Take a trip to Water Valley and experience one of Mississippi’s unique communities in this travelogue from columnist Laura Lee Leathers.
On a sunny day in May, my friend Judy and I headed north on I-55. Our destination? Water Valley, located about twenty miles outside of Oxford. The occasion was to celebrate my March birthday. After all, getting older and being of a ‘certain age’ means you can celebrate your birthday whenever.
Once we arrived at the Oakland exit off I-55 North, we veered right onto Highway 32. What a beautiful drive along George Payne Cossar State Park. And, because we were unfamiliar with the area, we were surprised by the scenic view of Enid Lake. How quickly we entered the rolling hills of northeast Yalobusha County. Reaching Highway 315, we took a left, which brought us to the south side of town on the main street. We drove slowly, noting the murals, historical markers, the Casey Jones Railroad Museum, antique shops, churches, and places to eat.
Turnage Drug Store
Located at 323 N. Main Street, our first stop was visiting one of the oldest businesses, the Turnage Drug Store. Founded in 1905, the drugstore maintains a fourth-generation full-service pharmacy. And if you live in town, they deliver for free.
Once inside, Judy and I felt like children again as we went to the original soda fountain and studied the menu. It was a little early in the day for us to enjoy a dish or cone of ice cream, milkshake, coffee, or soda. The drug store is a popular place for adults and children.
We meandered throughout the store, noting the beautiful Ronaldo jewelry, Tyler and Oxford Candles, and additional retail merchandise, perfect for any occasion.
Their hours are Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Find them online here.
B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery
Where to eat lunch was next on the agenda. We headed south and noticed a steady flow of customers entering and leaving the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery. Interesting name! (B.T.C. stands for “be the change,” from Mahatma Gandhi’s directive to “Be the change you want to see in the world.”) It was time to check it out. We parked in front of the historic building and through the large glass windows we saw people seated and enjoying a meal. It was more than our definition of a grocery store.
Opening the front door, I was surprised at what the store had to offer and the square footage. Antiques filled an area at the back of the store. The tables of fresh-locally grown fruits and vegetables, eggs, and stone-ground grits were in the middle. A freezer was stocked with take-and-bake casseroles and desserts, homemade pimento cheese and chicken salad, and a variety of specialty food products.
Before we had a chance to peruse the store, it was time to eat. We studied the menu located on a large rectangular blackboard. There was so much to choose from—time to ask for recommendations. Based on the waitress’s suggestions, we made our choices. The food was superb, and the portions were more than ample. We learned more about Chef Miz Yalonda Ramsey and her Blue Devil Slap-Yo-Mama plate lunches. Another trip needs to be planned soon.
After our meal, I spent time with the owner, Alexe van Beuren, a transplant from Virginia. Thirteen years ago, on May 1, 2010, she opened this delightful grocery, restaurant, and antique store. She knows her customers on a first-name basis. Alexe told me she desires to “serve the community.” One of the ways she does this is by understanding their needs and offering free delivery for her in-town clients.
The guestbook is next to the blackboard menu stand, documenting people who have visited this establishment. Some of the countries are South Africa, England, and Sweden. Behind the cash register counter is a beautiful display of artwork created by students from the town’s school—another example of promoting community.
Hours for groceries are Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The restaurant is open Wednesday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Find them online here.
Railroad History and The Casey Jones Railroad Museum
Another one of our discoveries, this is a historic railroad town. The town was birthed when businesses were built to meet the growing demand for a railroad station, the Mississippi Central Railroad. The railway was completed in 1856.
The small community was incorporated in 1858. By 1860 the population had grown to almost 300 citizens, and the railroad had passenger and commercial trains passing through daily.
The town grew steadily until 1862-63 when the ravages of war destroyed much of the town. Around 1867, the rebuilding process grew into an era of prosperity for businesses, and the population bounded to 2500. The Illinois Central Railroad purchased the rail line in 1882, and the trains went from Chicago, Illinois, to New Orleans.
In front of the Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum is a Mississippi Blues Commission historical marker. It reads: “On April 30, 1900, railroad engineer John Luther “Casey” Jones died when his Illinois Central train, the “cannonball” collided with a stalled freight train in Vaughan, Mississippi. Jones, who once lived and worked in the railroad town of Water Valley, was credited with saving the lives of his passengers and crew, and was immortalized in song by many artists, including Mississippi-born bluesman, Furry Lewis and Mississippi John Hurt.”
The railroad museum is open only on Saturday, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., or by special arrangement. Find the museum online here.
The Next Whistle Stop
Directly north of the museum is The Backtrack Antiques & Gifts, owned by Andrea S. Pullen. What a delightful experience Judy and I had in this shop. We were greeted warmly by the manager, Kandice Barelona.
As we chatted, we learned many of their customers are looking for railroad memorabilia. If you visit their Facebook page, you will find some individuals from Cheshire, England, and Australia. Of course, we couldn’t leave without purchasing a few treasures.
We decided to continue north. We took pictures, read the historical markers, looked at additional murals, and made our way through the hills observing the neighborhoods—what an interesting place to live.
The Final Stop
The Magnolia Coffee Co. caught our attention driving through town. We decided to drop by and purchase a cup before heading home. We had no idea we would spend almost an hour there learning the story behind the new business endeavor for Caitlin and Joe Magnuson.
Caitlin is originally from the Water Valley area. She moved to Washington to attend an art school. There she met Joe, they married, and they had two children. Last year, they decided to move back to Mississippi.
Through a series of events, they purchased the downtown location. Starting from a blank canvas, Joe, with his construction skills, and Caitlin, with her artistic ability, have turned the building into a coffee house and event space.
In partnership with another business in town, t.i.n. music, they will offer Music at Magnolia the last Friday night, 7 to 9 p.m., March through December. Their hours of operation are Tuesday through Friday, 6 a.m. – 4 p.m., and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Visit them online here or on their Facebook page.
Mark Your Calendar for The Watermelon Carnival
This year, Water Valley’s crowning event, the annual Watermelon Carnival, will be held on August 4 and 5 in the city park. Arts and crafts booths, food vendors, parades, contests, and a Saturday 3k run/walk are just a few planned events.
The first carnival was held on August 27, 1931, to lift “the spirit of the townspeople.” World War II brought the continuous nine-year event to a halt. It was revived in 1980 and it has been estimated that over 20,000 attend this family fun-filled weekend annually.
For more information, visit the chamber’s website here.
All Aboard for Water Valley
Whether it is a day trip for a meal and shopping, visiting an art gallery, enjoying ice cream, or staying at an Airbnb for an Ole Miss football game, there is plenty to do in this small town of under 4,000 residents.
Our trip to Water Valley far exceeded our expectations. The individuals we met were warm, friendly, and eager to share what makes living here so inviting. It is the people working together, being creative, seeing the needs, and providing a sense of community for its residents as well as visitors that make Water Valley a special place to live and visit.