A quick day or weekend trip from New Orleans to a vibrant mainstreet town.
After 97 days of quarantine, my husband Philip and I needed a trip. We weren’t ready to fly anywhere, and a long driving trip wasn’t in the cards. The only way out of our zip code was a day trip somewhere. Anywhere.
True confession: I am hooked on HGTV, the television channel that features home renovations 24/7. I am particularly addicted to “Home Town,” a wildly popular HGTV show that airs each Monday and features the renovations of Erin and Ben Napier, the cutest couple ever, and their down-home-yet-chic renovations in Laurel, Mississippi. Laurel is a shade over two hours from New Orleans, so off we went.
Laurel, population 18,000, is an old lumber town. Back in the 1800s, wealthy timber barons﹘and later oil barons﹘built a fine little town with a quaint downtown area and gorgeous mansions. In the 1920s at the peak of lumber’s success, the Laurel mills were producing one-million feet of lumber each day. Today that same historic district built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is intact and considered Mississippi’s largest and finest collection of early twentieth century architecture. The historic district is listed on the National Register of Historic places and is definitely worth the trip.
“Each year more than 30,000 tourists visit Laurel, representing all 50 states and 11 countries,” says Judy Holifield, Executive Director of Laurel Main Street. “There’s no question that ‘Home Town’ has benefited us, but really, most people come to see our world-class art museum and beautiful town.”
As we walked the slightly hilly streets of the city, we found a vibrant downtown. City fathers have done a terrific job repurposing historic buildings and giving them a hip vibe. The old JM Wilson and Sons Feed Store, right next to the railroad, now houses Scotsman’s Crafts, Ben Napier’s large workshop where he and his carpenters craft beautiful furniture, bookcases, and home accessories that inevitably find their way into Erin’s renovations.
Laurel Mercantile, home accessory and clothing shop owned by the Napiers and friends, is worth the short walk. The shop﹘ with its original old brick walls, concrete floor, and husky tables (made by Ben and available for purchase)﹘houses colorful splatterware, a large collection of books, clothing, and vintage silverware. The warmth and rustic elegance of the store reminds the shopper of a Ralph Lauren shop with a slightly younger, cooler twist.
A visitor could spend all day puttering around downtown, visiting the shops and parks, and talking to the friendly, welcoming locals.
There are several lunch places to consider. At this visit, all restaurants and shops either require or request patrons wear masks and observe social-distancing measures. Pearl’s Place, a popular lunch spot, is filled to its 50% capacity with a short waiting line. Here the diner can feast on plate lunches piled high with collard greens, purple hull peas, and a hefty banana pudding.
The cashier at Laurel Leaf, a funky collection of gifts, local art and clothing, tells us that her shop once housed Fine’s Clothing, known for Laurel Jeans and the town’s first Piggly Wiggly. She also recommends that we eat at Lee’s, which according to her, has the best pimento cheese sandwich in the state. “And if you don’t want a full-on sandwich, get a sample cup on the side of the counter,” she says.
We follow her advice and, by the last bite of my sandwich, I have to agree that Aunt Lee’s special pimento cheese recipe is mighty fine. And if you are near Ben’s workshop, the food truck called The 5000 has a decadent crawfish grilled cheese sandwich with fries.
The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art is the centerpiece of the historic district. The exquisite 1923 Georgian Revival structure was designed by New Orleans architect Rathbone DeBuys and features seven dazzling galleries of permanent exhibits and three temporary galleries filled with inspiring American, European, and Japanese art, Native American baskets, Georgian silver, and more. Plan to spend a couple of hours here. Admission is free, but a donation is suggested.
If you have time and a good pair of walking shoes, take the self-guided walking tour of historic Laurel homes. From modest Craftsman-style homes to massive, elegant mansions, all evoke a time and place from Laurel’s fine history. Each home, garden, and park is beautifully manicured, and the civic pride is obvious. Erin and Ben have an eclectic inventory of homes﹘small, large, historic, and trendy﹘to choose from in this small, but fascinating, town.
It is often said, and rightfully so, that small towns in America are dying, and many are. But Laurel proves that small towns are not only worth saving, they can and must be. Each repurposed building, brick street, and restored Laurel home honors the past and says “yes” to the future. Each local resident welcomes the tourist and appreciates your visit. Laurel is a little over two hours from New Orleans and a delightful way to escape your zip code for a day or so.