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Mississippi Town, Set of ‘A Time to Kill,’ Hopes to Cash In on ‘McConaissance’

Mississippi Town, Set of 'A Time to Kill,' Hopes to Cash In on 'McConaissance'
In Canton, Miss., Locals Promote Tours Around 1996 Film Starring Matthew McConaughey

CANTON, Miss.—If you preserve the set of a 1996 movie based on a John Grisham legal thriller, will the tourists come?

The town of Canton served as the setting for "A Time to Kill," starring a mostly unknown Matthew McConaughey as a young defense lawyer caught in a racially charged murder trial. Now that Mr. McConaughey is riding high after a string of successful roles and a recent Oscar, Canton has a shot at cashing in on its own slice of the so-called McConaissance by literally walking visitors through the scenes of his first big-budget starring role.

Canton, population 13,000, may not have the tourism cachet of a baseball diamond in the middle of a cornfield like Dyersville, Iowa, which still draws the curious 25 years after the release of "Field of Dreams." But Canton has wooed a string of movie productions, including the Coen Brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and Imagine Entertainment's upcoming James Brown biopic "Get On Up," and it is trying to use those movies to woo travelers off nearby Interstate 55.

Matthew McConaughey ©Warner Bros/courtesy Everett Co

David J. Bomba, a production designer on the family comedy "My Dog Skip," who fell in love with and moved to the town after filming there, jokes that locals have developed a soft-sell tourism motto: "If you've got time to kill, come to Canton."

This is one of a handful of small towns proud to announce their roles in a peculiar class of movies that are liked more than they're loved. Not quite classics, they could be candidates for a Basic Cable Replay Hall of Fame.

Astoria, Ore., throws a festival tied to "The Goonies" every year. Its citizens even convinced Corey Feldman, who played a boy nicknamed Mouth in the 1985 adventure filmed there, to perform with his band in Astoria in 2010. A self-guided tour steers people to locations from that movie, plus those of "Kindergarten Cop," "Short Circuit" and "The Ring Two."

Astoria's citizens embrace the visitors—if not "The Goonies" itself: "A lot of local people say, 'I don't understand it. The movie wasn't that great,'" says McAndrew Burns, executive director of the county historical society that oversees the Oregon Film Museum situated in town.

Tourists in Holderness, N.H., continue to seek out the lake house featured in the 1981 drama "On Golden Pond." One area hotel offers two-night packages for as high as $1,050, including a candlelight dinner, a boat ride and a DVD of the film. And the Weirton, W.Va., cultural center suggests a 19-stop location tour of J.J. Abrams's 2011 science-fiction thriller "Super 8."

Canton has been particularly aggressive, having delivered on a promise to build a 36,000-square-foot, $800,000 soundstage in less than three months to help sell the producers of "A Time to Kill." The town later convinced filmmakers to leave the sets of the movie, which also starred Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey, as the foundation of a tour around town.

Jo Ann Gordon, head of Canton's tourism and film office, says her town needed to distinguish itself from other Mississippi locales with tourist-friendly Civil War battle sites. Filmmaking and film tourism became the answer: "People want to see, feel and touch Hollywood. They want to actually see the chair that Sandra Bullock sat in or the chair that Matthew McConaughey sat in," she says.

The coffee shop used in the movie 'A Time to Kill.' Kyle Hancock

The town has seen more than its share of stars. It's where George Clooney met a one-eyed John Goodman in "O Brother" and Diane Lane and Kevin Bacon owned a precocious pooch in "My Dog Skip," both 2000 releases. James Franco tried to get a rickety wagon across a rushing river in 2013's "As I Lay Dying."

Cut to a cool Wednesday in March. Blocks from the town square, Eli Manning and his father, Archie Manning, are standing on a manicured front lawn shooting a local ad for BankPlus. (Both father and son quarterbacked at the University of Mississippi before becoming National Football League stars.) Across town, a construction crew is building 3,600 square feet of offices and classrooms for workforce development related to film.

Ms. Gordon's office is often available to give tours to walk-ins whenever they want during business hours.

Repeat customers include Jack Philipps, co-owner of Philipps Tours in Winona, Minn., who brought a group of 50 senior citizens to see Canton's movie memorabilia in February on their way back from New Orleans. He has already booked another visit for 2015. Sunnyland Tours of Springfield, Mo., has taken two senior groups of 50 there. "That little movie museum, that's not a slick, glossy museum. That's a lot of locals putting their heart into it. It's so charming," says Kimberly Moyna, a travel agent and tour director at Sunnyland.

The centerpiece of the tour is a once-empty building on the corner of Canton's town square with a set that looks like a diner on the first floor and ersatz legal offices on the second. Visitors hear how the lower set was transformed from the greasy spoon where Mr. McConaughey strategized with Ms. Bullock to a Depression-era savings and loan for the PBS production of Eudora Welty's "The Ponder Heart" to the setting of a short zombie film made by teens in the local Canton Young Filmmakers Workshop program.

Almost everyone in town during the 1995 shoot of "A Time to Kill" has a story. Alice Scott, Canton's first African-American mayor at the time, played an NAACP activist. Ms. Scott recalls how she and local Baptist ministers convinced skeptical citizens that Canton could handle a scene of a Ku Klux Klan rally outside its old courthouse. "People felt that it would bring back some hate in people. It did not," she says. She still has the dress her granddaughter wore for a bit part in the film.

Film insiders have their own stories about the town's singular enthusiasm for the movie business. Mr. Bomba, the production designer, says Canton dug its old streetlights out of storage for "My Dog Skip." He guesses that saved the production about $17,000.

Caroline Aragon, a producer on "As I Lay Dying," remembers recruiting citizens to keep their eyes peeled for roadkill. The script required shots of vultures. Local birds were protected. Renting African vultures from Florida proved too expensive. Ms. Aragon says her phone would buzz with reports of potential vulture food around town.

When you film in Canton, she says, you "definitely have an eager team behind you."

Write to Adam Thompson at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Small-Town Renaissance: Water Valley, Miss.

Small-Town Renaissance: Water Valley, Miss.

Thanks to its support for small businesses, welcoming attitude, and beautiful historic buildings, the former railroad town of Water Valley, Miss., is thriving.

By Nic Brown | From Preservation | April 1, 2014 

A view of Water Valley's Main Street. Water Valley, Mississippi

Credit: Photo by Steve Gross & Susan Daley

In the back of The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery, Coulter Fussell has her iPhone out. The 36-year-old gallery owner is showing it to Eddie Ray, the 71 year-old former president of the local bank. Together they form a singular pair: Ray, the retired banker, squinting at the Instagram feed of Fussell, the young artist. Both are buzzing with excitement, all over Fussell’s photos of two vintage signs hand-painted on the wall of a building across the street. The signs came to light just hours earlier during a renovation project. It’s exactly the type of thing that gets people going these days here in Water Valley, Miss.

Thirteen doors north, 33-year-old Kagan Coughlin stands covered in sawdust, grinning at that very same building -- one of five neglected commercial structures, all dating from 1910 or before, that he purchased only eight days ago.

“We’ve already stripped out 160 cubic yards of ‘modernization,’” Coughlin says, “dropped ceilings, Sheetrock, particle board … ”

This is par for the course lately in Water Valley, once a bustling repair facility and storage yard for the Illinois Central Railroad and now home to 3,392 people in the northern Mississippi hill country. It’s a place I grew up hearing about like it was some kind of promised land. My grandmother was born and raised here, and -- she was always quick to point out -- even won the title of Watermelon Queen one year at the annual Watermelon Carnival (which, as far as I can tell, makes me the Watermelon Prince). But although Water Valley loomed large in my own youthful imagination, it long remained a well-kept secret from the rest of the world.

Not so much anymore.

Twenty miles south of the region’s cultural nucleus of Oxford and the University of Mississippi, Water Valley has witnessed an influx of young families and entrepreneurs over the past few years. Pushed out of Oxford and other citiesby rising prices, they’ve been drawn to Water Valley for its beautiful historic architecture, incredibly affordable real estate, and burgeoning cultural and arts scene. Main Street, which once was dotted with empty, careworn storefronts, has seen more than 19 new businesses open in the past five years alone.

Coughlin, sawdust in his ear and a mask around his neck, serves as a prime example of today’s Water Valley entrepreneur. In 2007, after he and his wife, Alexe van Beuren, relocated here from Washington, D.C., they bought one of the largest buildings in town -- a 140-year-old, 10,000-square-foot brick structure -- and started renovations. At the time, the building was slated for demolition. Plenty of people questioned Coughlin and van Beuren’s sanity, but after three years of shoring up walls, stripping out inappropriate add-ons, and following historic preservation guidelines, they opened The B.T.C. Old- Fashioned Grocery. (The store is named, aptly, after the initials of the first three words in a quote attributed to Gandhi: "Be the change that you wish to see in the world.") Since then, the B.T.C. has sold local produce, made the best sandwiches in a 30-mile radius, been featured in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and become a social and gastronomical hub for the town. In other words, it has become the change. There’s even a new B.T.C. cookbook, authored by van Beuren and local chef Dixie Grimes.

Now Coughlin smiles at the signs Fussell and Ray were cooing over in the B.T.C. building: chipped paint on an old brick facade advertising “Easy Terms” and “Dinettes” from a time when Water Valley was a boom town. And, sure, that time is long gone, but today Main Street feels like it might be part of a brand new boom.

Mickey Howley, the irrepressible director of the Water Valley Main Street Association (WVMSA) and owner of perhaps the best New Orleans accent north of Louisiana, has led the charge for much of the town’s revitalization. The WVMSA is accredited by the National Main Street Center, a nonprofit subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and under Howley’s direction has helped create a National Register district. Most of the district’s 110 structures are eligible for state and federal tax credits for historic rehabilitation. More simply, Howley says, “My job is economic development through historic preservation.”

Howley moved to Water Valley in 2002 with his wife, Annette Trefzer, an English professor at the University of Mississippi. The couple bought a 96-year-old, 2,500-square-foot home for $80,000. “It was a no-brainer,” Howley says. Within a few years they had purchased a second local relic: an 1880 storefront on Main Street for $60,000. After three years of off-and-on renovation, they opened an art gallery in the space and cheekily named it Bozarts Gallery (after H.L. Mencken’s 1920 essay “The Sahara of the Bozart,” an indictment of arts in the South).

The popular soda fountain in Turnage Drug Store. Water Valley, Mississippi

Credit: Photo by Steve Gross & Susan Daley

Howley sees much of Water Valley’s promise in the very structures built here more than a century ago. “Everything we need is already here,” he says, citing a robust infrastructure and a handful of core businesses that, even during slow times, never moved off Main Street. Turnage Drug Store, a 109-year-old purveyor of milkshakes and prescriptions, is in its fourth generation of family ownership; the North Mississippi Herald, a small-town paper if ever there were one, first started printing in 1888; and Mechanics Bank, founded in 1892, is flanked by dozens of establishments it directly helped to finance.

“We couldn’t have done what we’ve done here without those anchor businesses that make the town livable,” Howley says.

In the wake of the railroad announcing its departure in the late 1920s, the drugstore, newspaper, bank, and others managed to stay afloat because Water Valley’s population and economy, though much diminished, avoided complete collapse. The town relied in part on agriculture, throwing its first Watermelon Carnival in 1931 as part of a plan to brand Water Valley watermelons. More important, local leaders also wooed a handful of manufacturing plants to town. One is still in operation, making cutting-edge transmission components for BorgWarner, an international automotive parts supplier.

Water Valley has deliberately resisted the all-too familiar deterioration of small-town commerce and its progression toward malls and big-box stores out on the highway. “What [many places] don’t realize is that that’s what’s killing them and making their towns indistinguishable,” Howley says. “That’s the last thing in the world we want.”

Built on the meander plain of Town Creek, which runs to the Yocona (pronounced YOK-na) River, Main Street truly is the lifeline of Water Valley. Nineteen storefronts feature hand-painted signs, almost all created by Bill Warren, an artist who relocated to Water Valley from New Orleans in 2008 (and won a 2012 citation for Best New Signage by the Mississippi Main Street Association). Water Valley’s primary residential blocks cluster closely around Main Street, with eye-pleasing houses built between the 1870s and the 1920s in varying architectural styles.

“The price of real estate in Water Valley is now, and has always been, very reasonable,” says Ray, who served as president of Mechanics Bank from 1991 through 2010. “Probably the most expensive house is somewhere south of $400,000. In Oxford, it might be triple, quadruple that -- or more.” A mind-blowing selection of historic houses can be bought here for as little as $60,000 to $85,000, if not even less. Coughlin and van Beuren, for example, bought their first home, a sprawling blue Victorian, for only $6,500. These numbers, combined with an increasing population and real estate prices in Oxford, have led many people south to Water Valley -- especially artists, entrepreneurs low on capital, and several permutations of the two.

Take, for example, Fussell and her friend Megan Kingery Patton, both 36-year-old artists who had been priced out of Oxford and found homes in Water Valley. Together they started looking for a space to make their own art when they found a tiny barbershop with a 10-foot-wide storefront, built on Main Street in 1910.

“First we said, ‘Let’s show our own work here,’” Fussell recalls. “Then we said, ‘Let’s show our friends’ work!’” By 2011 they’d transformed the barbershop into their gallery, Yalo Studio. “Now that’s where we keep the white wine during openings,” Fussell says, pointing at an old shampoo sink still jutting out of the wall.

Coordinating many of its exhibition openings with Bozarts, Yalo capitalizes on an engaged local population, as well as out-of-town art lovers. On opening weekends, the galleries get so packed you can barely walk in the door, and traffic comes in digitally, too. After a recent exhibition opened, Yalo sold 46 paintings in 48 hours through its website alone.

“More and more Water Valley residents have started collecting,” says Annette Trefzer. “They know we couldn’t really do it without the support of the locals.”

Longtime Water Valley dwellers and Oxford transplants aren’t the only ones calling the town home these days. In an airy apartment above the B.T.C., where the ceilings rise 20 feet and light floods in through enormous industrial-style windows, photographers Carolyn Drake and Andres Gonzalez lounge on a sofa. This apartment, part of Coughlin and van Beuren’s first renovation project, is a new home base for Drake and Gonzalez, who recently moved here from -- of all places -- Istanbul. Their work has appeared in the pages of The New Yorker and The New York Times; Drake has been a Guggenheim Fellow, Gonzalez a Fulbright Scholar. Together they embody the type of international creative professionals who have increasingly been drawn to Water Valley.

The town's quirky, fairy-tale architecture adds to its charm. Water Valley, Mississippi

Credit: Photo by Steve Gross & Susan Daley

When asked if their friends and family think they’re crazy for having settled down in this tiny town, Gonzalez says, “They do until they come here.”

A draw for visitors and locals alike is the growing selection of excellent cuisine in Water Valley, which was recently named one of America’s “Best Little Food Towns” by Food & Wine magazine. One newly opened restaurant, Crawdad Hole Jr., is housed in a 1920s AC Delco service station. The gas pumps still stand out front, and uniforms still hang on pegs inside, but today this place serves up some of the finest seafood in northern Mississippi.

“I’m sure no one ever thought I’d be cooking seafood in a service station!” co-owner Justin Showah shouts, setting a vat of shrimp over an open flame.

Showah is a 35-year-old musician who spent years cooking at his father’s restaurant, the original Crawdad Hole in Jackson, Miss. With his wife, Alexis, Showah started Crawdad Hole Jr. in 2011 with little more than a pile of crawfish and a pot. “We had the idea on a Monday,” he says, “and on Friday we opened.”

Stories like this -- about the ease of founding a business in Water Valley -- abound. Another startup in town, and perhaps the most surprising one, is Yalobusha Brewing Company (named after the county in which Water Valley sits). Because the town only lifted its longtime prohibition of beer in 2007, it still comes as a shock to many residents that 33-year-old Andy O’Bryan has opened a full-scale brewery here in a 153-year-old foundry on Main Street. Water Valley’s beer-free past hasn’t dampened support for his efforts, though. “People come up to me in the grocery store and say, ‘You know, I don’t drink beer, but I’m so glad you guys are in that building and doing something with it,’” O’Bryan says.

Originally, O’Bryan had planned to open in Oxford. But when he met Fussell’s husband, fellow brewer Amos Harvey, Harvey said, “Please don’t buy a space in Oxford until I show you this place in Water Valley.”

Not only was the former foundry perfect for O’Bryan’s needs, it also cost considerably less than what he might have spent in Oxford, where available spaces were scarce.

Those who have lived through Water Valley’s ups and downs feel good about the town’s direction. My cousin Mary Anne Welch is a sparkplug of a woman who was born in Water Valley in 1938. (She can tell a good story about my grandmother, the Watermelon Queen, cavorting in a bathing suit “in public!”) Welch remembers the last few years of the town’s original prosperity, when it still boasted numerous hotels and boarding rooms. Of the recent restoration projects she says, “You take what was a picturesque background and nurture it, and you can really build it up into something good. What it’s becoming is really great.”

Despite all of Water Valley’s historic buildings, low prices, and cultural riches, though, sometimes its allure lies in things ever more basic.

Back on Main Street, after Coughlin walks me through his freshly gutted buildings, I ask him why he chose to move here in the first place. He doesn’t miss a beat.

“We stopped in at the drugstore,” he says. “We met Binnie Turnage, and he made us a milkshake.” He shrugs, as if the rest is obvious.

As Watermelon Prince of this kingdom, I might be partial to Water Valley, but royalty or not, there’s no shortage of reasons to fall in love with the place. Milkshakes are only the start.

Online Exclusive: An Artist's Touch Revitalizes a Mississippi Main Street

Nic Brown is a Colorado-based novelist who has written for The New York Times and Garden & Gun, among other publications. This is his first story for Preservation.

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An Artist’s Touch Revitalizes a Mississippi Main Street

An Artist’s Touch Revitalizes a Mississippi Main Street

An Artist’s Touch Revitalizes a Mississippi Main Street

PreservationNation Blog
Lauren Walser

Artist Bill Warren hand paints the lettering on a window at The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery.

There’s a renaissance happening in the small town of Water Valley, Miss., as you read in the Spring 2014 issue of Preservation magazine.

Long-vacant storefronts are now teeming with life. Residents and visitors spend afternoons and evenings on Main Street, grabbing a sandwich at The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery, a new market and eatery started by a local couple in a 140-year-old brick building; snacking on ice cream at Turnage Drug Store, a 109-year-old family-owned Water Valley institution; or perusing the latest shows at Bozarts Gallery or Yalo Studio, two new galleries in storefronts dating to the 1840s and 1910, respectively.

But it’s not just the newly renovated buildings that have brought vigor to Water Valley. A major part of the town’s revival comes from the beautiful, hand-painted signs lining Main Street, welcoming shoppers to stores and creating a unique visual identity for the town.

This sign for Turnage Drug Store hangs prominently on the sidewalk of Main Street.

These signs are the handiwork of Bill Warren, artist and co-chair of the Water Valley Arts Council, who moved to Water Valley in 2008. His work has been widely recognized as a major impetus for downtown’s growth and has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, the Oxford Home Guide, and Water Valley’s North Mississippi Herald.

In 2012, the Mississippi Main Street Association honored Warren the award for Best New Signage .

“Through his artistic eye for detail and design, his precision, knowledge of calligraphy, and his keen sense of color and scale, Warren has literally and single-handedly re-signed Water Valley’s downtown revival,” Mickey Howley, Water Valley Main Street Association director, wrote in a letter nominating Warren’s signs for the Mississippi Main Street Association award. “Traditional signs add character to a downtown and bring a return not only to a historical style, but add a whimsy that cut vinyl signs just can’t convey.”

Last November, Warren reproduced an 8-by-12-foot mural from 1907 on the wall of the North
Mississippi Herald building.

Warren has his own ideas for what his signs can accomplish in a town experiencing an architectural revival.

“The idea is that a community is more humanized by the handmade touch,” Warren wrote in an email to Preservation. “A good sign unites people in a shared event in a particular place.”

Warren’s signs do more than unite. They create a sense of place and instill pride in the citizens of Water Valley. And while you saw some of Warren’s handiwork in action in our print story, we thought we’d give you a close-up of his creations -- and another look at the streets of Water Valley.

At the Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum, Warren’s sign unites the town’s new identity with its history as a bustling rail town.


Warren’s sandwich board-style signs, left, also greet visitors to the weekly Water Valley Farmers and Artists Market and welcomes shoppers to Mississippi Mudd, by Cora Ray, right, a bakery featuring homemade treats on Main Street.


The back entrance to Bozarts Gallery also features a sign by Warren.


For people coming down Duncan Street, Warren’s sign points the way to Turnage Drug Store.


The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery is, Nic Brown writes in our Spring 2014 issue, “a social and gastronomical hub for the town.”

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Mississippi Main Street Board to retreat in West Point

West Point

Mississippi Main Street Board of Directors to retreat in West Point

WEST POINT, Miss.—The Mississippi Main Street Association (MMSA) will hold its annual board retreat at the West Point/Clay County Growth Alliance in the City of West Point on April 3-4.
The retreat will include a regular board meeting and strategic planning as well as a downtown walking tour that will include the Howlin' Wolf Museum, Sam Wilhite Transportation Museum, murals and a newly renovated house on Main Street.

"Hosting Mississippi Main Street's annual board retreat in West Point gives many the opportunity to see the awesome changes going on downtown and around town, as well as reveal West Point's secrets, in our parks, museums, with unexpected murals around every corner," said Lisa Klutts, director of West Point Main Street and Tourism.
"It also gives me the opportunity to meet the board members and introduce not only who I am but how I can contribute to the Main Street team," Klutts said.

The City of West Point was designated a Mississippi Main Street community in 1984 and was one of the first pilot Main Street programs in the state.

West Point Main Street has been accredited as a National Main Street Program for meeting the commercial district revitalization performance standards set by the National Main Street Center.
Since its inception, the West Point Main Street program has opened 115 net service and retail businesses, created 667 net jobs, eight business expansions, 129 façade improvements, 66 upper floor residences, and has more than $57 million in private investments.
In 2010, MMSA awarded West Point Main Street a state design award for Best Historic Rehabilitation Project of the Ritz Theatre and Conference Center in downtown.
MMSA Board President Joey Hudnall will explain the goals for the retreat as well as preside over the board meeting and go over current strategic plans.
MSU Stennis Institute's Phil Hardwick will serve as the facilitator of the board retreat.
On Thursday evening, following the downtown walking tour, a reception will be hosted by West Point Main Street in the Culin-Arts courtyard downtown.
The 2014 Board of Directors are as follows:
Board President Joey Hudnall, Neel-Schaffer, Inc.; Past President Barry Plunkett, B. Plunkett and Associates; Vice President Mark Loughman, Mississippi Power Company; Treasurer Suzanne Smith, Renasant Bank; Allison Beasley, Southern Mississippi Planning and Development; Hilary Burroughs, Sanderson Farms, Inc.; Steve Kelly, Entergy; Hibbett Neel, Neel-Schaffer, Inc.; Bill Scruggs, St. Dominic Health Services, Inc.; Mayor Robert E. Smith, Sr., City of Columbus; Sheila Varnado, R3SM, Inc.; Wyatt Waters, Wyatt Waters Gallery; Beth Williams, The Alluvian Hotel & Spa; H.T. Holmes, Mississippi Department of Archives and History; Leland Speed, EastGroup/Parkway Properties; Jim West, College of Architecture, Art and Design at Mississippi State University; Mickey Howley, Water Valley Main Street Association; and Vickie Duke, New Albany Main Street Association.

Ex Officio Members are Brent Christensen of the Mississippi Development Authority and Alex Thomas, Mississippi Advisor to the National Trust. Designated Representatives to the board are Ken P'Pool, Mississippi Department of Archives and History; John Poros, The Carl Small Town Center at Mississippi State University; and Joy Foy of the Mississippi Development Authority.

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Ocean Springs, a town with a reputation as an “arts community” has several art galleries and was hometown to the late Walter Inglis Anderson, a nationally renowned painter and muralist.

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