When most folks hear mention of Oxford, chances are the respected British university pops to mind. And although that’s a totally valid reference, many people completely overlook a lesser known namesake — Oxford, Mississippi.
Like its British counterpart, the Mississippi locale is home to a university — Ole Miss — which has an equally enthusiastic following. Football fans travel from near and far to support the Ole Miss Rebels; however this Northern Mississippi town is also showing a spike in another type of tourism — cultural tourism. As the former home of William Faulkner, the city is gaining recognition as a hub of art and culture; and since it’s located along Highway 55 it’s also popular with road trippers. Add some access upgrades to the mix, and you have an enticing option for wheelchair-users and slow walkers who want to hop off the beaten track and soak up a little southern culture.
Constructed in 1844, Rowan Oak (www.rowanoak.olemiss.edu) was purchased by the Pulitzer-winning author in 1930. The primitive Greek Revival house was named after the Rowan tree (not an oak), which is a symbol of security and peace in Celtic mythology. Faulkner lived in the house until his death in 1962, and crafted the bulk of his work in his treasured private enclave. Many of his characters were inspired by local history and residents — indians, runaway slaves and spinsters who taught china painting. Indeed it was a place where he thrived, both personally and professionally.
There’s no parking lot for the home, as it’s surrounded by four acres of woods. Visitors generally park on the street, which is difficult, if not impossible, for most wheelers and slow walkers. That said, guests who have mobility issues can call (662) 234-3284, to request that the driveway gate be unlocked for vehicle access. There’s plenty of space to park an adapted van in a large level area near the home, and barrier-free access over to the house. And although steps grace the front facade, there’s ramped access up to the porch on the side.
Inside there’s barrier-free access to the downstairs rooms; and although the second floor can only be accessed by stairs, the most interesting areas are located on the main level. Unlike many historic homes that are cold and formal places, Rowan Oak boasts a casual, homey ambiance, and reflects the personality of its owner. From the author’s hand-built bookshelves complete with locked drawers for his shotgun shells, to the typewriter in his office, and the dining room phone nook with numbers scratched on the wall, you can almost feel the presence of the long departed Faulkner family. And don’t miss the exhibits about the author in the back hall, which include his pipe and a his favorite whiskey. After all, he often said, that the only tools he needed for his trade were paper, tobacco, food and a little whiskey.
Outside there’s level access past the smokehouse, detached kitchen and old barns. Additionally the remnants of the concentric circle garden are located in front. This maze- like garden once featured brick-lined beds filled with hedges; however Faulkner favored a less formal look so he allowed volunteer saplings to grow after they sprung up between the beds.
Art and Antiquities
The University of Mississippi Museum (museum.olemiss.edu) is also worth a stop while you’re in town. There’s a trail from Rowan Oak to the museum; but unfortunately it’s not accessible. On the plus side, it’s just a short drive away. Accessible parking is located near the museum, with level access to the entrance, and plenty of room to maneuver even a large wheelchair around the spacious galleries.
One of the biggest draws of the museum is the impressive David M. Robinson Collection of Greek and Roman Antiquities. The collection covers the period from 1500 BC to 300 AD, and contains everything from pottery, arrowheads and architectural fragments, to terracotta and bronze artifacts, and Greek and Roman coins. Don’t miss the striking marble sculpture of a satyr – a male nature spirit – which dates back to 200 BC.
The Seymour Lawrence Collection of American Art is equally impressive, with works by Georgia O’Keefe, Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan. Additionally the eclectic Millington-Barnard Collection of Scientific Instruments includes nearly 500 19th century scientific instruments, from telescopes and prisms to an interesting model of a low pressure steam engine. Chances are you’ll spot something in this collection that you’ve never seen before.
There are also a number of rotating exhibits presented throughout the year, so in addition to the old classics, there’s always something new. Best of all, there’s no admission charge to this excellent museum.
A Stately Residence
Last but not least, save some time for a visit to the L.Q.C. Lamar House (lqclamarhouse.com); the former home of the famous orator who held a number of powerful positions including Congressman, Senator, Secretary of the Interior and Supreme Court Justice. He’s also noted for his reconciliation efforts between the north and south in post Civil War times.
There’s accessible parking in a small lot behind the house, with ramp access up to the back door. Inside, there’s plenty of room to wheel around this Greek Revival home, which was built in 1869. Unfortunately over the years it fell into disrepair, and it was almost on the verge of collapsing, when it was purchased and subsequently restored by the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation. Today the home houses a small museum which focuses on the life of the famous statesman.
The museum details the different phases of Lamar’s life, from his childhood which shaped his values and political views, to his marriage and family history, to his storied political life. Exhibits include old family photos, and Lamar’s chest of drawers, monogrammed silver, desk, coffee pot and candlesticks. The museum also presents a good primer on cotton production and the use of slaves in the south, and how that helped shape Lamar’s early secessionist views.
One of the most moving exhibits details Lamar’s eulogy for Charles Sumner, a northern senator who drew the ire of the former Confederacy. Truly this speech marked a turning point in north and south relations, and opened the door to reconciliation. Lamar concluded his oratory in the House of Representatives with an impassioned plea, “My countrymen! Know one another and you will love one another!” And the rest, as we say, is history.
Even if you aren’t a Civil War buff, you’ll come away from this museum with a new appreciation and respect for the politicians that restored the unity of our nation in the aftermath of the bloody battles. And like the University of Mississippi Museum, admission is also free at the L.Q.C. Lamar House.