Destinations: Laurel, Mississippi has become America’s ‘Home Town’

Arkansas is one of those states that isn’t really close to anywhere.

While we have an abundance of things to do locally and across the state, getting to a “destination” spot is going to be a drive, commonly in the five-to-six-hour range.

Want to watch the Cowboys or Rangers play? It is about five or six hours to get to Arlington.

Want to see the Cardinals and the Clydesdales? It is about five or six hours to get to St. Louis.

Want to experience the sights or sounds of Nashville? It is about five … you get the point.

Hopping in the car and going three hundred or four hundred miles is just something Arkansans do when they want to get away.

Heading to Mississippi is not typically a popular destination, more of a pass-through to the beaches along the Gulf Coast. You might go to Biloxi, maybe because of Keesler Air Force Base, or you might keep motoring down the road to Gulf Shores or past the FloriBama line. All those “Salt Life” or “Seaside” or “30A” stickers didn’t magically attach themselves to the vehicles you see around town.

Mississippi is where we chose to visit, and we didn’t go to the Gulf but to Laurel, a solid 90 minutes from the coast, smack dab in that state’s Pine Belt.

Why? Television, that’s why.

Like most everyone else intent on social distancing, our last 15 months have been spent at home and watching the television as much as possible.

One of the bright spots was “Home Town” on HGTV. Now at five seasons, and filming a sixth, the show set in Laurel has become a hit, and its hosts, the married couple Ben and Erin Napier, have become television stars who adorn magazine covers and get national media coverage for the birth of their second child. 

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Watching the show wasn’t entirely a happy accident. Before their television show ever aired, the Napiers were well known in the community development world. Lonoke’s current revitalization is based on principles gleaned from Laurel.

Ryan Biles, now a City Council member in Lonoke, wrote about Laurel here and here for the now closed Lonoke Democrat. An architect by trade, Biles is a skilled writer as well, and I was lucky enough to edit those pieces in my then-role as editor of his local paper.

Biles also wrote about his experiences with Judi Holifield, who was then the executive director of Laurel Main Street (more on her in a bit).

Lonoke is quite a bit older than Laurel, which wasn’t founded until 1882, when the railroad came through and it became a stop on the New Orleans and Northeastern line. It is still a railroad stop on Amtrak’s Crescent line. While agriculture is important to both towns, the row crops in Lonoke County don’t look anything like the vast pine forests of southern Mississippi.

It was the railroad and the pine trees that attracted timber barons from up north in 1891. The sawmills quickly boomed. At their peak in the 1920s, Laurel mills produced one million board feet of yellow pine lumber a day.

Those timber barons moved to town, building grand mansions. Other homes and buildings sprang up. Along the way, William Mason, who lived in Laurel, invented Masonite, and while the sawmills didn’t survive the Depression, Masonite became even more important, especially in the 1940s war effort.

One of the things you notice when you get to Laurel is that back in the day, they did the little and big things right. 

Sidewalks. Curbs. Public parks and tree-lined avenues.

That’s largely because of the timber barons. Or at least the wife of one of the lumber company presidents, who decided if she had to live in Laurel, she was going to shape it the way she wanted. And what she wanted was a big-city experience in a small town.

So Gardiner Park, named after the Gardiner family of timber fame, was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park in New York City.

Near there was the intended home of timber heir Lauren Rogers, who died during its construction, so it was converted into the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art after his death.

Those grand mansions, homes and buildings became the city’s historic district, the site of several houses that have been renovated as projects for television.

The historic district is also where the Napiers live and also where we stayed, in Allen’s Bungalow. Owned and operated as an Airbnb by the previously mentioned Judi Holifield, the bungalow sits behind Holifield’s current home, which was among those renovated for the show. The house next door to hers was also a “Home Town” renovation. It was a fascinating experience to be walking and driving around a neighborhood where you think, “I know what the bathroom looks like in that house.”

It was also quite something to see Erin Napier pushing a baby stroller on a morning walk, while we were out gawking, living the tourist life.

If you go

  • Driving from central Arkansas? Plan on about six hours to get to Laurel. Highway 65 is entirely four-lane to the Mississippi River, then skirt around Greenville to get to Hwy. 49, and that will take you through Jackson (and some rather unfortunate construction south of town), then to Collins, where you take Hwy. 84 to Laurel. 

  • Headed to the beach? Laurel makes for a great stop for the night going or coming back. It is about 30 minutes north and east of Hattiesburg on I-59.

  • Where to eat? Pearl’s Diner, whose owner, Ms. Pearl, was another who had her home renovated on the show. Her food is very north of delicious. Lunch is a must and also the only time they are open. Sweet Somethings Bakery makes some pretty fine cinnamon rolls and sticky buns, while the Bird Dog Cafe has strong coffee. The Bird Dog was another of the show’s renovation projects and will be a familiar spot for those who have seen that episode.

  • What to see? Truthfully, everything you should see can be done in a couple of days. The murals are fun photo ops, the Lauren Rogers Museum is a good place to cool off while enjoying the small but impressive collection, and walking around the historic district or the city’s numerous parks is a good way to stretch the legs after a long drive. The downtown area is compact, with nifty retail like Guild and Gentry, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, but that shop’s owners also had their home renovated as a show project.

  • Where to stay? Laurel has plenty of chain hotels near the interstate, but go for an Airbnb. The show’s appeal to tourists has made plenty of opportunities for Airbnbs to take hold in Laurel. The Bird Dog Cafe apartment that was renovated for the show is available for rental. Allen’s Bungalow is new construction but feels straight out of “Home Town.” A search of the Airbnb site will show cottages and bungalows and rooms for rent. Most have a connection to the show, either through the home being renovated or being owned by “Home Town” regulars who are the Napiers’ cousins, best friends, or some such.

What follows is a photo essay capturing some essential sights of Laurel, Mississippi.

Photos and words by Gwen Green

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The First United Methodist Church spire and the downtown Laurel mural
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 Fellow fans of "Home Town" and "Home Town Takeover" will recognize the truck and the plates.
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Ben Napier’s workshop also has a general store with items for sale and a window where one can view the woodworking or, if you happen to be there at the right time, a taping for “Home Town.”
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Street repairs had the heart of downtown torn up, but the repairs to the brick streets seemed warranted.
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Allen’s Bungalow (the orange building) is owned by Ms. Judi Holifield and sits right behind her house, which was featured on "Home Town."
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The plate lunch at Pearl’s was outstanding. I had fried chicken, mac and cheese, candied sweet potatoes and cornbread, above. Jeremy, thinking he had ordered the healthier option, went with the pork chop, below. To his surprise and as you can see in the picture, it came out battered and deep-fried like a piece of chicken. It was crazy delicious. He also got fried green tomatoes, rice and gravy and mac and cheese, plus banana pudding. We were both surprised no greens were on the menu. Maybe another day?
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The marker outside St. Paul United Methodist Church commemorates Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to the church. not long before his assassination in Memphis.
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Trustmark Art Park in downtown Laurel has a mural by local artist Adam Trest, whose work is often featured on the television show.
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"The City Beautiful" label is true for Laurel, Mississippi, and Erin Napier is right, murals really make a town better.
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Laurel Mercantile is owned by Ben and Erin Napier.