Barlow Brown”. There are just too many to mention.
SUMMING IT UP:
Several modern William Faulkner experts say that a favorite pastime for us locals was to guess who Faulkner was writing about and that is true! They were Oxford, Mississippi characters, the kind of people that Faulkner wrote about. (We knew them.) Oxford had many unforgettable characters, everybody knew everybody.
Well, I have gone on much too long. The periodicals that I write for will not print over 700 or 800 words. (EXCEPT for “The Oxford SO & SO.”)
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