Hanging out at The Grove in Oxford

by admin | November 13, 2015 8:17 am

OXFORD, MISS. — The earnest young man at the admissions office of the University of Mississippi — Ole Miss —explained the origin of the town’s name. Oxford, named after the British university, was created in 1837 in order to persuade the Legislature to fund building a public university there. The boosters hoped the name would help. It took 11 years, but in 1848, Ole Miss accepted its first students. Today, Oxford remains a small town of roughly 21,000 residents. Ole Miss is modest in size as well, with about 18,000 students.

We came here because our daughter Abbie is considering attending Ole Miss next fall. I bought tickets for her 18th birthday to the Ole Miss-Arkansas game so she could get the full experience. A couple whose daughter graduated from Ole Miss generously allowed us to use their spacious townhouse. It felt as if we had gone on vacation.

Oxford’s square is anchored by Lafayette County’s stately white courthouse with a cupola whose four clocks actually display the correct time. Downtown is lively with several restaurants, Square Books, and Neilson’s — an old-time department store that bills itself as the Oldest Store in the South. Since it has been in continuous existence since 1839, I figure that is a legitimate claim.

Our first stop was an early dinner at Ajax Diner. We are all ravenous after more than seven hours on the road. Daughter Abbie came to Oxford with classmates on a quick trip of SEC schools a few weeks ago, and had several food recommendations. She steered us right. This was to-die-for Southern cooking, from the fried catfish that Abbie and my Beautiful Mysterious Companion chose, to the hunk of meatloaf, accompanied by collard greens and purple-hull peas I picked. We waddled out and strolled the streets in a light mist.

We learned that it is a tradition to dress up for football games. The male students often arrive in ties and jackets, the women in sleek dresses. I had only brought long-sleeved T-shirts and one pair of khakis. What is a fellow to do? We headed to Nielson’s, where I spent too much money on a button-down blue shirt with the Ole Miss logo stitched above the pocket. This will likely confuse my Teasip and Aggie colleagues, who know I bleed burnt orange. But it is a really nice shirt.

At Square Books, a charming bookstore that has vaulted into the top 10 of my favorite of such establishments (Book People in Austin and Tattered Cover in Denver top the list), I bought signed copies of the latest John Grisham novel, and a memoir by Rick Bragg for my BMC. Since Grisham lives part-time in Oxford and graduated from law school at Ole Miss, it seemed the thing to do. William Faulkner, likely the most famous Ole Miss dropout, fictionalized Oxford, his childhood home, and Lafayette County in his widely acclaimed novels. They are set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Faulkner won a pair of Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize for his work, which I tried unsuccessfully to read in college. I think I am going to take another shot at it soon.

We tailgated at The Grove the next day, which is a stand of trees on campus where important events are held, such as graduation — and tailgating, which involvea cooking and drinking libations to prepare for the game. A few hundred tents were set up, with hay scattered to cover the mud. Some of the tents featured chandeliers and other elaborate displays. We had been kindly invited to hang out with some Ole Miss folks, who had a tent set up. No chandeliers, but plenty of good food and Southern hospitality.

The rain kindly stopped before the game commenced at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The stadium holds about 60,000 — two-thirds the size of stadiums at UT, A&M and other large schools. But it felt like a perfect size and was, of course, filled to capacity. The actual match proved to be the best football game I have ever watched in person. It ended in overtime, with Arkansas scoring on a two-point conversion to prevail, 53-52. The teams’ defenses apparently decided to take the day off.

All of us were charmed by this campus, by Oxford’s small-town feel, by the friendliness we encountered. I have no idea if Abbie will actually end up going here. It is too early to tell, and it is certainly a big decision. But I sure enjoyed our brief vacation there, and hope to return.

Next time I’ll get the catfish at Ajax Diner.

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