BREAKING NEWS: Meet The Fascinating Mr. “Piss & Vinegar”

READERS’ NOTE: This is a special edition of Discover Small Town America. For those not familiar with the term piss and vinegar it is – according to one online dictionary – “a phrase used to express an attitude of somebody who is full of energy, vigor, perhaps rowdiness or excitedness”.

The Legends…

People with a general familiarity of blues music would, of course, be familiar with the late B.B. King, but probably not someone like Bobby Bland. Recreational pool players would know names like Minnesota Fats and Willie Mosconi, but not Larry Lisciotti. Folks with a background in the field of community planning or New Urbanism* would definitely know names like James Rouse and Andrés Duany, but probably not Dan Camp. They should. We now do. Keep reading...

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Having left Memphis, Rorie and I meandered along Highway 82 near Starkville, Mississippi (population 23,888) and saw a sign for something called The Cotton District. We decided spontaneously to detour onto Old Highway 82 and check out this place with the interesting name.

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Good signage brought us into town and we picked a random place to park. I asked a delivery man if he could direct us to The Cotton District and he said “Sir, you’re in it. This is its epicenter”. Rorie saw an amazing building down a side street so we walked toward it thinking it might be part of what came there to investigate. As we got closer, a young professional-looking woman walked toward us and Rorie asked if the structure was part of The Cotton District. She said it was, then turned and pointed to a man sitting at a table on the porch of what appeared to a cafe or pub. “He’s the one who created The Cotton District. His name is Dan Camp”, she said. We walked up to where he was seated (a place called Commodore Bob’s Yacht Club –  in turns out it was his family’s restaurant), introduced ourselves and almost immediately we were off and running. And I do mean running…

Commodore Bob’s Yacht Club

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From the start, it was clear Dan Camp is a whirling dervish, someone who’s delightfully full of piss and vinegar. Words can’t fully explain the experience we had, but we’ll do our best to give you a sense of this dynamo, who might give The Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis beer commercial (“Stay thirsty my friend”) a run for his money.

Dan took us into the restaurant and introduced us to the staff. Then he made a big deal out of showing us the restaurant’s VERY small restroom. Rorie and I were thinking, we later admitted to each other, that maybe this guy was a kook. But, once he explained the photo on the wall of a little boy in a little wooden boat, its importance became clear. It was a picture of a very young Dan Camp in the boat he built from scratch with the most basic of tools. Here’s that story:

When Dan Camp was only 13 years old, he set out on what would become a five year adventure in learning how to build his very own boat. Between the ages of 14 and 16, he built this boat without any adult supervision. The whole process taught him such things as proportion – size versus environment – and specifics of boat building (loft lines, inboard engines, and white oak framing for example). But it also taught him the lessons that he still lives by today,” if you’re in doubt of what to do, just do it. Don’t ask someone if it’s OK”. And that’s just how he went about building the Cotton District and filling the beautiful and imaginative homes he created with lucky college students from the nearby university!

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We Got a Little Culture (and Lots of Catfish & Cornbread)

We left New Albany with Oxford, Mississippi as out target destination. Our trip had us cruising along back roads again in “rural America” where we came upon an abandoned gas station called Country Bumpkin. How appropriate!

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The drive to Oxford was pretty short, a little over an hour in total. The weather was strange. It started out sunny and warm, morphed into an overcast sky, quickly deteriorated to menacing dark clouds, and then exploded into torrential downpours. Fortunately, it got nice once again and we had a chance to dry out our clothes, flip flops and umbrellas!

Oxford (population just under 20,000) is the county seat of Lafayette County and was included in The Best 100 Small Towns in America. The heart of Oxford is “Ole Miss” – the University of Mississippi – and from what we saw, locals are fanatical about their college sports teams! Ole Miss football is BIG!

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Our first stop in town was the Oxford Visitors Center where we were fortunate enough to meet Kinney Ferris, the Center’s Assistant Director. Knowledgeable, helpful and clearly Oxford’s #1 cheerleader, Kinney gave us the lay of the land and suggestions on what to see, do and just as importantly, where to eat. If you find yourself in Oxford, make sure to stop in and say hello.

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Right near the University and Visitor’s Center is the historic and picturesque Square, the center of Oxford’s social life. We strolled its streets admiring the Courthouse built in 1873, gorgeous architecture, and taking in the eclectic mix of restaurants, live music, art galleries, boutiques and book stores. It was a great place to people watch and soak up some Southern charm and hospitality.

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Oxford-Square-Courthouse

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When’s the last time you actually saw a working pay phone?

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APOLOGIES and…We Still Haven’t Found Elvis

Two Lessons Learned on the Road

1. Never let Bart near a computer before he’s had at least one cup of strong coffee (he accidentally sent out today’s post before it was anywhere near complete). Hit the “send” button instead of the “save draft” button. Ugh.

2. Road kill in the South is way different from other places we’ve been. Can you say “dead armadillos”? They’re everywhere!

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Now for the Real Story

Saying “goodbye” to Phenix City, Alabama, we set our sights on Tupelo and New Albany, Mississippi, where we would be staying the night. Today’s journey is about 375 miles. But before crossing the state line from AL to MS, we naturally stopped at a Welcome Center. Most state “Welcome Centers” are of the plain vanilla variety, with rest rooms and a few brochures touting local attractions and hotels. Taking advantage of Alabama’s Welcome Center was a much different and much nicer experience. The brick building in which it was housed was stately and the lush plantings on its grounds made us feel like we were in a beautiful public garden. However, what stood out most to both of us was this brochure prominently featured on the wall near the entrance. Yes, that’s bacon. Uh oh…

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Tupelo here we come…

We followed  Highway 78 to Tupelo and were really impressed by the beauty of the rolling hills, forests and mountains we saw along the way. It reminded us a lot of our many previous meanderings along the back roads of New England.

In case you’re too young to remember, or are from another planet, Tupelo is the birthplace of those famous swiveling hips and sneering lips belonging to homeboy favorite – Elvis Aaron Presley! Although his legend is still larger than life everywhere throughout Tupelo, there’s so much more to this city than the birthplace of the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

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Elvis at 13

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This 2 room house was built by Elvis’ father, uncle and grandfather.

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Here’s the church the Presley’s attended which was later moved to the the museum site.

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Pecans, Peanuts and Mobsters

We left bright and early Monday to begin our latest small town journey on the way to our final destination: Memphis, Tennessee. Our sojourn took us through the rolling hills of Ocala, Florida and it’s beautiful horse farms. Sadly, we needed three rest stop “breaks” before we finally crossed the border to Georgia.

Our route took us on some bucolic back roads which offered beautiful vistas of pecan orchards and peanut fields. As stunning as these scenes were they also shattered some long held beliefs. Who knew that pecans and peanuts didn’t grow in cans – already roasted and salted?

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We drove through the city of Ashburn (population of 4,152) – nicknamed The Peanut Capital of the World – on our the way to our first stop in Americus. This small town (population 16,359) is considered the heart of Jimmy Carter country. The concept that grew into Habitat for Humanity International was born in 1976 at Koinonia Farm, a small, interracial, Christian community near Americus. Habitat International’s world headquarters are located there.

Downtown Americus features beautiful Antebellum and Victorian architecture. The Windsor Hotel, which opened in 1892, is a stunning example.

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After enjoying our stroll in town we headed for nearby Plains (population 683), which  is the birthplace and home of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, and the location of Jimmy Carter’s National Historic Site. The site, run by the National Park Service, includes the Plains high school which the Carters attended and now serves as the Carter Museum, and Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign headquarters.

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Having met with President Carter on several occasions, Bart couldn’t resist sitting behind a replica of the desk that is in the Oval Office and which was used by Kennedy, Carter and subsequent Presidents.

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Rorie is “Plainly” nuts. She did taste some peanut butter ice cream but did not – believe it or not – indulge in any servings of ice cream here. It’s early…

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