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Sincerely, Woodville: Southern form and function thrive in this main street jewel.

I love a good surprise--for my boat of conventional wisdom to be delightfully rocked by a place and its people. Like many small Southern towns, Woodville boasts distinctions ranging from the extraordinary to the picayune. To find this hamlet, you will probably drive from the east, north, or south, and when you do, you will have just come across the only lighted intersection on Highway 61 for many miles.

The surprise is that Woodville, while comely and sophisticated in many ways, is still a secret to many, even Mississippians. Tucked away in one of the state's oldest settled areas and the only one settled from west to east, the seat of Wilkinson County hosts a day of wonder and pleasure for the curious, especially for those eager for a bit of historical surprise and a hefty portion of what is expected: friendly charm.

Arguably, a place is only as interesting as its people, and Ernesto Caldeira, a prime mover behind the Woodville Civic Club, loves to remind people that Woodville has been birthplace or home to many folks who have played on the national and international stages, from politics and business to music and literature. For a town of about 1,200 residents--a statistic that hasn't changed for much of its 200-year history--Woodville claims a world-renowned classical composer, a world-famous statesman, a jazz trailblazer, the first Mississippi lieutenant governor, and a civil rights-era writer.

And though Woodville's current roster is a less famous one, that does not make it any less interesting.

To begin the Woodville experience, "because," as Caldeira wisely notes, "it should be experienced and not simply seen," there is a self-guided tour map available at town hall or at the Wilkinson County Museum. There are a whopping 240 sites on the National Historical Register, most of which are within one square mile of Woodville proper. It is conceivable to visit all of them in one day, but no one expects this. Everyone has their favorite house and story, and a visit to Woodville is often composed of such meetings and local opinion. Wilkinson County native Lynda Senko suggests that for those requiring guidance, "all you have to do is stand around and look lost and someone will inevitably help you." For those not bent on helplessness, Senko urges anyone to pay a visit to Mabel Clark, a wealth of information who can be found most days at the Wilkinson County and African-American museums.

Woodville's new "Main Street USA" status--for which officials diligently worked for two years--has bolstered its brick and mortar boom, attracting more people to Woodville. A couple of years ago, native daughter Amy Foster Overbey was working as an attorney in Houston when she had a middle-of-the-night epiphany. "God slapped me on the head and said, 'Go home!'" she laughs. Overbey has been back in Woodville for over a year, passed the state bar exam, hung out her shingle, and has never looked back. "I'm discovering things now that I ignored as a teenager. Naturalists are in hog heaven here--there's fishing, hiking, birding. And L & M's gooey bar is worth a trip or even moving to Woodville for," she says without a hint of hyperbole.

Woodvillians are a busy, enthusiastic community. Karen and husband Curtis Vidrine moved to Woodville seven years ago with the hope of semi-retiring. "But," says the full-time teacher and co-owner of the Carnot Posey House Bed and Breakfast, "we're busier than ever before with social engagements and community life ... which is really why we came to Woodville in the first place--for the sense of community, of being connected. It's good for the soul." In her semi-retirement, Karen is involved with the Main Street Association, which is already planning its Barbecue, Blues, and Bluegrass Festival for November 2005. "Put it on your calendar," she says. "The barbecue winner goes to Memphis for the cook-off."

The hub of Woodville activity centers on Courthouse Square. There are no empty spaces in the Main Street Market antiques mall downtown anymore, and on the square itself, where two stunning live oaks hold quiet court, are Friday night auctions and a range of events, including the community marketplace, with artisans, food, and music, held the second weekend of every month. The square is also a great spot to plan your Woodville day over a sandwich. "You don't find many downtown squares anymore," laments Wettlin Treppendahl, whose grocery store still custom-cuts meats. "Umpteen years ago, we made National Geographic as one of the least progressive cities in America. Perhaps because of that, we've got our architecture intact, and our courthouse square is hip again."

On the periphery of Courthouse Square, housed in the old 1819 bank building, is the African-American Museum, highlighting the accomplishments of prominent black Woodvillians. Ernesto Caldeira enthusiastically speaks of William Grant Still, the first black conductor to lead a major American orchestra. The Wilkinson County Museum, in the old railroad building, is home to Salisbury Plantation's china collection and, currently, a Eudora Welty exhibit. When asked of the author's connection to Woodville, David Smith, a man with many a Woodville interest whose family reaches far back into its history, smiles and replies, "There is none. She's just a great Mississippian!"

Everyone has their own favorite things to do in Woodville--and for Woodvillians, those include things like renovating old Woodville houses--but most residents conclude that a visit to Woodville should include all of the intact early 19th-century churches, the old Jewish cemetery, and the two museums at Courthouse Square. Mabel Clark encourages visitors to ask questions when you're out and about "because," she insists, "everybody knows everybody, and if there's something we don't know, we know someone who does." Miss Mabel suggests that every visitor take a nap under the warm and loving limbs of the Jefferson Davis oak tree (already listed as "large" when Woodville was incorporated in 1802) at Courthouse Square.

Another site not to be missed (and one of the few homes open for tours) is Rosemont Plantation, a mile outside of downtown. Percival Beacroft, who accidentally fell in love with Jefferson Davis' family home on a detour from New York City in the early 1970s, says it was "Woodville's genteel ties to the old South, refinement of character, and taste" that charmed him. He promptly restored the home and an important part of Woodville history. Heed the sign at Rosemont encouraging you to "Please Slow Down, You're Entering the 19th Century."

In an age of bland encroachment upon the colorful towns that shape much of the Southern tapestry, Woodville has eluded that demon and experienced something of a rebirth in the sense that it hasn't changed all that much. Places all over the country are trying desperately to achieve what Woodville has quietly, naturally done for years: instill community. Karen Vidrine says it has something to do with "overcoming our fears of differences and coming together as one community."

Woodvillians are generous and warm and love the attention they're getting, but, as Lynda Senko politely stresses, "We're a working community; people live here. We're not interested in just being cute." David Smith concurs. "Visitors are going to see a real town. People are genuinely open and hospitable, yet we have our own way of doing things. Here you'll get a good sense of both south Louisiana and Mississippi cultures."

One suspects that Woodville--only as strong and independent as its people-will continue being Woodville, that it is in no danger of becoming Disneyland or cookie-cutter. This is a place where supply meets demand. Where Treppendahl's wasabi-covered dried peas meet smoked meat at the Texaco station.

For visitors, it is a glimpse of the nearly impossible mix of both a working town and the palpable feeling of sweet progress on its own terms. "Our doors are open, but we want to continue to be a town, " says Lynda Senko. And after giving of her time generously, she excuses herself and goes back to living in Woodville.

what's up in woodville

WHAT TO DO

African-American Museum Open by appointment. Courthouse Square. 601/888-3998

Rosemont Plantation Miss Jenny will show you around Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Hwy. 24 (1 mile west of Woodville). 601/888-3327

Wilkinson County Museum Open Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-noon and 2-4 p.m.; weekends by appointment. Courthouse Square. 601/888-3998

Clark's Creek Natural Area A beautiful forested 700-acre park with gentle creeks, a wide variety of plants and animals, and several waterfalls. There is ample hiking and bird watching hut no camping facilities. Not for the faint of heart or short of breath. 13 miles west of Woodville off Highway 24 at the Pond Community. 366 Fort Adams-Pond Rd. 800/GO-PARKS

Pond Store 182 Fort Adams-Pond Rd., Pond community. 601/888-4426 (also call to inquire about cabins)

what's up in Woodville

WHERE TO SHOP

Canova's City Drug Store Gift items. 616 Main St. 601/888-3333

Main Street Market Antiques, art, market cafe, and local specialty foods. 613 Main St. 601/888-7830

Planter's Hardware An old-time general hardware store with sporting goods, gifts, appliances. 651 Main St. 601/888-3121

Rosemary's Florist and gift shop. 513 Commercial Row. 601/888-6297

Showroom Antiques 388 Hwy. 61 N. 601/888-7868

Town Square Accents Upscale gift shop. 155 Boston Row. 601/888-9918

Treppendahl's Super Foods A good deli, beautiful cakes, and fine fresh produce. 130 Hwy. 61 S. 601/888-4671

Withers' Florist, Frame, and Gifts 525 Commercial Row. 601/888-3476

WHERE TO DINE

Charles Whetstone's Three-Way Seafood Texaco Station Back Porch Lines form for "the best fried catfish you ever put in your mouth." Highway 61. 601/888-6692

The Cohen House Restaurant

Country cooking and al fresco dining at one of the oldest houses in town. 424 Main St. 601/888-4121

L & M Bakery Home of the Original Hazel Burger and gooey bars. 121 Boston Row. 601/888-3600

Market Street Cafe Salads, sandwiches, and soups for lunch inside the Main Street Market. 613 Main St. 601/888-7830

WHERE TO STAY

Carnot Posey House Bed & Breakfast The circa 1845 home of Confederate General Carnot Posey. 417 Church St. 877/810-9489; carnotposey.homestead.com

Nana's Guest House A 1915 bungalow on the National Register. 428 Hwy. 61. 601/888-4808

WOODVILLE EVENTS

Barbecue, Blues, and Bluegrass Festival Usually first weekend in November. Call 601/888-3998 for details.

Community Marketplace, or Second Saturday Market on the Square Held on the second Saturday (go figure) of every month, 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Courthouse Square.

Flea Market Days Local art, food, crafts on the second Saturday and Sunday of each month. Showroom Antiques, 368 Hwy. 61. 601/888-7868

Monthly Antiques Auctions Friday nights on Courthouse Square. Call 601/888-7868 for dates.
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Author:Berman, Wendi
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Words:1778
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