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Where in Mississippi is ... Columbia? Good things are cooking in one of the state's oldest settlements.

Culinary queen Fran Ginn knows the value of being part of a close-knit community. When Ginn's son was born 11 weeks early in 1985, the Columbia native and her husband, Mike, struggled through two months before little Miles could come home from Forrest General Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. "I realized what a blessing a small town could be," Fran recalls. "People whose names we'll never know prayed for him. The outpouring of love from a small town is so strengthening--and humbling."

Ginn had just launched her own catering business at the time, with encouragement from Matt Wood, a friend and local florist. As son Miles grew, so did the catering operation, flourishing to the point that Fran became a sought-after resource for wedding receptions and big to-do's all around the state and beyond. But as the descendant of a long line of Columbia Main Street merchants, she felt a calling to set up something permanent in her hometown. "My great-grandfather began a retail business, The Watts Company, in the late 1880s," she says. "He had 12 children and wanted to buy shoes wholesale--or so the story goes."

In the 1990s, Fran's brother was operating the Lampton Company department store across the street from the old family store when business began to suffer from the influx of large discount merchants and a new four-lane highway to Hattiesburg, 35 miles east of Columbia. Fran's passion for food and desire to help the struggling store sparked an idea. "We had prayed about a solution to the declining business at the store and decided that opening a lunch-only restaurant in the store was a good solution," she says. So the first incarnation of her Back Door restaurant was established inside the appliance department; the name was inspired by the eatery's entry in the rear of the store. The restaurant was a success, though the store eventually closed. Four years ago, Fran and Mike bought the building housing the restaurant and converted it back to its original footprint, working with the National Register of Historic Places to rehabilitate the space.

In addition to lunch, the jazzed-up Back Door now offers an uncommonly cosmopolitan dinner menu with entrees ranging from hand-cut Black Angus steaks to fish and pasta. "Believe it or not, in Columbia, you can get sashimi-grade tuna cooked as rare as you like!" Fran says. But one of the restaurant's biggest draws is its weekly "On the Road" prix-fixe menu, a three-course exploration of a "place, culture, person, or cuisine." "It is the culmination of a lifetime's love of cuisine and an insatiable curiosity," Fran says. Ideas come from books she reads, places she's traveled or wants to go, historical dates, or any "random thought." Some of the unusual "On the Road" menus have focused on Cape Cod (lobster pie and Grape-Nuts pudding), Paris Bistro (chicken with 40 cloves of garlic), the anniversary of Edward giving up the throne of England for the woman he loved, and Julia Child's birthday. The community's enthusiasm for this culinary adventure is encouraging to Fran, a fervent advocate of her hometown's charms.

"During the years I was traveling with the catering company, I had the opportunity to visit many small towns," Ginn says. "So many have become ghost towns. It is gratifying to see that Columbia's downtown is prospering--it is vital, attractive, and growing."

Not far from Main Street, another Columbia native welcomes visitors in her own way. Brenda Pounds, who had traveled extensively with her football coach husband, Paul, fondly recalled the "sense of community pride" her hometown offered, so when the two retired, they moved here and opened a bed and breakfast in an 1896 Victorian on Broad Street. Maintaining the home's original character, the couple renovated every room to make it suitable for modern living. Corner Oaks Bed and Breakfast now offers four guest rooms with antique furnishings, crystal chandeliers, and high ceilings. "We love it here," Brenda says. "The people are wonderful."

celebrated columbians

Walter Payton: The Chicago Bears great grew up here and once called the town a child's paradise." He was a Boy Scout, sang in the church choir, and played drums before discovering his athletic talent on the field at Jefferson and Columbia high schools.

Bobby Hamilton: New York Jets defensive end who played his college ball at the nearby University of Southern Mississippi.

Earl Bascom: Put on the first outdoor nighttime rodeo illuminated by electric lights in Columbia in 1935. The following year, he opened the state's first permanent rodeo arena with bucking chutes and grandstands here. He married a Columbia native, Nadine Diffey, in 1939.

"Texas Rose" Flynt Bascom: Earl's sister-in-law grew up in Columbia and went onto star in movies and tour the world as a trick roper and rider. She was known as the "Mormon Cowgirl" and was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1981!

Governor Hugh White: His palatial home here is still a community showplace. The businessman. turned-politician also interested in gardening and nature, and he introduced white squirrels to the area; the rare pale-hued Creatures Still scurry through Columbia streets today.

Karl Wolfe: The noted artist spent his early years here but moved to Jackson in 1931.

The Pounds' cozy inn is one of many spots where Columbia's history is on display. First settled around 1800 as a Pearl River port, Columbia was incorporated as a town during the 1810s and named for Columbia, South Carolina, the birthplace of many of the early settlers. For a brief period in 1821, Columbia served as the state's capital; it was here that Governor George Poindexter ended his term in office and Governor Walter Leake began his service to the state. The Mississippi Legislature met here twice and ultimately voted Columbia out of a job when they named "LeFleur's Bluff," now Jackson, the permanent capital.

State government renewed its ties to Columbia when local businessman Hugh White became governor in 1936. One of White's biggest accomplishments in office was the creation of the "Balance Agriculture with Industry" program, aimed at helping the state develop commercially. The program was based on White's experiences in Columbia, which had attracted the Reliance Manufacturing Company a few years earlier just as the Great Depression was causing economic blight in other Mississippi towns. The formula for success here was unique: local merchants pooled funds to buy the land for the pajama manufacturer, and their employees helped out at Reliance during their free hours. Reliance switched its production to parachutes during World War II and eventually devoted its energies to that high-flying pursuit entirely. Still going strong, Reliance--now called Pioneer Aerospace--has become an internationally known company. Its chutes have been used on NASA space shuttle missions and on the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft, and other Pioneer products have been used by the military to air-drop supplies and slow stealth bombers after landing.

In the 1950s, Columbia's industrial success prompted New Orleans Furniture, a large company founded in Louisiana in 1895, to move its headquarters and factory here. The company now calls itself Orleans and employs more than 150 people who make bedroom, dining room, and entertainment furniture as well as intricate curios. One of the most popular lines, "Magnolia Classics," harks back to the company's early days of producing grand Southern-style wood pieces that families used for a lifetime.

With a current population of just over 6,600 people, Columbia is experiencing a revival of interest in its many landmarks. The downtown historic district, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is home to the Marion County Historical Society Museum and Archives. Just outside of town sits the Rev. John Ford House, considered the oldest frontier-style home in the Pearl River Valley. The house was built around 1800 by a Methodist preacher and features a brick-walled first story topped by two upper levels with wood walls. Over the years, the house served as an inn, a fort, and a territorial post office. And while George Washington never slept here, Andrew Jackson did, in 1814 on his way to New Orleans during the War of 1812. Now owned by the Historical Society, the house is open for weekend tours and is the perfect cap to a daylong visit to Columbia.

Maybe the true test of a small rural town's ability to survive is whether its young people stay or go when they're old enough to make the choice. Like Fran Ginn, many Columbians opt to stay in the town they love, and like Brenda Pounds, many others decide to return here later in life. "Although I miss the city energy from time to time, I'll always be a small-town girl," says Ginn.


The Back Door is open for lunch Monday-Friday and dinner Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Saturday. 705 Main St.; 601/736-1490;

Corner Oaks Bed and Breakfast, 403 Broad St.; 601/731-5222. The Marion County Museum and Archives is open Monday-Friday from 7:30 a.m.-4:45 p.m. 200 2nd St., Ste. 3; 601/731-3999.

The Rev. John Ford House is open for tours by appointment through March. Beginning in April, it will open on weekend afternoons from 2-5 p.m. Call 601/736-2938.

The 18th semi-annual Legends of Bluegrass and Country Music festival, featuring three days of regional and national performers, will be held at the Columbia Exposition Center March 8-10; for details, call 800/837-0785.

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Author:Bozeman, Kelli
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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