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Mississippi's front porch.

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More than 460 years since its namesake first surveyed the mighty Mississippi, Hernando is something of a frontier again. The dozen miles from Memphis have meant both a boon to development and a buffer for Hernando's small-town identity. Its neighbors to the north--Horn Lake, Southaven, and Olive Branch--may be closer inside the metropolis that's made DeSoto County the fastest growing county in the state, but so far, Hernando's efforts to keep the big city at arm's length haven't hurt its appeal.

The town has grown at an annual rate of 10 to 12 percent for the past three years. The Census Bureau placed its population at about 6,800 in 2000 and estimates it is 10,600 today. But local leaders, saying the bureau can't keep up, believe it is closer to 14,000. "Even with all that growth, we're still trying to keep that small-town character and charm," says Mayor Chip Johnson, pointing to current efforts at expanding the town's park system and adding bicycle lanes. "We're doing a lot of things to make the town more livable."

Hernando can be a pleasant place to pause before venturing into the hubbub of Memphis. Coming off Interstate 55, you'll be greeted by Coleman's Bar-B-Q, with its well-worn red and yellow sign beckoning you to stop. East Commerce Drive ushers you into town between contrasting scenes. On one side of the road, the hodgepodge of old tools, signs, and knickknacks stream from the porches at Buddy's Antiques. On the other side, the stately Victorian-era Magnolia Grove Bed & Breakfast offers a quiet place to escape. In the town square, you can shop, dine, and linger while the bustle around the DeSoto County Courthouse fades as the work day comes to a close.

Hernando was named for the famed Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, and it is his image you'll encounter around every corner of the town. A series of impressive murals depicting de Soto's travels circle the interior rotunda of the courthouse. They were painted in 1903 for the Gayoso Hotel in Memphis and given to DeSoto County when the hotel was purchased in the 1950s. They've since been restored three separate times.

Although it is not certain where de Soto crossed the Mississippi River as the first European to discover it, you can trace both his steps and the historical path of his namesake county at the Historic DeSoto Museum. Here, a series of exhibits begins with the explorer's story and leads you through the landmarks of time. Handwritten letters, family heirlooms, and handed-down artifacts make for an intimately local experience.

"One reason the museum was formed was that we've lost so many historic homes and businesses over the years," says Brian Hicks, the museum's founding curator and executive director. "As development here continues, we're trying to protect what we can."

For the 10,000 to 12,000 people who visit the museum each year, the highlights include the 1850s-era Crumpler-Ferguson "dogtrot" cabin that stands on the museum grounds as a permanent exhibit. On its porches and inside the historic First Presbyterian Church building, which now serves as the museum's auditorium, Thursday evening bluegrass concerts draw performers and fans from around the region.

Opened in 2003, the museum is operated by the Historic DeSoto Foundation and has welcomed visitors from 46 states and more than a half dozen different countries, inside, you'll find within its displays a locally hand-built model of the Sprague, the largest steam towboat oil the Mississippi River, built in the early 1900s.

Also among the displays are records from the yellow fever epidemic that killed half of Hernando's residents in the fall of 1878. There are tools and artifacts from DeSoto County's dairy industry-once 250 farms strong in the years after World War II--and memorabilia from when Mississippi's lax marriage laws and the town's proximity to the state line helped make Hernando the "wedding capital of America."

Displays featuring a piano, fringed leather jacket, and other memorabilia from DeSoto County resident Jerry Lee Lewis have been a draw to music fans from as far away as Europe. Also inside the museum, an art gallery features exhibits of work by local and regional artists, with shows changing monthly.

Collecting from the past and the present, says Hicks, will be even more important as the community grows. A 1,140-acre mixed-use development called Hernando West is now being planned by the architectural firm Looney Ricks Kiss of Memphis for Katz Builders and Developers of Pennsylvania. Hernando is also expecting a population surge when the proposed Interstate 69 extension meets existing Interstate 55 just north of the city.

"As the first town square in North Mississippi that people reach as they come south from Memphis, we've adopted the moniker 'Mississippi's Front Porch,'" the mayor says. "In our mind, that sets us apart. We make everyone feel comfortable and at ease."

One of the best places to soak up that small-town charm is right in the heart of town. Your choices for meals include home-style cooking at Cafe 51, Italian food at the new Old Venice Pizza Company, and fine dining at Timbeaux's on the Square. Thursday night offers the chance to enjoy live entertainment in the courtyard at Timbeaux's.

The square is also home to merchants like Accents On the Square. The go-to spot for gifts and interior accents for some 20 years, it stocks everything from lamps and vases to candles and collectibles. Also anchoring the square's shopping scene is Center Stage Fashions, which specializes in women's clothing and accessories.

Joseph Eckles Stoneware, located just west of town, is another great place to visit. You can tour the artist's studio and browse his stock of functional and decorative pottery vases, dinnerware, and art pieces. Eckles, a frequent exhibitor at regional arts and crafts festivals, has been honing his craft in Hernando for nearly 30 years. His work focuses on pottery for cooking, serving, and dining, but also includes metalwork and furniture pieces such as tables and baker's racks.

If you would like to visit Eckles, it is a good idea to call first, since he is often traveling to craft festivals. If you stop by, you should also check out the work of fellow potter Jim Anderson, who lives and works across the street. Anderson, a former public library administrator, has made pottery his full-time business in retirement and also emphasizes functionality in his pieces.

If you are interested in art, visit Hernando during the Celebration of Art in April, Hernando A-Fair in May, or the Music & Heritage Festival in October. As the Christmas season arrives, the town hosts an Open House event to kick off the shopping season. And in the summertime, a new tradition has brought movie nights to the courthouse lawn on Fridays, when families bring lawn chairs or blankets and settle in for a film alongside friends and neighbors.

If you are able to visit Hernando in the fall or spring, you can take advantage of the few days each year when nearby Cedar Hill Farm is open to visitors without a reservation. Geared mainly for school groups, company picnics, and other large events, the 120-acre agri-tourism business draws visitors from across the region. It is owned by Mike and Martha Foster along with their son, Robert, with a full staff that fluctuates with the season. They have some 90 workers on hand to welcome thousands of visitors every fall.

Cedar Hill Farm's annual Pumpkin Patch and Fall Harvest Festival runs from late September through early November. Kids can take a tractor-drawn hayride out to the patch to pick their own pumpkin. The Hay Maze and Corn Maze are also popular events, and families can stay for lunch or dinner in the farm's Country Kitchen. Weekend admission includes a petting zoo, pony rides, and fishing in the farm's catch-and-release pond. In March, the farm hosts a series of Egg Hunts leading up to Easter weekend that also draw thousands of kids and their families.

Whether you are traveling through or looking for a place to hang your hat, Mississippi's Front Porch will welcome you with Southern small-town charm. It is, after all, DeSoto County's modern day frontier.

WHAT TO DO

* Historic DeSoto Museum 71 E. Commerce Street.; 662.429.8852; www.desotomuseum.org

Hours: 10 am.-5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for children (ages 5 and under free). All children must be accompanied by an adult.

Conger Park East Oak Grove Road;

Replete with a walking track, pavilion and playground.

* DeSoto County Courthouse 2535 Highway 51 South; 662.429.9055

The Courthouse contains murals that depict the history of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto.

Hernando Music and Heritage Festival 662.429.9055; www.hernandoms.org

The festival takes place in October, with a barbecue competition, musical acts, a 5K run, arts and crafts vendors, and children's activities on the Square

Hernando A-Fair

Annual arts and crafts festival held on the third Saturday of May.

Cedar Hill Farm

008 Love Road (five miles south of Commerce Street); 662.429.2540; www.cedarhfarm.com

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PLACES TO STAY

Sassafras Inn Bed and Breakfast 785 Highway 51 South; 662.429.5864 or 800.822.7897; www.memphis.to

Dockery House Bed and Breakfast 3831 Robertson Gin Road; 662.449.5427

* Magnolia Grove Bed and Breakfast 140 East Commerce Street; 662.429.2626 or 866.404.2626; www.magnoliagrove.com

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PLACES TO EAT

Old Venice Pizza Company 300 W. Commerce Street; 662.429.9998; www.ovpc.com

* Timbeaux's On the Square 333 Losher Street; 662.429.0500; www.timbeauxs.com

Cafe 51 2450 Highway 51 South; 662.429.7812

Brick Oven Pizza 2428 East Pathway; 662.449.3449

Coleman's Bar-B-Q 554 East Commerce Street; 662.429.9851

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WHERE TO SHOP

Buddy's Antiques 151 E. Commerce Street; 662.429.5338

Pink Zinnia (inside Funderburk's Pharmacy) 134 West Commerce Street; 662.449.5533 Jewelry, gifts, and accessories.

Joseph Eckles Stoneware 2650 Scott Road; 662.429.1621; www.josephechlesstoneware.com Functional and decorative pottery vases, dinnerware, and art pieces.

Anderson's Pottery 2701 Scott Road; 662.429.7922; www.jimandersonpottery.com

Cachepot 210 E. Commerce Street, No 4; 662.429.1003

Accents On the Square 300 West Commerce Street; 662.429.8050

Center Stage Fashions 324 West Commerce Street, 662.429.5288

Country Treasures 1155 Holly Springs Road; 662.449.3100
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Author:Schultze, Lucy
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 2007
Words:1732
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